On the northeast tip of Queens is a 249-acre peninsula that was the last military base in the borough prior to its closing in 1995. A favorite haunt of urban explorers, Fort Totten Park may not receive as many tourists as Governors Island, but the story of this base-turned-park has been documented by many writers. For the purposes of my book, I’ve focused on the two ponds separating the fort from mainland Queens.
They are nearly impossible to access, as the larger pond is on the part of Fort Totten that has been retained by the army for its reserves, and the other is enveloped by marshes off the shoulder of Cross Island Parkway.
Where They Flow
The easiest way to see the ponds is to enter the park and turn right on Duane Road. Although the road is public, the smaller pond is fenced off, located entirely within the enclave retained by the U. S. Army Reserve. On the park map above, the dark green area represents parkland that is managed by NYC Parks, lighter areas are assigned to the coast guard, NYPD, FDNY, and the U. S. Army. The larger pond is enveloped by marshes and nearly impossible to access. In the event of a storm surge, slat water from Little Neck Bay would inundate the larger pond.
On the hill overlooking the pond is the oldest and perhaps most forgotten structure in the park, the Willets Farmhouse. The home was built in 1829 for Charles Willets, who had acquired the peninsula. The army arrived in 1861 and used it as a residence. It was abandoned in 1974 and continues to rot away despite its status as a historic landmark.
Looking at a map of Fort Totten from 1895, the smaller pond is marked as Ice Pond, used to harvest ice in winter, as were many other nearby inland waterways including Kissena Lake and Golden Pond. Winters were much colder in those days. Separating the peninsula from mainland Queens are a “salt creek” and a ditch, lined with wide banks of marshland that served as a natural moat for this military base.
There is so much to write about Fort Totten but as this blog is mostly about waterways, the buildings, streets, and history of Fort Totten can be read on Forgotten-NY, where I am a contributing writer.