Welcome to Fort Point National Historic Site, here beneath the Southern end of the Golden Gate Bridge. The audio runs about 30 minutes and interprets the color brochure that all visitors receive when they visit Fort Point. The Fort Point brochure is a single accordion folded sheet. The brochure explores the design, construction, and historical relevance of Fort Point and has important information for planning your visit. This audio version includes all of the original text from the brochure as well as descriptions of all images including photographs, illustrations, and maps. All images described are credited to the National Park Service unless otherwise indicated.
The brochure opens first to a sepia tone photograph of the massive brick Fort in 1870. There is no Golden Gate Bridge of course; that wasn’t completed until 1937. So the Fort has an unobstructed view of the entrance to San Francisco Bay. In the photograph, cannons sit atop its ramparts, and the light house rises at left. An intrepid visitor, a child, perches on one of its cannon supports, and overview reads as follows:
At the outbreak of the Civil War, newly constructed Fort Point stood as a prime example of the U.S. Army’s most sophisticated coastal fortifications. Military officials declared its position at the Golden Gate as the “key to the whole Pacific coast.” Its massive brick walls looked to be impenetrable. Even as its praises were being sung, new rifled artillery was in use that could bore through masonry walls—as had happened at similar forts on the East Coast. Fort Point never saw action. It survives as a monument to a bygone era and a place where you can explore life at a coastal defense garrison.
The entrance to San Francisco Bay has long been the site of human habitation. The earliest residents, ancestors of the Ohlone and Miwok peoples, depended on the bay’s waters for food and transportation. There is evidence of a 4,000-year-old Ohlone village site along the bay shore about a mile from Fort Point.
A small colored sketch, copyright Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, artist Linda Yamane, depicts the edge of an Ohlone Village. We see 3 small buildings, built with the simple conical framework of poles, covered with a batch of tule reeds. Outside, a mother grinds acorn on a stone while her child looks on. Another woman carries a basket on her back, secured with a head strap. Other Ohlone villagers perform tasks in the distance. The village is at the edge of the bay, and we see gulls circling overhead.
The history continues with the next section when the area was under Spanish and then Mexican rule.
In 1769 Gaspar de Portolá’s overland expedition reached San Francisco Bay. By 1776 Spain had established the area’s first European settlement, with a mission and a presidio (military post). Fearful of 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 13 cannon. The little fortress guarded the Spanish colony until 1821, when Mexico won independence from Spain and gained control of the region.
A colored drawing (copyright David W. Rickman) portrays a Spanish soldier in the 1770s. He stands before a Spanish flag which has a band of red at the top, and bottom and a wider band of golden yellow in between. A royal crest adorns the yellow band. The oval-shaped crest shows a yellow castle on a red field at left, and a red lion on a white field at right. A crown sits above the oval. The soldier’s black hath is flat-domed with a wide brim. Over his blue jacket and knee-length pants, he wears a loose sleeveless leather tunic that reaches to his thighs. A sword is attached to his left. In his right hand, he carries a long lens while his left hand grips a black leather shield decorated with a royal crest in red and yellow. He wears thick leather boots, and Spanish spurs.
The history of Fort Point continues with the transition of the Fort from Mexican to US possession.
In 1835 the Mexican army moved to Sonoma, and the Castillo's adobe walls were left to crumble in the wind and rain. War broke out between Mexico and the United States in 1846. On July 1, U.S. Army officer John Charles Frémont, along with Kit Carson and a band of 10 followers, stormed the Castillo and spiked the cannons. They discovered that the fortress was empty.
The brochure shows three flags that represent this period of Fort Point’s history. One is the flag of the California Republic known as the Bear Flag. It includes a large white field with a red border at the bottom. On the white field, are a red star, brown bear, and the words "California Republic" underneath. This flag is the symbol of California’s 1846 revolt against Mexican rule.
Next to it, is the Mexican flag. It’s a three-part flag with equal banners of green, white and red. The middle white band includes an eagle perched on the top of a cactus. The third flag is the US flag. It looks almost like today’s flag, but with only 33 stars. This flag was in use for the first half of 1861.
Fort Point’s history continues with California’s entry into the union.
After the United States prevailed in the war against Mexico in 1848, California was ceded to the United States. The gold strike that year at Sutter’s Mill on the American River lured tens of thousands of prospectors. Most of the Forty-niners arrived by sea, making San Francisco the major West Coast harbor as of 1849. When California became the 31st state in 1850, the U.S. Army and Navy officials recommended a series of fortifications to secure San Francisco Bay. Coastal defenses were built at Fort Point and several other strategic points.
