What today we call Bay Ridge originally consisted of two sister villages: Yellow Hook (or, after 1853, “Bay Ridge”) to the north and Fort Hamilton to the south. As the Brooklyn Eagle explained in 1890 (paragraph breaks are mine, as they often are throughout this post):
Bay Ridge is conservative. The people who live there the year round are, as a rule, well to do and own their own houses. They surround themselves with a considerable amount of style and hold aloof from their less fortunate fellow mortals, who can only afford to give themselves the pleasure of breathing pure air for a few brief weeks in the middle of summer. The transients support the boarding houses, all of which claim to be considered as select. About them everything is quiet enough, in all truth, and, except on a Sunday, the Bay Ridge boarder might easily imagine himself as spending his vacation in the heart of Sullivan county [in the Catskills] were it not for the magnificent stretch of water which he may gaze upon every morning when he gets up—that is, if he is lucky enough to have a front room…Of saloons there are none in Bay Ridge proper. There is one on its northern limit, but it is so far away from the residential portion of the town that its presence is not regarded as harmful. Neither are the vendors of pop corn, sausages and other hot weather delicacies to be found hereabouts, nor does the weird screeching of the steam organ break in upon the stillness of the summer air…
From Bay Ridge to Fort Hamilton is but a step, but what a difference there is between the frequenters of the two resorts. At the former all is peace and country quiet—the peace which swells in the minds of the honest farmer and his guests from town and the quiet of green fields and shady groves. At the latter noise and revel hold sway from the rising of the sun even to the going down of the same and long afterward, as a matter of fact. Some people there are of a retiring disposition who go down to the fort to fish and bathe, having heard of its attractions in these two respects, but rarely do they repeat the visit. The fort is no place for such as want to be alone. It would be easier to read Browning in a boiler factory than to find rest amid the manifold distractions which mar this…beautiful spot. Loud voiced fakirs chant the praises of their wares on every side and stage drivers struggling for passengers help to swell the discord. Then there are the steam organs and itinerant trumpeters, which two sources of dreadful sound make noise enough to wake the dead.
Fort Hamilton has been called “the lungs of South Brooklyn.” Thither repair the young men and maidens when work in the factories is over for the day, and with them go a few of the old folk. It costs but a trifle to get there, and once on the spot one is at liberty to feel himself entirely free from the thralls of city restraint. Refreshment is cheap, and beer flows from a thousand kegs. It flows without cessation, too, for the youth of South Brooklyn when on pleasure bent like to keep their spirits at a pleasant pitch. There is plenty of what is known as “innocent mirth” in the early hours of the evening, and later on a good deal of horse play, and occasionally an impromptu scrap. Still there is not so much genuine rowdyism as one might be led to expect. Turbulent young men there are, any number of them, but as a rule they seem to be contented to dispose of their superfluous energy by shouting and singing. The residents along the line of Third avenue get the full benefit of this peculiarity in the still watches of the night when the pleasure seekers are being carried to their homes.
The fort itself has few visitors, and scarcely anyone thinks it worth his while to take a look at the old fashioned monster guns which are rusting among the earthworks and which are supposed to be there for the purpose of guarding the narrows. The vast majority of Fort Hamilton’s patrons take no interest in the questions of coast defenses. So long as the supply of beer is not inensced [?] they are content, and as long as the calliope continues to do its work they feel confident that no fear of a foreign invader need be entertained.
Fort Hamilton Village sprung up around the namesake armybase. Construction on the original fort began in 1825 and ended in 1831, replacing Fort Lewis, which had been made of earth and wood to protect the Narrows during the War of 1812. Yellow fever outbreaks, the worst of which was in 1856, had a habit of scaring people from the area, but for the second half of the 19th century, the area entered a relative golden age. It rivaled Coney Island, or at least complemented it, existed as its miniature—a resort where working peoples spent their Sundays, a seaside retreat with a long-forgotten reputation for roughness.
The entire southern coast of Brooklyn was a beach-vacation destination in the 19th century, including not only Fort Hamilton (and Dyker Beach) and Coney Island but also Bath Beach, in between, as well as Brighton and Manhattan beaches, Sheepshead Bay and the Rockaways. But the Fort had a certain cachet. “Fort Hamilton was one of the most delightful and picturesque spots in the country in the 80s and early ’90s and was well patronized on Sundays and holidays,” wrote a nostalgic Louis Ronalter to the Brooklyn Eagle in 1942. “It had a large park, many amusement places, and a merry-go-round, for Coney Island was far away and it took a long time to get there and had only a few amusement attractions.”
Coney Island’s golden age was really the 20th century: Steeplechase opened in 1897, Lunda Park in 1903 and Dreamland in 1904. Before that, it was just a very popular seaside resort surrounded by competition. “A much better place of resort [than Coney Island] in many if not all respects is Fort Hamilton,” the Eagle reported in an 1868 roundup-review of Brooklyn beaches, “and it is wonderful how anybody after visiting both should ever go again to any but the latter.”
