Guardian of the Harbor...Governors Island still has that military base smell, like fresh cut grass and aging leather. It recalls a time when the island guarded New York Harbor as a "silent sentinel," against the British during the War of 1812, and against the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
Castle Williams was designed by, and named after, Chief Engineer of the US Army Corps of Engineers, Lt. Col. Jonathan Williams. Williams planned the coastal defense structure after serving as the first superintendent of West Point Military Academy.
The Continental Army stockpiled enough canons and munitions in Castle Williams to deter the British from entering New York Harbor. But when the Civil War erupted Union leaders converted the fortress into a notorious prison. Large numbers of enlisted Confederate soldiers died from rampant diseases like cholera, typhoid, and measles. Conditions were miserable with no heating, no running water, and often no beds.
Fort Jay is the heart of Governors Island. The stronghold, once renamed Fort Columbus, began as earthen fortifications made by Continental Army troops in 1775.The Island played an integral role in the liberation of Europe, serving as the headquarters of the U.S. First Army. The First Army drafted initial plans for the D-Day invasion, which led to the American landing in Normandy, at Governors Island.
The US Army operated the base until 1966 when it transferred control to the US Coast Guard. The island continued to serve the military for the next 30 years until 1996 when budget cuts forced the Coast Guard to close the post.
The Secretary of the Interior designated 93 acres of the island as a National Historic Landmark in 1996. In 2001, President Clinton declared 22 acres of the island, including Fort Jay and Castle Williams as Governors Island National Monument.The federal government sold the rest of the land back to New York City and the state for just a dollar in 2003.
If you don't recognize the flag billowing over Governors Island you're not alone. The flag is known as the "Star Spangled Banner." The design, with 15 stars, is the only American flag adorned with 15 stripes.It's the same type of flag that flew over Fort McHenry when British attacked on September 13th, 1814. Seeing the flag waving during that assault inspired Francis Scott Key to write our national anthem, "The Star Spangled Banner."
Landmark status protects the island's stately homes, storehouses, barracks, and office buildings. Liggett Hall (pictured above) was built to house an entire Army regiment. According to one media report at the time, the structure is longer than the Chrysler Building is tall.
Now the former military installation is just a short ferry ride away from Manhattan. Every year art shows, festivals, and events like the Jazz Age Lawn Party attract thousands of New Yorkers to travel across the harbor to this urban oasis.
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