San Francisco Fort Point
Welcome to the Fort Point!
Fort Point has stood guard at the narrows of the Golden Gate for over 150 years. The “Fort at Fort Point” as it was originally named has witnessed Civil War, obsolescence, earthquake, bridge construction, reuse for World War II, and preservation as a National Historic Site. From its vantage point overlooking the spectacular Golden Gate, Fort Point protected San Francisco harbor from Confederate and foreign attack during and after the U.S. Civil War. Its beautifully arched casemates display the art of the master brick mason from the Civil War period. Today visitors come to Fort Point National Historic Site for amazing Golden Gate Bridge views and to learn about Army architecture and history. Fort Point is a “must see” for military buffs and a great highlight to a day at Crissy Field.
Fort Point is a masonry seacoast fortification located at the southern side of the Golden Gate at the entrance to San Francisco Bay. This fort was completed just before the American Civil War by the United States Army, to defend San Francisco Bay against hostile warships. The fort is now protected as Fort Point National Historic Site, a United States National Historic Site administered by the National Park Service as a unit of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The Fort has been called “the pride of the Pacific,” “the Gibraltar of the West Coast,” and “one of the most perfect models of masonry in America.”
Here comes the History of the Fort Point. In 1769 Spain occupied the San Francisco area and by 1776 had established the area’s first European settlement, with a mission and a Presidio. To protect against encroachment by the British and Russians, Spain fortified the high white cliff at the narrowest part of the bay’s entrance, where Fort Point now stands. The Castillo de San Joaquin, built in 1794, was an adobe structure housing nine to thirteen cannons.
Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, gaining control of the region and the fort, but in 1835 the Mexican army moved to Sonoma, leaving the Castillo’s adobe walls to crumble in the wind and rain. On July 1, 1846, after the Mexican-American War broke out between Mexico and the United States, U.S. forces, including Captain John Charles Fremont, Kit Carson and a band of 10 followers, captured and occupied the empty Castillo and spiked the cannons.
Following the United States’ victory in 1848, California was annexed by the U.S. and became a state in 1850. The gold rush of 1849 had caused the rapid settlement of the area, which was recognized as commercially and strategically valuable to the US. Military officials soon recommended a series of fortifications to secure the San Francisco Bay. Coastal defenses were built at Alcatraz Island, Fort Mason, and Fort Point.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began work on Fort Point in 1853. Plans specified that the lowest tier of artillery be as close as possible to water level so cannonballs could ricochet across the water’s surface to hit enemy ships at the water-line. Workers blasted the 90-foot cliff down to 15 feet above sea level. The structure featured a seven-foot-thick walls and multi-tiered casemated construction typical of Third System forts. It was sited to defend the maximum amount of harbor area. While there were more than 30 such forts on the East Coast, Fort Point was the only one on the West Coast. In 1854 Inspector General Joseph K. Mansfield declared “this point as the key to the whole Pacific Coast… and it should receive untiring exertions”.
A crew of 200, many unemployed miners, labored for eight years on the fort. In 1861, with war looming, the army mounted the fort’s first cannon. Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston, commander of the Department of the Pacific, prepared Bay Area defenses and ordered in the first troops to the fort. Kentucky-born Johnston then resigned his commission to join the Confederate Army; he was killed at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862.
Throughout the Civil War, artillerymen at Fort Point stood guard for an enemy that never came. The Confederate raider CSS Shenandoah planned to attack San Francisco, but on the way to the harbor the captain learned that the war was over; it was August 1865, months after General Lee surrendered.
Severe damage to similar forts on the Atlantic Coast during the war – Fort Sumter in South Carolina and Fort Pulaski in Georgia – challenged the effectiveness of masonry walls against rifled artillery. The troops soon moved out of Fort Point, and it was never again continuously occupied by the army. The fort was nonetheless important enough to receive protection from the elements. In 1869, a granite seawall was completed. The following year, some of the fort’s cannon were moved to Battery East on the bluffs nearby, where they were more protected. In 1882 Fort Point was officially named Fort Winfield Scott after the famous hero from the war against Mexico. The name never caught on and was later applied to an artillery post at the Presidio.
In 1892, the army began constructing the new Endicott System concrete fortifications armed with steel, breech-loading rifled guns. Within eight years, all 103 of the smooth-bore cannons at Fort Point had been dismounted and sold for scrap. The fort, moderately damaged in the 1906 earthquake, was used over the next four decades for barracks, training, and storage, however, in 1913, part of the interior wall was removed by the army in their short-lived attempt to make the fort the army detention barracks using soldier and prisoner labor. The detention barracks were later built on Alcatraz Island and was used until becoming a federal prison. Soldiers from the 6th U.S. Coast Artillery were stationed there during World War II to guard minefields and the anti-submarine net that spanned the Golden Gate.
In 1926 the American Institute of Architects proposed preserving the fort for its outstanding military architecture. Funds were unavailable, and the ideas languished. Plans for the Golden Gate Bridge in the 1930s called for the fort’s removal, but Chief Engineer Joseph Strauss redesigned the bridge to save the fort. “While the old fort has no military value now,” Strauss said, “it remains nevertheless a fine example of the mason’s art…. It should be preserved and restored as a national monument.” The fort is situated directly below the southern approach to the bridge, underneath an arch that supports the roadway.
Preservation efforts were revived after World War II. On October 16, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed a bill creating Fort Point National Historic Site. Today, Fort Point National Historic Site is open to the public and administered by Golden Gate National Recreation Area, National Park Service.
The Fort Point has many attractions as well. The rocky point north of the fort produces a wave, in the winter months, that is popular with surfers. Nine Mission Revival-style buildings at Fort Mason house more than 300,000 square feet (28,000 sq m) of space for various events. Two of the center’s piers are also used for major events, such as concerts, and an additional two pavilions hold a combined total of eight thousand guests. In 1989, a new indoor theater – the Cowell Theater – opened as a state-of-the-art facility, seating 437 audience members for a variety of shows including presentations by world-famous dance troupes, multicultural concerts, and frequent appearances by the Pacific Chamber Orchestra.For visual art lovers, Fort Mason Center hosts myriad annual art events, including frequent displays by some of the area’s best artists. Guests can often meet and greet the artists and enjoy learning about their works firsthand. Many non-profit organizations sponsor classes or workshops at Fort Mason, suitable for a variety of ages. Everything from Tai Chi to piano lessons to classes on real estate can be found here during the course of a week. Many are free and the others cost little.
Fort Point has its participation in the Gaming industry and it has been featured in many films and television programs.
Old Fort Point, “the fort that never fired a shot in anger,” still stands beneath the Golden Gate Bridge as an impressive monument to the craftsmen who labored to create an impregnable fortress at the edge of America; a monument to the preservationists who fought to save the fort from decay and demolition; and most importantly, as a monument to the artillerymen who awaited an enemy that never came.