If you’ve spent any time in New York, you’ve probably seen Governors Island, but chances are you’ve never been there. This island in New York Harbor long served as a key defense base and access was restricted to authorized military personnel.
In the period immediately following the revolution, the newly-formed United States fortified Governors Island. Fort Jay was built at the island’s highest point and Castle Willliams near the shore. Administrative buildings, housing and other facilities were erected, and for hundreds of years the island was occupied and run by various branches of the military.
In 1996, in a cost-cutting measure, the Coast Guard reassigned officers and troops, moved equipment and records, and permanently closed the base at Governor’s Island. Once emptied of its inhabitants, the island was essentially split in two; the 92-acre area surrounding Fort Jay and Castle Williams was declared a national historic landmark district and the remaining 150 acres turned over to City and State of New York, which have not yet decided on its use.
This summer, the island’s historic landmark district is open to the public. Ferry service brings visitors from the Battery Maritime Building (next to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal) and tours are provided by the National Park Service; both ferry and tour are free of charge.
Benign neglect has allowed much of the historic district to slide into decay and most of the Victorian manses on Colonel’s Row, once devoted to officers’ housing, remain off-limits. While visitors aren’t able to enter most of the buildings, they are free to enjoy the sweeping views, stroll the wide walkways, laze under the centuries-old shady trees and explore the ghost town the lies only a few hundred yards from Manhattan.