Hike up a steep walkway below Harlem Meer on Central Park’s east side, at the site of a colonial road known as McGowan’s Pass, and you’ll end up at a magnificent bluff that puts you at eye level with Fifth Avenue apartments.
On that bluff, you’ll also find two 18th century cannons—one aimed north, the other to the east.
What are they doing there? These examples of artillery commemorate Fort Clinton, a military command post built to defend the city from this high point in the hinterlands of Manhattan well before Central Park existed.
The British occupied the site during the Revolutionary War.
“The British built a fortification here in 1776, following their invasion of Manhattan, as part of a defensive line extending west to the Hudson River,” states the Central Park Conservatory.
During the War of 1812, fearing a British attack that luckily never happened, the U.S. made it a fortification (along with nearby Fort Fish, see map) and named it after DeWitt Clinton, then mayor of New York.
“In the 1860s, the designers of Central Park recognized both the scenic and historic value of this location, and retained the original topography and remains of the fortification,” states the Conservatory.
The two cannons weren’t actually part of the fort. They were artifacts salvaged from the wreckage of the H.M.S. Hussar, which sank in Hell Gate in the East River, reportedly laden with gold, in 1780, writes Sam Roberts at the New York Times.
Donated to the park in 1865 after 80 years in the river, they harken back to the post-colonial city and serve as reminders of the bluff’s military past.
In the 1970s, vandalism and neglect led the city to put them in storage. Since 2014, they’ve been back on the bluff, on a granite base with a commemorative plaque.
The cannons are not far from another remnant of the War of 1812: the stone Blockhouse Number One, also in the northern section of the park.
[Illustration of Fort Clinton, 1828, NYPL]