1918 on Gov­er­nors Island

Gov­er­nors Island’s long his­to­ry as a mil­i­tary base stretch­es over two cen­turies, from the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War era until 1996. In 1913, on the eve of World War 1 begin­ning in Europe, U.S. Sec­re­tary of War Hen­ry Stim­son called the Island the most valu­able mil­i­tary prop­er­ty in the Unit­ed States.” Troops depart­ed from Gov­er­nors Island in 1917 to seize Ger­man-owned ships and facil­i­ties in New York Har­bor as the first act of the Unit­ed States in the war. In 1918, at the height of the U.S.’s involve­ment in the con­flict, Gov­er­nors Island served as a train­ing ground, embarka­tion point, and major stor­age and ship­ping cen­ter that han­dled mil­lions of dol­lars’ worth of essen­tial sup­plies and equip­ment, mak­ing it a major asset for the U.S. Army. 

Pre­fab­ri­cat­ed bar­racks on the South Island, Novem­ber 141918.

An island expan­sion project under­tak­en by the Army cre­at­ed the south­ern half of Gov­er­nors Island between 1900 and 1913. Large­ly vacant until the begin­ning of the war, the new land­scape saw its first occu­pants in the form of pre­fab­ri­cat­ed wood­en bar­racks and ware­hous­es that sprung up on the flat, emp­ty ter­rain. A 1918 aer­i­al pho­to of the Island (top, cour­tesy Ann But­ten­wieser) shows a tight­ly packed for­ma­tion of build­ings on the South Island as well as a small rail­road sys­tem. The bar­racks housed sol­diers being trained on the Island, wait­ing to ship out to Europe or oth­er train­ing camps, or, like the 1,000 sol­diers of the 22nd Infantry Reg­i­ment, guard­ing the Har­bor, the Island and the $75 mil­lion of sup­plies and equip­ment stored there. 

Men from a Labor Bat­tal­ion lined up out­side a seg­re­gat­ed mess hall on GI, ca. 1918.

The work of han­dling sup­plies, haul­ing freight, and main­tain­ing equip­ment and the Island itself was large­ly han­dled by the enlist­ed Black ser­vice­men of the Labor Bat­tal­ions. As all reg­i­ments and their hous­ing facil­i­ties were seg­re­gat­ed at the time, Black sol­diers fre­quent­ly lived in poor­er con­di­tions, many sleep­ing in tents on the Island rather than in the bar­racks. Dur­ing WWI, over 80% of Black ser­vice­men were assigned to Labor Bat­tal­ions, whose hard work trans­formed the Island into its war-ready state. On Gov­er­nors Island, a crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant base for the U.S. Army in 1918, the duties per­formed by the Labor Bat­tal­ions were absolute­ly cru­cial to the war effort. 

A loco­mo­tive from the Gov­er­nors Island rail­road. Note G.I.R.R.’ sten­ciled on the engine.

To sup­port the logis­ti­cal needs of mov­ing goods onto, off and around the Island, the Army con­struct­ed the Gov­er­nors Island Rail­road. In 1918, the GIRR com­prised rough­ly eight miles of track and fea­tured six engines to move goods from piers to ware­hous­es and back. While an invalu­able part of the Island’s infra­struc­ture, the rail line was referred to at var­i­ous times as the world’s short­est rail­road.” The tiny but indis­pens­able rail sys­tem helped to ship over $1 mil­lion of sup­plies and equip­ment from the Island each day at the height of the conflict. 

A Jan­u­ary 1919 plan show­ing the con­fig­u­ra­tion of build­ings on GI dur­ing the war.

The war stretched the Island’s infra­struc­ture to its lim­its in 1918, which saw over 3,000 peo­ple work­ing on the Island on aver­age every day. Cas­tle Williams, hav­ing served as a prison for decades, endured its most packed quar­ters yet as near­ly 900 inmates, many of them draft dodgers, squeezed into the fort. Crowd­ed con­di­tions con­tributed to an influen­za epi­dem­ic that swept across Gov­er­nors Island that year, with 516 cas­es cram­ming the Island’s Post Hos­pi­tal and requir­ing tem­po­rary wards to be set up in tents. With the Island buzzing with wartime activ­i­ties, the annu­al spring­time Gar­den Par­ty had to be can­celed. Not all aspects of life on Gov­er­nors Island were dif­fi­cult; music played a large part in keep­ing morale up. The Army Music School, head­quar­tered on GI, saw its high­est enroll­ment with over 45 recruits in 1918, and the famed 16 th Infantry Band reg­u­lar­ly com­pet­ed with Cas­tle Williams’ prison band to play Sat­ur­day night gigs at the Offi­cers’ Club in South Battery. 

The pre­fab­ri­cat­ed build­ings on the South Island were demol­ished after WWI, as seen in this pho­to ca. 1930.

In 1918, Gov­er­nors Island hummed with the war effort — sol­diers train­ing and ship­ping out, freight ship­ments com­ing and going, loco­mo­tives chug­ging along the shore. Few reminders of that era remain 100 years lat­er, par­tic­u­lar­ly on the South Island, where the tem­po­rary struc­tures were soon demol­ished and replaced. That ter­rain, once lined with bar­racks and ware­hous­es, now boasts four earth­work Hills from which vis­i­tors can take in a land­scape lay­ered with his­to­ry, some more vis­i­ble than the rest.