Now And Then: Fort Point

Click and drag center circle back and forth, to compare then and now image.
Painting of Golden Gate during the Ice Age Modern photo looking north across the Golden Gate Strait
Robert Hynes, Artist
Ted Barone NPS

Ice Age Depiction of the Golden Gate Channel

12,000 to 15,000 years ago, the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers drained the Sierra Nevada and meandered through great meadows that blanketed what is now San Francisco Bay.  The combined river snaked through the gap in the coastal hills, eventually entering the ocean near the Farallon Islands, 26 miles west of the current shoreline.  This painting by Roberty Hynes highlights the diversity of wildlife that roamed the meadows including large numbers of grizzly bear, raptors, and elk.  Today, the Golden Gate Strait is a major shipping lane for the industrial centers of the Bay Area.  Tidal flows can move at speeds up to 10 mph through the gap.

Photo of the lighthouse keepers' quarters on the bluff c1868 Modern photo from the Torpedo Wharf looking west
GGNRA Park Archives, Society of California Pioneers
Ted Barone NPS

Lighthouse Keepers' Quarters on the Bluff c1868

The masonry fort at Fort Point, c1868.  The lighthouse keepers' quarters are on and below the bluff to the left of the fort.  The lighthouse itself protrudes from the top of the fort.  The white building in the foreground may have been a bakery.  The Spring Valley Water Flume is visible behind the bakery. It transported water from Lobos Creek, around the point, to the Presidio and Russian Hill reservoirs.  Today, the Torpedo Wharf is a popular fishing pier for families.  The Warming Hut is at the foot of the pier, a great place to grab a cup of tea or coffee, a snack, buy some park souvenirs, and enjoy the view.

Photo of Fort Point c1900 Modern photo of Fort Point from the east
GGNRA Park Archives
Ted Barone NPS

Fort Point c1900

A tall ship navigates through the tidal currents into San Francisco Bay.  The original Spanish fort, "Castillo de San Joaquin", was located atop "Punta del Cantil Blanco" - White Cliff Point.  It was built in 1794, an adobe gun battery. It's iron and bronze guns were damaged by the harsh climate conditions at the Gate, adobe walls melted in the rain, and there were few funds to maintain the fort.  After Mexico became independent in 1821, the fort was abandoned. In 1846 as part of the "Bear Flag" rebellion to liberate California from Mexican control, Americans John Fremont and Kit Carson led a "raid" on the fort, climbing up the hundred foot cliff to the abandoned, crumbled fort, spiked the rusted cannon, and claimed the fort for the United States.

Photo of Fort Point from the south 1890 Modern photo looking north across Fort Point
GGNRA Park Archives
Ted Barone NPS

Fort Point from the South 1890

The discovery of gold in 1848 inspired men from all ove rthe world to rush to San Francisco where gold lay strewn on the ground to "fill your pockets," or so they believed.  The number of ships passing through the Golden Gate increased from a small handful each year to 770 in 1849 alone.  To protect the growing wealth of the State, the U.S. Army recommended the construction of a "triangle of defense" with forts on both sides of the strait - Fort Point and Lime Point - and another at Alcatraz Island.  The military technology of the time required guns to be close to the water so the tip of the peninsula would have to be cut down from 100 feet to only 15 feet above the Bay. It took a year to blast away at the serpentine rock to create a platform measuring 150 by 100 yards.  Granite was imported from China for the foundations as it was of better quality than California stone.  It even cost less despite being shipped from China.

Photo of Fort Point troops at attention c1900 Modern photo of the south side of Fort Point
GGNRA Park Archives
Ted Barone NPS

Fort Point Troops at Attention c1900

The fort was first garrisoned in 1861 although construction wasn't complete.  Company I of the Third U.S. Artillery U.S. Regiment, Captain John Lendrum commanding, moved in.  Their overriding concern was the fort could be attacked by Southern sympathizers - from land, not sea.  While no Confederate ships ever attempted to enter the Bay during the Civil War, an incident almost occurred in the summer of 1865 when the Confederate raider Shenandoah was off the coast.  It's captain, James Waddell, planned to enter the Bay under cover of darkness and fire upon San Francisco.  Fortunately, he learned from a British ship of the surrender at Appamattox and turned around instead.

