Governors Island played an important role in the history of aviation. Each week this month will be a historical look at one event in the island’s contribution to the history of manned flight.
The Early Birds Monument is the only tribute to the island’s part in the early days of aviation. It is located outside Liggett Hall (40.687967 N, -74.018033 E). The unique bronze monument is also the first public sculpture on Governors Island.
This rough-cut granite marker has a bronze propeller that was cast from a wooden one used by Wilbur Wright on the Island in 1909. The monument was dedicated on Dec. 17, 1954 to honor pioneering aviators called the Early Birds, an organization of pilots who flew solo before Dec. 17, 1916.
The monument was originally situated in front of Liggett Hall on what was named Early Birds Road. The monument faced what was the landing field for numerous early flights by the men (and two women) who were aviation pioneers. The field in front of the monument was the landing strip. There are two plaques with lists of names. The first are the Early Birds who were the Island’s first solo aviators:
Glenn H. Curtiss
Charles K. Hamilton
Harry N. Atwood
Harry M. Jones
Steve Mac Gordon
Hugh A. Robinson
James J. Ward
Albert S. Heinrich
Raynal G. Bolling
Ruth Bancroft Law
This is a distinguished list of pioneers, many of whom died at the controls not long after they flew at the Fort Jay airfield:
One of the first Army aviators, Bolling was a civilian pilot who flew from the Island to Long Island. In World War I Bolling went to France to command American pilots, but was shot and killed by German troops while on the ground.
The name Ruth Bancroft Law is frequently mentioned with Amelia Earhart, but Law was a pioneer when the younger woman was in high school, and flew across the country and for the military. She died in 1970.
Prior to the United States’ entrance into World War I in 1917, Governors Island was home to an aviation-training center organized by civilians to promote military aviation. There is a section of the Early Birds Monument that reads: “From May 1916 to March 1917 members of the Governors Island Training Corps trained here.” Capt. Philip A. Carroll, was the commanding officer, and Filip A. Bjorklund was the civilian instructor. Some of these men went on to be members of America’s first airplane combat squadron. The list of pilots:
Hobart A.H. Baker
Frederick T. Blakeman
Albert B. Gaines, Jr.
Stedman S. Hanks
William A. Larned
Howard G. Larsley
James B. Miller
Edwin M. Post, Jr.
J. Walter Struthers
Charles D. Wiman
It’s an impressive monument. The eight tons of granite for the monument was quarried on Deer Island in Penobscot Bay, Maine. Fasolino Monuments of Woodside, Queens, performed the stonework. The bronze propeller was cast directly from one of the two propellers used on the first United States military airplane, a 1909 Wright. Modern Art Foundry of Long Island City made the casting. Atlas Pattern and Model Works in Brooklyn cast the other bronze work on the monument.
The monument was unveiled in a fitting manner: a U.S. Army Bell-47 helicopter hovered and lifted a parachute off it during a grand ceremony. For sixty years it stood a few hundred yards in front of Liggett Hall, roughly where Hammock Grove is today.
The sculpture was relocated in 2014 when Liggett Terrace was constructed and Early Birds Road was bulldozed. Today the monument stands on the shady corner of King Avenue and Division Road, a short walk from where Wilbur Wright and Glenn Curtiss had their hangers in 1909.
Kevin C. Fitzpatrick has written and edited seven books with ties to New York history, including "The Governors Island Explorer's Guide" and "World War I New York: A Guide to the City’s Enduring Ties to the Great War." Kevin is a licensed sightseeing guide and has been leading walking tours since 1999. He resides in Manhattan.