Governors Island Explorer's Guide

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May 10, 2012
by Corporal Fitzpatrick
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Memorial Day Walking Tour: Explore the Island

army 1900

Who are these men? We'll learn about them on the walking tour.

The first Governors Island Explorer’s Guide Walking Tour of the season will be on Memorial Day (Monday, May 28) at 2 p.m. It will be free for all veterans and anyone who has the app download. Everyone else $20 each.

How is my walking tour different from other tours of the island? I’m a licensed New York City Sightseeing Guide who has been leading walking tours for 13 years. Let me tell you what’s on the walk:

  • See 50 (yes FIFTY) locations on the island
  • History of all Army buildings and Army housing
  • Significance of all fortifications and military use of the island
  • The people that made the island a home for 200 years
  • Historical trivia galore
  • War of 1812 and the island
  • Civil War locations and tales
  • Insights into life on the island from the Dutch to the present day
  • Current usage of the park and the buildings, what the future holds
  • This is a two-hour walking tour of the Historic District and the National Monument
  • See rare photos, maps and drawings from my personal collection
  • I served in the U.S. Marine Corps so I can handle anything you can throw at me!
  • Plus a special bonus for Memorial Day. You. Won’t. Believe. This.

I love visiting Governors Island showing off its many quirks and charms. When I was researching the material for the app, I came up with so much material that I couldn’t fit into it. Now I can tell you what I learned.

See parts of Governors Island that are not on other walks and talks. Experience New York’s greatest new park for this insider’s tour.

I might not be able to give this walking tour again until September, so please join me.

Info: The walking tour meets at 2 p.m. at the top of the hill when you get off the ferry. The fee is free for veterans and anyone who has the app; all others $20. Cash or credit card accepted. The walk lasts approximately two hours so wear comfortable shoes. I suggest bringing a bottle of water. Kids are of course welcome; unfortunately the island bans dogs. My cell # is 917.526.0597 or you can email me kevin (AT) governorsislandguide.com. Reservations are not required but you can email in advance and say you are coming. You can also follow me on Twitter for updates @k72ndSt.

 

May 9, 2012
by Corporal Fitzpatrick
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Big Changes for 2012 on Island

bldg 4

Building 4 was built in 1855 as officer housing. It faces Nolan Park and will be closed for up to two years.

I’m back to writing about Governors Island as the new season is upon us. The 2012 season will feature drastic cuts in programs and access to the island, which is only open on Saturdays and Sundays (plus Memorial Day and Labor Day) beginning May 26.

Visitors must make do with 30 days this season to see the island. The National Park Service provides limited access to the island on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays (June-Sept.), but a ranger accompanies visitors at all times. No Friday afternoon solo bike rides to Picnic Point this year.

A limited amount of construction work on the island took place in the off-season, however, no old buildings were knocked down. Big sections of the park are closed in 2012, including the largest area, South Island Fields. This means that there will not be a Veuve Clicquot Polo Classic (moved to New Jersey), Governors Ball Music Festival (now on Randall’s Island) or Little League baseball games. Nolan Park is also closed as the historic officers quarters of Generals Row and Colonels Row are renovated. (Colonels Row is buildings 15-20, not the Brick Row buildings 403-410 as the island’s signage erroneously shows).

What to make of this? After huge increases in attendance over the past several years? It is funny, because by coincidence last week I wrote about another historic New York landmark that underwent a multi-million dollar renovation, the Algonquin Hotel. The difference is that the Algonquin has buckets of money coming in every day from paying guests. Governors Island still has not landed a development deal that would make the island self-sustaining and well funded. And for the federal portion of the property, the National Monument that is controlled by the National Park Service, the feds are still giving all the money to the Statue of Liberty, and only peanuts to keep up Castle Williams and Fort Jay.

So what’s been happening on the island, and what changes are in store for 2012 and 2013?

Let’s start with the good.

castle williams

One of the best things about Castle Williams is that visitors can access the roof in 2012.

The National Park Service has been doing the best with the limited amount of funds the Department of the Interior gives to the Governors Island National Monument. The new season is a good time to visit the rangers because it is the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 and one of the most historic moments in Governors Island’s military past. I admit I was more than a little annoyed that the NPS chose last year to have Castle Williams closed, and missed marking the fortification’s 1811 opening. The NPS has now scheduled it to be open this season. For the first time, visitors can go up on the parapet roof, in small groups guided by a ranger. Timed entry tickets will be necessary from 10 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.; there will be 25-minute tours every half hour of the interior and roof that begin at 10:30. This is exciting because it will provide stunning views of the harbor (and the construction work on the rest of the island).

