Fort Columbus or Fort Jay

Entrance To Fort Columbus (Fort Jay) Governors Island, New York Harbor

Even Governor’s Island, once a smiling garden, appertaining to the sovereigns of the province, was now covered with fortifications, inclosing a tremendous blockhouse, – so that this once peaceful island resembled a fierce little warrior in a big cocked hat, breathing gunpowder and defiance to the world! – Washington Irving, “Knickerbocker’s New York.”

The graceful little island of Washington Irving is described in a recent publication of the government printing office at Washington after the following eloquent fashion: ” Irregular in form but approaches nearly the segment of an oblate spheroid, its longest diameter being from north to south, and about 800 yards in length. The transverse diameter is about 500 yards. It has an elevation above high water mark of 20 feet, and its face is smooth and green, with a rich carpet of grass.”

On the top of the highest feature of this smooth, green face with its rich carpet of grass is Fort Columbus, more properly known by its ancient name of Fort Jay. No doubt you will find it hard to visualize the importance of Fort Jay. It is the headquarters of the Department of the East of the army of the United States, you may be told. Yes, you will answer indifferently, it is a quiet little place, not nearly so noisy as the roaring forties of Broadway; it keeps to itself and is a sort of annex to the foot of the city to prevent the seaward view from the Battery being without variety! Yet once on a time, not much more than a hundred years ago, Fort Jay was of so great importance to the city that the citizens all, rich men, poor men, beggar men, and thieves (then, too), turned out in a body to build up the place overnight.

The first point of land ever occupied in New York by the Dutch was Governor’s Island, we are told on the excellent authority of Joseph Dankers and Sluyter, of Wueward, in Frusland, in “A Voyage to The American Colonies in 1679-80:” “In its mouth (East River) before the city, between the city and Red Hook on Long Island, lies Noten Island (Governor’s Island) opposite the fort, the first place the Hollanders ever occupied in the bay. It is now only a farm with a house and a place upon it where the governor keeps a parcel of sheep.”

Fort Washington Point, Fort Lee on Opposite Shore
Fort Washington Point, Fort Lee on Opposite Shore

The fort here referred to was not Jay but Fort Amsterdam, later Fort George, of historic memory, which stood on Manhattan where the Customs House of New York City now is. “Red Hook on Long Island” later was fortified, too, forming one of the line of defenses captured by the British from the Americans in their descent upon New York in the early days of the Revolution. The Indian name for Governor’s Island was Pagganck, and Noten, as above written, or Nutten, or Nooten, came about from the abundance of nuts which could be found on the island.

In 1637, the redoubtable Wouter Van Twiller, first governor of the colony under the New Amsterdam Company of which he had been a director, secured for his personal use the island. It is fair to look at this gentleman inquisitively. “The renowned Wouter (or Walter) Van Twiller was descended from a long line of Dutch Burgomasters,” says Washington Irving, ” who had successively dozed away their lives, and grown fat upon the bench of magistracy in Rotterdam; and who had comported themselves with such singular wisdom and propriety that they were never either heard or talked of which, next to being universally applauded, should be the object of ambition of all magistrates and rulers, many a dunderpate, like the owl, the stupidest of birds, comes to be considered the very type of wisdom. This, by the way, is a casual remark which I would not for the universe have it thought I apply to Governor Van Twiller. It is true he was a man shut up within himself, like an oyster, and rarely spoke except in monosyllables; but then it was allowed he seldom said a foolish thing. So invincible was his gravity that he was never known to laugh or even to smile through the whole course of a long and prosperous life. Nay, if a joke were uttered in his presence, that set light minded hearers in a roar, it was observed to throw him into a state of perplexity. Sometimes he would deign to inquire into the matter, and when, after much explanation, the joke was made as plain as a pikestaff, he would continue to smoke his pipe in silence and at length, knocking out the ashes, would exclaim, ‘Well, I see nothing in all that to laugh about.’

‘The person of this illustrious old gentleman was formed and proportioned as though it had been molded by the hands of some cunning Dutch statuary, as a model of majesty and lordly grandeur. He was exactly five feet six inches in height, and six feet five inches in circumference. His head was a perfect sphere and of such stupendous dimensions that Dame Nature with all her sex’s ingenuity would have been puzzled to construct a neck capable of supporting it; wherefore she wisely declined the attempt and settled it firmly on the top of his backbone just between the shoulders. His body was oblong and particularly capacious at bottom; which was wisely ordained by Providence, seeing that he was a man of sedentary habits and very averse to the idle labor of walking. His legs were short but sturdy in proportion to the weight they had to sustain; so that when erect he had not a little the appearance of a beer barrel on skids. His face, that infallible index of the mind, presented a vast expanse unfurrowed by any of those lines and angles which disfigure the human countenance with what is termed expression. Two small gray eyes twinkled feebly in the midst, like two stars of lesser magnitude in a hazy firmament, and his fullfed cheeks, which seemed to have taken toll of everything that went into his mouth, were curiously mottled and streaked with dusky red, like a Spitzenberg apple.”

