The Blockhouse – Central Park’s Oldest Edifice

The Blockhouse in Central Park

The Blockhouse in Central Park

At the northern end of Central Park, hidden from view by the surrounding trees and foliage, is an aged edifice that is the oldest standing building in the park (discounting, of course, the Oblelisk, imported from Egypt).  It is a fort built to protect lower Manhattan from invasion from the north.  And no, we’re not talking about the Bronx.

During the War of 1812 New Yorkers constructed fortifications along the waterfront at the Battery and Ellis Island, assuming that a British attack would come from the harbor at the southern tip of Manhattan Island.  This included the fort on Governor’s Island as well.  Therefore, when the British attacked Stonington, Connecticut on Long Island Sound on August 10, 1814, the city was quite unprepared to defend itself from an attack from the east or the north.

Under the direction of General Joseph Swift, citizens from New York, New Jersey, and Long Island banded together in patriotic zeal to construct a line of defense running through this area of Manhattan. According to Edward H. Hall in McGown’s Pass and Vicinity, they 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.” The unevenness of the stonework is testimony to the haste in which these fortifications were constructed. In September 1814, less than a month after construction, The New York Columbian commented: “The works at Harlem heights are numerous, compact and judiciously placed, and form a romantic and picturesque view.”

The Blockhouse is a great destination for an Autumnal hike through the more pastoral northern regions of the park.  It also constitutes one of the few Manhattan reminders of our Colonial past.