Like many people who have a dog in Manhattan, I find myself gravitating to Central Park for our daily walks. The Parks’ nearly 800-acres of lawns, paths, woods and lakes make it an ideal exercise ground, and man and dog never have to take the same route twice.
Near the northern edge of the Park close to the gate at Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. is an almost hidden entrance through the trees. It’s easy to miss and I’m sure many of the walkers and cyclists who pass it on the road are contemplating the long, hard climb up the Great Hill that starts at just about that point (easily the hardest part of any circuit around the Park). Hardly anyone glances at the path into the trees that quickly turns and disappears into the woods.
The path climbs and twists around a large wall of rock (know as The Cliff back when Andrew Jackson walked the land) and as the walker looks up there is a flagpole with the US flag flying, seemingly emerging from the top of the tor. This flag and the rock face are not visible from the road, indeed looking from above, are hidden from the top of the Great Hill itself.
Ancient stairs take the walker around the bluff and cut back to a tree lined glade.
And there, hidden from view and definitely off the beaten path is a piece of forgotten New York history. Many people know that there is an old blockhouse from the War of 1812 in the Park, few people know where it is. It is concealed especially in Summer when everything is leafed out, from even the nearest trails and possible even more protected by the Central Park Conservancy ominous warning on their website that ” Although numerous paths lead to the site, solitary wandering is not advisable.” Make of that what you will.
The blockhouse is the oldest structure in the Park, one of several built by an alarmed New York populace after British attacks all along the US coast – at Stonington, CT and Orleans MA for example and of course the burning of Washington, all before Gen. Andrew Jackson and his riflemen won a famous victory over an army of British veterans at New Orleans. But I digress.
With the coastal attacks the call went out to build forts at strategic positions around the city and to refurbish existing fortifications. Volunteers, to cite a 19th century historian quoted on the historical marker “came from every conceivable class of men: the Society of Tammany, the students of Columbia College, medical students, the Marine Society, the Society of Tallow Chandlers, butchers, members of the bar, Free Masons, firemen, Sons of Erin, colored citizens.” Something about that tickles me, the idea of callow students and Tammany’s jobsworths toiling on a bluff above the village of Harlem with thick-armed butchers, free men of color and the ubiquitous Irish. Ain’t that America?
The Blockhouse had a sunken roof with a large cannon that could be fired in any direction through several portholes still visible in the structure. The cannon was mounted on a heavy timber floor. According to NY Parks “all four sides of the structure have two small gunports. A timber stair was used to connect the ground entrance to the terrace level. The current entrance and staircase are not original and were probably added at the turn of the century. The upper two feet of the Blockhouse walls are noticeably different in color, composition and stonework. They were added at a later date.”
The five fortifications in what is now Central Park could garrison over 2000 militiamen. Obviously this was one of the smaller forts. After the war the blockhouse was used to store munitions (well away from any center of population, even today) and intriguingly as a place for patriotic celebrations. And it’s on that note I’ll leave it. Maybe on the Fourth I’ll take the dog and Herself up the winding stairs and say “Happy Birthday America” at a remnant from a forgotten war and smile at the thought of a mixed bag of patriots toiling together and preparing for an enemy that never came. I’m sure the dog won’t mind.