Governors Island

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Governors Island, shown in red, in Upper New York Bay
Governors Island, shown in red, in Upper New York Bay

Governors Island is a 172 acre (696,000 m²) island in Upper New York Bay, approximately one half mile from the southern tip of Manhattan, of which it is legally a part, in New York City. It is separated from Brooklyn by the Buttermilk Channel. From 1776 to 1996, first as a United States Army post, and then after 1966 through 1997 as a United States Coast Guard base, the installations on the island protected the United States. The island's name dates back to 1698, when New York was a British colony and the colonial assembly reserved the island for the exclusive use of New York’s royal governors.

In 2001, the two historic fortifications and their surroundings became a national monument. On January 31, 2003, control of most of the island was transferred to the State of New York, but the 22 acre (89,000 m²) Governors Island National Monument was transferred to the U.S. Department of the Interior and is now managed by the National Park Service. As a new national monument, Governors Island is not fully operational and is open on a seasonal basis, so services and facilities are extremely limited.

The 150 acre (607,000 m²) portion of the island that is not included in the National Monument is administered by the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (GIPEC), a public corporation of the State of New York.

On June 12, 2004 the island was reopened to the public for the summer. It is accessible by ferry from South Ferry at the southern tip of Manhattan.

The Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel passes under, but provides no access to the island. A ventilation building is located on the northern end of the island. At one point, a bridge was proposed, whose base would have been located on Governors Island. However, due to concerns of the views between Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, the project became a tunnel.


Once apparently used by the local Lenape Indians as a place to gather nuts and to fish, the island was the first place a Dutch trading colony settled before moving to the island of Manhattan and establishing the settlement of New Amsterdam. Somewhat later, it was purchased by New Netherland director-general Wouter Van Twiller. When the town was later seized by the British, it was renamed New York. When the American Revolution began in 1776, George Washington ordered the island to be fortified with earthworks just prior to the Battle of Long Island (also known as the Battle of Brooklyn) - the first ever engagement of the fledgling Army of the United States with British forces, and the largest battle of the entire war. The island’s artillery covered the retreat of the Continental Army, preventing the revolution from a swift and devastating end, but New York City remained under British occupation and their base of operations on the continent for the remainder of the conflict.

With American independence from Britain in 1783, New York and the nation were determined to prevent any future occupation of the city and its strategic waterways by an enemy power. Towards that end, two fortifications were placed on Governors Island in the years preceding the War of 1812 as part of an extensive coastal defense system including Castle Clinton (or Fort Clinton) at the southern tip of Manhattan. The first, Fort Jay, is a square five bastioned fort started in the 1790's on the site of the earlier earthworks. The second, Castle Williams, is a circular casemated work completed in 1811. The two forts are among the best remaining examples of First System (Fort Jay) and Second System (Castle Williams) American coastal fortification.

During the American Civil War, Castle Williams held Confederate prisoners of war and Fort Jay held captured Confederate officers. After the war, Castle Williams was used as a military stockade and became the east coast counterpart to military prisons at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and Alcatraz Island, California.

In 1878 the military installation on the island, then known collectively as Fort Columbus, became a major Army administrative center. The island played an important role in the legendary Wright Brothers flights of 1909. In 1939 the island became the headquarters of the U.S. First Army. When the Army left Governors Island in 1966, the installation became a U.S. Coast Guard base - the largest in the world. Its closing in 1997 concluded almost two centuries of the island’s use as a federal reservation.

Prior to the construction of LaGuardia Airport in Queens, the island was considered as a site for a municipal airport.

The island was the site of historic 1988 peace talks between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

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