Volume 17 • Issue 5 | June 25 - July 1, 2004

Taking a tour of Governors I.

By Janel Bladow

Downtown Express photos by Elisabeth Robert

Governors Island with Lower Manhattan in the background.

What do George Washington, Wilbur Wright, Burt Bacharach, Mikhail Gorbachev and the Smothers Brothers have in common?

A small island in the mouth of New York harbor — Governors Island, the former Coast Guard base off the tip of Manhattan. Surprised?

In Washington’s day, Revolutionary soldiers fortified the island to keep back the British and enabled General Washington and his battered troops make a hasty escape from what eventually became Brooklyn Heights.

Wright showed off his new incredible flying machine by taking off from the western end of the island for a short flight around the Statue of Liberty. When already smug New Yorkers weren’t impressed with his mini-flight, Wright taxied off Governors Island again the next day, circled Grant’s Tomb Uptown and finally wowed the crowd.

Jazz composer Bacharach entertained the brass at the Officer’s Club while enlisted as an Army bandleader and pianist during World War II.

Former Soviet President Gorbachev lunched with then President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush at the Admiral’s House in what would be the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Many people don’t remember this fact but do recall the famous December, 1988 photo of the trio at the esplanade with nearby Statue of Liberty in the background.

And the Smothers Brothers? Little Tom and Dick were born at the island’s Army hospital while their father was stationed there.

Earlier this week, New Yorkers and tourists learned these and dozens of other interesting tidbits about the lush, green jewel that has been mostly off limits to ordinary citizens for two centuries. They were among the first visitors to take a 10-minute ferry ride to New York’s newest National Park which opened to the public last Saturday, kicking off its second season.

The Federal Government transferred the 173-acre island to New York State and City and the National Park Service in January 2003, ending 200 years of military occupation. Twenty-two of those acres are open to visitors, as the new Governors Island National Monument.

The island’s Liggett Hall, the largest U.S. military building until the Pentagon was built. Originally The barracks were designed by McKim, Mead and White and the building was built to foil the city’s effort to open an airport on the island. It is also the site where Wilbur Wright took off and landed his airplane.

The island’s remaining 150 acres are owned by the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation, a state-city authority. Several groups are studying how to best use those acres. Their decision is expected in 2006. Recent ideas for the island have included a 50-acre park, City University center, marina, hotel, casino, museums and residential buildings.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, 12-year old Teal Baskerville, her father Joel and aunt Wanda climbed aboard the clean, white ferry for the short ride across the harbor. Before the Manhattan youngster heads off to summer camp on Sunday, the family was taking in some sights so many New Yorkers overlook.

“We usually only do these things when we have company to show around,” says Baskerville, who learned about the island tour on the evening news. “It’s been here 200 years and just opened to the public, so we had to come see it,” he says.

Also making the trek was Mike Brown of Laurel Springs, N.J., with his daughter Chrissy, 7, son Tommy, 5, and father-in-law Doug Yochum of Bethelhem, Penn.

“We’re big National Parks fans,” says Brown, who was coming to see the former military base and forts and get stamped. “We collect passport stamps.”

All four have collectible books, “Passports to Your National Parks” that get stamped and hold photos from parks they visit around the country.

“I have about 260 stamps that I’ve collected since 1997,” Brown says. “I think I’m going to be one of the first people to have a Governors Island stamp this year. At least, I hope so.”

As they disembarked the ferry they were welcomed by several U.S. Park Rangers. Leading the hour tour were Ranger Joanna and Ranger Dirk.

“In 1624, Dutch traders landed on the island, which was covered with nut trees,” explained Ranger Joanna kicking off what would be a fact-filled fun 1.5 mile walk through New York City history.

Former Army and Coast Guard houses and buildings are closed, many undergoing repairs.

“This is called the Governor House but no governor ever lived there,” points out Ranger Joanna. “Next to it is the Dutch House but the Dutch didn’t live there and here’s the Admiral’s House. An admiral did live in it.”

The walk though the park-like compound gives visitors a great perspective on the island’s importance in American history. Ranger Dirk explained the military significance of Fort Jay, a star-shaped fortress built in 1794 and surrounded by a grassy dry moat.

The island is also home to Castle Williams, a three-story round fortification with walls 8-feet thick, built between 1807 and 1811 to protect the harbor during the 1812 War. It was later turned into a prison for Confederate prisoners and AWOL Union soldiers during the Civil War and continued to be used as a military prison until 1966.

This walk though history is only topped by the beauty of 100-year-old trees lining Colonel Row, a street of stately brick mansions built after the Civil War to entice young men to join the army, and the view of Lower Manhattan across the bay from the esplanade.

“My favorite part was seeing all the houses, the architecture,” says Teal Baskerville on the ferry back to Manhattan. “Especially the yellow Dutch Colonials. I think they should open the barracks or the houses to school kids for overnight field trips.”

While her little brother Tommy was too shy to talk about what he liked most about the island tour, his sister Chrissy quickly chimed in: “collecting bugs. I got three beetles, two caterpillars and one ant.”

One hour, 1.5 mile Ranger-led tours are offered Monday through Fridays, 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., through September 3. Shorter tours are available on Saturdays, beginning at 10:20 a.m. Tours are free but the ferry fee is $5 for adults and children over 13 and $3 for children 5 – 12. Ferry tickets are available only on the day of the tour, starting at 8:30 am, at the South Street Seaport Museum ticket booth on Pier 16 and sold first come, first served. The ferry leaves from the Battery Maritime Building, near the Staten Island ferry terminal. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/gois or call 212/514-8296.

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