Today, many of Bay Ridge’s major thoroughfares—Shore Road, Fourth Avenue and Fort Hamilton Parkway—converge at a park, a modest five-plus acres of bayside greenspace at the bottom of Bay Ridge. It’s home to several military monuments, a gazebo and a wide lawn, not to mention meandering paths and many benches, all in the shadow of the Brooklyn tower of the Verrazano Bridge.
It’s called John Paul Jones Park, in honor not of the Led Zeppelin bassist but of the English-born American revolutionary considered the “father of the U.S. Navy.” He’s best known for supposedly once uttering a now-legendary quote during battle: “I have not yet begun to fight.”
“His reputation is less estimable to the British, who long considered him a pirate,” Leonard Bernardo and Jennifer Weiss explain in Brooklyn By Name. “Disraeli wrote that ‘the nurses of Scotland hushed crying charges by whisper of his name.’”
Still, Jones’s early American triumphs served him well, and on Thomas Jefferson’s recommendation, Empress Catherine II invited him to Russia. Transformed into Rear Admiral “Pavel Ivanovich Jones,” he fought alongside Prince Potemkin against the Turks in the Black Sea Campaign…For over a century, Jones lay in an unmarked grave, until the naval jingoism of Teddy Roosevelt prompted a search that helped unearth Jones’s remains in 1905. None other than the USS Brooklyn returned his body to America.
His reputation had suffered in the 19th century at least in part because, late in life, he had been arrested for raping a 12-year-old girl. “Jones…admitted to prosecutors that he had ‘often frolicked’ with the girl ‘for a small cash payment,’ only denying that he had deprived her of her virginity,” according to Wikipedia. As Bernarndo and Weiss put it, “Despite his successes [in Russia], his alleged molestation of a 10-year-old [sic] in St. Petersburg hastened his departure, and he soon died of pneumonia in France.”
Locals, however, rarely acknowledge Jones when speaking of this park, having long called this patch of green “Cannonball Park,” in recognition of one of its most prominent features: the deliberately arranged ammunition that surrounds the park’s centerpiece and oldest attraction: its forged-steel Rodman gun.
When the park first opened at the end of the 19th century, it would have been the only patch of landscaped greenspace in the area; Shore Road Park went through decades of planning and development before opening its first sections, in their current forms, in 1941. In its earliest days, Cannonball Park would have been closer to the actual waterfront, without the highway interfering, offering more dramatic views of the Narrows. And it would have been across the street from the Fort Hamilton armybase, its housing for officers visible behind a fence, forging a more intimate relationship to the military that still characterizes its monuments and tributes.
Cannonball Park survives today, but in a form its earliest users wouldn’t recognize. This is the story of how it came to be—and how it was transformed, offering a microcosmic history of this corner of the neighborhood.
The British Invasion
For a long time, what’s now the park was just another plot of land. Around 1800, it belonged to the Denyses, one of just a handful of old Dutch families who at the time farmed this section of the town of New Utrecht in Kings County. The Denyses remained prominent, at least in reputation—into the early twentieth century, 101st Street was called Denyse Street. The family operated a ferry to Staten Island, from a dock on Shore Road, across from the armybase, that was and still is called Denyse’s wharf. Some say it’s where at least some of the British fleet landed at the start of the Revolutionary War. Some of the invading troops then marched northernly, perhaps crossing the modern park as they did so, surely at least passing nearby. (The wharf survives, somewhat, off the bike path, just past the bridge, and is the subject of regular volunteer cleanups.)
The Brits’ landing was commemorated by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1916 with a plaque, set in a large rock along 101st Street, near Fourth Avenue. (A few years later, the locally active DAR would also rescue from oblivion the little Barkaloo Cemetery, on Narrows and Mackay, and dub it “The Revolutionary War Cemetery.”)
A Couple of Forts Beget a Village
Fort Lafayette (né Fort Diamond) was built in 1814 on a small island in the Narrows, later destroyed by the construction of the Verazzano Bridge. Some worried that the installation was vulnerable to attack from Brooklyn, so to protect it, as well as to complement its offensive/defensive capabilities, Fort Hamilton was erected in 1828, just on the east side of what’s now Fort Hamilton Parkway, across the street from what became Cannonball Park. “Following the soldiers [to Fort Hamilton] came a lot of poor people that eked out a living by washing the soldiers’ clothes and by providing the good meals and other delicacies that Uncle Sam did not allow,” the Eagle reported in 1896. “These people formed a settlement near the reservation…It is a poor neighborhood, and abounds in small houses and stores of the shanty order. It was known as Irishtown.”
Thus was born the village of Fort Hamilton, just a short ride or walk away from its northern neighbor and sister villlage, Yellow Hook, later renamed Bay Ridge (both within the town of New Utrecht in the county of Kings). Fort Hamilton Village also attracted entrepreneurial types, such as Colonel James Church, who built the area’s first store, its first major road and its only stagecoach line. He was also postmaster.
Fort Hamilton grew throughout the 19th century, as a popular destination for commercial and then recreational fishing. In the 1890s, the area “was the foremost fishing and lobstering section in and around New York and Long Island,” the Eagle reported in 1941.
The Lower Bay was fisherman’s paradise. One could hire a boat for a dollar a day, row out into the bay and catch anything from lafyettes [sic] to small sharks. All along Shore Road…there were fishing docks at which tackle and boats could be hired.
There were shad nets in the bay…When the shad were running Fort Hamilton fishermen made good hauls, and their catch brought high prices in the local markets.
Occasionally an oarsman…returning from a Sunday dinner at the “brewery” on Staten Island after dark would get caught in these shad nets and have to swim ashore, leaving his boat behind.
