Sentinel in New York Harbor
Governors Island was one of the longest continuously active military posts in the United States. Since the late 1700s the island has served as a major Army headquarters and later as the largest Coast Guard base in the nation. Its military role ended in 1996 after over 200 years of service.
The story began with the construction of Fort Jay and Castle Williams, which were part of the network of forts protecting New York Harbor. At the time Castle Williams was constructed shortly before the War of 1812, these imposing stone fortifications were state-of-the-art, but advances in weaponry rendered them obsolete by the 1830s. Their survival as two of the best preserved coastal fortifications of that period was due to the continuous presence of the military and the important role the island played over two centuries.
The military legacy of Governors Island lies not only in the island's physical structures, but also in the stories of those who worked to promote the security and values of our nation here and 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 and saved them from demolition. The island's heritage also includes the accounts of soldiers who temporarily called the island home while mustered here before being deployed to faraway battlegrounds like Mexico in 1846 and the Normandy beachheads during World War II.
The history includes the experience of Confederate prisoners crowded into Castle Williams during the Civil War, and their 20th-century counterparts incarcerated in the old fort, which had become part of the army prison system. Governors Island preserves the stories of personal achievements like the first successful flight over water. In 1909 Wilbur Wright took off from the island's dusty parade ground and flew around the waist of the Statue of Liberty. Over time this early airstrip would serve as an airfield, polo ground, and warehouse depot.
Though retired from active duty, Governors Island has again been called to serve, this time for public enjoyment and discovery. In 2001 Governors Island National Monument was established to preserve Fort Jay, Castle Williams, and the setting for over two centuries of military life.
A Brief History of Governors Island
New York Harbor's abundant waters and lands first attracted American Indian peoples like the Lenape. Dutch settlers in the 1620s took advantage of the diverse ecosystem and established maritime enterprises. The British noted the harbor's strategic potential and, by 1674, secured it for the Crown.
In 1776 Gen. George Washington's colonial army made a valiant attempt to fend off the British siege of New York. Patriot cannons on Governors Island fired some of the first shots of the Battle of Brooklyn. The British prevailed and held New York for the duration of the Revolutionary War, but the experience steeled the resolve of the young nation to protect its harbors.
In one of its first initiatives that was truly national in scope, the United States began in the 1790s to fortify important harbors with a series of coastal defenses. Fort Jay and Castle Williams represent this early national effort. By the War of 1812, New York Harbor's installations proved effective deterrents to the British Navy.
As the early forts became obsolete, most were converted to other uses. Governors Island remained in service as a U.S. Army administrative and training center. In 1878 the island, once considered an outpost, became the Army's headquarters for the eastern United States, and after World War II, the First U.S. Army was headquartered here.
As New York City gained in international importance, so did the prestige of a posting to Governors Island. For army officers, it was recognition of accomplishment and a test of leadership that often led to more senior commands. Soldiers stationed here enjoyed social, political, and business connections in the city rivaled by few other posts.
On June 30, 1966, the Army left the island and the U.S. Coast Guard established the headquarters for its Atlantic Area Commandits largest base in the nation. For 30 years the Coast Guard and their families enjoyed the same sense of community and military prestige as their predecessors, a touch of small town life in America's largest city.
Planning Your Visit
About the National Monument
Hours and Transportation
The island is reached by ferry from the Battery Maritime Building at South and Whitehall streets in Lower Manhattan. There may be a fee for ferry transportation. Private boats are not permitted to dock at the island.
Things To Do
For a Safe Visit
Source: NPS Brochure (2012)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
Building & Property Summary Sheets, Preservation and Design Manual: Part III, Governors Island Historic District (U.S. General Services Administration, January 28, 2003)
Cultural Landscape Report for Governors Island National Monument, Volume 1: Introduction, Site History, Existing Conditions, Analysis Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation (Lisa Nowak, 2010)
Cultural Landscape Report for Governors Island National Monument, Volume 1: Treatment Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation (Timothy W. Layton, 2018)
Design & Development Guidelines, Preservation and Design Manual: Part II, Governors Island Historic District (U.S. General Services Administration, January 28, 2003)
Governors Island Disposition: Final Environmental Impact Statement (Edwards and Kelcey Engineers, Inc. for U.S. General Services Administration, November 1998)
Historic Structure Report: Castle Williams, Governors Island National Monument (Barbara A. Yocum, 2005)
Historic Structure Report: Fort Jay Gate, Governors Island National Monument, New York, New York Draft (Barbara A. Yocum, 2013)
Junior Ranger Guide, Governors Island National Monument (Date Unknown)
Land Use Study: Executive Summary, Governors Island (Beyer Blinder Belle Consortium for U.S. General Services Administration, December 1997)
National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form
Governors Island (Barbara Hightower and Blanche Higgins, Summer 1983)
Preservation & Design Standards, Preservation and Design Manual: Part One, Governors Island Historic District (U.S. General Services Administration, January 28, 2003)
Three Centuries Under Three Flags: The Story of Governors Island from 1637 (Headquarters First Army, 1951)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 02-Dec-2021