The feds are also making improvements to Fort Jay and repairing the 1790s sculpture above the sallyport entrance. There are guided tours of the Fort Jay interior from the rangers.

Even though daytrippers can only use the island on Saturdays and Sundays, the National Park Service has guided tours on other days from June-September. The rangers offer guided access to the island starting June 13: on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays during the public access season a limited number can tour the National Monument. All programs below are free, but require tickets. Click here for the schedule and tour times.

soissonsDock

The work on Soissons Dock was a big part of the off-season work.

The part of Governors Island not managed by the National Park Service is run by the Trust for Governors Island. The Trust made the decision to work on maintenance and improvements to the park in 2012-2013, before the major renovation work on the island begins. The work started over the winter on the Soissons Dock, the main ferry access point. It was dug up and replaced. A new entrance is being unveiled.

The Parade Ground is the sloping grassy area around Fort Jay. At one time the Army and Coast Guard used the area for drilling and parades; it also had a tiny 9-hole golf course for more than 100 years. In the 1980s part of it was chopped out for a motel and tennis courts, both demolished in the last few years. The Trust is taking the parade ground and regrading it “to allow for flexible field sports” according to its blog. What the hell is a flexible field sport, and will it include organized quidditch? Bulldozers are moving the earth around to make it flat. I’d bet $100 they dig up some interesting items.

There will be a huge section of the park closed for the next two years, and this is South Island Fields. The Governors Ball had an amazing debut last year, more than 10,000 people turned out. It also was the site of celebrity polo games. This part of the park is part of the Master Plan and is being renovated in 2012-2013, but it’s anyone’s guess if outdoor concerts will return in 2014.

nolan park

Nolan Park dates to 1871 when it was "the green" in front of the officer housing. It is closed for two years.

One of the glummest things to report is that Nolan Park’s historic officer homes won’t be open until 2014. These are the yellow family homes that were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for army officers and their families. The Trust is repairing and maintaining the homes. This is vitally important. I saw first hand what can happen if they don’t: last summer I was at Fort Hancock in Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Army housing exactly like Governors Island is on Fort Hancock, which was used for coastal defense and had Nike missile batteries until 1974. Now most of the buildings are falling down shells and eyesores. Luckily for Governors Island, the Coast Guard took good care of the buildings into the 1990s.

The Trust has scheduled arts events and food vendors to return to the island. Newyorkology has the best preview of what is happening on the island this summer. My two favorites are returning, the Figment Festival and Michael Arenella and His Dreamland Orchestra Jazz Age Weekend.

I’ll be leading a few walking tours on Governors Island myself. One thing I’ve learned as a visitor to the island is that it is always changing, and 2012 promises to be on the biggest years of change in a long time.

I’ll see you out there soon.

July 1, 2011
by Corporal Fitzpatrick
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Free Walking Tour July 4

Company E

Company "E" of the 12th Infantry Regiment, drilling on the Parade Ground in 1908. That's Fort Jay behind the soldiers. (Library of Congress)

On Monday, July 4, I’m going to lead a free walking tour on Governors Island. My friend Janice Garingo and I launched the Governors Island Explorer’s Guide in May for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. This will be the first walking tour I’ve led on Governors Island with a real crowd, so please come out. We will meet at 1:15 on the hill above where the free Manhattan ferry docks (it’s called Soissons Dock, for the World War I engagement where the island’s 16th Infantry Regiment lost more than 1,700 men). The walk will be about two hours and we’ll end up at Water Taxi Beach for some Independence Day cold ones. The walk: free. The beer: not.

I suggest taking the ferry at 12 in case there’s a big crush of people; the ferries depart Manhattan on the hour starting at 10 a.m. I timed it so that if you are on the 1 p.m. ferry we will be waiting for you. Give yourself extra time, at least 45 minutes, before the scheduled ferry departure, to make it past the line. The boat departs exactly at the top of the hour. You’ll go to the Battery Maritime Building, which is next to the Staten Island Ferry. Free ferries also run from Brooklyn (every 10 minutes) at Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park, located at the foot of Atlantic Avenue (corner of Columbia Street). The new East River Ferry Service also runs for $4 a fare (and has Queens pick up/drop off); click here for their schedule.

Corporal Gresham

Find out who Cpl. Gresham was and why he's a hero on Governors Island.

