From military to macabre: Fort Point's haunted history

Built in the Bay
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With Halloween quickly approaching, ghost stories are back in season. Spooky stories are always good for some family bonding or as leverage over a campfire to secure the last s'more, but there are some stories that strike a more frightening cord, just based on the characters and locations of the story. The more history in a place, the more tumultuous that history, often the scarier the story.

While ghost tales located in a new housing development or about some bright sunny ghouls are not uncommon, Casper the Friendly Ghost comes to mind, the scariest stories are often set in a place that you, as the reader or listener, would rarely come to.

Tucked beneath the southern end of the Golden Gate Bridge, at the west end of the Park Presidio, sits Fort Point. The road leading to it, which runs along the bay lined with large stones to break the crashing waves, is unassuming for visitors during the day. At night, however, it — much like the fort itself — takes on an entirely different and much more unsettling quality. The road is lined with tall street lights for a portion but the extended stretch at the end, leading up to the fort, is not.

Military History

By 1776, as puritans and revolutionaries took political power into their own hands on the east coast, the west coast lay in the hands of the Spanish. Spain maintained loose albeit violent control over large swathes of the west coast from southern Mexico up through the pacific northwest. In the late stages of the 18th century, the Spanish empire looked to the west coast of what would later be the United States to establish a new imperial foothold.

They did so, in no small part, with settlements throughout the Bay Area. In 1776, after establishing the area's first European settlement, the Spanish military began to build fortifications to stop a possible attack from the British of Russian armies. In what would become a theme for the fortification and the fort, those expected attacks never came.

In an attempt to gain the advantageous high ground, the Spanish built up a fortification at the narrowest point of the bay, high on a white cliff called Punta del Cantil Blanco. In 1794, an adobe structure housing 13 cannons was constructed called The Castillo de San Joaquin.

When Mexico declared and won independence from Spain in 1821, the fortification was transferred to and occupied by the Mexican army until 1835 when the army moved to Sonoma.

On July 1, 1846, as the Mexican-American War broke out, a small group of U.S. forces, including Captain John Charles Fremont, captured the abandoned castillo and disabled the cannons. At some point during the Spanish or Mexican eras, Punta del Cantil Blanco became known as Punta del Castillo which was subsequently carried over into the era of U.S. control and roughly translated to "Fort Point."

Throughout both the Spanish and Mexican occupation, there were unverified reports from enlisted men that a faint howl could be heard late at night. Considering the seawall and adobe building, it's likely that such a howl reflected natural elements rather than the supernatural. Despite this likely explanation, that did not stop several enlisted men and eventually tourists and travelers from reporting a similar howl.

The fortification was viewed as potentially critical military infrastructure following the federal annexation of California in 1850. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began construction on Fort Point in 1853. Military plans required redevelopment of the land so workers blasted down the 90-foot high cliff down to just 15-feet.
(Courtesy of the National Parks Service)

The crew of 200, made up of mostly unemployed miners, worked for eight years on the fort. In 1861, as divisions within the country were reaching a fever pitch, the army mounted the fort's first cannon. Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston ordered the first troops into the fort before eventually defecting to the Confederate Army.

The Civil War marked another era of anticipation for the troops at the fort. This time, scores of American troops stood at the ready for a confederate invasion that never came. This era also marks the first well-documented cases of abuse and violence that would eventually lead to the ghost stories that currently proliferate about the fort. These historical examples can often be explained by natural causes, but, regardless, the occurrences make up the basis of the modern supernatural legend of the fort.

In 1861, one private stationed at the fort drowned, another died of a brain aneurism and a third died from abscesses on the brain. Modern visitors have reported seeing whispy figures dressed in military uniforms when walking through the fort at night.

Troops officially moved out of Fort Point after the Civil War and it was never again used as a military outpost. In 1869 a granite seawall was finished and the following year several of the fort's cannons were moved to a more well-protected bluff farther east.

In 1882, Fort Point was officially renamed Fort Winfield Scott, commemorating the military hero of the American-Mexican War.

In 1892, the army began construction on a new Endicott System and within eight years the fort's 103 cannons had been decommissioned and sold for scrap.

This marked another transition for Fort Point as, over the next four decades, it was used as a barracks and training facility.

In 1913, however, the army removed a portion of an interior wall in an attempt to use the fort as a detention facility. They eventually opted for Alcatraz Island as a more suitable option.

The fort was slated to be removed during the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, but Chief Engineer Joseph Strauss redesigned the bridge to preserve the fort, calling it, in part, "a national monument" and driving home the need for preservation.

Serious preservation efforts ramped up following World War II and on October 16, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed a bill designating Fort Point as a National Historic Site. It is listed under its official name of Castillo De San Joaquin.

Haunted History

Any military installation, regardless of age, will be marred by some accidents, often fatal ones. Fort Point is no different in that regard. The aforementioned reports of strange noises perturbed enlisted men for decades and myriad reports of abuse on spouses make up a portion of the military history at the fort.

Popularly, the fort has also played a prominent role in so of the most memorable dramas of the 20th century. In Alred Hitchcock's Vertigo, Kim Novak's character jumps from the fort in an apparent suicide attempt. In the 1947 movie Dark Passage, a fight scene ends with a character falling to their death in what is now the fort's parking lot.

The iconic stone layout of the fort has also been featured in a number of television credit sequences and album covers.

Paranormal enthusiasts have long flocked to the fort, claiming to see ghostly images of servicemen haunting the circular halls. The validity of those can always be called into question, but the fort is marked by a horrific tragedy during the Civil War era.

In early July 1867, two men, Corporals John Peterson and Michael Condon returned to the fort after four days of missing shifts and, upon their return on the morning of the fourth, were placed under arrest and confined within the fort. A cannon salute was fired at noon on the fourth and both corporals mutilated bodies were found roughly 20 feet from the mouth of one of the lower cannons.

According to the Daily Alta California, the assumption was that both men crawled through one of the "embrasures" in an attempted escape and hid in front of the cannons, which they presumably figured had already been fired or would not be fired again. Their deaths were ruled as an accident.

This incident is among the most publicized fatal accidents at the fort that makes up much of the supernatural lore but it is by no means the only. Stories of apparitions and haunted halls are fairly common in any longtime military installation but Fort Point is unique largely for its depiction in popular culture juxtaposed with the supernatural stories.

From Spanish officers holed up within the adobe walls to American enlisted men hunkering down beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, the history of Fort Point is marked by anticipation of a battle that never transpired. In an eerily similar reflection, those ghost stories truly arose after the removal of troops from the fort, as though once the anticipation was gone, all that was left were the spirits.

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