Historians hunt for Civil War-era passage that could have run from Fort Totten to Bronx

March 2, 2009 at 12:35 am 1 comment

The visitors have heard the urban legend about an escape passage built between Fort Totten in Queens, to Fort Schuyler in the Bronx, where the Long Island Sound and the East River meet.

Historians, park rangers and common sense suggest it is a myth. The technology needed to build a tunnel under more than 100 feet of water, simply didn’t exist at the time, they maintain.

But speculation has been stoked by tantalizing clues – including dead-ending corridors and walled-up chambers in both forts. The enduring tale prompted the History Channel to run a segment on it recently.

David Allen, 53, is fascinated by the myth. When he’s not teaching history at SUNY Maritime College, housed in Fort Schuyler, he enjoys exploring the Throgs Neck fort’s complex maze of underground tunnels.

A few months ago, he discovered a passage that appears to go under the bay headed directly for Fort Totten.

“Every legend is based in some fact,” Allen said, before climbing down a rusty ladder hidden in the school’s storage cabinet. “This may be the escape tunnel they designed for the fort.”

Allen was referring to a cold, dank corridor in the bowels of Fort Schuyler. He carefully lowered himself onto a second ladder, this one made of rope, as he shined a flashlight into the mouth of the passageway.

To his left was a stairway leading to the fort’s center. On his right, the tunnel appeared to go deeper underground. It was filled with about 18 inches of water, rendering it impassable.

But 150 years ago, the sea level was about 1-1/2 feet lower, Allen said. The tunnel would probably have been dry.

SUNY Maritime Provost Joseph Hoffman said he saw a round, 4-foot-wide exit to what he believes was the tunnel about four years ago at the sea wall near the fort.

But after exploring the area on a boat at low tide with the Daily News, Allen was unable to find it.

Bronx historian Lloyd Ultan, 71, has heard of this passage. However, he’s adamant it doesn’t go anywhere.

“It would lead people to believe it’s the beginning of the tunnel, but there isn’t any,” Ultan said.

Fort Totten Urban Park Ranger Geoffrey Martin is equally skeptical. He tells curious visitors the technology needed to build such a tunnel didn’t exist during the Civil War.

“It would have been very hard for them to cover this up,” he continued. And “there would have been no reason to build a tunnel like this.”

The narrow and mildewing Fort Totten tunnel featured on the History Channel is a dead end, he said, instead of continuing on to Fort Schuyler.

Martin is convinced the Bayside fort’s bricked-up archway, which visitors believe could be the passage, is really a cistern or reservoir.

Allen was able to slip a camera through the archway where a brick was missing and found what appears to be a room.

The photos show what appears to be an exit in the corner leading toward the water, he said.

But Allen may never know where it goes. The city Parks Department, which oversees Fort Totten, has no plans to open up the archway, officials said.

Though he would like to believe the secret passage exists, Allen said there just isn’t enough evidence to persuade him.

“There have been people looking for this thing for the last 100 years,” he said. “Now it’s up to us to discover the truth.”

BY Clare Trapasso

Entry filed under: Bronx, Go Coastal, Maritime, Queens. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Rick Stricker  |  March 23, 2009 at 3:36 am

    My family and I lived on Fort Totten for the better part of 18 years (1964-1981). During that time I explored pretty much every square inch of every vacant building on the Post, as well as all parts of the Water Fort.

    I worked with the production company for 6 months on the History Channel episode of “Cities of the Underworld”. I told them there was no tunnel, and why.

    Everything this article states about the depth of the Sound, the technology of the time, etc. was from my commentary on the History Channel piece, written after it aired. I’ve never seen those points discussed anywhere else prior, so I’m thinking those points in this article probably came from my writing, which can now be found on the Fort Totten group on Facebook.

    One point that wasn’t mentioned in the above piece is that neither fort was ever completed. I have copies of some of Fort Totten’s plans, and no tunnel appears.

    There are no documents that support a tunnel theory.

    No such tunnel had ever been constructed anywhere by the 1860s.

    The cost of such a tunnel would have been totally prohibitive.

    Such a tunnel would need to be significantly larger than the ratholes that have been found to date, in order to pass men and material after completion, but also to have room to construct support trusses to support the tunnel during construction.

    Dead-ending corridors and walled-up chambers don’t indicate the existence of a tunnel.

    David Allen’s research must have been done at Fort Schuyler, not Fort Totten, since there’s no “maze of underground tunnels” at Totten (old ventilation shafts and ammo bunkers don’t qualify as “tunnels”).

    There’s no evidence that “the sea level was about 1-1/2 feet lower” 150 years ago, however a tunnel would, of course, have to have been been dry to work.

    It’s not true that “Every legend is based in some fact”. Some legends are just baseless mythology, such as the myth of the cross-Sound tunnel.


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