What Governors Island Was Like in 1890

Castle William
Castle Williams, circa 1890. Source: Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library.

What was life like for soldiers stationed on Governors Island? Here is an account that appeared in The World, Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, in 1890. The headline: “Beautiful Lawns and Pretty Homes Under Frowning Guns.” This was twenty years before the Island was expanded by landfill, officers rode horses on the Parade Ground, and there was no electricity. The unnamed reporter includes a brief history of Governors Island (not wholly accurate). Fort Columbus was the 19th Century name for Fort Jay, renamed in 1904.

(Note: No words have been changed).

From The World, June 5, 1890, page 3.

The life of one of Uncle Sam’s soldiers, if he is lucky enough to be detailed to duty at Fort Columbus, is not so very hard after all. At least it doesn’t seem so to a casual visitor to the garrison, who has but to step upon the little free ferry tug and pass across a thousand yards of water to Governors Island.

One passes in a few moments from the noise and hubbub of the Elevated railways, street cars, trucks and howling drivers, vendors and ferry-boatmen at the east end of the Battery into a land of dreamy quiet and scrumptious comfort.

Standing on the eminence in the centre of Governors Island one may gather in the sweep of the eye the spire of old Trinity, Cyrus Field’s giant building at the foot of Broadway, the massive Produce Exchange, the Barge Office and Castle Garden, in the north, and the powerful spans of the Brooklyn Bridge and the turrets and steeples of the City of Churches to the east and south.

A thousand yards from the turmoil the busy mart, yet not a sound, not a whisper of the roar and rumble of the great city comes to the ears over that little stretch of rippling blue water—only the wheezing of the always excited little tugs as they drag great, helpless ships to and fro in the harbor.

Even the loungers in Battery Park are plainly visible, and might be identified with the aid of an ordinary opera-glass, and the Elevated trains, even they viewed from the terraces of the old island, move noiselessly.

To the south the rising shores of Staten Island are but a blue mist on the horizon, and the west Liberty, majestic and grand, stands out against the sky, with the Orange Mountains of New Jersey, hazy and distant, looming up beside her.

And the immediate scene! What peace! A flock of pigeons fly down from the gabled roof of an old white building; myriad sparrows chatter in the branches of an overhanging tree; the notes of a piano, mingling with those of a violin, are wafted to the visitor’s ears across the green lawns from one of a row of neat, broad piazzaed cottages.

But, here is a figure approaching, incongruous to the peaceful mien of the place—a soldier, clad in the blue uniform of Uncle Sam’s boys. He steps with measured tread and walks as straight as an arrow.

Down before the visitor, on the level of the ferry landing, are pyramids of cannon balls of many sizes—enough to blow the Produce Exchange to smithereens. Here and there is a huge cannon, set in these times of glorious peace as ornaments to the lawns.

Quarters 19
The 1890 Officers’ Quarters 19, is a one-family, two-story house, of wood frame construction in the Victorian vernacular style.
Over there are the officers’ quarters, and the old white building is the barracks, where the 103 privates on duty at Fort Columbus sleep and live.

Governors Island has an area of sixty-two acres, and it rises in the centre to an elevation of twenty-two feet above the level of the sea. The Dutch first settled on Governors Island, changing its Indian name of “Pagganck” to that of Hutton, one of its first Dutch inhabitants. During the English colonial period it became on the perquisites of the Governor of the province, and became known as Governors Island on that account.

Some of the Governors lived here, while some other occupants of the gubernatorial office rented the island out for their own benefit.

After the revolution of 1688, and the ascent of William of Orange to the British throne, there was talk of fortifying the city of New York by forts on Governors Island; but for many years after that, indeed until after the Battle of Long Island in the American Revolution, it was used as a playground after the manner now advocated by many thoughtful New Yorkers. In 1688 £15,000 was appropriated for fortifications on Governors Island, but the fear of trouble from the French as allies of the Stuart pretenders being abated, the money was spent in the erection of Summer-houses, gardens, and playgrounds.

Again, in 1784, Gov. George Clinton leased the island to an enterprising fellow who built a hotel and racecourse on it, and races were run there in 1784, 1785, and 1786. Then, in 1794, £30,000 was appropriated for the purposes and the work of erecting Fort Jay was begun. It was from fear of the French, who had not yet relinquished their ambition to annex the Western continent to the French possessions.

It is recorded that professors and students of the College that was so intensely Republican that it changed its name from Kings College to Columbia College were so enthusiastic that they dropped their books and went down to the island and helped the builders lay the stones, bricks, and mortar used in the erection of Fort Jay.

In 1806 Fort Columbus took the place of Fort Jay, and in 1811 Castle Williams, named after old Gen. Williams, but doomed to be called by a perverse public Castle William, under the supposition that it was originally a British fort built by or named in honor of King William III, was completed.

Fort Columbus is an enclosed pentagonal work, and its sallyport was designed and cut out of the brown sandstone by a young British spy who was awaiting execution, a prisoner of war. His name was George Horton, and the commander of the fort permitted him to exercise his skill with the mallet and chisel as a humane concession. The General’s little girl, Alice, watched the young prisoner at work with much gentle interest. The carving was not finished on the day set for the execution, and Horton was given a little more time to live. Then, while the workmen were hoisting the stone to its place over the entrance and the child was playing about, the ropes broke and the stone tumbled to the ground. It would have crushed the life out of little Alice but that young Horton screened her by leaning against the doorpost.

He was crippled, but his life was spared by the grateful General, at least this is the pretty story as related by John J. A’Becket.

Uniform of a U.S. Army cavalry sergeant of the 1890 era of the Indian Wars (Photo: U.S. Army Historical Division).
Castle Williams is circular in form, and is popularly known as Fort Cheesebox. It is of granite, built on a bed of rock. It has a formidable look to passengers on incoming ships as they pass through the Narrows, but it is only a decaying, dismantled ruin now.

During the late war Confederate prisoners were confined in the old cheesebox, 1,100 of them being huddled within its walls at one time. The great guns whose gaping mouths are thrust out from the ports all around this old fort have been silent these many years, and birds make their nests in them every summer.

To the east of the cheesebox, however, are all the “fixings” with which earthwork fortifications could be thrown up in quick time should there be need for them.

The sunset gun is fired every day as old Phoebus’ chariot turns its golden wheels down beyond the western horizon. It is fired from the sea wall outside the old fort.

There is a tradition that the ghost of John Yates Beall, who was hanged here in 1865 for attempting to capture the United States steamer Michigan at Sandusky, Ohio, and release her cargo of Confederate prisoners, walks up and down the parapets of old Castle Williams any dark night.

A row of pretty cottages for the homes of Col. McCrea, Commander of Fort Columbus; Major Gen. O. O. Howard, Commander of the Division of the Atlantic, with headquarters here, and the garrison officers, and on pleasant days a score of children play at mimic war on the grassy lawns, while gallant young officers and handsome ladies amuse themselves at lawn tennis, croquet, and other outdoor activities.

The private soldiers’ life is comparatively easy. The duty in the garrison is not onerous and frequent leave is granted to visit the city, while there is on the island a good library, a museum of war relics and battle flags, a billiards room, and a Gothic chapel.
For more history stories, pick up The Governors Island Explorer’s Guide (Globe Pequot Press).

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.