A map shows the northern end of San Francisco. The mouth of the Bay and the Marin Peninsula to the north as well as Angel and Alcatraz Islands. The map is titled San Francisco Bay’s Third System Coastal Defenses, 1850 to 1884. They include line point on the Marin Peninsula, a site at the western edge of Angel Island, Alcatraz Island, and Fort Point, the Presidio, and Point San Jose, on the San Francisco side of the bay.
The history continues with the Civil War.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began work on Fort Point in 1853. It was sited to defend the maximum amount of harbor area. Plans specified that the lowest artillery tier be as close as possible to water level so cannonballs could ricochet across the water’s surface toward enemy ships. Workers blasted the 90-foot cliff down to 15 feet above sea level. Seven-¬foot-thick walls and multi-tiered casemated construction were typical of Third System forts (see diagram on the other side of this brochure). In 1854 Inspector Gen. Joseph F.K. Mansfield declared “this point as the key to the whole Pacific Coast . . . and it should receive untiring exertions.”
A small map of the United States illustrates the country’s third system defensive force at the time of the civil war. The eastern seaboard is dotted with a chain of forts from Main to the golf of Mexico, but only a single fort defends the west coast -- Fort Point.
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. Col. Albert Sidney Johns-ton, 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 war, artillerymen 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.
A black and white photograph from the 1860s shows a federal coastal defense soldier in dress uniform. He wears a hardy hat with insignia on the tall crown and one side of the brim pinned up. He has short hair and a full-beard, typical of the period. His frock coat, which would have been blue is belted at the waist, and adorned with brass buttons. A leather belt from his left shoulder to a large medallion to the center of his chest and stripes on the forearm sleeves. His pants are long and light-blue colored. He stands with a long, shoulder-high rifle fitted with a bayonet. It’s button resting on the ground.
A near-by image shows an etching from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Great Rebellion. It shows three uniformed union soldiers standing next to a 10-inch Columbia cannon at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Fort point had two of these cannon during the civil war.
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. Troops soon left 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 sea wall 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 102 of Fort Point’s smooth-bore cannon were 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. Soldiers from the 6th U.S. Coast Artillery were stationed here 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 not available, and the idea 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.”
A black and white photograph (copyright NPS) is captioned “Golden Gate Bridge Tower Foundation 1933.” It shows 3 uniformed men standing above and to the east of Fort Point, gazing out to the bay. At the end of a long pier, CREMs operate in support of the construction. Across the water, the hills of the Marin Headlands rise up into the fog.
Preservation efforts were revived after World War II. On October 16, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the bill creating Fort Point National Historic Site. The fort tells the story of its years spent guarding the Golden Gate.
Fort Point National Historic Site stands beneath the southern end of the Golden Gate Bridge. Parking is limited. For public bus information call 415-673-6864. For current park hours of operation call 415-556-1693.
The fort is closed on Thanksgiving, December 25, and January 1. Visitor activities include a brief introductory film, cannon loading demonstrations, and guided and self-guided tours.
This half of the audio interprets the flip side of the brochure. It focuses on the garrison itself beginning with a large color illustration of the building dominating the center of the page. Text surrounding the illustration provides further detail regarding the design and construction, lighthouse, artillery and hotshot, bastions and seawall, and its use as a garrison.
Between 1817 and 1867 the nation’s coastal defense system included some 30 forts along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Fort Point was the only fort of this era built on the West Coast. An 1857 newspaper article praised the fort’s “solid masonry of more than ordinary artistic skill... We venture to predict it will be the admiration and pride of the Pacific.”
A large color illustration of Fort Point covers most of this side of the brochure (copyright NPS, artist Richard Shlekt). This illustration shows many facets of its construction and how it might have been used under ideal conditions. As you tour the fort remember that in addition to serving as a heavily armed fortification it was home to hundreds of men.
The illustration looks down on the fort at an angle from south to north. We see both the exterior or scarp walls, dotted with rifle slits, and its interior courtyard called the Parade Ground. The parade ground is bordered by three levels of arched openings or casemates. Also on the parade ground, is a hotshot furnace for heating cannon balls red hot. The roof of the fort called the Barbette Tier, is surrounded by a parapet wall. The Barbette tier was originally planted with sod and is green in the illustration. At the edges of all five walls, and on bastions to east and west, are cannon mounts. Cannon point outwards from the north and south walls and the bastions. The lighthouse rises from the floor of the courtyard at the western end and towers over the ramparts. Opposite, on the eastern side, flies a US flag. At the top of spiral stairs to east and west, are wooden penthouses that protected the stairs from weather. They could be removed easily, so they wouldn’t harm the soldiers should they be blown apart during an attack. A cutaway in the drawing on the south wall reveals enlisted men’s quarter on the top tier, officers’ quarter on the second tier, and a Powder Magazine in the ground floor casemate. We also see the Sally Port, or main fortified entryway on the south wall.
