governors island

A view of Castle Williams on Governors Island. (Credit: Emilio Guerra)


Secrets of Governors Island


Just minutes from lower Manhattan by ferry, old and new New York collide on Governors Island.

Today, its 172 acres of greenery are frequented by concert-goers, food trucks, artists and sunbathers looking for a quick escape from city life.

But it all started as Pagganck, an island loved by Native Americans for its prime fishing conditions, bought by the Dutch in 1637 for two ax heads plus some beads and nails. From there, the British would take over, reserving the spot for royal governors' accommodations.

The island became a strategic point for generations upon generations of the U.S. military, from the American Revolution and the War of 1812 to the Civil War and World War I and II.

In 1966, the Coast Guard took over, turning Governors Island into both an operations base and a self-contained community for their families. But 30 years later, all of the approximately 3,500 residents were relocated, and the island was left as wasted space, desolate and mostly forgotten.

In 2003, the land was sold to the people of New York for $1, and as buildings were rehabilitated, infrastructures reinforced and public access opened, the sleepy island came back to life, even welcoming a public high school and art studio in 2009.

But as the island's future -- and landscape -- continue to develop, memories of its past linger, with stories waiting to be told... if you know where to look.


Credit: Trust for Governors Island

A train to nowhere

Governors Island was once home to the world's shortest railroad. Built by the U.S. Army in 1918, the tracks were less than two miles long, and the line consisted of three cars carrying machinery and supplies from the pier to warehouses on the island.

A relic, above, was recently unearthed while digging up a water pipe during a construction project.


Credit: Nina Ruggiero

A clear line of fire

While relaxing in the shade of its shrubbery is a favorite pastime of visitors today, Governors Island wasn't always so green. Any large trees were removed from the island back when it served as a military stronghold, to provide a clear line of fire towards New York Harbor, in case of attack by enemy ships. Plant life was reintroduced in the 1870s, and continues to grow, with 67 species of trees and shrubs included in current park and public space planning.


Credit: Nina Ruggiero

Plaques of folly

Bronze plaques are placed throughout Governors Island to give visitors background info on its rich historical sights. Don't believe everything you read, however. Almost every plaque stating a historical fact has a factual error, the National Park Service says, with the exception of the markers describing a war casualty or a battle.


Credit: Nina Ruggiero

The missing wing

On top of Fort Jay (a star-shaped fort just like its neighbor -- the Statue of Liberty's Fort Wood) sits the Trophèe Armes, one of the oldest carved stone monuments in the United States. If you look closely, you will notice that the eagle at its center is missing a wing. A photograph taken of the sculpture in 1864 shows both of its wings and one of the flags missing. The National Park Service believes that the sculpture was never completed as envisioned when the project began in the 1790s, due to either a shift in political parties or a lack of funds. The Army finally completed the statue with both wings and the missing flag in 1903, but the cement they used could not stand the test of time as well as the original sandstone core, more than 110 years its senior. An island legend says a prisoner during the American Revolution noticed the missing wing dangling above the commanding general's daughter, and was granted a full pardon for saving her life. Though heroic in theory, the timing of this tale makes it factually impossible.


Credit: Nina Ruggiero

A fateful flight

Governors Island was the site of the first flight over water in 1909. Wilbur Wright, with a canoe strapped to the bottom of his plane -- just in case (pictured, bottom right) -- took off from the southern part of the island and flew over New York Harbor and around the Statue of Liberty in front of an awed crowd during a celebration of the city's history.

A monument to this triumphant moment still stands on the island, complete with a bronze propeller cast directly from Wright's original wooden one.


Credit: Nina Ruggiero

A forgotten golf course

Governors Island's Parade Ground was formerly home to the only golf course in Manhattan, a nine hole course built in the 1930s and used until the Coast Guard vacated in 1996. The holes have since been flattened, and Manhattan's only free miniature golf course, and a sculpture garden, sit in its place.


Credit: Nina Ruggiero; Getty Images

Birthplace of comedy

Before Tom and Dick Smothers became known as comic duo the Smothers Brothers to 1960s TV viewers, they took their first breaths of life at the island's hospital, where they were born in 1937 and 1939, respectively.

Their father, Thomas B. Smothers, Jr., was a U.S. Army officer stationed out of Governors Island. Unfortunately, he passed away in Japan during World War II, and the brothers were raised by their mother in California.


Credit: Courtesy of Ann Buttenweiser; Emilio Guerra

The secret escape route

The Governor's House (falsely named -- for no governor ever lived there!) is rumored to hold a hidden tunnel, stretching all the way to Brooklyn as an emergency escape route. No current-day evidence has been found to substantiate this claim, however.


Credit: Nina Ruggiero

An infected castle

Castle Williams, completed in 1811 for the harbor's defense, later served as barracks and, during the Civil War, as an army prison.

The castle leaked like a sieve, however, and there are numerous accounts of prisoners swimming to their escape. While some are believed to have succeeded, others drowned or were caught again upon arrival in Brooklyn.

Many Civil War prisoners died -- almost daily, according to a U.S. Army surgeon's reports -- from diseases that ran rampant in the castle. There was just one doctor for hundreds of men in damp and dirty conditions. The bodies of those who succumbed were buried on Governors Island, but later moved to Cypress Hills National Cemetery in Brooklyn.


Credit: Getty Images; UPI file photo

A dreamer and a fighter

What do Walt Disney and boxer Rocky Graziano have in common? Not much, actually. Contrary to reports once made -- and later retracted -- by publications including the New York Times, Walt Disney was never imprisoned at Castle Williams on Governors Island. The National Park Service believes the story that Disney was imprisoned for going AWOL from the Army (he was never actually in the Army) was fabricated by Coast Guard or GSA publicists in the 1990s to add novelty to the island. Knock-out artist Graziano, however, did spend time in the prison after allegedly punching an officer at Fort Dix and attempting to flee his duties.


Credit: Nina Ruggiero

The Chrysler Building's worthy competitor

The biggest building on Governors Island, Liggett Hall (350,000 square feet), was "probably the longest building in the world designed solely for the shelter of soldiers," according to press at the time. It was built to house an entire army regiment and is as long as the Chrysler Building is tall.

Its creation prevented a prior proposed plan to put a public airport on the island from coming to fruition.


Credit: Nina Ruggiero

A recycled subway

The homes on Colonels' Row were built to face the water, back when the island was much smaller than it is now. The southern portion of the island was a later addition, made of landfill from the Lexington Avenue subway line.

Today, a new park is being developed there, using enough clean fill to pack a line of 1,100 subway cars. The area's flat topography will be raised into "The Hills," a group of four hills that will defend the island against climate change, allow new trees to take root and provide 360 degree views of the city and harbor. One hill will feature five slides for children to play on.