For more than two centuries, Governors Island, a half mile from the southern tip of Manhattan in New York harbor, has been a mystery to most observers, or – perhaps more typically – just overlooked by the commanding vista dominated by the neighboring Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. From 1776 to 1996, the military installations on the island protected the United States, and the ideals the statue across the harbor represents.
Governors Island is a 172-acre island whose name dates back to the 1780’s when New York was a British colony and the colonial assembly reserved the island for the exclusive use of New York’s royal governors.
Once used by the local Lenape Indians as a place to gather nuts and to fish, the island was the first place a Dutch trading colony settled before moving to the island of Manhattan and establishing the settlement of New Amsterdam. When the town was later seized by the British in 1664, it was renamed New York. When the American Revolution began in 1776, George Washington ordered the island to be fortified with earthworks just prior to the Battle of Long Island (also known as the Battle of Brooklyn) – the first ever engagement of the fledgling Army of the United States with British forces, and the largest
battle of the entire war. The island’s artillery covered the retreat of the Continental Army, preventing the revolution from a swift and devastating end, but New York City remained under British occupation and their base of operations on the continent for a long eight years, the remainder of the conflict.
With American independence from Britain in 1783, New York and the nation were determined to prevent any future occupation of the city and its strategic waterways by an enemy power. Towards that end, two fortifications were placed on Governors Island in the years preceding the War of 1812 as part of an extensive coastal defense system. The first, Fort Jay, is a square five bastioned fort started in the 1790’s on the site of the earlier earthworks. The second, Castle Williams, is a circular casemated work completed in 1811. The two forts are among the best remaining examples of First System (Fort Jay) and
Second System (Castle Williams) American coastal fortification.
During the Civil War, Castle Williams held Confederate prisoners of war and Fort Jay held captured Confederate officers. After the war, Castle Williams was used as a military stockade and became the east coast counterpart to military prisons at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and Alcatraz Island, California.
In 1878 the military installation on the island, then known collectively as Fort Columbus, became a major Army administrative center and, in 1939, the headquarters of the United States First Army. When the Army left Governors Island in 1966, the installation became a U.S. Coast Guard base – the largest in the world. It’s closing in 1996 concluded almost two centuries of the island’s use as a federal reservation.
In 2001, the two historic fortifications and their surroundings became a national monument. On January 31, 2003, the Governors Island National Monument was transferred to the U.S. Department of the Interior and is now managed by the National Park Service.
As a new national monument, Governors Island is not fully operational and is open on a seasonal basis, so services and facilities are extremely limited.
National Park Service Saturday Ranger Programs
The National Park Service has developed a self-guided tour of the Governors Island historic district open to the public. The self-guided tour fact sheet is available at the bookstore, Building 140, next to the ferry dock on Governors Island.
Historic Fort Jay will be open to the public during the day with free 20 minute ranger guided tours offered throughout the day.
National Park Service rangers will offer short tours of various portions of the Governors Island historic district each Saturday. Tours will be offered on an hourly basis at 20 minutes after the hour from 10:20 AM to 4:20 PM. Tours are free, limited to 40 people each and require a free tour pass available only at the bookstore, Building 140, next to the ferry dock on Governors Island.
Read discussion at Wired New York Forum about the Governors Island.
- Concerts on Governors Island
- Figment Annual Arts Event
- Admiral’s House – the place of Gorbachev-Reagan meeting in 1998
- Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation
- Governors Island Blog