1918 on Governors Island
Dec 12, 2019 1:08 pm
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.