Governors Island, NYC
By James Robert Watson, PhD
Governors Island is located in the New York Harbor, between Battery Park and Brooklyn. The island is 172 acres with nearly 225 buildings, considerable open space, and recreational amenities. Its waterfront offers some of the most dramatic and impressive vistas of the New York skyline and New York Harbor, including the Statue of Liberty and Ellis island. The northern half of the island, consisting of approximately 92 acres, has been designated as both a National Historic Landmark District and a New York City Historic District, and features late 18th and early 19th century fortifications, pre-Civil War arsenal buildings, Victorian and Romanesque Revival housing, as well as early 20th century neo-classical architecture. Five buildings within the Historic District, including Fort Jay and Castle Williams, are individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It recently has opened for public access and tours of the historic district.
I took the ferry to the island on June 10, 2007. I spent over 2 hours wandering the beautiful tree-shaded grounds and contemplating, writing, touring buildings, and walking along the seawall for great views of the harbor, the statue, and downtown Manhattan. There were times when, while sitting on the grass, I could hear only sea gulls - no sound of the big city, even though I was right in the midst of it. A few of the buildings were open. Some of the Officer's Quarters, the old revolutionary-era fort. There were signs of history posted outside some of the major buildings. Overall, it was a very enjoyable afternoon at a unique spot in the city.
The old ferry building (new one is to the left in the bottom right foto) with its recently restored beautiful detailing.
Looking over the entry cannon and the ferry landing to downtown Manhattan. The old fort Castle Williams, Staten Island ferry, and the statue.
Looking over the parade ground and the old Fort Jay earthworks to the skyline beyond. Entry to the old fort. A tree-lined street within the Historic District.
A map of the Historic District. The black line loop is my walking path.
In the aerial view, Fort Jay is the star-shaped structure in the lower middle, Castle Williams is the circular building on the far right, and the triangular section towards the top is the later landfilled addition. The circular tower out in the bay at the bottom is the ventilation shaft for the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.
Bike riding on the island
In August of 2010, I returned to the island. The entire southern portion had recently been opened to the public. I had just turned 60 years old and when I saw the Bike rental tent, I sat in the grass and pondered. I had not ridden bikes in Breckenridge a week earlier but thought how neat it might be. I was a bit afraid of getting back on a bike after so many decades. But, here on Governor's Island, with no cars and open asphalt, I could ride again with less fear. So, what the hell, I did. Wow. It was exhilarating. What a great place to ride - incredible views, trees and shade, and numerous fellow riders. At one point, I rested by a swing set and, again, thought, why not? So I swung like a kid.
A bit of history
The Native Americans of the Manhattan region referred to the island as Pagganck (Nut island) after the island's hickory, oak, and chestnut trees. Its location made a perfect fishing camp for local tribes. In June of 1637, Wouter Van Twiller, representative of Holland, purchased Governors Island from the Native Americans of Manahatas for two axe heads, a string of beads, and a handful of nails. Though he was a representative of the Dutch Government, Van Twiller purchased the island for his private use. Known as Noten Eylant or Nutten island, it was confiscated by the Dutch Government a year later.
In 1664 the English captured New Amsterdam, renaming it New York, and took Nutten island, which had been left unfortified by the Dutch. It switched hands between the British and the Dutch over the next 10 years until the British regained exclusive control of the island for the "benefit and accommodation of His Majesty's Governors" and thus came to be called Governors Island.
The island's strategic location resulted in its use as a military facility by British and American forces for over 200 years. Following the British evacuation of New York in 1776, Americans fortified the island in fear of further advances by the British navy. When fighting broke out in August, the English overpowered General George Washington and his men, and American forces retreated from Long island and Governors Island. After the Revolution, the island reverted back to New York State, and remained inactive for several years. In 1794, with the country in need of a system of coastal defenses, construction began on Fort Jay in the center of the island. In 1800, New York transferred the island to the United States government for military purposes. Between 1806 and 1809, the Army reconstructed Fort Jay and built Castle Williams on a rocky outcropping facing the Harbor. During the War of 1812, artillery and infantry troops were concentrated on Governors Island.
During the American Civil War, it was used for recruitment and as a prison for captured Confederate soldiers. Throughout World Wars I and II, the island served as an important supply base for Army ground and air forces.
Using rocks and dirt from the excavations for the Lexington Avenue Subway, the Army Corps of Engineers supervised the deposit of 4,787,000 cubic yards of fill on the south side of Governors Island, adding 103 acres of flat, treeless land by 1912, and bringing the total acreage of the island to 172.
With the consolidation of U.S. Military forces in 1966, the island was transferred to the Coast Guard. This was the Coast Guard's largest installation, serving both as a self-contained residential community, with an on-island population of approximately 3,500, and as a base of operations for the Atlantic Area Command and Maintenance and Logistics Command as well as the Captain of the Port of New York.
Link to the Governors Island website.
