After a train, subway, ferry, and ultimately bus, I arrived at Fort Wadsworth, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. Gateway is a collection of three different sites: Sandy Hook, New Jersey; Jamaica Bay; Staten Island, each with multiple park locations. Fort Wadsworth is part of the Staten Island unit and I was very excited to explore a part of New York I hadn’t been to before.
When I arrived at the park, I was disappointed to see that the visitor’s center was closed. I located a map though and attempted to make my way through the park. Crumbling structures from the old military days line the road leading to the overlook. I wanted to take a closer look at the abandoned buildings, but there were signs saying, “Area Closed”. I continued down the path and reached the overlook where you can see Fort Tompkins, the water, and Narrows Bridge, which is directly over the park. It was here where I was able to get a better look at the landscape. This military site is situated on a tall bluff, surrounded by woods, with a small beach. It looked like an interesting place to explore.
From there I headed down a road, trying to reach the water. On one side was a different old military building, on the other a dense wood, filled with vines. I turned and went down another, less well maintained path that sloped steeply until it reached Fort Tompkins. This path was surround by brush on both sides, though I was able to see the remains of some old buildings. At the base of the path, Fort Tompkins was closed to visitors and there was a long shack, which used to hold torpedoes, with its roof half missing and doors chained shut. I followed the path leading back up to the overlook and was lucky enough to get a view of the beach. It was dirty and speckled with trash. There appeared to be the remnants of structures in the water, though it was hard to tell. I was unable to find a way down to the beach, so instead walked back up to the overlook and left.
Fort Wadsworth was a particularly disappointing trip for me. When I go to a park, I look for trails or interesting features. Though the old buildings were intriguing, I was disappointed by the lack of access available. Other than the one path I walked, there appeared to be no other options for walking. It seemed like a waste of time for such a long trek to get there. I was also saddened by what appeared to be a lack of effort being made to conserve the park. The woods were completely covered in vines and there was too much trash.
When I arrived home I did some research about the park and what, if anything, was being done to help conserve it. After some digging, I found a cultural landscape proposal, created by the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation. Olmsted, if you don’t recognize the name refers to Frederick Olmsted, the designer of Central Park. Though the document was very long (200 pages) I was able to glean some interesting facts about the park.
Fort Wadsworth was taken over by the National Parks Service in 1995, a year after the New York Naval Station, the last attempt to redevelop the fort, was decommissioned. Though the park was cleared of vines at this time, after that the park was basically left to grown as it wished.
The vines that I saw suffocating the woods are a type of invasive grape vine called porcelain berry. They have completely enveloped the canopy of the wood and are recommended for removal. What was even more interesting though was the fact that the woods were an entirely new growth. Back when the Fort was in active use, the wooded area was actually a great lawn, kept open for public use. There are pathways underneath all that vegetation that enable visitors to walk down the gigantic slope. If the National Parks Service wants to return Fort Wadsworth to its historical landscape, the Center recommends a very conscientious removal of the trees so as not to cause erosion and a return to its lawn state, with a few shrubs added. They also believe that goats could help maintain the lawn. Goats will eat anything and could clear the lawn.
Goats were eventually hired to clear up the lawn of the park. There is a herd of 18 goats which munch on the lawn during the summer and early fall. I just happened to visit at a time where the vines had gotten a chance to grow. The goat’s main food source is Japanese knotweed, another invasive species in the park that is similar to bamboo.
The structures I thought I saw in the water used to be a retaining sea wall, which has broken down in parts, leading to the trash on the beach. A rebuilding of this wall could be helpful in protecting the beach from debris and any storm surges that might occur in the future. Though, because of the gigantic bluff Fort Wadsworth is situated on, it isn’t necessary for the protection of any other part of the park. Along the beach there also used to be a moat, which was fed by the tide and a natural spring. The moat has now been filled in and it is unclear whether the spring still exists.
The proposal goes on to suggest improvements on various buildings in the park. It also says that there is a general redevelopment plan in the works to improve Gateway National Recreation Area, including Fort Wadsworth, though it will take five years to put the plan together. The cultural landscape proposal was created in 2008, which leads me to believe that no significant acts of conservation have since occurred in the park. Our government moves slowly, but hopefully soon we will see a cleaner and better-conserved Fort Wadsworth.