The Lowest-Priced Men in the Trade
Who was doing all the heavy lifting? Primarily Italian laborers from New York City and Philadelphia. Many of the crews were transferred from Plum and Gull islands after completion of the works there. They lived in tar paper shanties in an area known as "Little Italy," located west of Silver Eel Cove (100 yards north of today's public tennis courts). The Italian labor crews were controlled by the 'padrones,' much detested crew bosses with the power to hire and fire at will. It's difficult to get an objective portrait of workers' life at Fishers because they appear in the files only when dramatic events had occurred: loss of life, crippling accidents, law suits, drunken brawls, and the occasional rebellion. The laborers went on strike at least once during the construction of the Fort. It was promptly crushed. However, enough evidence exists to support the charge of Generose Gioia, a fired foreman: "These Italian padrones are veritable leeches. They grind the poor laborers and get the majority of their wages - if they protest they lose their places."
The Corps of Engineers had an agreement with the contractors to supply laborers "as a commodity," to use Major Leach's phrase. Construction work was supervised by government overseers, but that's where their responsibility to the workers ended. The contractors were responsible for setting daily rates and payment of wages and overtime. The Major wanted no misunderstanding about this and asked the Italian Consul General in New York to translate the following note to be posted throughout the construction sites: "All laborers on this work are to understand that the United States assumes no responsibility for their wages. The money due them is paid to the contractor for their payment."
Not surprisingly, labor disputes arose on numerous occasions. On April 12, 1899, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America asked the Secretary of War to intervene:
Complaint has been filed at this office to the effect that the Federal 8 hour law is being violated on the government work on the fortifications and buildings on Fishers Island, N.Y. It is alleged that the men are paid 30 cents per hour and work 10 hours per day in violation of the Federal 8 hour law. Further it is charged the men are compelled to sleep in shanties and are charged $4.50 per week board.
Major Leach responded:
The carpenters on Fishers Island are paid by the day of eight hours each, the rate of wages being $2.40 for such day. They work usually 10 hours, and for that work are paid for a day and a quarter. The market rate of wages in this locality, according to the best information I can obtain, is $2.25 to $2.50 a day of nine hours. These are not house carpenters or joiners, but the lowest-priced men in the trade.
1,000,000 square feet
When construction began, ponds dotted the entire military reservation. One of the largest was northwest of today's Ferry District parking lot. Captain John Cree, Artillery Corps, wrote on June 8, 1901:
There are on the reservation twenty stagnant ponds of fresh or brackish water, having an estimated area of 1,000,000 square feet, and in addition to this, about twenty or twenty-five acres of marsh, all of which furnishes breeding places for hordes of mosquitoes, which interfere greatly with the comfort and health of the garrison stationed here. I would request that steps be taken in regard to the filling in of the worst of these places. Some of them appear to be clean and not detrimental to health, others are foul and slimy and should certainly be filled in before a permanent garrison is stationed at the post.
One by one most of the ponds were filled in with tons of gravel and sand. Labor gangs also dumped more than 100,000 cubic yards of fill on the swamp in the middle of the Parade Grounds. Both the land and the structures at the fort during construction would be unrecognizable to those familiar with the area today. Temporary buildings came and went with dizzying speed, many were razed, other were simply moved to new sites as the need arose. A frenzied assortment of work crews transformed the site. Large sections of the reservation were graded by dozens of horse teams hauling drag scrapers, crisscrossing the property, leveling much of the undulating landscape. The western tip of Fishers Island was not always so flat.
Corps of Engineers overseers scurried about from one construction site to the next, supervising the monstrous excavations needed for the gun emplacements. A railroad track snaked along the edge of Silver Eel Cove and headed east behind what became Officers Row, terminating at the mortar pits, the future site of Battery Clinton.
The Quartermaster Corps, responsible for building permanent structures, began arriving in force in 1901. Among the first buildings erected were two large barracks on the Parade Grounds, six wooden officers quarters on Officers Row (five of which still stand), two non-commissioned officers quarters, the original hospital and hospital stewards quarters. With characteristic military precision, and labor gangs working overtime, Fort H.G. Wright began to emerge from the chaos.
The first troops, 2nd Company Coast Artillery, stationed at Fort Trumbull, arrived in February 1901. They numbered 29 enlisted men and two officers. Throughout the spring of 1902, the Fort prepared to receive approximately 800 additional soldiers scheduled to arrive in late summer for war maneuvers.
We Sank Them All!
The first major test of Fort H.G. Wright came not from hostile fleets, but from a simulated attack by US warships during the final phase of joint Army-Navy maneuvers in September 1902. These war games pitted the new island forts against the US Navy's North Atlantic Squadron under the command of Admiral Francis Higginson. This 'enemy' fleet consisted of sixteen warships, including four battleships.
The key question to be answered during these maneuvers was: are the coastal forts capable of stopping a hostile fleet from penetrating the outer defenses without the support of the Navy? Major General Arthur MacArthur, temporarily assigned as Commander of the Department of the East, was in charge of all defending forces ensconced at coastal forts throughout the region, including forts Wright, Rodman, Adams, Wetherill, Greble, Mansfield, Michie, Terry and Tyler.
The results of the mock battles were to be judged by umpires, assigned to both ships and forts, and, in cases of dispute, determined by a board of high-ranking officers from both branches of the service. Elaborate rules were laid down to determine when a ship or fort was put out of action or silenced. The difficulty of determining a 'kill' amidst the chaos of a simulated battle would cause many disputes.
On September 1, Admiral Higginson captured Block Island in a deafening pre-dawn raid. Marines stormed ashore and seized the "thrifty population of natives and its several hundred terror-stricken summer boarders." (The New York Times, September 2, 1902) The marines quickly captured the Army signaling post on Beacon Hill, 'destroying' its flares, rockets, heliographs, and signal flags, as well as experimental wireless telegraphy equipment. After the local telegraph cable was 'severed,' the victory was total: Block Island belonged to the Navy.
The primary assault on Fort H.G. Wright occurred on September 3, 1902. Before dawn, Admiral Higginson steamed east, skirting the southern shore of Fishers Island. As soon as they rounded Wilderness Point, the battleships opened fire.
Two minutes later the land spit on which Fort H.G. Wright is located, suddenly broke into flame and smoke, and figuratively speaking, the water about the attacking squadron broke into geysers where the shells struck, while the impact of steel on armor plates and the cracks of shattered metal could be heard above the roar of guns. The splendid spectacle continued from 8 minutes after 5 o'clock until 6:35 o'clock, and at that time Gen. Arthur MacArthur claimed that the invader, with his four splendid vessels, the Kearsarge, Massachusetts, Indiana, and Alabama, and all his men on board were swept from the face of the sea. (The New York Times, September 4, 1902)
Admiral Higginson disagreed. As far as he was concerned, Fort Wright had been reduced to "grout masses of shattered masonry and furrowed earth." The Army issued a statement that left no doubts, "We Sank them All!" The New York Times concluded: "As a general proposition the American who views this morning's battle will rest assured that if ever a real hostile fleet seeks to destroy this country's metropolis it will find in Fort H.G. Wright an obstacle of imposing dimensions." - Pierce Rafferty