When Joseph Gardiner Swift, the Academy‘s first graduate, arrived at West Point in October of 1801, he entered a landscape shaped by the Revolution and the eras before and after the War. While the Academy was not officially opened until July 4, 1802, military personnel had occupied the post continuously since the end of the conflict with Great Britain.
West Point was much smaller than it is today. In fact, the Government did not even own the land that Fort Putnam stood on and the southern boundary was at about Brewerton Road (between Grant and Pershing Halls). South of this line was the property of Thomas North, who operated a tavern that would challenge the patience of Academy officials.
Physically, West Point in the early 19th century looked different than it does today. The Plain was not as level or smooth as the present manicured lawn. The eastern margins were pocked with small depressions and outcroppings of rocks. Some historians say there were scattered yellow pine as well (Pappas, 1993). On the western edge of Fort Putnam was a large depression that served as part of its defenses. In the middle of the Plain, where the westernmost bleachers stand today, was a large depression known as Execution Hollow (or Gallows Hollow). This large hole, about 30′ deep and over 100′ in diameter, was probably a glacial kettle hole formed when glaciers retreated from the Hudson Valley 17,000-19,000 years ago. Kettles are created when a block of ice remains buried underground after a glacier retreats. When it eventually melts, a hole remains.
There were also hills that have since been leveled. The most prominent was known as Bunker’s Hill according to early maps. It was a small, conical hill or knoll that stood where the Ruger Road descends from the Commandant‘s House towards the Firstie Club (the old Ordnance Compound). In the 1810s, this hill became the site of the flag pole and then hosted Wood’s Monument, a 15′ obelisk erected in 1818. The Monument was moved to the Cemetery in 1885. The location of Bunker’s Hill was here.
Also note that the land where Shea Stadium now resides (home of USMA’s track and field team) was part of the Hudson River at this time. There were also no fields on the eastern shores of the Academy (now called River Courts) and no South Dock.
At its most basic division, West Point in 1802 had three main areas. The first included Fort Clinton and the Long Barracks. Fort Clinton was in ruins, but the powder magazine inside the walls was somewhat maintained and had stores of old gunpowder of an undetermined age. The Long Barracks, a two-story structure, held both cadets and soldiers. Its date of construction will be discussed separately.
The second main area of the 1802 Academy was at the base of Fort Putnam Hill on a line between what is now the Superintendent‘s House (Quarters 100) and the Mess Hall. In this area were several quarters, the Academy, and administrative buildings. A small pond occupied an area near the current Superintendent‘s Garden and front of Arvin Gymnasium.
The third built-up area of construction was on the hillside between the Plain and the River. Most buildings were between the current Firstie Club and Department of Public Works buildings. The dock was located approximately where there is now a helipad. The main buildings in this zone include military stores housing Revolutionary War artifacts, a hospital, several sets of quarters, and a contractor‘s store.
In the middle of the Plain, at the edge of Execution Hollow, were the ruins of a building known as the Old Provost. The exact location and history of this building will be discussed separately, but Joseph Gardner Swift refers to its location as being on the “west margin” of Execution Hollow (Swift 1890, 30).
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “The Hudson from West Point.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 17, 2017. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-e154-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Pappas, George S. To the Point: The United States Military Academy, 1802-1902. Westport, CT.: Praeger, 1993.
Swift, Joseph Gardiner. The Memoirs of Gen. Joseph Gardner Swift, LL.D., U.S.A., First Graduate of the United States Military Academy, West Point, Chief Engineer U.S.A. from 1812-to 1818. 1800-1865. To Which is Added a Genealogy of the Family of Thomas Swift of Dorchester, Mass., 1634. Worcester, MA: F.S. Blanchard & Co., 1890. [ONLINE]