Silver Beach and the Dungeons of Fort Schuyler
grew up in Silver Beach, a community in Throg's Neck consisting of three hundred summer bungalows converted over time to year-round use. The houses are squeezed together on a bluff on the southeastern tip of the Bronx and overlook the waters where the East River flows from under the Whitestone Bridge into Long Island Sound. For my childhood friends and I, growing up in Silver Beach was the best of times.
In our early years, World War II was being fought, so aside from the normal games kids played in those days, we played something called "soldiers." Sticks or tree limbs became rifles and machine guns, and falling down dead after being "shot" was considered an art form. The tides brought us the horror of the real war each day but in our innocence we considered the debris of torpedoed ships as exciting discoveries. Oil-slicked life rafts and emergency food containers of malted milk balls became our boats and our treats.
Most of us were in our pre-teens when the war ended, but our game of soldiers would continue a while longer, encouraged by the many war movies we saw at the double-feature matinees shown at either the Interboro ("the itch") or the Square ("the scratch") movie theatres, both aptly nicknamed due to the fleas and other bugs inhabiting their seats.
A half-mile east of Silver Beach, at the very end of Pennyfield Avenue, is Fort Schuyler, home to the New York State Maritime College. The thick granite fort was built in the aftermath of the War of 1812. It has an irregular, pentagonal shape based on French forts, and was strategically positioned to protect New York City from a British naval attack through Long Island Sound, guarding the eastern entrance to New York Harbor. A few of us frequently snuck into "The Fort" by walking the beach skirting both sides of its guarded entrance. Once in, we were largely overlooked by the authorities and able to visit the firing range where we would pick up shell casings and dig out lead in the sand hill behind the targets. We used the lead for our slingshots or melted it down to make sinkers for fishing. We were also free to explore the fort's many tunnels and dungeons, honeycombed within the granite surrounding and beneath its twentieth-century structures and mostly unknown to the students and faculty living there.
We thought we knew every dark and dank tunnel and passageway until we met Sammy Gandelman, the son of a lieutenant commander who taught at the college and lived in a large white mansion on campus. Sammy's fascination for all things military far exceeded our own and his knowledge of the fort's history was impressive. He told us that during the Civil War the fort held as many as five hundred confederate prisoners of war as well as military convicts from the Union Army. He also said it housed a hospital with a capacity of 2,000 beds.
Sammy led us into long-forgotten dungeons that only he knew about. Many of their entranceways were sealed up with cement, but Sammy always knew a secret way in. With flashlights or candles in hand, we followed him deep underground along the dark passageways. He also led us through a maze of aboveground fortifications that towered above the campus. Some were lined with railroad tracks which were used a century ago to transport carriages loaded with ammo from storage areas to the cannons bristling out of the many gun ports. The bluestone floors of the gun ports were lined with curved tracks for training the guns. The four hundred or so original cannons were never fired in anger and were now long gone, but Sammy showed us a couple still remaining, giant cast iron monsters rusting away and hidden behind debris in an aboveground casement. He also showed us a nearby pile of rusted old cannon balls, some thirty-pounders, others hundred-pounders. We didn't know at the time that they still may have held volatile gunpowder and a timed fuse. If we did, we wouldn't have rolled them around like bowling balls.
I recall one day when Sammy decided to play a serious game of "soldiers." He filled a liquor bottle with gasoline and stuffed a rag in it in order to make something called a Molotov Cocktail, like one he had seen in a war movie. We followed him down a narrow tunnel that ended in a concrete wall built by the authorities to bar further exploration. Sammy lit the rag and threw the bottle at the wall. A large ball of flaming gasoline erupted and sucked the oxygen out of the air. We all ran back to the entrance gasping for breath. It was then we decided it was time to stop playing "soldiers" and instead to enter our adolescence and embark upon the safer pursuit of girls.
In our early teens, we largely ignored The Fort, but in our mid-teens we once again snuck into it because we had discovered that its gymnasium, with a full-size basketball court, was rarely occupied. I remember going there with my friends, Allen Glenn, Whitey Ulich, Red Mahoney, Bobby Gould, Jackie Henry, Ricky Creen, and many others.
Our attachment to The Fort continued into our late teens, this time as Marines, for it housed 1st Anglico Company, a Marine Corps Reserve unit. Several of us spent time there both before and after entering active duty. By then, the newly built Throg's Neck Bridge crossed over the Fort and the entrances to all its tunnels and dungeons were cemented over, even Sammy's secret ones.
For some reason, none of us attended the Maritime College. Maybe we thought we were too cool for that. Indeed, we derided the students there, nicknaming them "cupcakes," for they all wore dark blue uniforms and white barracks hats. Instead, most of my friends entered the civil service, many becoming cops or firemen, the destined careers of just about all the kids in Silver Beach. Many years went by before I visited The Fort again, this time as a proud father watching his son graduate from the Maritime College. Sadly, during his entire four years at Fort Schuyler, he never once was able to explore the tunnels and dungeons buried and hidden deep beneath its modern-day structures.