Why take the Governors Island Explorer’s Guide walk when the National Park Service rangers give a walking tour? Mine is different. I’ve taken the NPS walks several times. They are excellent and information-packed, a really terrific overview of the history of the National Monument and the historic forts. My walk is unique. If you’ve ever taken my other walking tours (I’m a licensed New York City Sightseeing Guide), which include the Algonquin Round Table walk and the tour of Dorothy Parker’s Upper West Side, you know that I lay the history and trivia on really thick. Because I spent five years researching the material that we put into the Governors Island Explorer’s Guide app, I have a lot of material that wouldn’t fit into it. I know the topics of our walking tour will be material nobody else has, because I dug it up! A few of the topics will be:

Shipwrecks

Dead people

Executions

U. S. Grant

Bootleggers

Drug busts

Army brats

Architectural history

Ronald Reagan

There’s something for everyone on this walk, and it will cover the entire scope of the island’s life, from the Dutch in 1624 to the Governors Ball last month.

If you take the walk I’ll also tell you my five reasons why Governors Island beats Central Park.

Sound like fun? Then meet me on Governors Island on July 4!

If you need it my cell # is 917.526.0597 and I can be reached at kfitz (AT) bway (DOT) net.

May 25, 2011
by Corporal Fitzpatrick
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App is Available for Download

Map

Screenshot of the map on the Governors Island Explorer's Guide app.

We are very happy to announce today that our app The Governors Island Explorer’s Guide was approved by Apple and is now in the iTunes store for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. We are working on a release for Android devices now.

The timing is perfect: The island opens this Friday for visitors.

This is the first and only app about Governors Island locations, history and detailed visitor information. The app is a guide that tells you where all the locations and amenities are on the island; using the Google API we have listed more than 80 spots. It has landmarks, bathroom locations and historic sites. There are more than 100 photos and an interactive map that shows you where you are on the 172-acre island.

When I was researching the content for the app, I went to a lot of sources. It was really the New York history books and military records, the old newspaper archives and historical architecture reports that helped me. I went to the New-York Historical Society, Museum of the City of New York, the main branch of the New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Museum. Plus, I’ve been going out there regularly since 2005 and feel like I was stationed there! There is such a rich history about Governors Island that it can’t all fit in the app; I’ll put some on the web site.

Janice Garingo did all of the design and development, and the app would never have been completed without her hard work. Janice did a fantastic job on the app. It turned out so well.

I’m a huge supporter of the National Park Service and the Trust For Governors Island, the two entities that run the island. Without them none of us would be able to enjoy Governors Island; their hard work and dedication to the island gets a thousand thank-yous from us. We hope this app will let more people explore and learn more about the island.

I hope anyone that loves to visit Governors Island, as well as first-time visitors, will check out and download our app. If you have any comments or questions, just let me know.

Splash Page

Screenshot of the splash page on the Governors Island Explorer's Guide app.

History Page

Screenshot of one of the history pages on the Governors Island Explorer's Guide app.

Army Home

Screenshot of one of the location pages on the Governors Island Explorer's Guide app.

Filter

Screenshot of the map filter on the Governors Island Explorer's Guide app.

May 23, 2011
by Corporal Fitzpatrick
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Blast From the Past: Docs on the Way

Major Hoff

Major Hoff was a veteran of the Indian Wars before going to Governors Island (photo credit: Columbus Medical Journal, 1897)

I could read stories about old Governors Island all day long. That’s one of the great things about the newspaper archives in the Library of Congress. Here’s a great tale from July 1893 that made the inside pages of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.

At the time, Fort Columbus (today Fort Jay) had a busy post hospital that supported all local soldiers. This included those of Fort Wood, which was the small army garrison on Liberty Island. Remember, the Statue of Liberty had only been erected on it seven years earlier; the Army still manned the guns on the island.

In this era before telephone connections, the soldiers used cannons to signal each other. The small-caliber kind were used to signal sunrise, sunset and emergencies. At 7 p.m. on July 5, the day after the island’s Independence Day ceremonies, two booms were heard echoing across the harbor from Fort Wood by the soldiers on Governors Island. Firing two guns had one purpose: medical emergency on Fort Wood.

