by Kevin Walsh

IRONICALLY enough it’s been about five years since I have set foot on Governors Island, and it was recently made available (via a 10-minute ferry ride) for visits year round. Perhaps this will be the year; I’d prefer to do it before or after the summer, when it’s at its most crowded. Though recently modernized with tourist attractions like artificial hiking hills and a concert venue (built at the cost of the island’s apartments, golf course and Burger King for the armed services personnel who once were the residents), it’s chockablock with historic buildings.

One of these is Castle Williams. With walls forty feet high and eight feet thick, this red sandstone bastion bristled with over one hundred cannons when it was completed in 1811. Named after its designer, Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Williams, it has also been nicknamed the “Cheesebox” because of its circular shape. Castle Williams, with its twin fort, Castle Clinton in the Battery, was built to guard the waterway between Governors Island and New York City. Together these forts provided such a formidable defense that the British fleet never attempted to attack New York City during the War of 1812.

There was never a shot fired in anger from Castle Williams, but in 1966 when command was changed from the army to the coast guard, the cannons atop the fort were fired ceremoniously. The vibrations from the noise unexpectedly shattered all the windows. The Castle was used as a jail from the Civil War through 1966. Castle Williams held as many as 1,000 Confederate soldiers during the Civil War; several died here and are buried at Cypress Hills National Cemetery in Brooklyn. Walt Disney and Rocky Graziano were imprisoned here at one point for being AWOL from the army. Several prisoners are said to have escaped from here and successfully swam to Brooklyn. Castle Williams is called a “castle” not because of its shape or because it housed royalty, but because it was built entirely of stone. Structures built of stone along with wood and other materials bear the name of “fort.”

Much more from this assessment of Governors Island from nearly 20 years ago compiled by my colleague Christina Wilkinson, president of the Newtown Historical Society.

As always, “comment…as you see fit.” I earn a small payment when you click on any ad on the site.



chris March 3, 2023 - 5:37 am

Went to the island in the 70s just because as a civilian I could never go there.
Aside from the castle not much to see.The castle had quite an impressive sallyport.
The guard at the ferry terminal didnt even bother to check our military IDs.We could
have been showing him our library cards for all he cared,Maybe because the Coast
Guard doesnt really have to worry about spies.

Ed Greenberg March 3, 2023 - 7:41 am

> The vibrations from the noise unexpectedly shattered all the windows.

The law of unintended consequences strikes again.

Peter March 3, 2023 - 8:37 am

Walt was an ambulance driver for the Red Cross at the tail end of World War I. He had wanted to join the Army but was too young, so I don’t know how he could have been AWOL.

I suppose he could clear up any confusion about his imprisonment when they thaw him out from the liquid nitrogen.

Edward March 4, 2023 - 12:26 am

Walt Disney is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, CA. How that frozen rumor got started, I don’t know, but it’s totally untrue.

Kenneth Buettner March 3, 2023 - 12:33 pm

Castle Clinton, which is completely surrounded by Battery Park, was not always so. When it was built in 1811 it was fully surrounded by water and could fire at ships in the water in any direction. Over the years the distance between it and Manhattan Island was filled in and then pushed well past it.

EFP March 3, 2023 - 2:48 pm

Walt Disney was never imprisoned or AWOL – he served in the Red Cross and was too young for a combat role in WWI. Similar unfounded rumours often conflate Portsmouth Castle and Castle Williams.

Edward Stone March 3, 2023 - 8:54 pm

In the 1960’ s Governors Island was the Headquarters for the First US Army and Castle Williams was the Post Stockade. Saw
the inmates cutting grass all over the island. As a
teenager I dated a girl whose Dad was a Master Sergeant
stationed on the island. It was an experience to get out to their
quarters to pick her up for a date. Went to the base theatre to
see a movie several times for a cheap date.

Ken March 5, 2023 - 7:50 am

Governers Island was a pretty cool place to explore back in early 90s when it was a US Coast Guard base. The south end of the island had a drydock yard where the USCG could repair and maintain their fleet of vessels. Ias well as the various types of buoys (aka channel markers) you see floating around the harbor.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.