The Ignorant Traveler   


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Staten Island Ferry SS Guy Molinari


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By Rich Sheppard

If Governor's Island was available for commercial development, it would likely be the most expensive real estate on the planet. Sitting just 800 yards or so from the southern tip of Manhattan, the approximately 172-acre island is presently an underused oasis in the middle of one of the world's great cities. Approximately 150 acres, the entire southern portion of the island, is currently overseen by the Governor's Island Preservation and Education Corporation, while the remaining 20-acres at the north end facing Manhattan is a National Park and watched over by the National Park Service. The NPS recently opened its portion of the island for free tours, both guided and unguided, a fine (and rare) example of benevolent and friendly government. There is still uncertainty about what will eventually arise on the non-NPS portion of the island. There's been talk of everything from an upscale conference/resort center to educational institutions, to straight commercial use. Time will tell, but for now and forever, the NPS holds the desirable ground closest to Manhattan Island.

Not too many people are aware you can take a free ferry to Governor's Island, which leaves from right next door to the much better known and widely used Staten Island Ferry. The Battery Maritime Building, from where the Governor's Island ferry departs, is a magnificently-restored sublimely-beautifully example of early 20th century marine architecture. And it's best seen on the return trip from Governor's Island, when the gorgeous pressed iron and copper decorative elements on the water-side of the building are visible.

Cornerpiece of the Battery Maritime Building.

Most assuredly, a trip well worth taking, a lovely time away from the hectic madness of the Financial District. Me and web editor LouV wouldn't let a nice late spring Friday go by without a jaunt over there on this little-known journey. LouV, much more familiar with the S.I. ferry he commutes on each day, was especially eager for some diverse maritime experience on an island not named "Staten."

Jersey City boy Rich Sheppard on board ferry to Governor's Island. Jersey City, including Goldman Sachs tower, is in background.  

You might think a ferry going to Governor's Island, an island that has been little-used since the Coast Guard left in 1996, would offer a smallish craft. You'd think the boat might essentially be a launch. Turns out it's a pretty significant-sized ferry, and could easily accommodate hundreds of people and scores of vehicles. It's a darn big boat, and for now - since Governor's Island doesn't register yet as a destination on too many tourist or even native radars - way underused.

The five-minute "hop" over to Governor's Island is like "Part 1" - only of the Staten Island ferry experience, it's over so fast. You do however get to see the Lower Manhattan skyline from a different angle, especially a longer view up the East River to the South Street Seaport and the entire Brooklyn Bridge; you get a little differentiation from the S.I Ferry view which orients you out into the harbor directly after you leave that slip.

Once on the island, we took the walking tour with the cutey Park Ranger guide, very informal, and a nice introduction to the park. There's a long esplanade right on the water looking out to the harbor and up the East River, these are spectacular, inspiring vistas. The might and majesty of vertical New York City is on soaring display. The grand mix of narrow pre-war stone-clad towers and modern glass and steel behemoths is outrageously dazzling. You could spend hours contentedly gazing across at these edifices, deeply appreciative of the joy these incredible engineering feats bestow to your eyes. The sweeping esplanade also leads directly to the island's first attraction, Castle Williams, so off we went.

Dick the Missile Man admires Castle Williams.

I love military history and I love massive military architecture, H-bombs, ships, tanks, missiles, and fortifications. I love Hellfire missiles that come flying off Israeli helicopters and kill terrorist masterminds. Did I mention H-bombs? Castle Williams is an old stone fortification, from the early 1800's. It's a much more imposing counterpart to Castle Clinton, which sits in Battery Park across the channel between Governor's Island and Manhattan. 

Rich Sheppard attempts new “eye-delivered” drinking method.

Castle Williams is a multi-tier circular structure, one of only two of its type in the United States, and the only one four-tiers high. The New York harbor fortifications, which include Castles Williams and Clinton, and Forts Wadsworth and Hamilton astride the Narrows, were wisely never tested by the British Navy. If it can be said the best fort is one that is never attacked, these were some kick-ass forts. 

Too bad Civil War Rebel prisoners did not have these windows…

Castle Williams was used as fort, and during the Civil War, as a not-so-pleasant prison for enlisted Confederates. Looking at it today, you'd love to see some gayrab terrorists rotting away inside the imposing stone and steel grating. The interior courtyard has some dynamite echo-y acoustics, a military brass band in there would be an awesome sound to behold, once can imagine. There are periodic music shows and other events on Governor's Island, but I'm not sure of the band play inside Castle Williams.

The tour also takes you to Fort Jay, which is an inland fort of different design, with a devilishly hidden dry moat you don't see until you're ready to fall in. Had enemy troops landed on Governor's Island and attacked the fort en masse, an attack towards the fort would've ended with many of them at in their last moments falling the ten or so feet into the dry moat, easy pickings for anyone manning the fort's walls. Inside Fort Jay, some beautiful period buildings were once used as barracks; surely one of the nicest places to live in the NYC metropolitan region during any century. The cutey NPS guide mentioned that eventually these structures might become bed-&-breakfasts. If so, rush right out and make rez's, 'cause they will be some lovely lovely historic hostelries. 

Proposed jail cell for terrorists.

We were only on the island for about 90 minutes, but LouV agrees it's worth another visit on a Friday or Saturday when you can wander the public areas of the island for hours, have a picnic, chill out. The grounds are rolling, wooded, and historic, great for families. Or for anyone to just watch the boats, admire the Lower Manhattan architecture, and soak in the timeless beauty of the world's harbor and city supreme.

Rich Sheppard sallying forth from the sally-port.


Dry moat outside of Fort Jay; designed to make fort attackers into sitting ducks.

Lou V continues research on port-o-potty's, examining one found on Governor's Island, outside Fort Jay.

Artwork atop archway of Fort Jay's sally port.