The village grew into a resort area. An old home belonging to the Stewart family (namesake of Stewart Avenue, once a major thoroughfare of which only fragments survive) was enlarged and transformed into a hotel by George Gelston (namesake of the area’s Gelston Avenue). “Visitors began to flock there,” the Eagle explained in a historical article from 1896. “The hotel was extended until it contained about three hundred rooms and even those could not accommodate the transient guests that come down Saturday to remain over Sunday. The neighborhood began to build up.”
Soon there were numerous hotels for guests enticed by the fresh sea air, places to imbibe and assorted amusements. (Wealthy people had also started moving to Shore Road around 1850 to build seaside mansions, which soon stretched as far south as the Fort Hamilton area. Some of them were used as boarding houses.) In 1873, the future park site had been split up into numerous lots with six different owners, who had homes and other structures here, including the Bay View Hotel.
The grandest Fort Hamilton-area hotel, however, would be the Grand View, with several stories of waterside piazzas.
It was built in 1886 on the west/waterfront side of Shore Road, just south of its intersection with Fourth Avenue, across from what became Cannonball Park. (The shoreline is totally different now than it was then. Today, the old Grand View grounds would actually be a part of the present Cannonball Park, because landfill and bridge construction extended the shoreline.) The hotel was built by the Brooklyn City Railroad, which ran “old steam engine cars…along Third Avenue from 65th Street to Fort Hamilton,” turning east at 99th Street to Fourth Avenue and over to what’s now the park. It was the only available transit from the old border with the city of Brooklyn, at 60th Street. These steam-engine cars were later replaced by trolleys.
By 1890, the future parkland behind the Grand View was home to three other hotels, as well as various other buildings.
The Grand View burned down in 1893, but a map from the same year shows that the future parkland behind it had developed into a modest amusement area, at least part of which was known as the Grand View Annex. There was a bowling alley, plus two shooting galleries, a garden, a carousel, lunching pavilions, two music pavilions and a music stand, as well as a billiard room and various booths, including a “monkey cage.” There was also a small hotel. “Where [the park] is today was a miniature Coney Island,” an old-timer told the Eagle in 1932.
A “Miniature Coney Island” Becomes a Proper Park
But without the grand hotel to anchor the site, the buildings “have not been very much used,” the Eagle reported in October 1897, “and in a few days all traces of them will have vanished.” In the preceding two years, the city of Brooklyn had begun buying up the lots here, for use as a park.
A much-larger park, alongside the Shore Road, had been formally proposed in 1895. It was to be called the Bay Ridge Parkway, also encompassing what’s now Leif Ericson Park, an uninterrupted network of greenspaces from Fort Hamilton Parkway and 67th Street down to the waterfront, then all the way to the Fort Hamilton armybase. There, “where the drive ends,” the Eagle reported in 1898, “a considerable stretch of land has been set aside for a park…[it] will, when attended to, be a delightful terminus.” It would be called Fort Hamilton Park, after the old village that was fast growing up into a modern urban neighborhood, as well as the neighboring armybase.
But the city neglected to invest in the necessary landscaping work. (For starters, the park needed 11,000 cubic yards of “top soil or garden mould,” at a cost of $2,500—or, very roughly, about $75,000, adjusted for inflation.) “Fort Hamilton Park has had no improvements since the buildings thereon were razed,” according to a resolution passed by the board of estimate (like a proto city council) in 1899, “and is now used only as a dumping ground old tins and other debris.” The resolution appropriated $250,000 for improvements, to Fort Hamilton and other nearby parks, including Sunset Park and Dyker Beach.
Bay Ridge and Brooklyn had just become a part of New York City, and around this time a subway was first seriously proposed, kicking off real estate speculation and housing development. Amusements were fine for a countryside retreat, but the old Fort Hamilton section was increasingly becoming a part of the city, and city neighborhoods required amenities, such as properly laid-out garden parks.
“A little grading and seeding would make the Fort Hamilton Park attractive,” the Eagle reported. “But nothing seems to be done…possibly because it is believed it is not worth while doing anything until the city is ready to spend millions…But the people would rather have their property kept in order for their enjoyment than let it remain unused till elaborate development is undertaken.”
One of the first major developments was the placement of the cannon, which was installed in the park in 1900. At the time, it was “the largest smooth bore ever cast in one piece in this country,” the Eagle reported. It weighed more than 50 tons and, according to the parks department, was first placed at Fort Pitt, where the three rivers converge in Pittsburgh, in 1864. However, it must have soon been moved, as the Eagle says it was installed in Fort Hamilton during the Civil War, which ended in 1865.
“Fort Hamilton [armybase] was the site, in 1864, of the testing of a new cannon, the Rodman gun,” The Bay Ridge Chronicles, a local history from 1976, edited by Jerome Hoffman, explains.
This huge cannon weighed 116,000 pounds [58 tons] and fired a shot weighing 1,080 pounds. A [crane] had to be used to load the gun. The first shot fired failed to reach the water and before a second shot could be fired, the gun jammed, and a man had to climb in to clean it out. Having a 20-inch bore, it was not difficult to get in the gun, as many children have found out over the years. The second shot proved successful, and the gun went into operation along the coast. Its effectiveness was short-lived however…
The parks department had wanted to place the cannon at the entrance to Prospect Park, in Grand Army Plaza, facing the arch, “but this plan was abandoned because of the fact that the gun is too heavy to be transported to such a distance as there is not a wagon owned by the Park Department of sufficient strength to bear it,” the Eagle reported. “Furthermore, it was said that the roads over which it would have to be taken would be damaged by such heavy trucking.” So they just left it very close to where it already was.