There is a beach just beyond the fort, between Bath and Fort Hamilton village, where, though the turf is not so high as at Coney Island, the roads are equally firm and good and the depth of the water increases so gradually, that people who want a real swim, or those who, not being able to swim, want to caper about within their depth, can enjoy themselves better than on the shore of the Island. Then there is a feature at Fort Hamilton which Coney Island does not possess, and that is the excellent boating and fishing which can be obtained.
At this time, the only way into Fort Hamilton from points north was by a train that traveled down Third Avenue from about Green-Wood Cemetery, accessible by lines from elsewhere, which also connected to ferry routes. “The route from Greenwood to Fort Hamilton is along Third avenue, the beauty of which can hardly be exaggerated in description,” the Eagle reported in 1868.
It is hired by some of the most magnificent residences which the environs of the this or any other city can boast[, which] embellish the road that skirts them. It is nobly planted with fine trees, forming an almost continuous shade along the avenue. For several miles it runs straight as an arrow, overhung on each side with magnificent willows, and dotted at intervals by splendid mansions.
One way to reach this road is to take the Bay Ridge ferry from [the] foot of Wall street [to …then pursue the winding shore road as far as the pedestrian proclivities may lead one to go; when tired of walking, turn up anywhere form the shore and a few steps will bring you to Third avenue, where in a few minutes an open car will come along and convey you to Fort Hamilton for five cents. The SHORE ROAD AT BAY RIDGE possesses such beauties of its own, as no other road in the vicinity of New York, except perhaps one on Staten Island, can boast. At some points the trees overhead actually meet from each side of the road, and a perfect shade of rural seclusion is ensured.
On the land side the road is dotted at intervals with pretty villas and ornamental grounds…and on the other side there is the lower bay spread at one’s feet, a hundred or more feet beneath the road. Where the bank is not too precipitous, there are side gates, in the road fence, inviting the pedestrian to turn aside into the natural rustic arbors which line the slope of the bluff shore, and to rest himself on wooden seats provided, we suppose, by the charity of the town of New Utrecht for strangers and wayfarers.
Three years later, in 1871, the Eagle reported again on the trip, filling in details. (At the time, New Utrecht, the town made up of today’s Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, etc., had not yet joined the city of Brooklyn, whose border was at 60th Street, and which itself was still decades away from joining the city of New York.)
A Court street car from Fulton ferry arrives at Twenty-fourth street, in Gowanus, corner of Third avenue, and these passengers desiring to go to Bay Ridge or Fort Hamilton are furnished with a little ticket, called a transfer…After two or three Court street cars have left a portion of their load at this corner, a car for Fort Hamilton comes along and a hundred people, more or less, try to occupy it. Small boys fringe the steps and rise with difficulty to give room for more people. A few get off to go to Greenwood. Finally 70 or 75 somehow find room; the car starts and the conductor with marvellous [sic] skill goes “over” it to collect the transfers.
The route to Fort Hamilton is familiar to the general public. It is practically Third Avenue all the way. At the city limits [60th Street] the passengers are all held to have just got in and each has to pay five cents more to get to the sea side. The ride is long and much of it is very pleasant. A portion of the way the road runs near Gowanus Bay, but after a while the shore goes seaward again…Farther on the traveler passes through the shady and DELIGHTFUL PRECINCTS OF BAY RIDGE.
The incidents by the way are not especially striking or startling. Everybody feels wilted and is willing to skip the route and be at the Fort…The FIRST GLIMPSE OF THE NARROWS, at Fort Hamilton, is delightful. It is seen through a natural gothic archway of trees on a road directly ahead of the car, but the car makes a turn on to another street, and so does not go through it. In fact, it makes several turns, and finally brings up at the tavern. Some may call it a hotel, but it looks vastly like a tavern. The scene immediately about is a few loafing soldiers, others on guard, the Fort, fishing boats, and numerous signs indicating where ice cream is to be had.
A street scene was noted. A very drunken member of the artillery, in uniform, was affording exquisite pleasure to a dozen or so of small boys, between whom he was trying to instigate fights, and to whom he was cursing in the most disgusting manner.
The conditions of transportation got better. “There has been within a year or so considerable improvement in the traveling facilities to the Fort,” the Eagle reported in 1878, “by the introduction of the steam motors on Third avenue. Owing to the bad condition of a large portion of the track, the motion of the cars attached to the motors was anything but agreeable, and many complaints were heard from passengers from this cause. At present, however, an entire new steel track is being laid and in those parts where it is completed, the cars move along smoothly, without a jog.”
Getting There by Foot
The best description of getting to Fort Hamilton comes from a committed pedestrian, to whom the Eagle gave more than an entire column (signed “E. R. G.”) in 1886 to describe the journey by foot. He word-painted an incomparable picture of the late-19th-century Bay Ridge-area landscape; photographs from the time provide a snapshot of the area, a fixed location at a fixed point in time, but E. R. G., with the colorful language of a novelist, provides a sense of what it might have actually felt like to move through it, to breathe the air and take in the landscape all around. His words are worth 1,000 pictures.
