When I found out that there was a secret military base within a mile of downtown Manhattan, I couldn’t wait to check it out. Governors Island served as a Revolutionary War fort, a prison, and the headquarters of the U.S. First Army and the regional Coast Guard command. For over 200 years, the Island was closed to the public. A few weeks ago, I finally got a chance to visit. It was not what I expected.
Governors Island became a part of American history on April 9, 1776, when soldiers from the Continental Army arrived to fortify the Island (located at a strategic choke point in New York Harbor) to retard the British attack on New York. Those fortifications evolved into Fort Jay (later renamed Fort Columbus), which still stands today.
The Army also stayed. Governors Island remained a military base from the end of the Revolution through the 19th century. Elihu Root, Secretary of War under President (and native New Yorker) Theodore Roosevelt, ordered the expansion of the Island using fill from the IRT subway system, and it eventually became the headquarters of the United States First Army.
The First Army left in 1966 for Ford Meade, Maryland and Governors Island was taken over by the Coast Guard. The Captain of the Port of New York and command staff for the Coast Guard’s Third District called Governors Island home until 1996, when budget cuts forced the government to leave.
Since it had been continuously occupied by the military since the Revolutionary War, Governors Island was off limits to civilians for over 200 years. That changed in the early 2000s, when the National Park Service rechristened the former base Governors Island National Monument.
It seemed like a great opportunity: a chance to explore a virtually unknown patch of land in the middle of America’s busiest city. I was expecting a combination of earthworks and Cold War-style military buildings, all left just as they were when Governors Island was an active base 16 years ago.
Indeed, Fort Jay and the fort/prison Castle Williams still stand. Many of the old buildings from the Coast Guard era are still there too, but are in the process of being torn down. Some had scorch marks on the windows, and were apparently being used in UL testing.
What was surprising was the crowd. I had underestimated New York’s art and hipster cultures’ ability to rapidly colonize. A unicycle festival and a graphic design exhibit were being held the day I went. People lounged in droves on former parade grounds, in the shadow of Fort Jay’s guns and some contemporary sculptures.
One wouldn’t expect tourists to be that interested in military history, and there are other parks in New York that don’t require a ferry ride to visit. There’s a good reason for that, though: the views.
Governors Island is practically in the middle of New York Harbor, and paved trails encircle it. Walking around the Island, you can see all of Manhattan, along with Brooklyn and the Statue of Liberty. That alone makes Governors Island worth a visit.
Anyone who isn’t interested in great views of Manhattan had better hurry. Most of the buildings are being demolished to add more park space, so Governors Island will soon lose its military feel. Historic buildings like Fort Jay and Castle Williams will remain, of course.
A prime urban exploration site might be lost, but the unique vantage point of Governors Island is the real story, even if it does attract hordes of unicycle-riding tourists and hipsters. It’s also free, so if you’re in New York and evenly mildly curious, you don’t have much to lose.
The ferry (about a 10-minute ride) leaves from the Battery Marine Terminal, the old building next to the depressingly modern Staten Island Ferry terminal. The latter might be more famous, but Governors Island is much more pleasant.