Before it became Central Park, the Park’s north end served an important role in the early history of the United States. In celebration of Independence Day, get to know this area’s rich past, which includes appearances from General George Washington and several military fortifications — one of which can still be visited today.
The significance of the area
The north end of present-day Central Park, above 106th Street, was a crucial area to control during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. But why?
For starters, the area offered distant views as far as the Long Island Sound, so armies could spot foes early. Kingsbridge Road — the main passage connecting Manhattan and the Bronx at the time — also passed directly through, making the area easy to access. Because the road went through a narrow break in the rock, known as McGowan’s Pass, it was a strategic place to ambush enemies. (This spot can still be visited today — look for the sign titled “A View From the Road” just west of Fort Clinton.)
When the British attacked south Manhattan in September 1776, General George Washington rode from Harlem through McGowan’s Pass to rally his troops. The British made their way up Kingsbridge Road to McGowan’s Pass, laying claim to the area for the next seven years. Central Park’s co-designer, Frederick Law Olmsted, found evidence of British barracks, likely from this time, on the Great Hill.
After the Revolutionary War, the British left Manhattan, and General Washington and his troops reclaimed New York City. The Park’s north end remained residential and quiet until the War of 1812.
Becoming the Fort Landscape
During the War of 1812, New Yorkers built fortifications on the highest points in the area in anticipation of a British attack. However, the troops stationed at these forts never engaged in battle because the British didn’t arrive. Today, only one fort in the area still stands, and the sites of the other forts have been integrated into the Park’s design as overlooks. This area is now known as the Fort Landscape.
Here’s the story of each of the area’s forts, and what you can find there now:
- Fort Clinton was named after DeWitt Clinton, the mayor of New York during the War of 1812. The site of this fort now features stunning views of the Harlem Meer and the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center. It’s also home to a cannon (recovered from the sunken British warship H.M.S. Hussar) that an anonymous donor gave to the Park in 1865, in addition to a mortar. When Conservancy staff cleaned the cannon in 2013, they discovered it loaded with a cannonball and gunpowder. It’s now plugged and safe.
- Nutter’s Battery was named after a local landowner at the time named Valentine Nutter. The Conservancy rebuilt the site of Nutter’s Battery in 2014, rebuilding the wall and adding new paving and plantings, with the goal of emphasizing the impressive outcrop at the center of the site.
- The most heavily armed of the forts in this area, Fort Fish was named for Nicholas Fish, the Chairman of New York’s Committee of Defense during the War of 1812. Fort Fish is located at the highest point in the northeast area of Central Park. Today, the site features a bench dedicated to Andrew Haswell Green, who was integral in both the creation of Central Park and in the history of New York City overall.
- The Blockhouse is the only remaining fort. It has the distinction of being Central Park’s longest-standing structure. This rugged stone structure once had a sunken wooden roof and mobile cannon that could be deployed quickly. In Central Park’s original design, the Blockhouse was treated as a picturesque ruin with vines and landscaped plants.
Discover more about the area
Want to learn more about the history of Central Park’s north end? Watch our Facebook Live video with Conservancy historian, Sara Cedar Miller, at McGowan’s Pass; or visit Landforms, our exhibit on the Fort Landscape at the Dana Discovery Center. Our July Monthly Mile tour, a mile-long self-guided walk, also features many of these landmarks.