It occupied the opposite of its present position—the southeastern corner of the park, pointed out to sea at the intersection of Shore Road and what’s now Fort Hamilton Parkway, where it would have truly faced the Narrows, almost threateningly, a plausible defense against invading ships. (In its present position, it’s more of a curious artifact.) The original location no longer exists, thanks to bridge construction; it’s in the middle of what’s now the huge concrete, ramp-like support block for the last bit of bridge over dry land in Brooklyn. This was also just about where the old carousel had been, when the parkland housed Grand View-era amusements.
The early 20th century was the peak of popularity in postcards—easily shared and collected photographic views of notable landmarks and landscapes—and many from this time of the Bay Ridge area focused on Fort Hamilton Park and its cannon, one of the preeminent highlights of the neighborhood for residents and visitors. “The old-fashioned twenty-inch Rodman gun…and a pile of half-ton solid shot….interests youthful visitors to a marked degree,” the Eagle reported in 1910.
Putting the cannon here reflected the park’s connection to the surrounding military installation, which bridge construction subsequently obscured. Until the Verrazano went up, the armybase would have been visible from the park, directly across the street, specifically the handsome homes of the officers, which lined Fort Hamilton Parkway (behind a fence). But the on- and offramps put a solid concrete-and-steel divider between the community and Fort Hamilton, both spatially and psychically.
The cannon was the first of many war memorials and military monuments that would be placed here, culminating with the park’s renaming after Jones. Call me crazy, but I think a community such as Bay Ridge should honor its local residents and its local history with the names it gives to parks. Imagine if we’d instead named it “Grand View Park,” connecting it to the area’s forgotten 19th-century roots as a vacation destination instead of to a mercenary with a troubling history. And the name works on another level, with the park’s more recently acquired dramatic Verazzanoscapes!
It sounds like, at the turn of the century, the park had been graded, but little other work had been done. “Up to last spring the park consisted simply of a large level lawn,” Brooklyn and Queens parks commissioner Michael J. Kennedy wrote in his 1905 annual report, “and I concluded to lay out a series of walks and do some planting.”
The work was done by park labor and completed during the summer. The walks consist of a layer of steam ashes, surfaced with limestone screenings and thoroughly rolled. A large number of trees and shrubbery were subsequently planted and the whole area turned into a neat and attractive spot.
In 1907, 130 trees were planted.
A map from 1905 finally shows the park with proper paths curving through its nonrectilinear shape (like something between a wedge and a Beatle boot). At the time, many parks projects were in the works, including Shore Road and Dyker Beach. But those spaces would take decades, really, before they were properly developed. For now, Fort Hamilton Park was the only park in this general vicinity. The first leg of the Bay Ridge Parkway project, from First to Fourth avenues, between 66th and 67th streets, opened around the same time; McKinley Park opened around 1903. (Still, Shore Road would have been a country lane that had preserved much of its prelapsarian majesty, and many blocks would still have been fields and undeveloped lots. The area wasn’t lacking for open spaces, just for properly designed and designated ones formally fit for recreation.)
New pathways aside, the community saw a need for more improvements. The first was the construction of a shelter house, or bathroom. “The condition of the park…is a disgrace,” the Eagle reported in 1913, “and the rush of summer visitors will serve to make conditions worse.” The issue persisted into 1914—the same year 100 tulips in the park were destroyed, inspiring police to create posts in parks around the borough—and finally, as 1915 became 1916, $10,000 [almost $250,000, adjusted for inflation] was appropriated for the shelter house. “With the opening of the Fourth Avenue subway the park would be more patronized than ever,” the acting director of the parks department wrote to the board of estimate. What we now call the R train opened as far as 86th Street in 1916, though it took almost another decade to extend to 95th Street, still another third of a mile from the park.
But I’m not sure the comfort station was ever built. (There’s no shelter house in the park today.) There were, however, bathrooms built across the street, in Shore Road Park, in the early 1930s; in 1933, local residents petitioned to have a traffic light installed, so people, especially children, could safely cross from Fort Hamilton Park to the bathrooms there. This issue persisted as late as 1949. “Fort Hamilton Park needs a rest room and at least 100 seats,” a man wrote to the Eagle that year. “There is a rest room on the opposite side of Shore Road, but it is dangerous for cripples like me to cross both 4th Ave. and Shore Road to reach it.” (There are traffic lights here today, controlling the traffic flow to and from the Belt Parkway on- and off-ramps.)
Even without adequate restrooms, people continued to use the park. In the summer of 1922, Fort Hamilton Park hosted its first concerts—“an indication of the excellent work that is being done by the Fort Hamilton Chamber of Commerce to better the civic conditions of the Fort Hamilton section,” the Brooklyn Standard Union reported. Such concerts continued for at least a decade. Also in 1922, a Christmas tree was placed in the park, after locals protested the tree’s placement in what’s now usually called Pigeon Park, at the base of the memorial to soldiers who died in WWI.
Public enjoyment of the park paused in the summer of 1924, when the 105th Army Regiment took over at least part of it for its “summer training center.” Barracks were even erected, as they had been by the Navy on Shore Road, from 1918–21. “The boro battalion will stable some hundred horses at the park, make use of the polo grounds at Fort Hamilton, drill field at the camp, and make its headquarters at the spot during the warm months,” the Eagle reported.
Fort Hamilton Park’s proximity to Fort Hamilton often determined how it was used. In the 20s, for example, it was frequently the site of military memorial services: in 1925, it was for Civil War sailors lost at sea, which attracted 1,000 spectators who watched as wreaths of flowers who tossed into the Narrows, accompanied by a rifle salute. In 1926, the ceremony was repeated, attended by veterans not only from the Civil War but also the Spanish–American War and what we now call World War I.
