Fort Greene Park: A Hidden History

 

Brooklyn's Fort Greene Park is a tree-filled oasis at the edge of built-up Downtown Brooklyn and some of its gentrifying neighborhoods, complete with tennis courts, verdant lawns, a well-curated Tree Trail and more.

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P1070130But beneath all that, and in its past, is a much deeper and longer historical story, starting with one of the great war crimes of the 18th century, whose victims like beneath the column at the top of the park.

The Doric column, the Prison Ship Martyr's Monument, topped by an eight-ton bronze lantern, was dedicated in 1908, and was, for a time, the tallest Doric column in the world.

It stands above a vault containing bones of 11,500 and possibly as many as 18,000 prisoners of war held by the British on rotting ships in nearby Wallabout Bay, now the site of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. More died on the ships than in all the battles of the war.

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At the base of the shaft, a dedication and a door that led to stairs to the top; sadly no longer accessible to the public; the view is said to be awesome. 

Between 1775 and 1783, prisoners were jammed together on the ships, with little food or medical care; disease was rampant. Those who died were simply tossed overboard or buried in bulk pits on the swampy shore. For years afterward, remains were exposed; one observer around 1800 spoke of "skulls and feet, arms and legs, sticking out of the crumbling bank in the wildest disorder." Various civic groups arranged collection and an interim burial on nearby land. 

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Four bronze eagles by Adolph Weinman guard the column, although they have needed guards of their own; on occasion they've been stolen or damaged. The small doorway set into the steps leads into a passage to the vault.

In 1808, during a period of anti-British feeling that helped lead to the War of 1812, plans were made for a permanent memorial to the Prison Ship Martyrs, as they came to be called, and a vault was created nearby as collection of bones continued. Over time it fell into neglect, and as the Navy Yard expanded, a new vault was built in what is now Fort Greene Park, then known as Washington Park.

Program_of_the_Dedicatory_Ceremonies_of_the_Prison_Ship_Martyrs_Monument_(1908)That was in 1873; another twenty-five years passed before campaigns led to the construction of the present monument, designed by McKim, Mead and White, and dedicated in 1908 by President Taft.

As with the first monument before it, the Prison Ship Martyr's Memorial has spent a century in alternate cycles of neglect, damage and repair. Right now is a good time to visit: it is still in good repair from the 2008 renovation that marked its centennial.

The park's land has its own war stories; standing as it does at one of the highest points of Brooklyn, it was an obvious place for a fort and for cannon that could be aimed at British ships in the harbor. Gen. Nathaniel Greene built a fort there, and named it for his fellow general, Israel Putnam. It was quickly taken by the British after the 1775 Battle of Brooklyn.

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Exhibits near the Park's information center mark the hill's Revolutionary War role as Fort Putnam.

It became a fort again during the War of 1812, this time named for Greene himself. Thirty years later, partly at the urging of Walt Whitman, then editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, it became Brooklyn's second park, named for Washington. In 1867, Olmsted and Vaux, the architects of Central Park and Prospect Park, created the basic plan for the park, and for a vault and monument.

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The park in the 1880s, pre-monument, but with the vault already in place.

During a different war, World War I, the park again became part of the war effort, this time without weapons.

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Over the years, other changes have taken place including construction of what was a restroom building and is now the park's information center; tennis courts and playgrounds and fields were added, and the Tree Trail created.

P1070117P1070189P1070132It's a popular spot both for its surrounding neighborhoods and for students from nearby schools and colleges. During the Covid-19 crisis, it's also seen an increase in outdoor exercisers who might otherwise have gone to a gym. On my afternoon in the park I saw quite a few people shadow-boxing, turning cartwheels, holding yoga poses and other forms of exercise.

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Not everyone was so energetic, of course, and lying quietly on the grass, reading and sunning were very much in evidence. And some, below, brought their own furniture to embellish the green.

P1070187P1070194 For me, the best part was the opportunity to walk the tree-lined paths with their rapidly-changing elevation, and to see a green oasis at its work.

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Along the Tree Trail, which winds its way along the park's paths

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Bust_of_Edward_Snowden_in_Fort_Greene_Park,_Brooklyn Once upon a time, the great column was not the only monument in the park—but that once upon a time only lasted less than a day when the Parks Department quickly removed a statue of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden from atop one of the pillars surrounding the Prison Ship monument.

Curious? Read more here.

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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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