Fort Wood

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 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.”

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.