The Dover Patrol Monument
The park’s most prominent military tribute is the Dover Patrol memorial obelisk, work on which began in 1930. The British had donated to the U.S. $23,000 [roughly $285,000, adjusted for inflation] in 1920 for the creation of such a monument, which grew with interest in a decade to $32,000 [almost $500,000, adjusted for inflation]. The memorial would replicate two such existing memorials in Europe—one in England and one in France, on either side of the English Channel, in honor of those who had kept it and the Strait of Dover open during the Great War to allow for the flow of men, munitions and supplies. Congress authorized the memorial in 1931.
It was controversial for several reasons. Some thought it was distasteful to erect a tribute to the British near the spot where the British had landed at the start of the Revolutionary War—indeed, in a park with “a large boulder with a bronze plate set into it carrying the inscription: ‘To commemorate the first resistance made to British arms in New York State, August, 1776.’” (Another letter writer objected to this objection, claiming that 85 percent of colonists were English. By that thinking, the Dover Patrol and the American revolutionaries “represent an ideal fought for on separate occasions by people of the same blood.” Another letter writer countered this claim, arguing that colonial America was far more diverse.)
Second, local congressmember Patrick J. Carley feared that the new 80-foot obelisk would overshadow the beloved cannon. He “pleaded its historic significance as reason enough for its rise to a place on a pedestal, commanding a view of the sea on the spot where American arms resisted an enemy invasion,” the Eagle reported in March 1931. “Carley would preserve the historic nature of the…place by putting the old multi-toned weapon of war in a conspicuous position as an eternal warning to invaders.”
The old cannon…was removed to a spot [years ago] approximately 100 feet away from its original location to make possible the wide turn in the newly paved and widened Shore Road drive. Now it appears that it is slated to journey again.
…At present the old cannon is lost in the maze of stone and concrete within the inclosure where workmen are assembling the pieces that will soon be an 81-foot shaft. Its absence is annoying the youngsters of the neighborhood, who find it an excellent place to climb and play. Lovers who paused before its wide-open mouth to get a martial background to their snapshots [such as my grandparents!—author], are among those who have noted its hiding place.
But the ancient relic, which boomed out heavy balls to brothers in arms during the Civil War, has found a champion, who intends to insure its use to those who have a fondness for the recollections is calls, as Representative Carley states he will carry its cause to the halls of Congress if local measures cannot obtain for it its proper place in relation to the Dover Patrol Monument.
By June, the parks commissioner announced the cannon had “been moved to a new and more commanding position alongside the Dover Patrol monument,” the Eagle reported. The monument itself was finished, set for a June 10 unveiling, when the wooden covering hiding the sides and base would be removed.
The fence built by contractors while the monument was being erected has been entirely removed. The flag pole and old muzzle-fed cannon still stand in the rear of the shaft, but both will soon take positions alongside the obelisk.
[The parks commissioner] is now making plans for [moving] the cannon, which he plans to set on a concrete base about two feet high. The history of the gun will be inscribed on the base.
On the day of the unveiling, it poured. “Half hidden in the rain and the mist on the Narrows, H.M.S. Scarborough and the U.S.S. Milwaukee…boomed a twenty-one gun salute,” the Times reported. The British naval attaché in Washington tugged the lanyard that revealed the 22-square-foot base of the shaft, made of Stone Mountain granite and designed by Ashton Webb. (The Times reported here that the obelisk was 51-feet-tall, elsewhere that it was closer to 40, while the Eagle continued to report it was closer to 80.) Most officials however gathered in a dry residence miles away in the Navy Yard, where their speeches were broadcast nationally on the radio.
“The appreciation shall last and the distinction shall never be forgotten,” Mayor Jimmy Walker said. “The monument stands where all visitors from wheresoever in the world they come to the Western Hemisphere, passing through the gateway of the Narrows, shall observe this symbol and understand its story.” However, today it is obscured by the Verrazano Bridge and the Belt Parkway, and even those who do catch a glimpse of it may wonder what it’s doing there. If you’d asked me before I started researching this piece what the obelisk in Cannonball Park commemorates, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you!
In 1938, the Navy authorized funds to build a formal plaza around the monument, “paved with asphalt blocks and bordered with a panel of bluestone flagging and lines of benches backed by low evergreens,” the Eagle reported. However, this plaza, if it was built (and it likely was), no longer exists.
Today, the obelisk and cannon are near Fourth Avenue, between Shore Road and 101st Street. But the Dover monument would originally have stood close to the cannon’s original spot, at the opposite end of the park, near the lost-to-bridge-construction intersection of Shore Road and Fort Hamilton Parkway, according to aerial photographs. (By the 1940s, two roads branched off into exit–entrance ramps to the Belt Parkway, on either side of the cannon–obelisk plaza; such ramps were entirely reconfigured and enlarged after the bridge was built.)
The thousand-ton obelisk was moved to its present location in 1961, during construction of the Brooklyn anchorage of the Verrazano Bridge. Though it had to travel only 370 feet, its sheer size required serious effort. “Men have dug a tunnel about six feet deep under one half of the monument’s concrete base,” the Times reported.
And they have shored the tunnel like a mine shaft. Their next step is to dig a corresponding tunnel on the other side of the base. Afterward, they will position rollers between steel I-beams and, with the aid of winches, drag the huge monument…from the bluff to a new site near 101st Street and Fourth Avenue.
[The subcontractor] is working slowly and carefully to avoid damaging the monument. He said it would be about two weeks before it was ready to be moved.
Got a Feeling ’31 is Gonna Be a Big Year
The year the monument was unveiled, 1931, proved epochal, with several events that illustrated this part of Bay Ridge’s great transformation into an urban area. (The 95th Street subway station had opened just six years earlier, in 1925.) In June 1931, the 101 Ranch, a “gay hostelry of once-upon-a-time”—i.e., when Fort Hamilton Village was a resort destination—was demolished. It had stood on 101st Street, overlooking the park, and was replaced by 425 101st Street, one of the earliest apartments on Shore Road (or, close enough).
