Governors Island is a small, pedestrian-only island to the south of Manhattan and to the west of Brooklyn . It is 800 yards from Lower Manhattan, and even closer to Brooklyn. A trip to the Island takes you to a historic military village just a few minutes from the hustle and bustle of the city. To get there, you have to take the ferry—that’s the only option. No subway, no bus, no rail. The island offers five miles of car-free roads to bike or walk along. I wrote about the island in one of my posts Read hear about the history of the island and about Bush, Reagan and Gorbachev summit on Governor’s Island in my blog.
Castle Williams sits on the west point of Governors Island in New York Harbor. It was built at the same time when Castle Clinton in Battery Park was built. Castle Clinton (West Battery) was intended to complement the three-tiered Castle Williams (East Battery) to defend New York City from British forces in the tensions that marked the run-up to the War of 1812.
Castle Williams was designed by the Chief Engineer of the US Army Corps of Engineers Lt. Col. Jonathan Williams between 1807 and 1811. Before Castle Clinton many American forts were designed by Friench and as a result many fort-related words have French roots - barrette, embrasure.
The eight-foot-thick walls of the "castle" were arranged in a circular arch so that the 100 cannons installed within could fire in just about every direction.
Castle Williams saw no action at the time because New York City managed to avoid the conflict. Later it served as barracks. Starting from 1852 army recruits lived in Castle Clinton. At that time half of all military recruits were immigrants.
The newspaper Harper's weekly wrote in 1861 "Every day from 25 to 30 men arrived at Governor's island from various recruiting offices in New York and elsewhere and are immediately drilled in squads, until they are fit to be formed into companies and drafted into regiment."
Most of the immigrants were German and Irish. Today just five percent of active duty personnel were born outside the United States.
During the Civil War the castle was converted into an army prison. High-ranking officers were taken to Fort Jay, on the island’s other end, where they enjoyed more comfortable quarters. And regular troops went to Castle Williams.
Many Civil War prisoners died from diseases that ran rampant in the castle. There was just one doctor for hundreds of men in damp and dirty conditions. The bodies of those who succumbed were buried on Governors Island, but later moved to Cypress Hills National Cemetery in Brooklyn.
After 1865 the castle became a low-security military prison that was also used as quarters for recruits and transient troops. In 1895 Castle Williams was designated one of the U.S. Army's ten military prisons and a lot of improvements were made - central heating and plumbing were installed. The castle was fitted up as a model prison in 1903.
Over the decades there were several colorful escapes from the prison. Charles Henderson dressed as a washerwoman and walked right off the island in 1901. Virgil Gill serving a 10-year sentence and working as a waiter at a castle function in 1935, escaped in his tuxedo and top hat. He was found several days later at a Broadway cafe after pawning the tuxedo.
For the thirty years following the Army's departure, the United States Coast Guard has headquartered its Third Coast Guard District and the Atlantic Area on the island, making it the largest Coast Guard base in the world. In 1969 the coastguard converted the castle into a community center which included meeting rooms, a day care facility and even a storage unit. The Coast Guard ceased operations on Governors Island in 1997. Governor island now is open for public.
The castle has long been off-limits to the public. After an extensive rehabilitation project in 2011, the National Park Service opened the Castle's to the general public for the first time in the fort's 200-year history. Castle is free to visit, and you can also take a free tour, that takes approximately 30 minutes.
Castle Williams is open daily through the summer from 10 AM till 4:30 PM (5:30 PM on weekends). Access to the Castle's first floor and its outdoor exhibits is free and unrestricted. During the tour you can visit all three levels and the roof.