• Governors Island is a former military post, with roles in the Revolutionary War, and virtually every other major U.S. military engagement including the War of 1812, Civil War, both World Wars, and the Gulf War; and a National Historic Landmark District featuring 18th century fortifications, pre-Civil War arsenal buildings, Victorian and Romanesque Revival housing, as well as early 20th century neo-classical architecture.
• Size: 172 acres: 92 are the Landmark District, which includes Fort Jay and Castle Williams.
• 225 Structures, of which 64 are historic.
• Sixteen acres of recreational facilities.
• One-mile esplanade for jogging and walking.
1500s: Lenape Indians settle on island they call Pagganck (Nut island).
1524: Giovanni da Verrazano sights Governors Island (for whom the Verrazano bridge is named).
1609: Henry Hudson explores New York Harbor looking for route to Pacific Ocean (for whom the Hudson river and bay are named).
1624: Noten Eylant (Nutten island) is one of the Dutch West India Company's first settlements.
1637: Wouter Van Twiller, Dutch Governor of New Netherlands, privately acquires island from Native American owners, Cakapeteyno and Pehiwas, allegedly for two axe heads, a string of beads and a few nails.
1664: British take possession of the island during occupation of New Amsterdam. It remains rural, housing the Governors' sheep, cattle and coach horses.
1698: British officially acquire the island, thereafter called "Governors Island," for the "benefit and accommodation of His Majesty's Governors."
1702: Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, Governor of New York State, builds a "splendid" permanent home for the British governors on high ground.
1755: 51st Regiment of Foot is the first trained unit of soldiers posted on the island. Later, the unit is joined by the "Royal Americans," a British regiment recruited in America.
1776, April: Continental troops under George Washington occupy and fortify Governors Island against British invasion.
1776, September: New York City and Governors Island fall to the British.
1783: British Royal Navy surrenders the island to Governor George Clinton of New York State.
The New Republic
1784-1794: Unused military facilities fall into disrepair and the island is leased for a racetrack and summer resort.
1797: Garrison is assigned to the new fort, consisting of 'a major, a captain, a surgeon, 2 lieutenants, 3 sergeants, 4 musicians, 5 artificers, and 34 privates.'
1798: The fort is named after patriot John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court and a drafter of the peace treaty with England.
1811: Castle Williams is completed and named after its designer, Jonathan Williams, the first superintendent of West Point.
1815: Peace Treaty with Britain ending the War of 1812 is celebrated with fireworks on Governors Island.
The Civil War and Beyond
1861-1865: Civil War Governors Island is the central Army recruiting station for the Eastern Seaboard, and Castle Williams is a prison camp, sometimes holding over 1,000 Confederate soldiers.
1870: Yellow fever epidemic rages on the island.
1901-12: By adding 4,787,000 cubic yards of fill from the Lexington Avenue Subway,the island is enlarged from 70 to 172, cost $1.1 million.
1909, September 29: Wilbur Wright takes off from Governors Island on the first flight ever over American waters, circling the Statue of Liberty before returning. A few days later he flies from the island to Grant's Tomb and back.
World Wars I and II
1914-1918: World War I island is a major supply base and embarkation point. More than 70 new buildings are erected.
1924: A municipal airport is proposed for Governors Island.
1937-1938: Comedians Tommy and Dick Smothers are born at the base hospital while their father, Major Thomas Smothers, is stationed on the island.
1939-1945, World War II: The island is a major administration center and chief reception center for inductees.
1942: WAC detachment brings the island its first women soldiers.
1965: US Army leaves Governors Island.
1976, July 4: Governors Island is opened to the public for the first time, hosting 20,000 visitors for fireworks and a parade of tall ships for America's Bicentennial.
1983: Burger King opens on the island and serves beer. Other activities for officers and enlisted men include golf, tennis, swimming, bowling, bingo and movies.
1986: President Ronald Reagan relights the torch of the restored Statue of Liberty from the southwestern tip of the island.
1988, December 7: Diplomatic meetings between Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev held at the Admiral's House.
1993: United Nations sponsored talks on the island to help restore democratic rule in Haiti.
1996, September 1: Coast Guard leaves Governors Island.
2001, January: President Clinton designates 22 acres, including the two great forts, as the Governors Island National Monument.
2002, April 1: The federal government sells the island to New York for one dollar.
2003, January 31: The island was transferred to the people of New York.
2003, Febuary 7: Twenty-two acres of the island are transferred to the National Park Service.
Visions for the park
Now that the City of New York owns most of the island, the plan is to demolish all the barracks and military buildings outside the Historic District and create spaces for the public - including an amphitheater, museum, restaurants, athletic fields, nature preserves, bike trails, and walking promenades. A competition was held to solicit design ideas. 29 teams entered, 5 finalists were selected. The two above showed the most promise. Governors Island will likely become a major tourist and resident attraction in the next few years.
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