“Its location in the middle of 101st St., away from the beaten track and opposite Fort Hamilton Park, was an attraction that brought many to its doors,” the Eagle reported. “Music and singing entertained its guests…Little remains to remind one of the ancient gayety of the village of Fort Hamilton, but a few of the old-timers still tri[c]kle 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.”
(Apartment buildings had been going up elsewhere in Bay Ridge for at least a few years; Fourth Avenue succumbed to such development long before Shore Road. Dean Court, on 77th and Fourth, anticipated the opening of the 77th Street subway station, welcoming its first residents ca. 1915. “Many beautiful apartment buildings have been erected along 4th ave.,” the Eagle reported by 1924, and that trend continued southward. No. 10104 Fourth Avenue, on the southwestern corner of Fourth Avenue and 101st Street, catty-corner to the park, opened ca. 1928.)
Also in 1931, in December, a long-awaited project to widen Fourth Avenue to 100 feet, from 95th Street south to its terminus at Shore Road, finally got started. Work began at St. Patrick’s Church, then under construction—intentionally, about 12 feet back from the avenue, to accommodate the coming widening. “While a large number of old wooden dwellings, many of them very ancient, are scheduled to go with the start of work on the project, most buildings on 4th Ave. between the points concerned are far enough back from the sidewalk to permit construction to go on without any great amount of property damage being necessary,” the Eagle reported, suggesting the motive may have been to eliminate objectionable structures as much as to accommodate future traffic. “Fort Hamilton Park…will lose some ground to the project.”
People were especially concerned about the trees lining the park along Fourth Avenue—that they would be destroyed during construction. “It takes years and years for a tree to reach maturity,” said the vice president of the Narrows Taxpayers Association, “and they never can be replaced. It simply is outrageous to tear out any tree that possibly can be saved.” (The parks department had just controversially uprooted trees and leveled a hill at 67th and Fourth, ostensibly to provide motorists with “a clear vision of the road and traffic light.”) The trees, however, were lost. “Picks and shovels are…busy starting to cut their way through the front yard of St. Patrick’s R.C. Church, a row of fine trees in Fort Hamilton Park and more than a dozen stores and dwellings,” the Eagle reported near the end of the year.
The other big event in 1931 was the idea to move the old Crescent Athletic Club’s clubhouse to city-owned land across the street from Fort Hamilton Park. (Presumably, across Shore Road, where the Grand View had been, on land that is now part of John Paul Jones Park.) The Crescent clubhouse had opened around 1892, on the ground that later became Fort Hamilton High School, but the club abandoned it in July 1931 for a new, larger and more modern club out on Long Island.
The old clubhouse though was an impressive structure, containing “a large reception hall, club dining room, billiard room and cafe, smoking rooms, private dining rooms, bowling alleys, rifle range, writing rooms, and bachelor apartments to accommodate about one hundred people,” Brooklyn Life reported. The idea was to float this building down the bay, then transform it into a year-round casino. “The proposed site…commands a magnificent view of the lower harbor, Coney Island and Staten Island,” the plan’s backer, a newspaperman-turned-real estate mogul, told the Eagle. “As a marine prospect, it is not excelled by any in the country, especially so far as ocean steamers are concerned. Plenty of passing automobiles would form an additional attraction.”
It would be directly opposite Fort Hamilton Park, one of the most beautiful marine parks in the city. Within its 4 3/4 acres are to be found perhaps more shade trees than in any similar city area anywhere. The dirt walks in and around this park detract from its innate beauty. They should be superseded by something more modern.
The restoration of the tip of old Fort Hamilton Village to its fin-de-siècle, resort-days glory didn’t happen, but asphalt-tile walks, at least, were installed in the park in 1932, along with a drainage system.
A similar proposal surfaced just a few years later, in 1938. An old mansion, on Fort Hamilton Parkway at the corner of 100th Street, built in 1838 by Colonel James Church, was set to be razed. Col. Church had been a leading citizen of Fort Hamilton, a veritable founding father of the village as discussed above, from the time he built his house to his death in 1856.
His son, Judge Charles Church, was also a leading citizen. Elected justice of the peace at 22, he stayed through the yellow fever epidemics that drove away many other prosperous locals, then became county superintendent, securing funds to fill in the Dyker marshes and build many new roads. “Many of the farmers were opposed to those movements, not wishing to have their farms cut up, and they would not sell their property,” Peter Ross writes in A History of Long Island. “Judge Church carried on the work in the face of this opposition, the streets were made and the consequent growth of the town led many of the farmers who opposed him to become wealthy men.”
The Church mansion “is a quaint and attractive structure,” Ross wrote in 1902, “with wide piazzas, supported by Ionic columns extending the full length of the house.” It was directly opposite the residence of the fort’s commanding officer and over the years had hosted many notable visitors, from Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson, who were infamously stationed at the armybase, to Henry George, the controversial economist and politician who lived on Shore Road.
It was, in short, a local legend, though by 1938 it had seen better days. “Though in need of repair, the 17-room mansion is still structurally sound,” the Eagle reported.
The weatherbeaten gray frame walls are peeling and the paint is gone from the six imposing Ionic columns fronting the veranda. The grounds surrounding the building, which stands on a plot 200 by 325 feet, are overgrown but massive oak, elm and willow trees, are sturdily alive, as is a rare Oriental catalpa tree. Outside the kitchen door, an old well-house still stands.
