Sentinel in New York Harbor
Governors Island was one of the longestcontinuously active military posts in the United States. Since the late1700s the island has served as a major Army headquarters and later asthe largest Coast Guard base in the nation. Its military role ended in1996 after over 200 years of service.
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The story began with the construction of Fort Jayand Castle Williams, which were part of the network of forts protectingNew York Harbor. At the time Castle Williams was constructed shortlybefore the War of 1812, these imposing stone fortifications werestate-of-the-art, but advances in weaponry rendered them obsolete by the1830s. Their survival as two of the best preserved coastalfortifications of that period was due to the continuous presence of themilitary and the important role the island played over twocenturies.
The military legacy of Governors Island lies notonly in the island"s physical structures, but also in the stories ofthose who worked to promote the security and values of our nation hereand abroad. One such individual was Secretary of War Elihu Root who,while enlarging the island for Army support functions in 1901,recognized the historic significance of Fort Jay and Castle Williams andsaved them from demolition. The island"s heritage also includes theaccounts of soldiers who temporarily called the island home whilemustered here before being deployed to faraway battlegrounds like Mexicoin 1846 and the Normandy beachheads during World War II.
The history includes the experience of Confederateprisoners crowded into Castle Williams during the Civil War, and their20th-century counterparts incarcerated in the old fort, which had becomepart of the army prison system. Governors Island preserves the storiesof personal achievements like the first successful flight over water. In1909 Wilbur Wright took off from the island"s dusty parade ground andflew around the waist of the Statue of Liberty. Over time this earlyairstrip would serve as an airfield, polo ground, and warehousedepot.
Though retired from active duty, Governors Islandhas again been called to serve, this time for public enjoyment anddiscovery. In 2001 Governors Island National Monument was established topreserve Fort Jay, Castle Williams, and the setting for over twocenturies of military life.
A Brief History of Governors Island
New York Harbor"s abundant waters and lands firstattracted American Indian peoples like the Lenape. Dutch settlers in the1620s took advantage of the diverse ecosystem and established maritimeenterprises. The British noted the harbor"s strategic potential and, by1674, secured it for the Crown.
In 1776 Gen. George Washington"s colonial army madea valiant attempt to fend off the British siege of New York. Patriotcannons on Governors Island fired some of the first shots of the Battleof Brooklyn. The British prevailed and held New York for the duration ofthe Revolutionary War, but the experience steeled the resolve of theyoung nation to protect its harbors.
In one of its first initiatives that was trulynational in scope, the United States began in the 1790s to fortifyimportant harbors with a series of coastal defenses. Fort Jay and CastleWilliams represent this early national effort. By the War of 1812, NewYork Harbor"s installations proved effective deterrents to the BritishNavy.
As the early forts became obsolete, most wereconverted to other uses. Governors Island remained in service as a U.S.Army administrative and training center. In 1878 the island, onceconsidered an outpost, became the Army"s headquarters for the easternUnited States, and after World War II, the First U.S. Army washeadquartered here.
As New York City gained in internationalimportance, so did the prestige of a posting to Governors Island. Forarmy officers, it was recognition of accomplishment and a test ofleadership that often led to more senior commands. Soldiers stationedhere enjoyed social, political, and business connections in the cityrivaled by few other posts.
On June 30, 1966, the Army left the island and theU.S. Coast Guard established the headquarters for its Atlantic AreaCommandits largest base in the nation. For 30 years the CoastGuard and their families enjoyed the same sense of community andmilitary prestige as their predecessors, a touch of small town life inAmerica"s largest city.
Planning Your Visit
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About the National MonumentGovernors Island National Monument is a new national park site stillbeing developed. Visitor access, tour schedules, ferry departure points,and ferry service are subject to change as the park evolves.
Hours and TransportationThe national monument is currently open during the summer season. Dates,hours of operation, and event schedules are announced each spring.
The island is reached by ferry from the BatteryMaritime Building at South and Whitehall streets in Lower Manhattan.There may be a fee for ferry transportation. Private boats are notpermitted to dock at the island.
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Things To DoThe 22-acre national monument includes the historic fortifications ofCastle Williams and Fort Jay. In summer there are opportunities toexplore the fortifications and the national historic landmark districtthrough park ranger programs or a self-guiding walking tour. Servicesand facilities are extremely limited. Bottled water is for sale, andvendors sell food in the summer season.
For a Safe VisitAll visitors and their belongings are subject to search before boardingferries. No weapons or alcohol are permitted on ferries or island.• Walkways and steps inside historic structures are narrow anduneven. Watch your step!
Source: NPS Brochure (2012)
Governors Island National Monument February 7, 2003 (established)Governors Island National Monument January 20, 2001 (authorized)
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