Governors Island National Monument | FORT JAY

Satellite view of Fort Jay

Satellite view of Fort Jay

VISITING FORT JAY

Fort Jay at Governors Island National Monument is open to the public from 10 AM until 4:30 PM during the week and until 5 PM on the weekends. Visitors can wander around the fort on their own at any time or join a 45-minute guided tour of the fort on the weekends. There are very few information panels on the grounds, so I highly recommend attending a tour if you want to learn about Fort Jay. No tickets are required, so just show up at the fort at the appropriate time. For the current schedule, visit the National Park Service’s official Things To Do web page for Governors Island National Monument. For those already at the park, schedules are posted outside the entrance of Fort Jay.

There’s not much to a tour of Fort Jay, for it has not been prepared for tourists to the same extent as Castle Williams. The tour meets at the front gate where the guide begins a talk on the history of the fort, then it proceeds inside to the courtyard where the history lecture continues. None of the barracks are open, and the main features of the fort can be pointed out from the courtyard. The tour goes no farther, so you’ll have to see the rest of the fort on your own.

Barracks at Fort Jay on Governors Island in New York Harbor

Barracks at Fort Jay on Governors Island in New York Harbor

When exploring Fort Jay, there are features that you won’t want to miss. While most of the gun emplacements are now empty, there are a few Civil War-era Rodman guns on display. Rodman guns were the largest cannon from the Civil War. Most were melted down during World War II, but three 10” and one 15” guns were left at Fort Jay for their historical value.

Rodman guns at Fort Jay, part of Governors Island National Monument

Rodman guns at Fort Jay, part of Governors Island National Monument

Empty gun emplacements at Fort Jay

Empty gun emplacements at Fort Jay

The four barracks make up the rest of the fort. Most are closed to visitors, but a few do have exhibits inside that can be viewed through the windows. Old uniforms were on display when I visited. There are plans to refurbish one of the barracks as it would have been back in the 1800s, and this may well have been accomplished by the time you read this article.

Uniform exhibit inside one of the barracks at Fort Jay

Uniform exhibit inside one of the barracks at Fort Jay

HISTORY OF FORT JAY

While tensions between the British and American colonists had been growing for nearly a decade, it wasn’t until fighting broke out at both Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1775, that a true revolution began. Following the initial fighting, the British Army found itself pinned downed in Boston for most of the next year. In March 1776, realizing that control of New York was vital to military success, British General William Howe opted to leave Boston and retreat to Nova Scotia, Canada, where he could wait for reinforcements from Europe. He brought approximately 9,000 men with him.

During this time, General George Washington began preparations for the defense of New York City. Governors Island, a small island a half mile off the tip of Manhattan, was occupied by soldiers from the Continental Army, and an earthen fort was erected. At the time, the island was roughly 70 acres in size, but it had once been much larger when first settled by the Dutch in 1624 (the island was called Nutten Island at that time). Erosion whittled it down over the next 100-plus years.

Howe sailed to New York in late June 1776 with an army of over 30,000 men, and after a half dozen major battles, he captured New York City in September. The city became the British base of northern operations throughout the war. Governors Island was garrisoned by British troops, the earthen fort was upgraded, and a few additional buildings such as barracks were constructed. When the war officially ended and the British evacuated in November and December 1783, the United States reclaimed the island, but did nothing with the military facilities during the next ten years.

Problems with England began brewing once again in the early 1790s. British troops still occupied forts in the Northwest Territories that Great Britain had pledged to leave at the end of the American Revolution, and the British Navy was capturing American merchant ships that were doing business with France—with which it was at war—then forcing the crew into service in the British Navy, a practice called impressment (the British claimed these men were actually deserters from the British military). In addition, Great Britain had closed the British West Indies to American traders.

With a possibility of another war on the horizon, the United States began to beef up coastal defenses at major port cities, a plan that is now called the First System of Coastal Defenses. New forts were built and existing forts were brought up to modern standards. Such was the case with the earthen fort on Governors Island. Starting in 1794, work began on refurbishing the fort and adding two new batteries lined with brick, a powder magazine, two shot furnaces, and a barracks. The fort, which was never fully completed, was named Fort Jay after John Jay, a Founding Father of the United States who would go on to become the first U. S. Supreme Court Chief Justice and a Governor of New York.

In the fall of 1794, President George Washington sent Jay, who was Chief Justice at the time, to negotiate with the British. Details of the treaty were authored by Alexander Hamilton. The two countries signed what would become known as the Jay Treaty on November 19, 1794, though it wouldn’t be until June 1795 that the United States Senate ratified the treaty.

