The View from New York’s Battery
By Marian Betancourt
One of my favorite places to visit is the Battery at the tip of Manhattan, not only for the spectacular harbor view but for its rich history. For example, Castle Clinton, a circular fort of thick red sandstone walls, originally called West Battery, is where tourists buy ferry tickets for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. It was built as a companion to a similar and larger fort on Governor’s Island. After the British reluctantly evacuated the harbor in 1783, we were defenseless, until Lt. Colonel Jonathan Williams, grandnephew of Ben Franklin, and chief of the Army engineers solved the problem. Williams, who had studied engineering at the French naval academy, designed the forts with bomb-proof rooms and turrets where guns could be aimed in any direction, thus keeping anyone from venturing into the harbor.
“Every sportsman knows the difference between a bird flying towards him, and one flying across his view,” said Williams. These formidable forts were designed to keep the enemy away, and they did. They also influenced the design of coastal fortifications for the rest of the century.
In 1817, West Battery was renamed for DeWitt Clinton, who had been a popular mayor of New York from 1803 to 1815. The Army gave up Castle Clinton in 1821 and two years later it became an entertainment complex known as Castle Gardens, with a beer garden, exhibition hall, theater and opera house. It also served as an immigration center until Ellis Island was built; then it served as the New York Aquarium. Despite several misguided efforts to get rid of them, both “castles” are now National Historic Monuments. Park Service rangers give guided tours of Castle Williams during the summer, when the ferry operates between the Battery and Governor’s Island. At Castle Clinton, open year round, there is a small museum inside and park rangers give daily tours. (Williams was also the first superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point, and a now hip Brooklyn neighborhood is named for him).
Another harbor hero who worked from a nearby office will soon have a reconstructed monument installed here is John Wolfe Ambrose, who spent years fighting with Congress (even then they gave New York a hard time) to fund the deep water channel that now bears his name so that the largest ships could enter. There are many others. Look south past Lady Liberty to Robins Reef, a lighthouse operated by a single working mom who rowed her kids to and from school. Look east at the Brooklyn Bridge, which was completed by Emily Warren Roebling when her husband was incapacitated. And watch for the Moran and McAllister tugboats, once known as the Irish Navy, who have been operating here for more than 150 years.
Marian Betancourt is a contributor to this Everett Potter’s Travel Report and the author of Heroes of New York Harbor: Tales from the City’s Port, published in October by Globe Pequot Press.