There are certain railroads that advertise themselves as specially desirable because they traverse a line of country that is singularly picturesque. But to those who have known the delights of ascending the zigzag paths of mountains or of traversing the lonely and shadowed roads that lead through great forests on foot, the hasty and unsatisfactory glimpses of the beautiful, seen from the windows of a parlor car, only irritate and vex and render feverish with longing to be on foot and wandering among them…
[T]he Brooklynite, happy being, can start off on a short walking excursion from the door of his domicile. He has before him many trips which may be made on foot, and among the pleasantest is a walk to Fort Hamilton. He need not strike Third avenue until he is in the neighborhood of Greenwood Cemetery, from which point it is an agreeable path open toward the bay at many spots and lined with fine trees and quaint old villas in the midst of old gardens. Some of these have the air of being ante revolutionary, and present the excellent woodwork and graceful decoration usually associated with good colonial residences in the days when George the Third was king…
At a certain point in the road [ca. 63rd Street] there is a cluster of German picnic gardens, for the honest Teuton has particular satisfaction in swallowing great draughts of “schink bier” in the open air, and this is greatly increased when he has before him a fine view…A few hundred yards beyond the last of these is the depot of one of the many railways that communicate with Brooklyn’s sea beaches and Brooklyn’s race courses. Here, if he is wise, the walker will desert Third avenue, and walk along Second avenue which is a broad and fine thoroughfare, lined on one side with magnificent grounds and gardens belonging to villas not always visible from the road…
The pedestrian should turn once again to the south when he gets to the end of Second avenue and he will have on both sides of him market gardens where men and women are picking tomatoes and filling great wagons with the deep red globes. This path will bring him to a narrow road that follows the windings of the shore along the bay, and goes up and down in and out in a perfectly natural and pleasing manner, much more delightful, however, to the pedestrian than to the drive of a buggy. This is a charming locality, and offers continually fresh objects of interest on either side.
The footpath skirts the bank, which sometimes rises to the dignity of a cliff, and indeed is infinitely more cliff like than the walk along the beach at Long Branch [New Jersey]. For this is not only very much higher at various points, but at others has rocky boulders and serried clumps of cedars, many of them belonging to the remote past, when this part of the land was left in its natural condition. Mixed up with the cedars are other trees that were planted subsequently…The wild grape vines and Virginia creepers have grown in the most luxuriant way, massing themselves around the decaying trunks of dead trees and flinging their sprays like natural bridges across to other supports….
These banks and cliffs are for the most part the property of owners of the handsome villas on the other side of the road, and trespassing is deprecated by a multiplicity of signs, which are not always respected. For, just as the Teuton loves his beer and his lunch in spots whence he can contemplate the glories of the bay, so the tramp who has been charitably supplied with bread and meat has apparently huge satisfaction in disposing of the same and of the half dozen ripe tomatoes which have casually wandered into his pockets, in the most comfortable and most convenient spots along the sides of the cliff in utter defiance of printed suggestions to dogs and man tramps.
Come when you will along the Fort Hamilton road, and you will always see a tramp or two either reclining under the shade of a wide spreading beech tree surveying the glad waters of the Narrows, or else with his back against a tall cedar, taking huge bites out of a colossal sandwich. It is a surprising fact that with so much water around the tramp has never yet been discovered in the act of bathing by any inhabitant of the Fort Hamilton villas.
The pedestrian will do well to return by the village and the Third Avenue road as he will see many noble specimens of fine trees…By walking down Ninety-second street the wanderer finds himself once more in Third Avenue, and if he resists the appealing gesture of the conductors on the dummy line cars who seem surprised that any one should walk who is master of a nickel, he will not repent it. For he will travel for the most part under the shade of noble maple trees, and will see some splendid masses of salvias in the grounds of the Inebriate Asylum [today’s Visitation Academy], and at one point, where the level of Third avenue is very high, he will have an exceptionally fine sight of the splendid prospect to the south. Small as is the distance between this road and the one that winds along the shore it is yet sufficient to give enchantment to the view. There is an added softness to the verdure of Staten Island, and there is a more tender purple to the far off mountains of New Jersey, and the water of the bay is more silvery, more bright.
Rough and Tumble
The Fort Hamilton resort was especially popular among the working-class, as well as soldiers, all of whom struck newspaper reporters of the time as being rough sorts. “The Sunday travel to Fort Hamilton at present is very large,” the Eagle reported in 1868. “The class of people who are really unable to get out of town at all during the week, and on whose occasional use of Sunday or out-door recreation instead of for church-going, therefore, we, who can find time other days to go out pleasuring, should not look too uncharitably—this class seems to prefer Fort Hamilton to Coney Island or any other suburb. They are a most quiet and orderly set of excursionists, however, and old residents of Fort Hamilton tell us they have not yet seen a single instance of Sunday drunkenness or disorder among all the crowds who have come.”