The Customs House
The Customs House

After the seizure of the colony by the British in 1664, the island became a perquisite of the governor’s office, a sort of retreat from care for the occupant of that harassed position, and was developed into a smiling garden. At this time it became known as Governor’s Island, the name that has become its official designation on the charts of the present day.

The first immigrants to New York under the English were assigned by the council to Nutten Island for detention until the presence or non-presence of contagious disease in their ranks could be proved. These immigrants were about fifty Palatines who had been driven from their homeland by the war between Louis XIV and Holland and Austria. Subsequently 10,000 followed these first fifty unfortunate exiles. The island thus became the first quarantine station of the city of New York.

During the wars of the Spanish Succession until the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 the people of the colonies of British North America were in constant dread of attack by the French navy and during this time it was urged continually that Governor’s Island should be changed from a garden to a fortified spot. Notwithstanding this fact the successive executives Slaughter, Fletcher and Cornbury did nothing toward carrying out the desires of their subjects.

It was a happy-go-lucky, careless era. Indeed when one looks back upon the perils of the early colonies and how they were survived it is like looking back upon the perils of childhood and wondering how one ever managed to get through. The colonies “just growed,” which is true of a variety of things in this world, no doubt.

During Governor Cornbury’s administration, fifteen thousand pounds (a value in present day terms of far beyond seventy-five thousand dollars) was appropriated for building a fort upon Governor’s Island, but Governor Cornbury used the money to build a pleasure house instead, to which he and succeeding governors might retire from press of business.

Governor Cornbury, we may believe, was an edifying addition to the staid burgher circles of old New York. He was a small, shrimpish man; we are told, and inordinately vain. Being a cousin to her most Christian Majesty, Queen Anne, to which circumstance he owed his appointment, and having been assured that he resembled her hugely in appearance, he was in the habit of dressing himself like a woman and posing upon the balcony of his home, – that New Yorkers might be thrilled by a reflection of royalty. Despite his royal connections his household was most impecunious and his wife gained a reputation for borrowing things, which she had no intention of ever giving back. Whenever the executive coach would be seen going the round of the streets on social duties bent, the good wives who might expect visits from her ladyship would say, it is said, “Quick, put away that fancy work and that vase” (or this and that), “Kathrine! Her ladyship is about to call upon us.”

Fort Lafayette from Fort Hamilton, New York
Fort Lafayette from Fort Hamilton, New York

Father Time strolled on through the terms of the various royal governors noting their idiosyncrasies and continually hearing the cry that Governor’s Island should be fortified, but not by any of these gentlemen did he discover action taken. It was not until after the Continental Congress, October 6, 1775, directed that means should be immediately devised to make New York defensible that the little city one morning woke up to find that there were rudimentary fortifications on Governor’s Island. Of course these fortifications were supplementary to the fort on the main island upon which the city chiefly depended, Fort George. This was the name the English had given to Fort Amsterdam’s successor, an enlarged and strengthened edition of its original.

Of little avail did all of these works prove, however, for the English, after the battle of Long Island, August 27, 1776, were easily masters of the Americans in that part of the world. On August 30th, Admiral Howe sailed up New York Bay and anchored near the island, and the city of New York passed into British possession, not to be surrendered until the close of the war.

The little force of men on Governor’s Island under the command of Colonel Prescott abandoned the place on the approach of the British. One man was injured by a bullet in the arm as they were pulling away from the island. The place was garrisoned by the British during their occupancy of New York and was fortified more extensively than it ever had been before.

The site of all of these works was the site of present day Fort Columbus or Fort Jay.

After the Revolution the value of Governor’s Island as a place of fortification was not taken advantage of and the works were allowed to fall into decay. In 1784 Governor Clinton leased the spot to a certain Dr. Price as the site for a hotel and racecourse. This course was open during 1785 and 1786 and had staged upon it many exciting trials of speed.

We have seen Governor’s Island as a flowery retreat for the governors of New York from the cares of office, and we have looked in upon it in the charge of the rough soldiery of England. We now see it as the scene of the dissipations of the rabble and the lusty young sports of the old city. Yet another day is in store for the historic spot.

After the retirement of Washington from the presidency the irritation between France and this country became intense, and fears were entertained of conflict between the European nation and its young former protégé. Agitation began once more in New York for the building up of the defensive works on Governor’s Island. Pressing recommendations were made to the federal authorities. The story may be taken up and carried on here in the words of a government report:

“The Secretary of War reported, December 19, 1794, that one bastion commanding two low batteries had been undertaken and was in a considerable state of forwardness, but observed that the works being only sodded would not stand very long. On January 18, 1796, the Secretary reported to the Senate that Governor’s Island had been fortified with a fort made of earth and two batteries, under its protection, partly lined with brick masonry; that there had been erected two hot air furnaces, a large powder magazine and a barracks for the garrison; on February 10, 1797, that no alterations had been made since January 1796, except in the repairs and such additions as could be made to the garrison. During this time there had been expended by the general government on the fortifications of the island as follows: 1794, $1,327; in 1795, $6,866.54; in 1796, $1,124.

