Michael & Elizabeth CAVANAUGH
Davids' Island & Fort Slocum: Some Overviews
What a wonderful photo! (Believe it or not; because of the display properties of the website it was either this size or TOO huge to see. But ignoring the labels, just look at the photo first. Then,
copy it to your own hard drive, open it up in Explorer, and you can zoom in and out as necessary to read the labels.) This is Davids’ Island in 1889,
between the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, between a post largely of wood and a permanent post of brick, before the
mortar pits went in, soldiers enjoying baseball a scant quarter-century after Abner Doubleday commanded the Island.
We see here the beginnings of the post which the USACE is now pulling down.
Yet already by the time of this photo, the post has undergone profound transformation.
The last of wooden buildings built for the Civil War DeCamp General Hospital were gone by 1888, though they were reported
to be falling apart by the early 1870’s. The Army abandoned the island
in 1874, and when it reoccupied it in 1878 for use as the Principal Depot of the General Recruiting Service, it had to contend
with these Civil War relics. Scraps were used from the worst buildings
to patch and shore up the better ones, but the situation was unsatisfactory. Roofs
leaked, supplies and papers were endangered, the whole post was an embarrassment to the recruiting mission.
In 1878 it was decided to build the post in brick; but it took some time to get funding, so in the interim certain buildings were built
in wood. These included three sets of duplex officers’ quarters (bldgs.
2-7 -- which survived to the end)
and some wooden barracks (which were phased out from the 1890’s and finally disappeared with the construction of the
Quadrivium 1906-08). It wasn’t until 1886, with the construction
of the model Consolidated Mess Hall (bldg. 120) that brick construction started in earnest.
Thereafter however it would continue, and gave the subsequent post its architectural continuity.
This photo, one of the oldest in existence showing Davids’
Island, catches the post at this critical juncture in its development; and it
captures a panoramic view of many buildings and landmarks. It can be dated to
about 1889 simply because of the series of permanent brick buildings built along the eastern edge of the parade field in the
1880’s, three (the Consolidated Mess Hall, bldg. 120, 1886; barracks 52,
1887; and the southern octagonal barracks, bldg. 53, 1888) are complete, while
the northern octagonal barracks (bldg. 51, 1889 -- the one we knew as The Chapel Center) does not yet appear.
Already however the parade field, the defining feature of the post to its very end, has been laid out. It then remained to fill in the buildings along its edges.
Not many people are aware of this, but there was a plan in 1878 to run Officers’ Row all the way up the western
end of the parade field as a straight line of cookie-cutter wood frame houses; and
to run a line of cookie-cutter wood frame barracks all the way down the eastern end.
(The D&D building, and its twin the post HQ in this photo, were the only ones actually built. Imagine Officers’ Row as duplexes identical to bldgs. 2-7 all the way up to our later Officers’
Club; and the opposite edge continuing a series of barracks exactly like the
post HQ in this photo, with none of the brick buildings, and you will have imagined what the plan called for.)
This would have produced a post entirely
continuous architecturally if much less durable. In any event it did not happen. A report to the AGO that year by Maj. Samuel Nicoll Benjamin recommended instead that
barracks be concentrated in the NE, and that a shorter Officer’s Row follow the natural contour of the parade field. The recommendations of the Benjamin
Report largely were adopted, which accounts for the continued dogleg in Officers’ Row from bldgs. 10 & 11, and the
fact that the southeast edge of the parade field was filled in only later -- as indeed was Officers’ Row only gradually extended northward, but this was
for reasons of funding. But here we see the 1880’s brick buildings defining
the eastern edge, and officers quarters up to bldg. 13 defining the western edge; and
these elements remained to the very end.
So it is easy for those of us who lived there from WWI through the Cold War to recognize at a glance that this 1889
view is indeed the Fort Slocum we would come to know.
There are 26 buildings in the view. Of these only 8 (2 barracks, the mess
hall, and 5 buildings for officer housing) remained to the end. Some of these
were replaced by later buildings: the 1872 surgeon’s quarters by
bldgs. 10 & 11; the QM Sgt’s quarters by bldgs. 14-17; the QM storehouse by the Officers Club bldg. 18; the old wooden
hospital by a brick hospital, bldg. 151 (the one we knew as the Chaplain School), of
about the same design and size, only set back a little; the hospital steward’s
quarters by bldg. 152 (the Cold War post dispensary) also set back a little; the
D&D building and the 8 wooden barracks by the Quadrivium barracks (bldgs. 54-57).
Thus the essential outlines of the post were preserved even though a majority of the actual buildings in this view
were destroyed by 1911.
Some were never replaced. The boiler house may have been built to provide
steam heat to the 1880’s buildings, also for steam cooking at the mess hall; for
whatever reason it was removed within about a decade or so. (It was the only
brick building ever built on the parade field.) After the post HQ burned in 1899
there was briefly a plan to build a new one in the same general location, but in 1909 this was changed and the post HQ we
knew (bldg. 116) was built at the NW end of the island instead. The sutler’s
store (later an Officers’ Club) and the ice house were also destroyed about the time the Quadrivium was built, 1906-08.
And of course the pond. This is the best of only three known photos of
it, a natural freshwater pond fed by springs.
It was used for swimming in the summer, cutting ice & ice-skating in the winter.
It was filled in by about 1909-10 ostensibly to provide more drill space.