This strikes me as disingenuous—or else the situation rapidly changed. Just three years later, in 1871, an Eagle reporter stumbled upon that drunken soldier becoming the sport of a gang of boys—and even that struck him as tame. “The writer was disappointed in the Sunday crowd at Fort Hamilton,” he wrote. “On a previous occasion, many months since, he felt glad to get home with a whole skin and without being despoiled of his purse”—meaning, I think, to have not been wounded or robbed.
The element that formerly gave the visitors to this place the general title of ‘rough lot,’ has so much diminished as to be scarcely perceptible. True, there are still rowdies and blackguards, but they are not as numerous. The crowd still comes, and is even on the increase, but it is of ORDERLY, PEACEABLE CITIZENS, people who are employed in the week days and take in Fort Hamilton as an economical luxury.
The absence of the rowdy crowd was probably brought about by the action of the authorities of Bath, Bay Ridge, New Utrecht and Fort Hamilton. Whether prompted by some church mission, or stimulated by a few gentlemen who own fine villas in the vicinity, or evolving the idea from their inner consciousness, has not been ascertained, but they decided on policemen, and they issued a large number of warning handbills, especially in reference to Sundays. It reads: “Notice is hereby given that a force has been detailed for duty on Sunday for the preservation of the public peace on that day, with special instructions to prevent all ball playing, or trespassing upon private grounds.” An independent and separate paragraph in this handbill reads:
“Public bathing in an improper manner and all disorderly conduct in the streets and other public places.”
The author evidently intended to say something. Two or three or those policemen were met yesterday. The formidable order keeps away the wicked boys, and they have little to do but to take care of their uniforms.
Contemporary descriptions of the area were hardly glowing. The 1871 Eagle reporter writes, “Numerous were the small boats conveying parties to fishing grounds. Other groups wander over the Fort and ask wondering questions about the big guns…Others stroll down the main road below and criticise the new pier in process of building…Quarantine is seen at some distance away…The walk above the beach is very inviting. Many a dead dog and cat and horse have accepted the invitation, and are evidently there somewhere, though not visible. The stench at certain points is strong enough to break up a ward primary…” He also describes looking out on the ruins of Fort Lafayette, which was in the Narrows, about where the Brooklyn tower of the Verrazano Bridge is now.
A reporter in 1878 wrote, “it will only require A LITTLE SPIRIT AND ENTERPRISE on the part of the somewhat sleepy hotel proprietors at Fort Hamilton to render it much more popular with the masses than it has ever been…Much cannot be said for the enterprise of the inhabitants, so far at least as catering to the transient traffic there is concerned. The hotel accommodations are poor and…there are few places where the visitor can receive comfortable accommodations.” He was more impressed with the fort and its soldiers than with the surrounding town.
“Are the ancient glories of Fort Hamilton to be revived?” a certain Richelieu wrote in the Eagle in 1881.
It is not many years ago that the Fort Hamilton Hotel…was a gay Summer resort. Many daring young officers, some of whom rose to eminence in the later war, were then stationed at Fort Hamilton, and mingled in promenade and dance with the numerous beautiful ladies that made this their Summer home…But alas in one night its glories departed. A bright light shot above its embowering trees, illuminating the bay, fringed with foam of silver the rippling shores of Staten Island, and Fort Hamilton lost its hotel and its circles of beauty and chivalry, and the twinkling feet of waltzing womanhood and the throbbing hearts of gallant manhood became mute and motionless forever.
For ever? No. Let Fort Hamilton be regenerated. The grounds and foundations of the hotel still remain. Let it rise from its ruins in increased splendor. The dock is still there, in need, perhaps, of repair. The fort has been enlarged and its grounds extended. Its young officers have no demands from Mars and are open for bids from cupid. The young ladies are as charming as their mothers and aunts were a quarter of a century ago, and why should we not have its glories restored?
This Fort Hamilton is destined for a great future.
Paul Oliver, stationed at Fort Hamilton in the mid 19th century, remembered the scene many years later to Charlotte Bangs with a nostalgia similar to Richelieu’s. “Fort Hamilton was a favorite resort, the Hotel was well kept, and the ladies used to be rowed along the shore on moonlight nights, singing as they were rowed along by their young gallants,” he wrote in her 1912 book, Reminiscences of Old New Utrecht and Gowanus.
Classism seems at play here—of writers longing for a (possibly mythical?) gentried past, put off by their ruffian present. “That there is a future for Fort Hamilton no one who has seen the place will deny,” the Eagle reported in 1887. “Its location and the magnificent view to be obtained there destine it to become a famous watering place. To be sure, at present the class of people who throng the fort is not such as refined residents of Brooklyn would care to associate with; still, though poor, many of them belong to that respectable working class who, having only one day in the seven, enjoy it in a manner peculiar to themselves.”
Many thousand dollars could be judiciously used in improving the place, but it is doubtful whether for some years to come any capitalist will be found brave enough to invest money in its sand capped cliffs.
