Fort Porter

Fort Porter was a military installation constructed between 1841 and 1844 to protect the ferry crossing of the Niagara River and the terminus of the Erie Canal at Buffalo, New York. It was named for General Peter Buell Porter (1773-1844), a western New Yorker who was a commander of militia in the War of 1812 during the invasion of Canada, a local politician and at one time U.S. Secretary of War. Its site was purchased for about $50,000 to replace temporary leased grounds established in 1837 in the vicinity of Delaware and North streets and which had been known as the Buffalo (or, Poinsett) Barracks.

Situated on a 60-foot bluff at the northeast end of Lake Erie, where the lake opens into the Niagara River, the site commanded an excellent view of Lake Erie, Niagara River, and the Canadian shore. The site was bounded by Porter Avenue, Sixth Street (now Busti Avenue), an extension of the line of Vermont Avenue, and the Erie Canal. The reservation covered about 28½ acres. Frederick Law Olmsted was shown an adjacent plot of land as a potential park site in 1868, and he immediately recognized the value of the site not only for its natural beauty, but that the proximity to the tree shaded fort grounds could enhance his design for the grounds of the park which became “The Front”. Besides being a military post, Fort Porter deliberately became practically a continuation of that park. A resolution of Congress, in 1870, authorized the unique relationship.

The original structures at Fort Porter were designed by Gen. Joseph Gilbert Totten (1788–1864), the army’s chief engineer. The fort or blockhouse was initially a square two-story limestone redoubt, about 60 feet square, with and earthen roof, crenelated walls and surrounded by an earthen berm and a ditch. It opposed the British stone fort at Ft. Erie, Ontario. The structure was claimed to be the largest masonry “blockhouse” ever built in the United States. The blockhouse, also known as “The Magazine”, burned in November 1863 under circumstances which remain unclear. Arson was suspected. The building was razed and the site leveled for use as a parade ground and construction of housing for officers during major construction work at the post in 1888.

The second stone building at the post, the so-called “castle” at Fort Porter, was built in 1836 as a home for Col. James McKay. McKay was a local gentleman and militia commander, but he never occupied his house. The two story residence was acquired by the government as part of the lands purchased for the new fort in 1841. It was used as the quarters for the Post Commandant. The Headquarters of the 2d Infantry Regiment, with Companies C, D, F and K, were stationed at Fort Porter from May 1842 until 1845. From then until the outbreak of the Civil War, the post was assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers, and an Ordnance Sergeant or equivalent individual was in charge of the facility.

Fort Porter was not actively garrisoned between the departure of the 2d Infantry until the outbreak of the Civil War. Then temporary barracks were constructed and the post was used as a recruiting, outfitting and training center for volunteer units. Several regiments were formed and entered active service at Fort Porter during the war. From December 1864 to March 1865, the battle-depleted 10th U.S. Infantry regiment refitted at the post.

The Fenian raids into Canada from Buffalo caused the Department of War to garrison regular Army troops at Buffalo to guard the crossing. Company E, 8th Infantry was rushed to Fort Porter, assuming control of the post on April 29th, 1866. They were relieved by one company of the 42d Infantry and one battery of the 1st Artillery. In 1867, new wooden barracks and other buildings were built at the post to accommodate two companies of regular infantry. In April of 1869, the Headquarters and companies C and G, 1st Infantry were assigned to take charge of the installation. Company G was later replaced by Company A of the regiment. In June, 1874, the 1st Infantry’s units were dispatched to the Dakota territory. Replacing them, from the Dakota territory, were Companies B and K, 22d Infantry, posted to Fort Porter in July 1874. The garrison was for a time reduced to one company when Company K was relocated back to the west for action against hostile Indians. The 22d Infantry regiment’s Company G eventually replaced it. Companies F and G, 10th Infantry were then stationed at Fort Porter from May 1879 until June 1884. Then companies C and D of the 23d Infantry took over garrison duty.

The Buffalo Board of Parks Commissioners was permitted by an agreement with the War Department, in 1880, to extend a new park drive, Sheridan Terrace, between “The Bank” Circle and “The Front”. Its construction, in 1886, removed a portion of the earth works around ruins of the blockhouse. In 1887, the wooden barracks were replaced during a significant period of new construction at the post. A headquarters building, four barracks, and a hospital, all of brick, were built to replace the wooden structures. The old blockhouse was removed, as noted previously, and new officers’ quarters and other supporting buildings erected. The entrance to the fort was through an arch on Sixth Street, passing directly onto the parade ground. To the immediate right of the entrance was the guardhouse. All along the parade ground “were two-story frame officer’s cottages with broad piazzas covered with vines.” Although the piazza roofs tended to leak, they were the social centers of the post where “each afternoon during guard mount these piazzas would be filled with attractive matrons and buds, drawn by special invitation to see this ever fascinating maneuver. Then after the sundown gun the officers came over to the houses, and a buzz of conversation flew up and down the piazzas until dinnertime.” The “inconvenient side of these homes” was no bar to the hospitality within, “where women managed to live because they were married to the men of their hearts.”1

