Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Cannons in my backyard- Life under the guns of Fort Jay

I’ve been spending this summer in my backyard. as a lot of people do during the summer. Only I don’t have a typical yard with grass, tress, barbecue, etc. Behind my building is the whole of New York harbor! My home for almost twenty years is one block from the  “Buttermilk” channel. A narrow shipping channel that separates Brooklyn  from Governors Island. Governors Island is an interesting and unique place in New York City. It’s fascinating because it has not been a victim of commercial development that the rest of the city has undergone over the last 150+ years. This is because Governors Island has been a military post since before the American Revolution. Recently it was turned over to the City of New York. Now it is a summer only destination for cultural and art events. The island is only accessible from a ferry boat that runs from the Battery in downtown Manhattan or from the Brooklyn waterfront. The island has numerous military installations. One of the largest is Fort Jay. Fort Jay was constructed on top of old 18th century British and American fortifications. The final shape that we see today was constructed in the 1830’s. Also at that time the fort name was changed from Jay to Columbus.Sometime later the name was changed back to Fort Jay.
Early image of Fort Jay taken from "Fort Jay Historic Structure Report" by Barbara A. Yocum National Park Service 2005
This summer I thought I would shoot some photographs with my pinhole cameras around the island. I was inspired from a photograph taken by Matthew Brady that I saw last summer. The photograph is a view of Manhattan taken from the north shore of Governors Island. At least that is what my friends thought at the time. I am unsure. The image reminded me of the contemporary view of my neighborhood in Brooklyn as seen from the north shore of Governors Island today. More on this topic and photograph in later blog posts.
Mathew Brady winter 1864 View of Manhattan? from Governors Island.
 I kept the Brady image in the back of my mind while I photographed the views of the upper New York harbor. So much history can be captured within these views. After getting images from the area of the Brady shot above, I wandered around the fort hoping to get some landscape shots high up, over the trees. Stopping to check out the cannons, like I always do, and with my quest for seeing the landscape beyond, I made another interesting discovery.

The Columbiads
Fort Jay has about 4 or 5 large Rodman “Columbiad” cannons mounted on iron barbette carriages around the fort. Barbette means the gun shoots over the top of a wall. It enables the gun to traverse around and cover a wide area. 
I looks like the guns were still serviceable into the 1890's. Image of Fort Jay taken from "Fort Jay Historic Structure Report" by Barbara A. Yocum National Park Service 2005 page 119
 According to my reference book “Cannons” by Dean S. Thomas, these guns are Civil War era 8 and 10-inch guns. They are really quit massive things. A 10-inch iron gun tube weighs 15,400 lbs! It shoots a 128-pound cannon ball using 18 lbs of gunpowder. These guns were intended for use in forts for shooting at ships. The US built forts such as Fort Jay up and down the American seacoast. Thus guarding major cities and waterways during the 19th century. For more info about this type of cannon look here. 
Image of Rodman cannons taken by M. Brady during his winter visit. Instead of looking at the barracks detail, Note the same tress and half sunk boat on the left as in the earlier Brady photo. Well that will have to be another blog post! Taken from "Fort Jay Historic Structure Report" by Barbara A. Yocum National Park Service 2005
Checking out the first gun I came to, I set up my tripod and shot some 4X5 and 120mm Holga shots. I took my time. I wanted the photos to turn out well and not rush. For example, I waited for the sun to re-appear from behind a cloud. Because I use pinhole cameras there is no viewfinder to frame the shot. I noticed that when shooting objects from far away they appear very tiny in the final photograph. I am realizing that I must get really close to my subject matter with these cameras. Slowing down kept me thinking about my subject matter, I took note of the direction that this 10-inch Rodman was pointing. The direction is Brooklyn of course! It is set up to sweep the narrow “Buttermilk” channel of enemy ships. The only problem is, is that you can’t actually see Brooklyn or the water from here because of all the trees. Of course when the fort was in operation, all the trees were removed. It allowed for the maximum fields of fire. But now after technology and time have progressed, nature has re-asserted it’s self.
The Rodman Brooklyn Gun. A 4X5 pinhole image. Looking at the scale with out measuring the bore maybe it is a 8 inch gun?

The Rodman "Brooklyn" Gun. A 4X5 pinhole image.
 Thinking about creating this blog post about Fort Jay, I thought about using Google maps to see if I could plot the actual aim point of what I'm calling the "Brooklyn" gun. What I found out was quite surprising. It is pointed back at me! See the map below. I laid the blue line next to the gun so that I could keep it parallel with the tube.

View Rodman Columbiad at Governors Island New York, NY in a larger map

The straight Line measures 1418 yards from gun to my apartment. The range of a 8 inch Rodman, shooting a 65 lbs cannon ball with 5 degrees elevation was 1800 yards. Info taken from “Cannons” by Dean S. Thomas.
Even if it's not pointed exactly at me, it looks close enough! (Within a few degrees left or right) and close enough for the Internet quack historian on the blog-o-sphere.
Holga Shot of the "Brooklyn"gun

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