At Fort Columbus, Surgeon-Major John Van Rensselaer Hoff heard the call for help. However, his assistant surgeon, Captain W. W. R. Fisher, was already on Fort Wood, and had been there since the afternoon. The Governors Island ferry, Atlantic, was headed to Manhattan with a boatload of officers and enlisted men. Hearing the twin reports, ferry Captain Feeney swung the big boat away from Manhattan. “The skipper put the helm hard over, and, deaf to the protests of the officers, steered back to Governors Island,” according the World.

Major Hoff was waiting at the pier (now called Soissons Dock) pacing back and forth with his medical kit in hand. He hopped on the ferry and the captain steamed as quickly as he could toward “the statue on this cruise of mercy, and when her nose touched the pier at the foot of the goddess, the Major leaped for the shore. He was met by a messenger, who hurried him off to the cottage occupied by Private Robert Roberts, of Company A.”

Major Hoff and the other officers rushed across Fort Wood. They “inquired anxiously if there had been a murder, a suicide or an attack from New Jersey, but nobody seemed able to tell why Major Hoff had been summoned when Governors Island’s other surgeon was already on the scene.”

The barracks door opened a few minutes later. A voice shouted:

“It’s a boy!”

The soldiers were thrilled: ten minutes earlier, Dr. Fisher and Fireman Charles Miller had delivered the infant boy’s twin, “a dainty little girl.”

The World’s reporter told his audience: “These were two very good reasons for the ominous two guns that called all the medical and surgical resources for Fort Columbus to its adjunct, Fort Wood.”

May 10, 2011
by Corporal Fitzpatrick
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South Island Field Will Be Busy in 2011

South Island Field is the biggest open space on Governors Island, at more than 22 acres. It’s the area that is closed to the public except for large events. This summer will be the busiest time ever for South Island Field. I was predicting that the island will break the half-million visitor mark (in 2010 it hit 443,000 visitors); now I’m thinking the attendance record will be broken before Labor Day. Here are some things happening on South Island Field.

Polo is back again. According to Amy (New York’s best blogger over at Newyorkology), the Veuve Clicquot Polo Classic will be back on June 5. The last 2 years HRH Prince Harry was on the island; no word if he’ll be jetting over one more time. But how great would it be if he brought Pippa Middleton with him? I saw someplace that the woman who made a lot of the hats for the Royal Wedding also made the ones for the polo classic.

The Little League won’t be tearing the covers off too many baseballs this season. It looks like the Downtown Little League is just going to be out on the island on June 11-12. Maybe they can hold their championship out there? It’s great seeing the kids out on the field. The Coast Guard used to have a lot of diamonds here.

The very next weekend is the debut of the Governors Ball Music Festival. The lineup was announced in February for the one-day show on Saturday, June 18, put together by Founders Entertainment. The headliners are Girl Talk, Pretty Lights, Empire of the Sun (what a great book), Big Boi, Neon Indian and Miami Horror. Tickets are on sale now starting at $95. Here’s an interview with one of the promoters; expect a lot of dancing.

But the weekend that will really set the attendance record will probably be August 26-28 when the Dave Matthews Band Caravan comes to the island, after stops in Atlantic City and Chicago. This will be three days, with about 20,000 fans each day. Aside from the Grammy-winning Dave Matthews, others on the bill are the Roots, Dispatch, Gogol Bordello, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and the Head and the Heart. Tickets are $195 for a three-day pass. Note that New York Waterway is running the ferries for this event, so it won’t impact the lines at the Battery Maritime Building. They are also running from Jersey City and Brooklyn too.

May 5, 2011
by Corporal Fitzpatrick
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He Swam from Castle Williams to the Battery

William R. Webb

Sen. William R. Webb

When I was researching the app, I came up with way more information than I could ever use. A lot of what I found were tall tales and historical stories that popped up. One was about Captain Billy Web, and it seems like this is the best venue to tell his story. If you’ve ever stood on the shore on Governors Island, think about jumping into the water and swimming towards Manhattan.

In the almost 100 years that Castle Williams served as military prison, many attempted to swim to freedom. Most drowned in their attempt, but not Captain William Robert Webb, of the 2nd North Carolina Cavalry. As the tale goes, he successfully navigated the notoriously treacherous tides, eddies and currents and swam away from Governors Island to the Battery. Wearing his gray Confederate States of America officer’s uniform, Captain Webb splashed ashore and introduced himself to several passersby, and truthfully explained that he’d just swum from the island. The New Yorkers he met were amused—and nobody turned him in. He took a train home to the South. Webb got married and had eight children and founded what is today The Webb School in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. In 1912, voters in Tennessee elected him to Congress.

Webb died in 1926 at age 84.