Photo of the Fort Point Light Station 1931 Modern photo of the site of the light station
GGNRA Park Archives
Ted Barone NPS

Fort Point Light Station 1931

Three different lighthouses were built at Fort Point.  The first was a Cape Cod style lighthouse in 1852, built atop the point to help ships entering the Bay during the gold rush.  Unfortunately, while the completed structure was waiting for the arrival of its crystal lens, the Army Corps of Engineers developed their plans to build a fort closer to water level which required them to tear out the hill on which both the old Spanish fort and the new lighthouse stood.  The second lighthouse was completed in early 1855 between the foundation of the new fort and the sea.  The land on which it stood was quickly eroded so a third lighthouse was built on top of the fort itself and went into operation in 1864.  That lighthouse was decommissioned in 1934 as it disappeared from view behind the towers and anchorage of the new Golden Gate Bridge

Historic photo of Fort Point from the west shore Modern photo of Fort Point from the west shore
GGNRA Park Archives
Ted Barone NPS

Fort Point from the West Shore

Joseph Strauss, the Chief Engineer for the Golden Gate Bridge, project initially wanted to raze the fort because it's location was ideal for the bridge's San Francisco anchorage.  But after visiting the fort and admiring it as "a fine example of the mason's art," he adjusted his calculations, moved the anchorage several hundred feet south, and added a "bridge within the bridge" to support the total length over the fort.  Note the seawall and flume in the historic photo. Completed in 1870, a 1,500 foot granite seawall was constructed to protect the foundations of the newly built fort from the relentless pounding of Pacific Ocean waves. The flume was built to carry water from nearby Lobos Creek around the point to fill the Russian Hill reservoirs to supply the growing population of San Francisco.

Photo of a picnic on the west beach 1913 Modern photo of the west face of Fort Point
Ted Barone NPS

Picnic on the Beach 1913

The fort sustained significant damage during the Earthquake of 1906.  Among other damage, the entire interior face pulled away from the rest of the fort leaving an eight-inch gap.  Engineers determined that repair was too expensive so the fort was abandoned. While the old fort succommbed to the ravages of the elements and vandalism, the community still came out to enjoy the occasional good weather on the beach to the west of the point.  Shortly after this picnic photo was taken, a decision was made to repair the fort and turn it into a military prison  The intention was to transfer all the prisoners fromt he military prison on Alcatraz and use the new concrete building on the island as an immigration station.  The newly rehabilitated fort was never used as a military prison nor did Alcatraz become an immigration station.

Photo of Battery West prior to the Golden Gate Bridge Modern photo of Battery West
GGNRA Park Archives
Ted Barone NPS

Battery West Prior to the Golden Gate Bridge

A series of batteries were built at the beginning of the 20th Century to protect the Bay from more advanced weaponry than the old Fort could respond to. One plan in the early 1890s called for the demolition of the fort and the placement of two 16-in guns in its place.  Instead, the fort became barracks for soldiers manning the new gun batteries being erected at Battery West.  During World War II, a steel net was strung across the Golden Gate to stop Japanese submarines from entering the Bay.  Anti-Torpedo Boat guns from Marin County forts were moved to the barbette tier of Fort Point.  No Japanese sub ever actually entered the Bay during the war.

Photo of the "Gorge" at Fort Point, c1920s Modern photo of Living History Day at Fort Point
GGNRA Park Archives
Ted Barone NPS

The "Gorge" c1920s

After the end of World War I, trade schools at the Presidio used the old fort for classrooms and shop space. But by the middle of the 1920s, the fort was abandoned and vandals made their way in and broke windows, painted obscene graffiti, and lef the building in disarray.  The War Department authorized $40.37 to board up doors and windows in an attempt to stop the vandals.  Living History day brings out Civil War reenactors from all over the state.

Photo of Artillery Officers at Battery East 1936 Modern photo of Battery East looking north
GGNRA Park Archives
Ted Barone NPS

Artillery Officers of the 6th Army Presidio at Battery East 1936

In 1873, construction began on a gun emplacement at Battery East with a covered walkway connecting it to Battery West.  During the Spanish-American War, 8-inch rifled Rodman cannon were placed at Battery East.  Earthen works from Battery East are still visible in both the mid-1930's photo and today.

Photo of the Spring Valley Flume Modern photo looking towards the Golden Gate
GGNRA Park Archives
Ted Barone NPS

Bensley Co. Water Flume c1860

The 7-mile flume, built by the Bensley Companuy in 1858, drew water from Lobos Creek, transported it around Fort Point and Black Point (Fort Mason) to reservoirs on Russian Hill.  Part of the old flume track in the historic photo has been replaced by the Batteries to Bluffs Trail leading to Marshall Beach southwest of the Golden Gate.

Last updated: December 3, 2018

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