Governors Island has become a popular summer location for New Yorkers to take a day trip on the weekends. With spectacular views of Manhattan, open green spaces and fun tours, its a perfect oasis from the daily grind of the city. However, this little tourist getaway has a deep and rich history. Dating back to the American Revolution, Governors Island was a vital strategic point given its location on the converging East and Hudson Rivers. And any place with a complex history, we’ve learned, has plenty of good secrets to unearth.
In the meantime, here are our 10 favorite secrets of Governors Island:
10. Governors Island was Once Home to Manhattan’s Only Golf Course
The Parade Ground on Governors Island was once the only place to play a round of golf in Manhattan. Built in the 1930s on the southern tip of the island, the course was approximately 800 yards and consisted of nine par-3 holes. The Coast Guard used the course until they vacated in 1996. While the course no longer exists, the location hasn’t lost sight of its roots – a miniature golf course now sits in its place. Its the only free mini golf in the city, artist-designed and part of the FIGMENT festival.
Join us for a tour of the Hidden Gems of Governors Island!
9. World’s First Submarine Used in Combat Was Sent to Attack a British Boat at Governors Island
A replica of The Turtle submarine from the American Revolutionary War as seen in the show TURN in AMC. Photo: Antony Platt/AMC
The Turtle was the first known submersible built for use in combat, constructed in Connecticut in 1775 by Yale freshman David Bushnell so that the Americans could attach explosives onto British ships, intended specifically for the protection of American troops in New York Harbor. On September 6, 1776, George Washington approved an attack on the HMS Eagle, which was moored off of Governors Island.
A sergeant Ezra Lee commanded the Turtle and made it all the way to the Eagle but was unable to attach the explosive. The Turtle was spotted by British soldiers on Governors Island, who rowed out into the harbor. Lee released the charge into the harbor which drifted into the East River and detonated “with tremendous violence,” according to Lee (although there have been no corroborating stories of this incident on the British side). A month later, after an attempt on anther British vessel, the Turtle was sunk on a transport vessel off Fort Lee, New Jersey.
In the AMC show TURN, a replica of The Turtle was built for a scene inspired by these true life events.
8. Governors Island was Home to the World’s Smallest Railroad
All that’s left of the Governors Island Railroad
In 1918, the U.S. Army built a set of train tracks that was only one and a half miles long. Stretching from the pier to the warehouse, the line consisted of three cars used for carrying machinery and supplies. According to a 1931 Railroad Trans Magazine, this railroad was even equipped with a regular crew, including a dispatcher and a track foreman.
7. Governors Island is made from Rubble Excavated from Lexington Ave Subway Construction
Similar to many parts of Manhattan, Governors Island is mainly comprised of landfill. In 1912, the island was expanded by the rubble from the construction of the 4/5/6 subway lines. This Lexington Avenue landfill, roughly 182,000 cubic yards of fill, created the ice cream cone shape of the island. As reported by Architizer, there’s enough landfill in Governors Island to fill approximately 1,100 subway cars that could stretch from the northern tip of Manhattan to Battery Park.
Find out what other parts of Manhattan are man-made.
6. The Channel Between Governors Island and Brooklyn Used to Called the Buttermilk Channel
The small channel between Brooklyn and Governors Island, approximately one mile long and 1/4 miles wide, was once called Buttermilk Channel. There are a few different theories about how this channel received its name but we know it dates as far back as the Revolutionary War. Some believe farmers crossed the channel by foot with their cows because it was so shallow. The cows would then graze on the island. Others believe its named Buttermilk because the channel was so choppy that when farmers crossed, their milk churned into butter by the time they reached the other side.
5. There was Once a Burger King on Governors Island
As we covered previously, there used to be a Burger King on Governors Island. Moreover, during the Coast Guard era (1966-1996), the Burger King was attached to a bowling alley and sold beer! For $3.99 you could get a pitcher and for $2.10 you could buy yourself a cold 32 ounces.
In 2009, the publication Latitudes set up a temporary office base camp “in the former Dia Center building on 22nd Street, transposing daily operations while presenting our publications and other paraphernalia. The office-‘scenario’ was conceived by the New York-based artist group The Bruce High Quality Foundation, incorporating dining furniture from the abandoned 1983 Burger King facility on Governors Island,” the organization writes.
4. Four Hills Up to 82 Feet Were Constructed on Governors Island
There are four hill that make up The Hills. The tallest, Lookout Hill is rises 70 feet above sea level. Slide Hill goes up 40 feet, Grassy Hill is 25 feet up, and Discovery Hill reach 40 feet. Discovery hill will have ornamental and experimental trees and plantings and a site-specific installation by British artist Rachel Whiteread. The park is designed by Dutch firm, West 8 Urban Design and Landscape Architecture, a nice connection to the history of New York, which was settled by the Dutch.
The Hills are constructed from fill made out of the demolition of existing buildings on this part of the island, recycled materials and steel slag from Perth Amboy. The materials were blended in South Jersey and barged in to Governors Island (using 137 barges). 14 buildings were demolished on this end of the island and 100% of the materials were reused amounting to about 50,000 cubic yards. The walls are from the former sea wall on Governors Island.
3. Castle Williams was Both a Prison and Community Center
Castle Williams, on the west point of the island, stands as circular defensive structure made of red sandstone. Constructed between 1807 and 1811, it was considered the prototype for modern fortifications. It served as a prison during the Civil War and again in 1903. But in 1966 when the Coast Guard wanted to demolish it, the castle was remodeled as a youth community center. Its prisons cells were converted into nurseries, meeting rooms for Scouts and clubs, a woodworking shop, art studios, a photography laboratory and a museum.
2. There’s a Rumored Secret Escape Route from Governors Island to Brooklyn
According to amNewYork, the Governor’s House (which, ironically, was actually never home to a governor) is rumored to have a secret under ground tunnel for an emergency exit to Brooklyn. Unfortunately, there is no current evidence to support this claim.
1. Governors Island was Sold to New York State for $1 Dollar
In 2003, after 200 years of federal control, Governors Island was sold to the state of New York for a whopping $1. Then Govenor George Pataki literally handed a dollar bill to President Bush in front of the Statue of Liberty to seal the deal. Negotiations between the federal government and New York lasted for about 8 years before they finally settled on $1. The island was sold with the intention that it would be used for recreational and cultural purposes.
Check out 9 other locations sold for $1 in New York City!
Bonus: There’s a Proposal to Fill-In NY Harbor from Lower Manhattan to Governors Island
Imagine if the next up and coming New York neighborhood was termed “LoLo.” Where would such a place exist? Right in between Governors island and Lower Manhattan, in Lower Lower Manhattan. The Center for Urban Real Estate at Columbia University proposed to fill the gap between the island and Manhattan in a fashion similar to Battery Park City – with landfill! According to the New York Times, the center estimates the project would take between 20 to 30 years and that it would create 88 million square feet of development, generating $16.7 billion for the city. However, the probability of such a project taking place is slim-to-none given strict regulation laws on landfill and the island’s recent booming tourism.
Join us for our upcoming tour of the Hidden Gems of Governors Island!