Fort Point

One of the more exciting things we’ve done this summer was bicycle 20 miles around the city, stopping midway through our trip at Fort Point, an old military garrison tucked under the southern arch of the Golden Gate Bridge — an arch that was built into the bridge specifically to preserve the fort. I often jog along the Marina Green area, heading toward Crissy Field and ending up, if I still have the energy, at the brick bastion of Fort Point. I had never seen it open in all my years here and always assumed it was long-sealed off to visitors. I chalk that up to not being a very observant person. But what an incredible surprise to be able to explore every nook and cranny of this magnificent fortress. I know I won’t do the place justice with this little photo essay, but I wanted to share some of the history of the place and urge you to go visit.

In the photo above, you can see the fort tucked under the bridge. By the time the Golden Gate was built in the 1930s, the fort had long since been abandoned. The original plans for the bridge called for the razing of the fort. According to a short history film that cycles through all day at the fort — it’s worth a look — Joseph Strauss, the chief engineer of the project, fought for a change to the bridge, creating that little arch on the San Francisco side just to preserve the fort. What a prescient move. It is one of the more beautiful landmarks in the city and provides a great window into the founding of our city and our state.

The Spanish first built a fort on the site in 1776, arming the new Castillo de San Joaquin with cannons built in the 1600s in Peru and shipped up here. After California became a state nearly 100 years later, the United States blasted away the bluff where the castillo stood and started construction on the fort in 1953. It’s been there ever since.

This should give you a better idea of what it’s like inside. On top of the fort, every side was lined with cannons. During the Civil War, the cannons had a reach of 2 miles, which I thought was astounding. Any ship coming through the Golden Gate strait was within reach. Just a few years later, the fort was armed with more missile-like shot that could reach a target 25 miles away. If you’re into long-range weaponry, the fort is for you — it is littered with the history of ordnance and even includes photos of the mid-century Nike missiles that protected America from the great red threat of communism. (I’ll post more on that tomorrow, and no, you can’t see Russia from the fort.)

The neat thing about visiting the fort is that every place is accessible. See all those arches? You can spend hours meandering through all the floors, inspecting cannon holes and rifle slits. There are passages so deep and dark and lonely that it began to freak me out a little, as I imagined the ghosts of bored soldiers looking for tourists to keep themselves occupied in the hereafter. You might think differently. Goodie for you.

This is a look inside the officers’ quarters. Each room had a bed, a fireplace, a desk and a ton of space for … I don’t know what. Officer things. Each room had a separate entrance to the outside while still joined together inside. The troops, a floor below, shared rooms filled with bunks. You can walk through the rooms and get a good idea of how they lived and what they ate. I thought the menu of daily fare was just fascinating. Lots of coffee and heavy meals in the morning, with more coffee and light food at night. I imagine work was grueling and the soldiers needed most of their protein in the day.

All those little rises once held cannon and, later, Nike missiles. This is the side aimed at the harbor of San Francisco.

In the dark hallows of the fort, there are still rings laid out with iron nails, providing an outline for where cannons once stood, pointing out from these holes. I liked to imagine what these portholes saw over the centuries, all the progress, the great wooden ships replaced by the ungainly metal hulls of early battleships and then the coming fleets of warships, steaming in and out of the bay, and now the cruise ships of people bloated on all-you-can eat shrimp taken from the ocean beyond. I liked to think of this beach, washing up on the Spanish bluff before the fort was built and washing still, years hence, after it and we are long gone.

This is a blurry, dark photo but I wanted to show the spiral steps leading from one floor to the other. The design is simple, elegant and deathly.

The vantage points for photos are incredible. You can definitely get a different perspective on the city and the Golden Gate Bridge from here. (This is my favorite view of the undercarriage.) Despite the wind and the high walls, the fort seemed safe enough to me to let a 5-year-old run around and explore, hopping from one cannon mount to the next and pretending at battle. If you have kids who are studying California history — what is that? 4th grade? — this is a must-stop place. If you happen to have a child, like mine, who is interested in warfare and cannon, this is your place as well. And if you just happen to be interested in the history of San Francisco … you get the idea.

We’ve been back a few times now since our initial visit, exploring nooks we hadn’t seen before. On weekends, the place is incredibly uncrowded. On weekdays, it’s practically vacant, allowing you to sit in silence for a moment at what feels like the edge of the world.

Comments

  1. Rachel F says:

    Do they still fire the cannons? When I was a kid, rangers led tours that ended with a firing demonstration, aided by child volunteers. Budget cuts have probably ended that.

  2. No. Way. You’re messing with me. I would love to see that. But no, no child-aided cannon firing anymore that I could see.

  3. I think in your third paragraph you meant 1853, not 1953. Yes, Fort Point is very cool, I remember visiting there in the mid 1980s. Fun to see the photos, thanks.