Western Trips

Western Trips

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Fort Point / California

fort point california
Fort Point under Golden Gate Bridge
You're visiting San Francisco California and there's so many things to see and do. Cable cars, Fishermans Wharf, Nob Hill, China Town, the Presidio, Telegraph Hill, Union Square and a host of other sites can easily fill most vacation trip planners. Add in the many popular and historic sites in Marin County, the wine country in Sonoma and Napa Counties and in the East Bay cities and you've easily created a week's worth of stops.

You'll be wise to add Fort Point to your itinerary. Fort Point is one of the most unique historical sites the the United States. One of the reasons this particular fort is so unique has to do in where it's located. The site of Fort Point is directly under the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge and in the Golden Gate National Parks area.. Stand inside or outside the fort gate, look up and you'll see the bottom of the bridge. There's nothing else like it. Today, Fort Point is a National Historic Site administered by the National Park Service.

The Creation of Fort Point 

fort point national historic site
Interior of Fort Point
Fort Point of course was at the mouth of San Francisco Bay well before the Golden Gate Bridge. This fort represents the story of the beginnings of California as well as US Army history.

There may not have been a better positioned fort to protect the bay entrance. The Spaniards, the first Europeans to arrive in present day San Francisco, built the Presidio as well as fortifying the cliffs where Fort Point is now located. The Spaniards were concerned with encroachment from the north by both the Russians and the British. The Russians had reached all the way south to around present day Bodega Bay, about 60 miles north of San Francisco. As it turned out, the Russian colony were traders not colonizers and there was never an armed conflict between the two.

As far as California was concerned, and at one time it was called Alta California, the biggest event was the United States takeover from Mexican rule in 1846.That event was followed fairly quickly by the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill and then the ensuing California Gold Rush. Things changed dramatically and it changed fast. Tens of thousands of people arrived in the area, most of them by sea.

cannons at fort point
Cannon on display at Fort Point
Fort Point was constructed between 1853 and 1861 as a base to protect the bay. The decision to build the fort came in 1850 when California became a state. At that time a series of fortifications were planned to protect the very important and busy bay. The work was done by some 200 workers, many unemployed miners. At it's completion, the U.S. was in a Civil War and the fort was manned to protect against any possible Confederate attack. Military officials stated that the fort's position and sophistication with large brick walls (seven feet thick) at the San Francisco Bay mouth was the key to the whole Pacific coast.

As it turned out, the guns at Fort Point would never fire a shot during the war. According to information published by the National Park Service, there actually was a Confederate vessel, the CSS Shenandoah that did plan to attack San Francisco but on it's way learned that the war had ended. When the Civil War ended in 1865 the fort was garrisoned as a general army defense position as well as a barracks site.

fort point lighthouse
Lighthouse at Fort Point under Golden Gate Bridge
Another interesting fact according to the National Park Service was that the fort was actually renamed Fort Winfield Scott in 1882 but for whatever reason the name didn't stick. Eventually the name Winfield Scott was placed on an artillery post at the nearby Presidio. Winfield Scott was a national hero of the Mexican American War.

Two additional related Western Trips articles and photos you'll find interesting are the Sonoma California Mexican Barracks and Mission and also Sutter's Fort and New Helvetia.

Key Changes in 1892

As the years went by, many technological weapon changes took place. In 1892, the army started to construct new concrete and steel fortifications that would contain breech loading rifled guns. The era of the cannon was coming to an end. The 1906 Earthquake was obviously devastating to San Francisco and the fort wasn't entirely spared. Fortunately it was only moderately damaged. After the earthquake, Fort Point was mostly used for training and for barracks space although the members of the 6th Artillery Coast Guard were stationed there during World War two.

powder keg at fort point national historic site
Fort Point powder keg exhibit
Saving Fort Point

As happens occasionally with historic sites, their cultural importance sometimes conflicts with modernization. In the case of Fort Point it involved the planned Golden Gate Bridge. The actual plans for the bridge called for the removal of Fort Point. When you visit the fort, you'll see just how close the bridge structure is to the fort. Lucky for all of us the final plans for the bridge worked around the fort. You can see the changes in the Golden Gate Bridge construction and how it accommodated Fort Point.

The future of Fort Point was solidified when President Richard Nixon, in 1970, signed a bill officially making Fort Point a National Historic Site.

Directions to Fort Point

Fort Point is located at the end of Marine Drive on the Presidio of San Francisco. Getting there can be a bit tricky. If you're coming from San Francisco proper or points south of the Golden Gate Bridge, take Highway 101 north and exit right at the Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza but before getting on bridge. Turn right at end of exit ramp and then left onto Lincoln Boulevard. Take the first left onto Long Avenue and follow onto Marine Drive and Fort Point at its end. There is parking available before getting to the fort itself.

When you enter the fort you'll see a large brick fortification with several different replica models of cannon. Some of these are Spanish cannons. The fort has an extensive artifact collection including the powder storage room. It's quite an impressive display. You can also walk to the top of the fort and get a great view of the narrow opening between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Also a great place to get some unique Golden Gate pictures.

An excellent book regarding historic Fort Point is Fort Point: Sentry at the Golden Gate by author John Arturo Martini.

(Photos from author's private collection)

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