Posts Tagged ‘Governors Island’

How Buttermilk Channel got its lovely name

March 19, 2010

New York City neighborhoods and waterways have some wonderfully descriptive names—such as Hell Gate, Rat Island, and Dead Horse Bay.

But there’s something especially poetic about Buttermilk Channel, the narrow tidal strait that separates Governors Island from Brooklyn (at right, in a 1766 British map).

So how did such a lovely name stick?

One theory has it that the waters were so choppy, liquid being ferried from Brooklyn to Manhattan turned to butter in transit.

In the 19th century, Brooklynite Walt Whitman referenced the channel, stating that it was once so shallow, cows could walk across it at low tide to graze on Governors Island.

But a letter submitted to The New York Times in 1906 may have the most credibility. The writer mentions an 1832 book called Historic Tales of Olden Time and explains:

“As late as 1786, Buttermilk Channel was used for a boat channel, through which boats with milk and buttermilk, going to New York market from Long Island, usually made their passage.” 

[Governors Island, with Buttermilk Channel separating it from Brooklyn, above, in 1918]

The Civil War prison in New York Harbor

September 21, 2009

New York isn’t exactly known as a center for Civil War history. But just a half-mile from Battery Park lies the remains of a POW camp that once housed hundreds of Confederate soldiers.

CastlewilliamsmathewbradyIt’s called Castle Williams (left, in a 1860s photo by Mathew Brady), on Governors Island. Built in 1811 as a fort to guard the harbor, the castle welcomed its first group of POWs on September 4, 1861. 

High-ranking officers were taken to Fort Jay, on the island’s other end, where they enjoyed more comfortable quarters.

Regular troops, however, went to Castle Williams—nicknamed the “Cheesebox” because of its circular design. Confined to small casemates, Southern soldiers passed the time playing games and reading secondhand newspapers and bibles, according to Governors Island: The Jewel of New York Harbor, by Ann Buttenwieser.


Castle Williams in an early 1900s postcard

Conditions weren’t good. Within weeks, all three tiers of the castle were packed with more than 700 men, whose meager provisions included little more than a dirty blanket and one set of clothes. A measles outbreak killed at least 12 of them, Buttenwieser writes.

As prisoners left Governors Island—shipped off to other Union prisons—new captured soldiers arrived. Over the course of the war, 47 men died in Castle Williams. Eleven were buried on Governors Island.