The Grand View and a Golden Age
The year before, 1886, Fort Hamilton village did have a renaissance of sorts, or at least the beginnings of one, centered on the construction of a fabulous new hotel—paid for by the Brooklyn City Railroad, which controlled the means of transportation, at that point the only capitalists willing to invest. “Since the development of Coney Island there has been no watering place in this vicinity which compares with the new Grand View Hotel,” the Eagle reported. “It is a wonder that the site was not improved at an earlier day, as it embraces advantages of the highest order and bids fair to compete successfully with its older rival at the seashore.”
The establishment is appropriately named, for the view from its spacious verandas is probably superior to any other in the neighborhood of the Metropolis. One can hardly form an idea of the extent and variety of the picture presented at the Narrows without ascending to the piazzas of the Grand View. There the surroundings in all their grandeur burst upon the vision and coney the highest form of gratification to lovers of the picturesque.
The hotel cost $122,000 to build (in 1886 dollars; more like a few million today). “It was 220 feet long by 100 feet wide, and could accommodate 1,000 guests,” the New York Times reported. “It extended from the Old Shore Road down the steep bluff to the water’s edge. On the bay side it was ten stories high and seven on the street. Immense piazzas stretched completely around it, giving it a conspicuous appearance from steamers passing through the Narrows.” It had 52 sleeping rooms, as well as parlors, a bar and billiard room, reception and dining rooms, a large pavilion, bowling alleys and a shooting gallery, as well as a pier. “It was a favorite Summer resort, always full of people,” the Times added, “and had besides a fairly good patronage the year round.”
An Eagle reporter in 1890 disagreed. “There is a good enough hotel at the fort, but so far, its various proprietors have felt themselves compelled to describe it as a white elephant. It is splendidly located, and from its piazzas a charming view of the narrows, incoming and outgoing vessels and the opposite shore of Staten Island may be had, but in all previous seasons there have been a scattering few only who have thought it worth while to pay for the privilege of enjoying this refreshing and interesting outlook. The hotel is all right, but its surroundings are dead against its success.”
A few years earlier, the Eagle had expressed a similar sentiment in greater detail. Upon visiting the “old time famous resort” at that time, the Eagle reporter seemed unimpressed with the hotel, finding the area still too rough place. After complaining about the trip—“but few shade trees line the route” and “the roads are dusty”—the reporter notes “Fort Hamilton has always been considered in the light of a popular resort.”
Its situation by the sea, its many hotels and beer gardens and its multiplicity of pretty girls have all combined to make it what it is—a picnic ground for those individuals whose purses will not permit of any lavish expenditure. In fact, the place on Sunday resembles a miniature Coney Island. It is here that the fakir is seen in his glory, and here, also, are to be had refreshments for man and beast, more especially the former.
Looking out from the verandas of the Grand View, he sees “within a stone’s throw…the somber walls and deserted parapets of Fort Lafayette.”
This grim prison which during the Civil War was the scene of so many exciting incidents, is now but a blackened ruin. Since the fire of a few years ago, when the interior of the fort was pretty well consumed, no means have been taken to rebuilt it and it stands to-day as an evidence of the bloody conflict of nearly quarter of a century ago [the American Civil War].
After a tour of the fort itself—where he finds “that the life of a private in the Regular Army in times of peace [is] a lazy one. They do little work, are well fed and can, if they desire it, have ten or twelve hours off every forty-eight”—he returns “to the livelier and more densely settled part of Fort Hamilton, [where] the ears are greeted by the discordant greetings of an organ which, it is found, emanate from a merry go round.”
The latter is a rude affair, with stiff backed chairs and wooden horses, much worse for the wear, and taken in all is hardly an inviting means of locomotion. The individuals in charge, a big, stout, brawny fellow, with a stentorian voice, invited the throng of yokels and city people surrounding him to try the thing. Many did, but the jolting and creaking, combined with the hideous attacks of the organ, made the ride so unpleasant that few cared to repeat it.
In front of the merry go round and in the shade of a wide spreading elm was operated a very original game. It was carried on in this wise: Stuck in a board, at a distance of about five feet, were fifty or more canes of a cheap appearance. Behind a counter stood two individuals, also possessed of stentorian voices, who endeavored to inveigle the curiously disposed to purchase five rings for 5 cents. These rings were two inches in diameter, and the purchaser of them had the privilege of projecting each in turn in the direction of the canes, becoming the possessor of any cane over which the ring fell.
The reporter complains at length that the nicest canes are in front but are too large for the rings, thus the game was unfair, and he implies resentment of the “two smiling fakirs [who] realized large sums during the afternoon.”
A popular summer resort would be incomplete without the sausage man. This noble representative of a most deserving class was present accompanied by his good wife. The latter with her Teutonic fingers prepared the festive sausage while her better half did the cooking. From the way in which his stock was depleted it was evident that the sausage man was rapidly becoming wealthy.
Along the shore are situated many little hotels where one can pass a pleasant and quiet hour. Here congregate fathers with large families. These bring with them huge baskets, and while the mother prepares the noonday meal, the father busies himself in ordering the beer or any other beverage which may strike the fancy of the party. These little picnic parties are perfect illustrations of placidity and peace….
