- The Washington Times - Friday, June 4, 2004

NEW YORK — Perhaps the most remarkable thing about New York’s newest tourist attraction is that New Yorkers want to go there.

Governors Island, a former Coast Guard facility in New York Harbor, was opened for public tours last summer. The tours, led by National Park Service rangers, proved so popular that they are back this year, starting late this month.

Even those self-styled Gotham sophisticates who would never admit to having visited the Statue of Liberty or the top of the Empire State Building may have been overcome by curiosity about a 172-acre harbor island that was under their noses but virtually inaccessible for more than two centuries.

In fact, most of the several thousand visitors last year were native New Yorkers rather than out-of-towners, says Linda Neal, NPS superintendent for Governors Island National Monument.

“Our rangers, who are used to working at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island and hosting primarily international visitors, have been thrilled to see so many New Yorkers visiting,” says an aide speaking for Miss Neal.

“They are keenly interested in what the mystery island that they have seen from afar has to offer.”

What they find is a verdant, teardrop-shaped island 2.2 miles around and packed with fascinating snippets of history dating to the city’s origin as New Amsterdam.

Dutch settlers bought the original 90-acre island from Indians in 1637 for two ax heads, some beads and nails, and named it Nutten Island for its many nut trees. It was renamed for British Colonial governors who lived there.

Separated from Brooklyn by a strait called Buttermilk Channel and accessible only by ferry from Lower Manhattan, Governors Island was for 242 years a military post — Dutch, then British, then American — and only rarely open to visitors.

Although its two early-19th-century forts apparently never fired in anger, they did discourage British threats against New York during the War of 1812.

The last tenant, the Coast Guard, pulled out in 1997 for budgetary reasons. The island, deserted except for a handful of caretakers and migrating geese and rated one of the nation’s 11 most endangered places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, faced an uncertain future.

Proposals for its use included high-rise apartments, public housing, a television tower — even a casino, favored by then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani — before a public and private coalition called the Governors Island Partnership stepped in with a master plan to make use of the island while preserving its character.

In January 2003, the harbor jewel that the federal government had valued at $500 million was returned to New York City for the bargain price of $1.

Proposals for developing the southern half — actually an early-20th-century landfill from New York’s first subway excavation — include open space, maritime facilities and a City University of New York education center, according to the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corp., a state-city entity that is the steward for the island. The corporation also runs the ferry to the island and sponsors tours led by park rangers.

The northern part of the island, which tourists see, is a 90-acre National Historic Landmark District, a former military post of 19th-century buildings in a bucolic setting of towering trees against the dramatic backdrop of Manhattan skyscrapers.

The two forts, Fort Jay and Castle Williams, are national monuments, managed by the National Park Service. Nearby, but not open, is a nine-hole golf course — the only one with a Manhattan Zip code.

Though Governors Island may never compete with its famous neighbors, it does offer an amazing variety of historical touchstones and famous names.

In 1776, Continental troops on Governors Island helped save the fledgling Revolution by distracting the British as Gen. George Washington’s army, defeated in the Battle of Brooklyn, escaped by boats to Manhattan.

Castle Williams, a circular masonry fortress built in 1807-11 with 8-foot-thick walls, housed Confederate prisoners during the Civil War and remained a military jail for a century afterward.

A memorial outside Ligget Hall, the former barracks of the Army’s 16th Infantry Regiment, reads like a Union officers’ roster from the Battle of Gettysburg.

Elsewhere, plaques record the 1710 quarantine of John Peter Zenger, a 13-year-old German refugee later famous for his acquittal in a landmark press-freedom case; the house where an obscure officer named Ulysses S. Grant lived a decade before the Civil War; and a now-vanished airstrip used by Wilbur Wright for a flight around the Statue of Liberty in 1909.

Markers also show where President Reagan and French President Francois Mitterrand pressed a button to light the refurbished Statue of Liberty in 1986, and the Colonial Governors’ Mansion where Mr. Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev held a summit two years later.

Other names linked to the island’s history include Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph; Gens. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and John “Blackjack” Pershing; and the Smothers Brothers comedy team, who were born into a military family at the Army clinic.

Miss Neal says the park service wants to improve tourist amenities — food service is limited to a few vending machines — without altering the island’s “special nature.” The park service also is studying possible waterborne travel links to other harbor sites, including Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

That poses “a real challenge,” Miss Neal says. “Visitors to Ellis and the statue have a full day of experiences. It’s unrealistic to believe they would want yet another experience on the same day.”

• • •

Guided outdoor walking tours will be offered late June through early September. The 60-minute, 11/2-mile tours will be held twice daily, Tuesday through Friday. Each tour will be limited to 40 persons. Tickets will be available only on a first-come, first-served basis the day of the tour. No advance reservations will be possible.

Ferries to the island will depart from Bowling Green-Battery Park in Lower Manhattan. Tickets for the tour and ferry will be distributed at a separate location. Details of the location and the cost of the ferry will be announced soon; check www.nps.gov/gois/pphtml/planyourvisit.html for updates.

The National Park Service cautions that some visitors last summer found the tour more strenuous than anticipated.

Wear comfortable shoes, sunscreen and a hat; bring water; be prepared for a brisk walk outdoors with just a few very brief stops.

For more information, visit www.governorsislandnationalmonument.org or www.nps.gov/gois/ or call 212/514-8285.

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