Scout Troop 100 on Governors Island in 1951.
Newspaper publisher John Peter Zenger (1710),
Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (1852), one of the worlds
shortest railroad (8 miles long), Walt Disney
(WWI), boxer Rocky Graziano (WWII), entertainers
the Smothers Brothers (1937-1939), Superman and
Batman Comic book artist Neal Adams (1941)
attack from Brooklyn?
A third fort, South Battery, was built on
Governors Island in 1812 to protect the military
base from an attack from Brooklyn. The Buttermilk
Channel, which divides the island from Brooklyn,
was shallow enough in low tide that Brooklynites
could cross it by foot.
of a British invasion was so great in New York
in the last 1790s that Columbia College professors
and students, along with religious, political
and trade organizations, picked up shovels to
help build Fort Jay. The fort is named after John
Jay, a Columbia graduate and then Secretary of
building in the world:
400 was built by the prestigious architects McKim,
Mead and White, supposedly to stop New York City
Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia from building a municipal
airport on the island. At one time the longest
building in the world, it housed an entire Army
overwater test of the telegraph:
1842, Samuel Morse conducted the first overwater
test of his telegraph between Manhattan's Battery
and Governors Island.
By Beth Schepens
McGrew could get anywhere on Post within 15 minutes. Less if
he were riding his bike, which the 11-year-old boy usually was.
getting to and from the YMCA or teen center in a few minutes had
less to do with how fast he rode and more to do with the fact that
the U.S. Army Post his family was stationed on from 1947 to 1951
was an island in the middle of New York's harbor.
1800 until 1966, Governors Island served as an Army headquarters.
It was home to thousands of officers and their children, who are
often lovingly called "brats."
was a kids' paradise," said McGrew, who went into the Army
himself after attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
"If you were bored on Governors Island, you had no one to blame
on the island was filled with the things routine to every Army brats.
Nights ended with the sound of "Taps" and cannons firing.
Favorite pastimes of the brats included teasing the military police
and then hiding from them, playing on the golf course after it closed
and hanging out at the base pool every day all summer long.
at night, the bugler had only seagulls as his backup band. Cannons
that had been fired during the War of 1812 and the Civil War were
now stuffed with grass and golf balls by the kids who would tip
them at night only for the engineers to crane them back into place
the next morning. Beginning in 1946, a circus was held every year
on the island, using equipment borrowed from New York's Circus Saints
and Sinners, which raised money for down-and-out actors.
Governors Island was smaller and more compact than most posts, a
bike could actually get you anywhere you wanted or needed to go.
kid, at some point, cut through the golf course to get to the two-room
schoolhouse, where dogs, if they behaved, were allowed to stand
by the children's desks. The golf course surrounded a 150-year-old
castle which still held prisoners. The prisoners, who were parolees,
worked around the Army post mowing lawns, shoveling coal into furnaces,
doing fix-up jobs or anything else the officers needed.
was the only way to reach the island. Ships sailed past front yards
and the sun set in brilliant oranges, reds and yellows against the
Statue of Liberty every night. The quarters at the northern end
of the island were buildings that dated as far back as the 1790s
and housed British governors and the likes of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
It was the stuff of dreams and history books.
(Gropp) Konecny would stand in the Officer's Club, a converted battery
with a panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline and a stone floor
entrance that had been worn down to three inches, and imagine life
as it might have been on Governors Island 150 years before. But
even in 1953, the island was fresh for adventure to the 10-year-old
and, at the tip of the island, for as far as you could see, there
was only the Atlantic Ocean and a world of possibility.
was like you dreamed you'd like it to be," said Konecny, who
now lives in Charlotte, N.C. It was so quiet and serene that it
was like living in the country. With so many trees and large parks,
it was an island paradise.
Garry Roosma, who was born in the island's Post Hospital in 1935
and lived there from 1946 to 1950 and then from 1953 to 1955, called
it "a millionaire's paradise, because a millionaire couldn't
even afford to live the way we were living." His mother used
to ring a cowbell to call Roosma and his brothers home in the evening.
House doors were never locked. <Click
here to see a slideshow about Army brat life>
Island had the feel of a small townwithout forsaking all of
the niceties of the big city. Manhattan, with all of its Broadway
shows, concerts, sports, restaurants, stores and oddities was only
a 15-minute ferry ride away. McGrew, whose parents let him venture
out whenever he wanted, let his whim and a nickel subway fare carry
him all over the city.
time I wanted I could hop on the ferry and go to Manhattan, Coney
Island, you name it, for a nickel," McGrew said. "I learned
a lot about the female anatomy at peep shows on Times Square. I
stepped over winos in the Bowery. I hobnobbed with the upperclasses
yet children always came home to a place that was so quiet you could
hear the buoys clanging, the water lapping at the seawall and the
janitors mopping the mess hall.
There was an order to life on Governors Island, Konecny said. There
was a safety and security that a place like New York City could
not offer, that could only be found on a post where the speed limit
was never above 25 mph and cars rarely drove more than the two and
a half miles it took to circle the island once.
In 1952, New York City was just another backyard.
once in a while the city would invade the quiet of Governors Island.
McGrew remembers counting the number of condoms floating in the
water on ferry rides. Roosma, whose father served as Provost Marshall
and Post Commander, said there were three or four times when they
also saw dead bodies floating in the channel. But those were rare
"You were so isolated from what was going on in the city,"
said Roosma, who was McGrew's classmate at West Point and retired
as a colonel in the Reserves. "You were literally on a little
island paradise out there. It was relatively quiet, except when
the foghorn blew. You could hear the clang, clang, clang of the
buoys in the channel in the night in the summer when your windows
were open. But it was almost a kind of music."
Island had a way of staying with the people who lived on it. Tom
Clinard, who was born in the Post Hospital, came back as a teenager
and considers the island his hometown. He created a Web
site commemorating his time there. McGrew still tells stories
about his years on the island. His tales have become legendary among
his friends and family; he once placed fake license plates on all
of the cars at the Officer's Club during a visit from President
has files of documents, maps and memories that he brings out every
once in a while. And he keeps up with the news on Governors Island,
because he feels concerned about what the city and state plan on
doing with a place where his family lived for a total of seven years.
Konecny still speaks with her mother about their two years on the
island. And one of her most poignant memories is that of her departure
from Governors Island for Germany in 1955. "We were at Fort
Hamilton (Brooklyn), and we stood on the beach trying to look at
Governors Island because we missed it so much," Konecny said.
"My mother and I just stood there with tears in our eyes."