“But now the apprehension of a French invasion caused such clamor for protection among the people that immediate attention by the general government was bestowed upon properly fortifying Governor’s Island. Thirty thousand one hundred and seventeen dollars was at once appropriated to be expended upon the fort, which now became known as Fort Jay. Such was the fervor of the day that the professors and students of Columbia College went in a body to Governor’s Island and worked on the fortifications with shovels and wheelbarrows.

“Liberal appropriations were made by Congress in the three succeeding years for completing and improving the fort. In 1799, Congress appropriated $30,116.18; in 1800, $20,124; in 1801, $10,338.05. No further improvements were made until 1806, when Fort Jay with the whole of its buildings was demolished except the walled counterscarp, the gate, the sally-port, the magazine, and two barracks; all the rest was removed to give place for a work of durable materials. On the site of the old fort a new one, Fort Columbus, was erected, an inclosed pentagonal work with four bastions of masonry, calculated for one hundred guns, being of the same shape on three sides as Fort Jay, with the addition of fourteen feet on each side, and on the north side of a ravelin, with two retired casemates. Such was Fort Columbus when it was completed in 1809.”

Despite the flurried haste of New Yorkers to have the fort completed, despite the unprecedented exertions of the Columbia students with shovels and wheelbarrows, Fort Columbus, or Jay as it has been re-baptized of recent years in military circles, has never been in active service.

Indeed, during the war of 1812, only three years after its completion, the need of a post farther out to sea than this called for the erection of that quaint little brick strongbox just off present day Fort Hamilton known as Fort Lafayette. It was called originally Fort Diamond but was renamed in honor of the great Frenchman on his visit to this country in 1824. Overshadowed by its great modern neighbor (Fort Hamilton), the little fortification is rarely observed, but it is still in active service and might give good account of itself if called upon to do so, better account in fact than its sire nestling close to America’s greatest city.

Not far from Fort Jay on Governor’s Island is a little work whose name is not unfamiliar to New Yorkers. It is Castle Williams. Begun in 1807, it was completed in 1811 and as a military weapon has never been of service to the city which it was created to help protect. As a landmark in the harbor, however, it has acquired some little distinction solely through merit of the years, just as some men live through an entirely commonplace youth and middle age to become in their last years notable figures in their communities as classmates of Father Time.

At about the time that Castle Williams was being constructed, a similar work was in erection just off the Battery, Manhattan, on a ledge of rocks now a part of the city itself. This was Fort Clinton, which is the Castle Garden, or Aquarium, of the present day. Fort Jay and Castle Williams, Fort Clinton and the Battery were the outing places of New Yorkers before the Civil War. To the Island or the Battery did the residents of the city repair for air and recreation on holidays and Sundays. An illuminating picture of this phase of the city’s life is drawn by Abram C. Dayton in his “Last Days of Knickerbocker Life in New York.”

“Castle Garden, the legend says,” he writes, “was created to protect the city against invasion. Whether these invaders were to be New Jersey Indians armed with bows and arrows or Staten Island pirates bent upon destruction with popguns and firecrackers is not related; but it is certain a very limited force would have been required to effect an entrance through its brick walls. About the time we write of its loudmouthed armament had been removed” (about 1860): “it had been placed by special orders from somewhere on a peace footing. It was neither a concert saloon, an opera house, nor a receptacle for needy immigrants; but the old whitewashed barn was devoted to the restaurant business on a very limited scale, as ice cream, lemonade, and sponge cake constituted the list of delicacies from which to select. The ticket of admission required to pass its portcullis cost one shilling; but that was a mere form instituted to guarantee perfect decorum, for it was redeemed as cash in exchange for either of the above specified articles of refreshment. At the close of a summer day its frowning battlements were crowded with listeners eager to catch a strain of martial music wafted from Governor’s Island.

“Rabineau’s swimming bath was moored to the wooden bridge which connected the old fort with the Battery grounds; and on its roof protected by an awning might be seen, after banking hours on summer afternoons, substantial citizens comfortably seated and refreshing themselves after their bath with the sea breeze, accompanied by mint julep and sherry cobblers.”

Prior to 1852, Fort Columbus was for several different short periods of time empty of troops, but since that year it has always contained a garrison. In addition to being the headquarters of the Department of the East, the old post is now used as a military prison and as a landing place for the aerial branch of the army.

A visit to Governor’s Island today is a pleasant excursion for a stranger in New York and the port would be a new sight for most New Yorkers, so unfamiliar are familiar places to those who are closest to them. One must have a pass from the military authorities at the island to go through the old works, but this can be secured upon written application without great difficulty by any citizen of the United States.

A fine figure of a place Fort Columbus seems to be, – rather a braggart in its way! It spreads out, girded by its “dry moat,” over the crest of the hill on which it is placed, in a truly threatening attitude. But one does not need to be told that this is hollow sham. A single shell from a modem engine of war would, no doubt, finish all of its pretensions.

Looking from its sunny interior beyond its battlemented walls one can see the airy fabric of New York’s marvelous skyscrapers against the eastern sky, a poignant contrast to the old stronghold. Age and youth! In this comparison the fort has that advantage which always inheres in years, it has seen youth grow from infancy and it knows the quick passing of all things.

Forts, History,

Hammond, John Martin. Quaint and Historic Forts of North America. J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, London. 1915.

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