SUNY Maritime History Professor David Allen climbs down a hidden ladder at Fort Schuyler
The visitors have heard the urban legend about an escape passage built between Fort Totten in Queens, to Fort Schuyler in the Bronx, where the Long Island Sound and the East River meet. Historians, park rangers and common sense suggest it is a myth. The technology needed to build a tunnel under more than 100 feet of water, simply didn’t exist at the time, they maintain. But speculation has been stoked by tantalizing clues - including dead-ending corridors and walled-up chambers in both forts. The enduring tale prompted the History Channel to run a segment on it recently. David Allen, 53, is fascinated by the myth. When he’s not teaching history at SUNY Maritime College, housed in Fort Schuyler, he enjoys exploring the Throgs Neck fort’s complex maze of underground tunnels.
A few months ago, he discovered a passage that appears to go under the bay headed directly for Fort Totten. “Every legend is based in some fact,” Allen said, before climbing down a rusty ladder hidden in the school’s storage cabinet. “This may be the escape tunnel they designed for the fort.” Allen was referring to a cold, dank corridor in the bowels of Fort Schuyler. He carefully lowered himself onto a second ladder, this one made of rope, as he shined a flashlight into the mouth of the passageway.
To his left was a stairway leading to the fort’s center. On his right, the tunnel appeared to go deeper underground. It was filled with about 18 inches of water, rendering it impassable. But 150 years ago, the sea level was about 1-1/2 feet lower, Allen said. The tunnel would probably have been dry. SUNY Maritime Provost Joseph Hoffman said he saw a round, 4-footwide exit to what he believes was the tunnel about four years ago at the sea wall near the fort. But after exploring the area on a boat at low tide with the Daily News, Allen was unable to find it. Bronx historian Lloyd Ultan, 71, has heard of this passage. However, he’s adamant it doesn’t go anywhere. “It would lead people to believe it’s the beginning of the tunnel, but there isn’t any,” Ultan said. Fort Totten Urban Park Ranger Geoffrey Martin is equally skeptical. He tells curious visitors the technology needed to build such a tunnel didn’t exist during the Civil War. “It would have been very hard for them to cover this up,” he continued. And “there would have been no reason to build a tunnel like this.” The narrow and mildewing Fort Totten tunnel featured on the History Channel is a dead end, he said, instead of continuing on to Fort Schuyler.
Martin is convinced the Bayside fort’s bricked-up archway, which visitors believe could be the passage, is really a cistern or reservoir. Allen was able to slip a camera through the archway where a brick was missing and found what appears to be a room. The photos show what appears to be an exit in the corner leading toward the water, he said. But Allen may never know where it goes. The city Parks Department, which oversees Fort Totten, has no plans to open up the archway, officials said. Though he would like to believe the secret passage exists, Allen said there just isn’t enough evidence to persuade him. “There have been people looking for this thing for the last 100 years” he said. “Now it’s up to us to discover the truth.”