ISLAND ARCHIVES: A Look at Governors Island’s Picturesque Past

Governors Island: Shape shifter
Map of New York Harbor circa 1835. The familiar ice cream cone shape of the island has yet to emerge.

The current and future island have much to offer;  2.2 mile promenade with harbor views, a green for picnicking, lounging and swinging while gazing at the Statue of Liberty, and a dynamic and exciting future park and open space.  However, only one hundred years ago these places were part of the harbor.  The original island comprised only what is now the historic district, north of the Colonels Row green.  The island measured 69.4 acres, half of its current size.

At the end of the 19th century, military commanders were determined to expand Governors Island to accommodate a full regiment. Developments in Manhattan provided a way for this to occur. In the 1880s, New York City’s population boomed, creating the need for improved transportation systems.  The military made arrangements with the City of New York to dump the fill created by the construction of the 4th Avenue subway, New York City’s first, at Governors Island.  Between 1900, when construction of the subway began, and the project’s completion in 1912, the city deposited about 4,787,000 cubic yards of fill on the south side of the island, creating 103 acres of new land. 

The expanded island, about 100 years later.

The initial expansion was created by the construction of a rip-rap bulkhead on each side of the proposed Island extension.  The rip rap wall was an experimental engineering technique, but it was successful and the bulkhead enclosure was filled with the subway excavations and topped with a combination of clay and sand.

Plan showing shape of Island in 1879 superimposed upon Coast Guard era island boundaries and layout.

The increase in the Island’s size took place in the midst of a contentious battle between the City of New York and the federal government for the use of the Island. While plans to expand the military establishment on island proceeded, city officials dreamed of using the island in a host of different ways from an air strip to an immigrant processing center (a role eventually assigned to Ellis Island) and a city park. However, the military persevered and the new expanse of island was used for military staging and to house regiments.


One Response

  1. […] that Governors Island (noted on the map as “Governour’s or Nutten Island”) is half the size of what it is today (the Island was expanded at the turn of the 20th century with landfill from digging the Lexington […]

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