Different sections of the brochure focus on various aspects of the fort. The first is called Design and Construction.
Fort Point is an excellent example of a Third System coastal fortification, a system adopted after the War of 1812 to protect major U.S. harbors. The plan below was drafted before the east and west bastions were added. The fort had three tiers of casemates (vaulted rooms) housing cannon. A barbette tier had additional guns and a sod covering to absorb the impact of enemy cannon fire. The only entrance was a sally port with iron-studded doors. Work began in 1853. Since few local sources of building materials were available, granite was imported from as far away as China before engineers gave up the idea of stone. Some eight million bricks were made in a brickyard nearby
As soon as it was completed, Fort Point needed modifications. Civil War battles in the East proved masonry forts vulnerable to rifled cannon. In the 1870s Battery East, a great earthwork atop the bluff just to the south¬east, supplemented fortifications at the point.
This is the third lighthouse built at this site—a natural promontory from which to guide mariners through waters treacherous in fog. The first was demolished shortly after construction in 1852 to make way for Fort Point. The second, north of the fort at the tip of the point, suffered continual erosion. The present lighthouse was used from 1864 until 1934, when the foundation for the Golden Gate Bridge blocked its light.
Fort Point never mounted its planned 141 cannon. By October 1861 there were 69 guns in and around the fort: 24-, 32-, 42-pounders and 10- and 8-inch Columbiads. After the war, the Army in¬stalled powerful 10-inch Rodman guns in the lower casemates; these could fire a 128-lb. solid shot over two miles. At its greatest strength, the fort mounted 102 cannon. In addition the fort had “hotshot” furnaces: iron cannon balls could be heated red hot, loaded into a cannon, and fired at wooden ships to set them ablaze.An archival black and white photo cutout (credit National Park Service) shows an 8-inch Columbiad, a muzzle-loading canon on its rectangular frame mount.
Each of Fort Point’s bastions held 15 small cannon to discourage attackers from scaling the fort. By protruding from the main structure, the bastions allowed defenders to fire from a protected position along their own walls rather than revealing themselves by peering down over the parapet. To protect the fort from land attack, a small cannon battery was designed for the west end of the scarp wall at the front. It was built but cannon were never mounted. Because the land on which the fort stands was cut down to within 15 feet of the water, a seawall was needed for protection. This 1,500-foot-long structure is an impressive engineering feat. Granite stones were fitted together and the spaces between them sealed with strips of lead. Completed in 1869 the wall held fast for over 100 years against the Golden Gate’s powerful waves until it began to give way in the 1980s. The National Park Service rebuilt the wall and placed boulders seaward to deflect the force of the waves.
An archival black and white photograph (copyright NPS) shows the seawall on the eastern side of the fort. It rises straight up above the low crashing waves of the bay, and provides a walkway about five feet wide. This 1500 foot-long structure is an impressive engineering feat. Granite stones were fitted together and the spaces between them sealed with strips of lead. Completed in 1869 the wall held fast for over 100 years against the Golden Gate’s powerful waves until it began to give way in the 1980s. The National Park Service rebuilt the wall and placed boulders seaward to deflect the force of the waves.
During the Civil War, as many as 500 men from the 3rd U.S. Artillery, the 9th U.S. Infantry, and the 8th California Volunteer Infantry were garrisoned here. Thousands of miles from the major theaters of combat, the men spent their days in a routine of drills, artillery practice, inspections, sentry duty, and maintenance chores. Enlisted men bunked 24 to a casemate on the third tier; officers had single or double quarters one tier below.
To supplement coal heating fuel, soldiers gathered driftwood from the shore. Bvt. Maj. William Austine, the fort’s commander, summed up conditions in an 1861 report: “During the summer months the post is enveloped in fogs, and dampness and high winds constantly prevail, and consequently rheumatism and severe colds are very common.”
A montage of colored images represent garrison life. They include a Cavalry trumpet, playing cards, a clay pipe, a tin cup and a federal artilleryman’s forage cap,. The trumpet image is copyright Al Freni. Other images: copyright High Impact Photography.
The fort is wheelchair accessible on the ground floor, including the theater.
Fort Point National Historic Site
Bldg. 201, Fort Mason
San Francisco, CA 94123