Possibly I may be wrong, but I am of the opinion that the waiter at Fort Hamilton differs from the same class at other resorts. There is a snap and go about him which is seldom seem in an individual in the same line of work at Coney Island or Rockaway, and perhaps there is just a little touch of the autocrat. He will sidle up to you with an “I own the beach” air, and after some consideration will consent to receive your order.
Half a dozen stalwart men, wearing blue uniforms, on which is inscribed “New Utrecht Police,” can be seen marching up and down Fort Hamilton beach at any hour of the day. It is their duty to see that order is preserved, and on Sunday in particular their services are often required. Scattered along the shore and in the hotels are dancing pavilions, where many sailors attached to the United States frigate Atlanta were enjoying themselves more or less noisily. These were on shore for a good time, and from their laughter it would appear that they had attained their desire. Toward evening the crowd increased, the hotel piazzas and dancing pavilions became thronged and the business and pleasures of the day sank into insignificance before the gayety of the night. The police cannot be in half a dozen places at once, and it is just barely possible that occasionally a brawl or collision may occur.
Fort Hamilton…has quite a history…Here Brooklynites were wont to drive by the way of the shore road. This road—which today is as popular as it was fifty years ago, is a continuation of Fourth avenue, and winds around over cliffs and through little valleys. During the larger part of the drive the Narrows and the ocean are discernible, and by many is preferred to the Boulevard.
A hyperbolically positive guidebook from the same year, The Tourists Companion and Guide to Coney Island, Fort Hamilton, Bath Beach, Sheepshead Bay, Rockaway Beach and Far Rockaway, edited by J. Perkins Tracy (1887), also singles out this strip. “One of the finest and coolest shades in the vicinity of New York is the South Shore road leading to Bay Ridge,” according to this book. “It is bordered by handsome villas set amid artistically laid out pleasure grounds. Here the overhanging majestic trees interlace their broad foliage, and the observant spectator will note a thousand beauties in this charming thoroughfare where art and nature both unite to form a picture of perennial beauty.” The book also recommends the area’s yachting, fishing, flourishing farms, the hotels and boarding houses, as well as the impressive military presence, from fortification to marching soldiery.
The growth of Fort Hamilton during the last two or three years has been phenomenal. Its increase in commercial accommodations has been commensurate with its advance in popularity and favor. There is no kind of sea-side pleasure that cannot be found here, affording to young and old and to both sexes, all the innocent recreation their hearts can desire. Croquet, base-ball, dancing on the green beneath the shade of trees, or in the pavilions, practicing in the shooting galleries, knocking down the rag babies with balls, playing at “Old Aunt Sally,” trying one’s skill in the bowling alleys, billiard rooms and at the shuffle boards[,] velocipede riding, roller skating, goat and pony carriages for children, flying horses or merry-go-rounds, swings, fortune telling and other shows too numerous to particularize.
Then there are the bands of music and the vocal exhibitions by talented songsters, that even the birds in the trees might well envy. What a catalogue of enjoyment within a stone’s throw, we might say, of this city. Who would not exchange the stifling atmosphere and the furnace-like streets for the cool breezy down the bay? Who would not infinitely prefer to lay off at one’s ease beneath the shady retreats along the Narrows, than gasp for the breath of air denied us even in our city parks? How much pleasure, at so insignificant a cost, lies at our very door, and where is the obstacle that can debar us from the delights of such a charming spot as Fort Hamilton?
Classifieds in the back pages list 11 hotels and 14 places to buy liquor, as well as three ice dealers, two milk sellers, three tailors, a hairdresser, nine grocers, two fish shops, two dressmakers, a druggist, two confectioners, two cigar dealers, five carpenters, a blacksmith, three boat letters, two carriage makers and more.
“By many a hard worker, whether with brain or muscle, Fort Hamilton and the region immediately contiguous is preferred,” the Eagle reported in 1885, “for the reason that it is comparatively retired, notwithstanding its accessibility, and for the further reason that its scenery is commanding…the high grounds of the Narrows, their fortifications, islands and surrounding scenery, much of which is bold and striking, with sylvan glimpses interposing, and the inner harbor, with shore outlines and shipping in perspective, make a magnificent impression—one not soon forgotten—even recalled with pleasure after many years.”
The Beginning of the End
If the Fort Hamilton area’s renewal had come suddenly, it ended just as quickly—with the destruction of the Grand View. Maurice E. McLoughlin’s remembrances of 1892, in the Eagle in 1932, are positively prelapsarian. “The Grand View Hotel, which stood at the top of the bluff…was noted for its numerous piazzas, its toboggan into the Narrows and its excellent beer,” he writes. “There was good beer at Connolly’s, too, and those who did not care for the ‘swank’ of the Grand View, enjoyed their comfort in shirt-sleeves, and watched the commerce of the world passing through the Narrows.” (He effuses especially about shad fishing, as a Fort commander had also done—in 1888.)
Around 1 o’clock in the morning, on January 25, 1893, a fire started in the basement of the Grand View Hotel—where an amateur photographer kept a studio with chemicals—and burned the wooden building to its foundations. No one died, “but there were several narrow escapes,” the Times reported.