And then the disappeared landmark you can’t see. How was this elevated
photo taken in 1889? From the 1884 brick water tower -- 50 feet tall, itself situated on the highest point of the
island -- destroyed in 1929 after the steel water tower was completed, at the
NW corner of Davids' Island.
Above is a fairly recent satellite photo of the island. Note both docks are gone. Compare the dark
areas on the photo with the 1952 map and you will see footprints of buildings which have been burned down (e.g.,
the Chaplain School, bldg. 151). Most of Officers' Row has not burned (though wooden structures, whether porches or
entire buildings, have collapsed, and some individual buildings have burned). Likewise some NCO quarters have burned,
some have not. The south end of the parade field is covered with sticker bushes; the majority of the parade field
is under a forest canopy of new growth. It is very weird: at noon, one can stand beside
our flagpole and still be in dusky shade! The "Trivium" (the group of 3 identical barracks on the NE part of the island,
bldgs. 58-60) appear clearly as whitish images. From the ground, you'll see their flammable roofs are gone but the buildings
themseoves were fireproof, and recent visitors have walked through them.
This gem of a map, above (courtesy once again of our allies at CDSG) is dateable to 1892. (The earliest is 1872.)
Note there are already two docks. (The T-boat dock dated from the Civil War, the coal dock from 1879. These were
rebuilt in 1884; they were replaced in the same spots in 1902 with the docks we knew, though there continued to
be substantial rebuilding over the years as fires, storms and tides took their tolls.) Much of Officers' Row is in place
(but not Quarters 1, aka bldg. 1, quarters for the senior officer on post; it was built in 1893),
also buildings on the E. side of the Parade Field (though not quite finished). But there were many buildings (including
the temporary barracks, the gymnasium, the Officers' Club, the administration building) which were gone by our time.
The batteries are not shown, possibly for security reasons, for in 1891 earth moving had begun for the mortar batteries
(and the Engineer Wharf was there for construction purposes). Notice also the pond, gone by our time; it was used
for sawing ice to store for the next summer in the days before refrigeration, and also for ice skating. (It
remains in a map of 1908, but a map of 1909 notes that is being filled in by rubble from the post; and by 1915
there is a track and athletic field in its place.) Note also that the flagpole is opposite bldg. 53, the South
Octagon (and not at the upper end of the parade field, as it was during our time). The flag pole was moved
in 1914 to the place where we knew it, at the upper end of the parade field just south of the hospital/Chaplain School.
(For those who are into the flourishing trade in Fort Slocum postcards on eBay, this fact can help to date some of the cards.
For example, take an azimuth from the buildings on the one of the sea-level panorama cards and you will locate the flagpole
easily at its pre-1914 location, whereas on the folding panorama card you will locate it in its post-1914 place.)
During the Civil War, from 1862 (or possibly 1861), Davids' Island was home to De Camp General
Hospital. At first it was for treatment of Federal soldiers. After Gettysburg, it became both hospital and prison
camp for Confederates. Compared to places like Andersonville or Elmira (concentration camps in the worst sense), Davids'
Island was really benign; prisoners were confined by nothing more than geography and physical disability.
They could roam the entire island, and supplement their diets with fish and shellfish; and Confederate sympathizers
in New York City would visit and bring provisions. (For more information, visit http://www.correctionhistory.org/html/chronicl/cw_pows/html/cwpows0.html
Almost nothing in this view corresponds to the later, permanent post. Note there
is only one dock (probably at the site of the T-boat dock, though on a slightly different axis). The road leading away
from it may correspond to our later Hoyle Road.
|One of the earliest aerials we have found:
|1923 (thx to CDSG from NARA).
The earliest possible aerial photos may have been taken (from a kite!) in 1898. But this
is one of the earliest we have. (The very earliest is from July 1920.)
Two notable features. First, note on the NE corner, Batteries Kinney & Fraser where
bldg. 58 would later be. (The guns would have been removed by then but the concrete emplacements were still there.)
This is one of the few comprehensive views surviving of the two direct fire batteries.
Second, look at the SE corner of the island, at the SE corner of the mortar batteries.
There is a structure casting a shadow that looks like (in the words of one observer) the Washington Monument. It was
actually a water tower, brick, 50 feet tall. It was built in 1884, and later the mortar battery was built around it.
It was blown up in 1929, just after the new steel water tower went into service.
You may also notice the oval track going around what was our drill & athletic field. This
was gone by our time. It was in place by 1915, though it would have accomodated the 1920 U.S. Olympic team, which trained
at Ft. Slocum about the time it ceased to be the major recruiting depot on the East Coast and was looking for a new identity.
9:30 AM, 17 January 1936, Fort Slocum; next month would be one of the coldest on record, and the following month
Capt. Samuel Mills of the Army Air Corps would be killed when he crashed into Raymond Hall (the building in the foreground,
lower left, advertising "Ft Slocum") attempting to land in a gale. It looks like troops are drilling in the snow on
the parade field. If you look to the upper left corner of the photo, just below the smoke and to the left of the mortar
batteries, you can see the outline of Battery Practice -- the clearest photo of it we have, though if you
squint you can make it out also in the 1921/25 photo. (To see the details better, copy this photo, open it up in Explorer,
and zoom in.) The direct-fire batteries, Kinney & Fraser, are already gone, replaced by bldg. 58, but notice that
only 2 of the 3 Trivium buildings are in place (59, aka Barrett Hall, would not be built until the end of the decade).