Much of the interior, including the hand-hewn floorboards, was installed when the house was built. Of the nine fireplaces, five, one in each of the two 18-foot square parlors, are the originals, built of beautiful marble. Hand-carved woodwork is prominent.
The poet Frances M. Lipp’s family were renting the house at the time and advocated for its preservation. “An interested gentleman came to us yesterday with the following idea, which might attract the interest and sympathy of the nation,” she wrote in a letter to the Eagle.
Drape the house in black bunting and put up a huge sign: The world of tomorrow has forgotten the world of yesterday and its tradition and value. But there is still time to save me. I am an old house. I can do much yet. Won’t you save me somewhere? I have given much to America…Is American going to throw me into the refuse heap?
…Surely some Brooklyn organization will come forward to save, even by moving, this house of tradition in America. Many will come and gather fragments of its floors and rafters. And many will say: “Too bad, it should have been saved. What a fine museum it would have made.”
…This is not sloppy sentimentalism[, as it would be] if the house were merely pretty…But it has use-value. Why not the War Department use it in the reservation? It was used during the World War. Why not the city put it in the center of Fort Hamilton Park? There are many places, many uses for this mansion.
But no one stepped up to answer this appeal, and the house was demolished. On the site now, across from the Fort Hamilton Seniors Center’s parking lot, is a series of nondescript, attached, brick, one-family rowhouses, each with a hideous garage.
Changes, Mostly for Worse
The grandest construction project of the era in Fort Hamilton Park was a concession stand, which sold peanuts, ice cream and candy. “There is no demand in this small park for a nuisance of this kind,” complained a letter writer to the Eagle in 1932. “In the vicinity of the stand the park is littered with trash and it surely is an eye-sore to have it there.”
Indeed, locals had begun to complain about the conditions. “Fort Hamilton Park, that emerald green gem that once adorned this community’s outpost…is losing its luster,” wrote leading local columnist Margaret Mara. “What have they done to our erstwhile pride and joy?”
First and foremost of the annoyances is the condition of the green grass all around. Peanuts, chewngum ’n candy, shorn of shells and wrappers, have been consumed by park visitors, who then dropped the shells and paper just clear of their laps. It has gotten so that if you sit on a bench out there for more than 20 minutes, when you finally attempt to arise you find yourself ankle deep in discarded newspapers, empty cooky [sic] boxes, cigarette butts, peanut shells, peanut shells and peanut shells.
We miss that conscientious white thatched caretaker who, despite stiffened knee joints, policed those green stretches in the park so faithfully. His job evidently wasn’t merely a JOB, and his pride in the appearance of the park kept him on the go all day. Picking up scraps; hauling out kids who stood on their head in the drinking fountain; rescuing others who became stranded high up on the old relic gun; putting the brakes on the bigger boys who played so roughly that they frequently bowled over the toddlers who had drifted away from mother or big sister.
…the Dover Patrol monument, the police booth, and the concession stand are entirely out of [place] there. The beauty and glory of that little park was that it was a park. Just that and nothing more. Green grass that was a blue green because it was well tended, clean benches, clean pathways and orderly bushes that gave shade that was cool and moist; that was the Fort Hamilton Park of a couple of years ago.
Some improvements and amenities came to the park over the next few years. In 1934, Mara wrote, “You won’t [recognize] your old friend, ‘Big Bertha,’ [the cannon] that has stood in the park these many years, pointing her blunt nose out to sea. ‘Bertha’ has appeared in natural color during this time, and so have the ‘cannon balls’ that decorate the curve of the park…Well, our park officials seem to have gone esthetic on us. They had ‘Bertha’ and her ammunition painted a battleship gray!” The garbage cans in the park were also painted “a soothing shade of gray.” (The year before, Mara had been impressed by an elderly shoeshine man doing a “flourishing” business. “The pensioners in the front line benches on Shore Road are dazzling passersby with shoe toecaps that flash in the sun like headlights on a dark night.”)
In 1939, a large redwood bulletin board was installed (as was a matching one in Battery Park) listing the incoming and outgoing ships in the harbor, so that those looking out at the Narrows could identify the passing boats.
The Bridge Effect
Construction of the Belt Parkway had altered the landscape around Fort Hamilton Park, though not much of the park itself. What would finally change its shape and ultimately its character would be the construction of an interborough span. For decades, many believed a connection between Brooklyn/Bay Ridge and Staten Island would ultimately be made by tunnel; in the 1920s, Mayor John F. Hylan had even authorized digging down 67th Street, which got as far as the Narrows before the project stalled.
In 1944, Borough President John Cashmore announced a plan for a Narrows Tunnel, accessible near the present-day location of the bridge, though it would have been far less destructive of the surrounding area. According to the plan, a tangle of connecting roadways would’ve taken over the land between Fourth Avenue and Fort Hamilton Parkway, 97th to 101st streets, necessitating the redevelopment of the existing park, as well as the development of new, contiguous park sites to the north, totaling an extra five acres.
Of course, the tunnel plan was never executed; by 1955, the plans for the modern bridge and the decimating path of its approach were more or less finalized. Bay Ridge’s “points of historic interest and scenic beauty will remain unscathed,” the Eagle reported, not quite accurately. “Fort Hamilton Park, at the southern tip, will remain ‘as is.’”
Perhaps, more accurately, you could say Fort Hamilton Park went mostly untouched, though it was seriously transformed by the changes around it. It lost its old plaza, where Shore Road and Fort Hamilton Parkway once intersected, but gained a field; the present-day gazebo is just about in line with where Shore Road once ran, and all the land south and west of it was added.
The Dover monument and cannon were moved yet again, farther inland, to their present location, nearer the intersection of 101st and Fourth.
