Governors Island National Monument

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  2/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 48 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned A plaque (reproduced just below) visualizes how New York’s historic harbor defenses overlapped to protect Lower Manhattan and the Hudson.  With the actual harbor spread majestically before you, it’s phenomenally effective.
Harbor Defenses, Governors Island
Historic Harbor Defenses, Plus Harbor

I’ve seen three forts (Totten, Schuyler, Clinton) in the course of this project so far, with several more yet to come. Governors Island features a twofer, which (like the others) speak to changing military technology and adaptation to new uses.

All the extant fortifications around New York Harbor and Long Island Sound have two things in common. The military never had to use them to defend the city, and advances in military technology very quickly rendered them obsolete. Not that it was necessarily money down the drain; the mere existence of the chain of forts around the city may well have helped deter attacks from, um, pirates or Canadians? They almost certainly helped ensure New York remained unmolested by the British during the War of 1812.

In any case, Governors Island is home to two historic forts that formerly defended Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan.

Castle Williams

Castle Williams, Governors Island, New York HarborCastle Williams was completed in 1811. Its basically circular shape echoes the design of Castle Clinton across the way in Battery Park. Also like Castle Clinton, this place has had an eclectic history.

  • It lasted a couple of decades as an active fort.
  • During the Civil War, it served as prison for captured Confederate soldiers — and a barracks for new recruits.
  • The Army continued  to use it as a prison after the war.
  • When the Coast Guard took over Governors Island in 1966, they used the fort as a community center, holding dances there.
  • Then the Coast Guard used it for storage, which seems a shame.
  • Finally in 2003, the National Park Service took over to tell the story of the building.
Castle Williams, Governors Island
Castle Williams, Interior

Castle Williams speaks a bit to each of those uses, as well as to the design of early nineteenth century military installations.  It speaks to the defensive problems that needed solving, and how engineers of the time solved them.

Fort Jay

Fort Jay, Governors Island, New York HarborThe second Governors Island fortification, Fort Jay, dates to 1809. It has a sort of ninja throwing-star shape — like the star shape of the fort at the base of the Statue of Liberty. When it lost its strategic value, the Army and later the Coast Guard repurposed it to residential use. The fort’s impressive dry moats now boast lush green lawns, and rocking chairs on the interior porches lend a homey feel.

When I visited, Fort Jay featured an art installation called “Rock Mosquito and Hummingbird: A Prehistory of Governors Island” by David Brooks. It consists of three deep cores of Governors Island’s strata, from asphalt at the surface to Manhattan schist deep below. The cores rest on trays that wind and bend around and through the bowels of Fort Jay like amusement park flume rides for gerbils.

Rock Mosquito Hummingbird at Fort Jay, Governor's Island
Rock Mosquito Hummingbird

I know it’s meant to evoke time and transformation, but I found it just sort of ungainly and eccentric.

Fort Jay regularly hosts exhibits and performances, so you will likely something along those lines if you go.

Are the Governors Island Fortifications Worth Visiting?

I’m not completely satisfied by Castle Williams and Fort Jay. I think that is because access to the buildings is limited — you can’t really explore either of them fully. Both forts offer a variety of explanatory texts about their construction and roles through time, but I found myself wanting more. I didn’t take a ranger-led tour while I was there, but I’d recommend it; this feels like a place where a human storyteller would do much to bring it to life.

Fort Jay, Governors Island

Still, it’s hard to criticize somewhere where you go exploring the basement levels and come upon a door marked “Ammo.”  Not that there’s any ammo left, but still, I respect that.

The two forts also have the advantage of a prime location.  Governor’s Island in these post-Army, post-Coast Guard days has become one of New York’s finest pleasure grounds. It boasts several arts institutions, slides, hammocks, a zipline, food trucks, and rentable bicycles, to name just a few of its myriad delights.

Of the two, I preferred Fort Jay. It’s much larger, has beautiful geometries, and it seems quieter. Practically everyone who visits the island finds their way to Castle Williams eventually. By contrast, and despite its central location, I think they tend to bypass Fort Jay.

Fort Jay, Governors Island

In the end, I think the Park Service does a fine job with its presence on Governors Island. The two forts aren’t outstanding— not worth a special trip just for them. But they do evoke a distant time when defense of the city was vastly simpler and much more tangible. Anyone remotely interested in military or U.S. history should visit. And anyone who happens to go to Governors should be sure to allow time to see these places.

For Reference:

Address Governor’s Island, New York Harbor
Cost General Admission:  Free ($2 or $2.75 ferry charge to get to the island)


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