Edward Stewart, a waiter, who slept in a room on one of the lower floors, was cut off by the fire from the stairway and was compelled to jump into the icy waters of the bay clad only in his underclothes. He floundered about for some time in the dark, but was finally rescued in a half-perished condition by the soldiers [from the army base], who were attracted by his cries. He was severely though not dangerously burned about the neck.
More waiters, servants, drivers and guests were also forced to jump from the balconies to the street. But the watchman was able rapidly to alert the owner, Adloph Ruehl, who notified all present; all 22 guests and a dozen staff escaped alive. (One man, Herbert K. Jones, was reported missing and had possibly been in the hotel when it caught fire.) Ruehl then turned on the water tank on the roof, “which retarded the flames sufficiently to allow the escape of the inmates of the house.”
The fire…rush[ed] up the stairway with a roar, [and] the whole house…was soon a mass of flames from top to bottom, burning all at once and lighting the waters of the upper and lower bays and the surrounding country for miles with magnificent effect. Passing steamers blew shrill whistles for no other purpose apparently than to testify a recognition of so fine a spectacle.
The local fire department was hosting their annual ball in the next town over, and thus were unable to respond. Eye witnesses praised local soldiers for containing the conflagration, as well as a squad of firefighters from Bath Beach who arrived.
Ruehl became a tenant in the home of the father of a young girl named Lillian Seaquist Johnstone, who years later, in 1932, remembered, “I went down daily with their daughter to see the ruins, which smouldered for a whole week.”
Where Fort Hamilton Park [Cannonball Park] is today was a miniature Coney Island, with a vaudeville house on the grounds, together with Merry-Go-Rounds, Hot Dog stands, etc. A Photo Gallery stood near the Grand View Hotel. I remember having a tintype photo taken there as a child.
Many a pleasant hour I spent watching the people tobogganing from about the fourth or fifth story of the Grand View Hotel into the water…This Grand View Hotel was illuminated every night with red, white and blue electric bulbs.
Without this grand hotel to anchor the area, visiting writers saw only questionability. “Long ago Fort Hamilton village was a place of pleasant resort, with a huge colonnaded hotel, much frequented by Southerners who liked to spend the hot season in comfort by the sea,” Don C. Seitz wrote in Vol. 37 of The American Magazine (1894). “Now it is but a shabby section at the end of an electric road, afflicted with evil resorts and abounding in brawling throngs.”
The following year police cracked down. “There were more restrictions placed on the saloon keepers at Fort Hamilton yesterday than there were all last summer,” the Eagle reported in April 1895. “About 2 o’clock in the afternoon the police stopped the singing that had been commenced at Henry Johnson’s pavilion, on the shore road. A number of bowlers in Martin’s alleys were not allowed to finish their game. The actual saloon business was not interfered with and the numerous visitors had no difficulty in getting all they wanted to drink. The unsettled state of affairs caused a Bath Beach man to place on his summer pier the sign: ‘All employes [sic] work here at their own risk.’” Two men were arrested for drunkenness and given the choice between a $5 fine or five days in jail.
Two years later, in October 1897, “The work of tearing down the old pavilions which stand…at the foot of Fourth Avenue, Fort Hamilton, has been commenced by the people who purchased the buildings,” the Eagle reported, “and in a few days all traces of them will have vanished. The buildings stand on what is known as the Grand View Hotel property and since the destruction of the hotel by fire they have not been very much used.” In 1901, police complained about the danger posed by the old Grand View pier, which had been left to rot and get banged around by ice floes.
It sounded like the end of an era.
What Was Left
In 1900, an Eagle headline declared, “Tough Resorts Flourish Around Fort Hamilton.” A subhed cried of “Wild Orgies After Pay Day.” A few places, it was said, attracted stationed soldiers who there “spend most of their time and nearly all of their money.”
The resorts at Coney Island where a drink can be purchased cannot be compared with those at the fort. Even in the size of the glass of beer and in the amount of fun to be had Fort Hamilton claims to surpass the island. At the fort there are a number of residents who never think of going to Coney Island to see the sights, but say that two hours passed in some of the places in the vicinity of the fort will furnish more fun than a night at the seaside resort. There are four places, the natives declare, which can furnish more excitement than all of Coney Island, and when the soldiers gather in any of them there are warm times for several hours.
The favorite was an unnamed house near 100th Street and Fourth Avenue.
The house is a small affair, but many persons can be crowded inside. Some people refer to it as a dance hall and that name probably describes it better than any other. In the rear of the bar room is a small floor where the soldiers spiel at night…it can also be called a meeting place for young girls who seem to think that sort of life the only one to lead.
The place once boasted an orchestra, but something happened to the leader and since that time the music has been furnished by a violinist and a man who played at the cornet. Of course, the squeaky piano is to be found there and between the three the popular airs were ground to the delight of the men and girls who danced until long after midnight. The language used in the place was vile and the girls seemed to be well up in tough sayings and slang. The soldiers and their friends do not fear the police and when any one mentions the patrol wagon his remarks are received with derision. The best day and night is that on which the soldiers receive their pay. The resort is then in a blaze of light and the music seems to have taken on a spurt.