The bridge also radically changed the landscape of the Fort Hamilton armybase, tearing up its old parade ground and main entrance, severing the installation from the community—and the park. (Though more parkland was added as a result: what became known as J. J. Carty Park, on the east side of Fort Hamilton Parkway, from about 94th Street to 100th Street, now occupies the land leftover from bridge construction that had once been occupied by the army.)
Today, a segment of cable from the bridge sits almost hidden in the park, alongside what would be Fort Hamilton Parkway but is instead a fence separating the park from the bridge supports and the highway beyond.
More monuments were installed in the park. As late as 2004, a granite wall was installed near the Fort Hamilton Parkway entrance, inscribed with a lengthy tribute to John N. Lacorte, who celebrated the achievements of Italian–Americans; its centerpiece is a medallion with a bas-relief of Verrazzano, which had been commissioned to commemorate the dedication of the bridge in 1964.
A few years after the bridge opened, in 1969, the park was renamed after John Paul Jones, thanks to efforts by the local councilmember, Angelo Arculeo, acting at the urging of the local “John Paul Jones Committee.” Locals continued to call it Cannonball Park, though—some even kept calling it Fort Hamilton Park!—and in 1975 Arculeo asked the parks department’s monuments officer to install a plaque or something, especially with the upcoming Bicentennial celebration. It took five years, however, before Jones got his plaque—at the foot of a new 67-foot flagpole, adapted from a one-time mast on the decommissioned USS Daniel. (The park had had a flagpole that was taken down during Verrazano construction and not reerected.)
More than 100 people attended the flagpole’s October 1980 dedication ceremony. “This is an important and historic occasion,” said the community board’s assistant district manager. “It brings everlasting fame and glory to Bay Ridge.” If you say so!
The Bad Old Days
The park, like all public parks, had some issues around this time. During a raucous meeting in 1979 between locals and one of Mayor Koch’s aides, a local who lived across the park asked “when something would be done about deteriorating benches, vandalism and overgrown walkways at the park,” the Home Reporter reported.
“What will be done to stop the park from becoming a ‘dog litter pool’ where dog owners park [their cars], release dogs to roam and then recall them?” There was a general outcry from the audience at this point in agreement with [these] remarks of poor conditions in all area parks.
“If children are vandalizing the parks,” said the mayoral aide, “they are our children.” This remark brought a second outcry from the audience.
Life During Vietnam
Earlier, antiwar activists subverted the park’s military reputation by staging local demonstrations there against the Vietnam War. (Pro-Vietnam War rallies were typically held in Leif Ericson Park, at the other end of the neighborhood.) On October 15, 1969, organizers put together a nationwide protest called the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, and Bay Ridge activists organized a local contingent, with the support of many influential citizens, from local clergy to the local Democratic congressmember (and future governor) Hugh Carey, who told the Home Reporter, “I will lend my support to the Bay Ridge group and to any other group seeking to end war in Vietnam.”
St. John’s, the so-called “Church of the Generals” that was once across from the main gate to the Fort Hamilton armybase (before the bridge was built), transformed for the day into a self-proclaimed “Peace Center,” with three requiem masses. “During the day, on the hour, bells will toll and there will be special prayers and readings offered,” Rev. George Hoeh explained. “The names of the young men from the Bay Ridge and Fort Hamilton communities who have died will be read as well as the towns and villages that have been completely destroyed.”
Rev. Darrell Helmers, of Bethlehem Lutheran Church (on Ovington and Fourth), also participated in the protest. “You feel you must do something, in order to be effective,” he told the Home Reporter.
On the anticipated size of the Bay Ridge October 15 protest, Pastor Helmers was hopeful, reflecting back on the day a spontaneous parade of almost 1,000 persons was held in Bay Ridge following the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. “And I hope there will be many more.”
The day’s activities began with the leafleting of local subway stations. Students boycotting classes joined the efforts. The names of the dead were read at noon on the corner of 86th and Fifth. And at 5pm, a march kicked off from 86th and Seventh, taking a circuitous route, north down Fort Hamilton Parkway to Sixth Avenue to 75th Street, then down to Fourth Avenue and back south to Cannonball Park, where a “Vigil for the Dead in Vietnam” was held.
Two thousand people participated. “The number of marchers walking along Fourth Ave. to Cannonball Park wasn’t meaningful in terms of percentages, but they were there,” Paul Chapey wrote in the Home Reporter. “And the older ones helped to neutralize the young look of the faces that have previously taken part of movements such as this one. They now know what it’s like to be heckled and jeered by some burr-headed juicer standing outside of a tavern, launched from drinking boiler makers.”
Local journalist Chuck Otey did his best Tom Wolfe impression as he described the night. (Ellipses his.)