The Jay Treaty was authorized for ten years, after which time it would have to be renegotiated. While it was successful in removing the British from forts in the Northwest Territories and reopening trade between the two countries—and most importantly, staving off war for the time being—it did nothing to stop impressment. When the treaty expired in 1805, President Thomas Jefferson, a staunch opponent of the original Jay Treaty, refused to even submit it for renewal to the Senate (it was replaced with the Monroe-Pinkney Treaty in 1806). This revived tensions with the British, prompting the United States to upgrade its coastal defenses for a second time, a construction phase known as the Second System of Coastal Defenses.

In New York Harbor, construction on four forts began in 1806: Fort Wood on what is today the island with the Statue of Liberty; the Southwest Battery (aka Castle Clinton), at the time located just 200 feet off the southwestern tip of Manhattan; and Castle Williams and Fort Columbus on Governors Island. Fort Columbus was built on the site of the incomplete Fort Jay, incorporating some features of the original fort while demolishing others. (The fort was renamed because by that time John Jay was no longer looked upon favorably due to his treaty, which was never really popular with the public. The name was changed back to Fort Jay in 1904.) In addition to these forts, Fort Gibson on Ellis Island, originally finished in 1795, was upgraded to meet Second System requirements. Construction of a third fort on Governors Island, the South Battery, began in 1812 (this is now the Governors Island Officers’ Club).

The defining characteristic of Second System forts is the casemate: a reinforced enclosure that protects artillery and crew from direct enemy fire and overhead bursts of shrapnel. Prior to casemates, guns were simply mounted out in the open along the top of a fort wall. Oddly enough, Fort Columbus does not have casemates, which limited its defensive capabilities from the start. This was due to the fact that it was partially an upgrade to the unfinished Fort Jay and not a brand new project. Castle Williams, on the other hand, has three levels of casemates.

Examples of casemates at Battery Weed on Staten Island

Examples of casemates at Battery Weed on Staten Island

Fort Columbus was finished in 1808, a few years before the War of 1812 broke out. It is a masonry fort with four bastions and a ravelin that protects its entrance. It can hold 100 cannon and is surrounded by a dry moat. Barracks for 230 men were constructed within the fort walls. While a few of the original Fort Jay features were utilized at the time, most have been replaced over the years during subsequent renovations. The wall on the opposite side of the moat from the fort, called the counterscarp, is the only feature from the original fort that still exists.

Features of Fort Jay (click to enlarge)

Features of Fort Jay (click to enlarge)

Like all New York Harbor forts, Fort Columbus never saw any action during the War of 1812, and over the years it began to deteriorate. The first major renovations took place in 1830. Among the upgrades were four new barracks that were built in a quadrangle configuration with triangular buildings at the corners.

Passageway between two barracks at Fort Jay on Governors Island

Passageway between two barracks at Fort Jay on Governors Island

The scarp (fort wall) was lined with a layer of granite and topped with granite blocks. Four new powder magazines were built within the ravelin and the old ones were torn down. These changes largely survive today, as only minor modifications were made after this time.

Granite faced scarp (fort wall) and original Fort Jay counterscarp

Granite faced scarp (fort wall) and original Fort Jay counterscarp

In 1821, Governors Island began its transition from a coastal defense to a U. S. Army headquarters. It was reasoned that forts protecting the Narrows at the mouth of Lower New York Bay were much better suited as coastal defenses, while Governors Island was better suited as a training ground and a supply distribution center. Fort Jay and Castle Williams housed offices and barracks, and even served as a prison during the Civil War. Fort Jay held Confederate officers, while Castle Williams held enlisted prisoners. Castle Williams never relinquished this duty and became a full-time military prison.

After the war, offices and new homes for generals and other high ranking officers were built, making Governors Island one of the favorite posts of top brass. The island remained occupied by the U. S. Army until being transferred to the Coast Guard in 1966. The Coast Guard used the base as its Third Coast Guard District and Headquarters for the Atlantic Area until 1996, at which time the organization moved to a new location and the base was closed, thus ending over 200 years of military occupation.

In 2001, President Bill Clinton created Governors Island National Monument to protect 22 acres occupied by Fort Jay and Castle Williams. The remaining 150 acres of the island were sold to New York State and New York City for a dollar. In 2010, the state gave up its stake in the island and transferred everything to New York City, which formed the Trust for Governors Island to handle operations, planning, and development. The historic buildings from the 1800s were left intact, while over the years the 1900s buildings have been torn down to make way for recreational development.

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Last updated on January 10, 2022
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