In May, 1890, the 23d Infantry was relocated to Texas, replaced by the Companies B and D, 6th Infantry. In turn, Companies B and H, 21st Infantry took over in May 1892. In October, 1894, Companies A and G, 13th Infantry became the garrison. At the outset of the Spanish American War, in 1898, the 13th Infantry still was stationed at Fort Porter. The 13th was called for service with the expeditionary force that April and became part of the 3rd Brigade. This brigade was sent to Cuba and participated in the engagements around Santiago, including the well known battle for San Juan. Regimental casualties were significant, with some companies of the 13th losing one-third of their men; some companies were left without officers. When returned from the war zone, the 13th remained at Fort Porter only until April, 1899. Then it was sent to the Philippines to fight the insurgency there against the United State’s possession of that former Spanish colony, a spoil of the Spanish-American War. The regiment did not return to Buffalo, and it was not immediately replaced. Two companies of the 14th Infantry were stationed at the fort from 1901 to 1903, and then that regiment was sent to Philippines duty. The 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry, with 4 companies (A, B, C and D) garrisoned the post from 1908 until 30 June 1909 when they departed for the Philippine Islands. They were replaced by companies E and H, 24th Infantry. The 1st battalion (companies A through D) of the 29th Infantry returned from the Philippines and relieved the 24th Infantry on 17 September 1909. Later, they were joined by the regimental band on temporary duty. The battalion (companies A through D) was on station at the fort until 31 August 1914. After their departure, a small detachment maintained the post.

By that time there were about 40 post buildings comprising 20 sets of quarters for officers and non-commissioned officers, four barracks, a hospital, several storehouses and magazines, a headquarters building, a bakery, stables, sheds, etc. These buildings faced either outwardly upon the surrounding city streets, or inwardly upon two open areas, the drill ground and the parade ground. The post used the light, sewers, and water systems of the city of Buffalo, and the buildings were heated, for the most part, by separate steam-heating plants.

U.S. Army Base Hospital No. 23 was organized in January, 1917, at Buffalo General Hospital and was mobilized at Fort Porter, N.Y., August 21, 1917, The the organization was trained and equipped at Fort Porter. On November 21, 1917, after three months of training, the unit departed, via the port of New York, for France. It operated at Vittel, Department of Vosges. With a capacity of 1,800 beds, it treated 11,625 surgical and medical cases during its service.

After the departure of Base Hospital No. 23, the Surgeon General requested the use of Fort Porter for general hospital purposes. This request was approved and on November 10, 1917, the post was named General Hospital No. 4 and was opened at once. Some renovation, repair, alterations, and additions had already been instituted by the Surgeon General, but considerably more was necessary. Extensive expansion plans were not contemplated because of the limited area available, and plans for alterations were left to the local commander.

In the spring of 1918, the commanding officer of the hospital furnished the Surgeon General a plan of development, which was approved only in part. As it was deemed impossible to economically create a large hospital at Fort Porter, it was decided to only develop existing buildings and use General Hospital No. 4 for the special treatment of the insane.

Compared with other general hospitals, relatively little construction work was done at Fort Porter. Initially, the hospital had been operating as a general hospital, with general medical and surgical cases of a minor character being sent to it for treatment. From February, 1918 its activities were restricted to the care of mental cases only. Once better facilities for the treatment of the insane had been provided at General Hospital No. 43, in Hampton, Virginia, all routine mental cases were transferred to that hospital. The treatment of neuroses only was continued at General Hospital No. 4, until its closure on November 9, 1919.

Fort Porter was abandoned as a military installation in 1921. In 1926, the property was sold to provide approaches to the new Peace Bridge between Buffalo and Fort Erie, Ontario. A portion of the property was acquired by the City of Buffalo as an addition to Front Park. Effective, all evidence of Fort Porter’s existence was removed by the bridge construction. The “Castle” building was relocated by the city to the periphery of Front Park. There it was used as offices for the city Parks Department, and a portion was used to house Girl Scout activities. A later expansion of the Peace Bridge, in 1953, led to its demolition. (A marble fireplace from the building was incorporated into the 1954 office building of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority headquarters building.) The city also acquired the post stables and coal storage buildings, which it used until both were demolished during the construction of the New York State Thruway in 1954. (The stables were utilized by the Buffalo Police Mounted Unit.)

A huge memorial boulder, dedicated to recognize the 13th Infantry actions in the Spanish-American War almost lost when it was buried during Peace Bridge expansion construction in 1955. It was retrieved and – what we might consider the last freestanding piece of Fort Porter – relocated to the front of the Historic Society building in Delaware Park in 1958.

1) Clarence R. Edwards, quoted in Michael R. Shay, Revered Commander, Maligned General: the Life of Clarence Ransom Edwards, 1859-1931, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, c2011