The usual result of pay day is that a number of the uniformed men find themselves next morning in a cell at the Fort Hamilton precinct. Everything goes at the resort…The records of the Coney Island court show that two young girls, 15 years old, were arrested at Fort Hamilton. They said they had been staying at this resort for several nights. One of them was seen sitting at a table in the concert hall at the place, drinking big schooners of beer with a soldier. She was thoroughly up-to-date in vile epithets, and she even shocked the solider who was with her, and who was also trying to do his best in swearing…
The respectable residents along the Shore road are in hopes that the city improve the property in front of the place as a park, which would put an end to the resort.
That did happen—Fort Hamilton Park was developed around this time; it was later renamed John Paul Jones Park (locals know it as Cannonball Park) and greatly reconfigured after the construction of the Verrazano Bridge. (Also, respectable residents denied things were so bad.)
Where Did It Go?
Presumably such an action helped to close up the rowdiest places, but how did Fort Hamilton go from an entertainment hub and vacation destination to just another Brooklyn neighborhood? As early as 1878, the Eagle reported that Fort Hamilton “has not kept pace with Coney Island, with which it once contended—and not on very unequal terms—for public patronage.” Between 1893 and 1904, the Grand View burned down and the most legendary Coney Island amusement parks were built, driving more crowds there.
Also, Coney Island always had better transportation. Multiple trains ran there from all directions, whereas Fort Hamilton depended on one rinky-dink dummy line. Better service was promised in 1899, but those promises don’t seem to have been kept. The subway didn’t make it to 86th Street until 1916, and not to 95th Street for almost another decade—and by that point, the real-estate grab and land boom that followed it, starting as early as the turn of the 20th century, changed the character of the area.
People came to Fort Hamilton for the healthful sea air, the magnificent views, large colonial trees and the countryside experience; as Bay Ridge and Fort Hamilton were developed into urban neighborhoods, they lost the qualities that attracted vacationers. It became less a place to visit than a place to live. “Today the place is a city,” one old timer wrote to the Eagle in 1945. “Apartment houses have sprung up; everything has changed, and you can walk the streets from early morning to late at night and hardly see a dozen of the Old Timers, and to think only a short while back old man DeNyse used to graze his cows where apartments now stand.”
Even the Fort itself was no longer what it had been. By 1921, it had “ended its career in the front line defenses of New York Harbor,” the Eagle reported. WWI had made it clear that advances in weaponry made Fort Hamilton, and Fort Wadsworth across from it, too close to the city to ward off attack. Fort Hancock and Fort Tilden were where the action was now. “A detachment of artillery, consisting of one officer and 35 men are all that will remain to look after the big guns.”
And the beaches were less of an attraction as New York’s waterways became increasingly polluted. It had gotten so bad by 1912 that the Eagle worried, “our great bathing beaches…may have to go in a few years.”
And it surely didn’t help that Prohibition had been implemented in 1920, although enforcement seems to have been uneven.
That said, elements of the old amusements persisted into the modern era. The Shore Road Casino, for example, operated at 100th Street and Fourth Avenue, near the rough unnamed house that attracted soldiers and naughty women, until about WWII, long enough for it to have lodged in the memory of Bay Ridge novelist Gilbert Sorrentino, who often wrote about the Bay Ridge of his youth, from the ’30s to the ’50s, and at least twice mentioned the Shore Road Casino—once, in Little Casino (“The Greek, in his rented white dinner jacket and black tuxedo trousers, was throwing up on himself in front of the Shore Road Casino,” begins the story “The salt of the earth”) and again in Red the Fiend (“there was something funny about the way she danced with him at the Shore Road Casino before Red was born when Mother was carrying him”).
The 101 Ranch, on 101st Street between Fourth Avenue and Fort Hamilton Parkway, was torn down in 1931 and replaced with an apartment building. It was mourned by “old residents of the neighborhood,” one of the last “visible traces of the scene of much gay revelry of a bygone generation.” Also cited were Hartman’s, the Dewey House, the Bismarck, the Golden Horn Casino and Pigfoot Martin’s.
The first of the old inns to pass away was the Bismarck. The hotel stood at the corner of 99th St. and 3d Ave. Early in [the 20th] century it was ruined by fire and never rebuilt. Pigfoot Martin’s is still standing. Today, however, it is known as Otto’s Shore Inn. The Hartman Hotel, across the street from Pigfoot’s place, still stands, dressed in a newer coat of paint, but still in the hands of the Hartmans.
These places are all since gone, like the casinos. “Little remains to remind one of the ancient gayety of the village of Fort Hamilton,” the Eagle reported in 1931, “but a few of the oldtimers still trinkle to the south of Bay Ridge for Sunday outings. Even if the beach is gone—the bathing houses and the fishing shacks—there still is the park.”
Which holds true today.