at eighty-sixth street and seventh avenue … one thousand people, with black arm bands and unlit candles, march down street to fort hamilton parkway and turned … it is quiet … BACK PRESIDENT NIXON! … the people stare … BACK THE METS! back the mets, get out of Vietnam … onto sixth avenue … light the candles, there’s darkness ahead … people looking out of windows … silent, not knowing what to say … the line is long, one thousand people long, one thousand bodies quietly moving, quietly telling the window watchers and corner standers that forty times their number from their own country have already been torn to bits … don’t tell them that 500,000 others have already died … be satisfied to tell them of their own … be satisfied that they will hear the message to stop the killing even if they don’t understand that a life in any uniform is a life … just so they stop the killing … bay ridge parkway is long and dark and green living trees … bay ridge parkway is long and bright with people and light … people come to every window … what is this long procession with candles doing on bay ridge parkway going to fourth avenue? ooo we’re here to end the war … we’re here to ask you to end it for any reason you believe in … but please end it … the line, four abreast, fills bay ridge parkway from fifth avenue to fourth avenue … the quiet broken only by parents seeing to the needs of their children in strollers and carriages … the street is quiet, too … on the sidelines the watchers watch … they’re not sure … their faces look like they disagree but as they see the long bright line they aren’t sure … they begin to think and they say nothing maybe cause their thoughts might not come out the same way they would have minutes before … motorists, safe in their cars don’t think as they go by … HONNNNNNNK … HONNNNNNNK … it’s too dark for their lit headlights to disagree so they HONNNNNNNNNNK … the line turns south at bay ridge parkway and fourth avenue … a flickering lit sliding L … like a theatre marquee only the bottom part of the L keeps swallowing up the top part and finally it’s a line again … a line aimed at one hundred and first street … the watchers gaze out of their fourth avenue windows … a stodgy man in a tan coat lights a cigarette from the darkness of the trees at seventy-sixth street … he doesn’t like what he sees … THERE ARE TOO MANY PEOPLE HERE, THERE ARE TOO MANY PEOPLE HERE, his face is saying behind the cigarette smoke … he looks at all the people marching with candles past the dongan council … THERE ARE TOO MANY … I AM GOING TO SAY THERE ARE NO IMPORTANT PEOPLE HERE I AM GOING TO SAY THESE PEOPLE ARE THE TOOLS OF HANOI, THAT THEY HAVE THE FULL BLESSING OF HANOI’S PRIME MINISTER, I AM NOT GOING TO TELL THE TRUTH, I AM GOING TO LIE, I AM GOING TO SAY THAT THIS MARCH WAS A FLOP, I AM GOING TO LIE, I AM GOING TO SAY THAT THERE WERE ONLY THREE HUNDRED PERSONS HERE, I AM GOING TO SAY THAT THERE WERE ONLY THREE HUNDRED PEACENIKS HERE … I AM GOING TO LIE … I REFUSE TO BELIEVE THAT THERE ARE A THOUSAND PEOPLE MARCHING EVEN THOUGH I SEE THEM WITH MY VERY EYES … I REFUSE TO BELIEVE THIS THOUGH IT IS HERE BEFORE ME … thinks the stodgy man … one thousand people march by … where did they all come from? asks a woman … we’re from bay ridge, lady, will you march with us for peace? … i don’t know, i don’t know what my friends would think … we are your friends … but what will they say?… she stands still and nervous as the long line keeps moving past saint anselm’s roman catholic church where open doors reveal an altar brightly lit with candles like the ones being held by the marchers, lit candles … A CAR LURCHES INTO THE LINE OF MARCH, THERE’S NO WAY TO TELL IF THE DRIVER IS ANGRY, BUT HIS CAR IS, HIS CAR KEEPS LURCHING EVEN THOUGH A YOUNG MAN WITH A WHITE ARM BAND ATTEMPTS TO BLOCK IT WITH HIS BODY AND PROTECT THE MARCHERS … does the driver know that two of his brother’s sons are among the marchers? … the line yields to the ANGRY CAR … no one is hurt, but someone is afraid … eighty sixth street and fourth avenue … candle lights meet the glare of television lights … it’s very dark now … a few angry cars drive by HONNNNNNNKING with their lights OFF … at ninety fifth street and fourth avenue they’re coming out of the bars to look … TRAITORS, DIRTY GODDAMNED TRAITORS WITH YOUR PIG PROTECTORS … WHY DON’T YOU HELP CRIPPLED CHILDREN??? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE FOR CRIPPLED CHILDREN … we’re trying to prevent more of them … BASTARD COMMUNISTS! DIRTY BASTARDS! … shut up down there says a man from a window, there are little children and women marching, can’t you see?!? … COMMUNISTS AND BASTARDS … WHY DON’T YOU HELP THE CRIPPLED CHILDREN? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TODAY FOR THE CRIPPLED CHILDREN … we haven’t killed their fathers … a man standing in front of saint Patrick’s church raises his hand in a peace symbol … hands with flickering candles return the salute … more people join the march … as the line moves into cannonball park it’s now fifteen hundred human beings gather for the purpose of stopping a war … within minutes there are two thousand there to help stop the war … they sing and they pray and they read … they sit on cannon and they sit on cannon balls … they sit on the grass and the benches … they hold the candles … they hold their children … they hold hope …
… a little child, her face aglow in candle light … will the war stop now? she asks … will this stop the war? … maybe this will help, her mother answers … then i will stay all night, says the little girl … maybe then my brother won’t get killed …
… a stodgy man in a tan coat prepares to leave … how many people are here? he is asked as he leaves the throng of two thousand singing, praying … THERE ARE THREE HUNDRED PEOPLE HERE … THERE ARE THREE HUNDRED PEOPLE HERE
A few hundred people attended a followup event in December, held in the playground of McKinley junior high school. Attendees marched from there to the armybase, which doubled at the time as an induction center. “It is a long way from Fort Hamilton Pkwy and 74th St. down Bay Ridge Pkwy to Fourth Ave. and along Fourth out to 101st St. and the Army Base and Induction Center, where New York City boys lose their legal rights and begin to fit into the war machine,” the Home Reporter reported. “A long way for long thoughts.”
It wets a long slow march all the way. There were a few hecklers but more wavers of “V” signs of sympathy…We turned up 101st St. and dropped the names of the dead into a black coffin after reading them aloud before the entrance to the base.
Some of those names would reappear in the vicinity in 2002, when a black-granite Vietnam Memorial marker was installed in the park, at the base of the flagpole, remembering the 28 local men who died during the conflict, from 1959–1975. Two of the names—Russell A. Pedersen and John Allen Payne—might be especially familiar, because they both also had local playgrounds named after them.
Any name on this plaque might have been a better official name for Cannonball Park today than John Paul Jones’s.