Although Governors Island off the coast of Manhattan has seen an off-and-on military presence since the Revolutionary War, one need not enlist to reach it any longer. In 1996 the Coast Guard – the last of the military tenants of the Island – finally folded up their charts, and while it took a few years and some (luckily) unfulfilled development plans, Governors Island is now open to the public from May to September, finally allowing access to historic Castle Williams.
On the northwest corner of the island, Castle Williams was the jewel in the defensive crown set up on Governors Island to protect New York from attack during the War of 1812. The circular red sandstone defense was finished in 1811, a cousin to the better-known Castle Clinton at Battery Park just across the channel. The eight-foot-thick walls of the “castle” were arranged in a circular arch so that the 100 cannons installed within could fire in just about every direction.
The defense was fearsome enough that it never even had to be tested. The British never attacked New York during the War of 1812. The fort remained and acted as a Union barracks and jail during the Civil War, before being converted to a full military prison later on. The castle operated as a prison of some sort until 1965, when the aging structure was finally decommissioned.
Today Castle Williams is restored and protected as a historical landmark on Governors Island. During the summer months, the castle can be toured with the help of a guide who will walk visitors through the many lives of the historic fort.
Know Before You Go
The ferry leaves 7 days a week from lower Manhattan (terminal next to the Staten Island Ferry), at South & Whitehall Streets. On weekends there is also a ferry from Pier 6 at Brooklyn Bridge Park, at the end of Atlantic Avenue.