April 30, 2010
Living (in) History…
This week I was lucky enough to work at General Grant National Memorial for his 188th birthday celebration. I was there to perform living history presentations and interpret the life of a soldier in the late 19th century. Living History is defined as an activity that incorporates historical tools, activities and dress into an interactive presentation that seeks to give observers and participants a sense of stepping back in time. For cultural sites in the National Park System it can be one of the biggest draws for visitors. From here at Governors Island National Monument, to Colonial National Historic Site, to Fort Pulaski National Monument, all the way to Castillo de San Marcos National Monument in Florida, many parks offer regular living history programs. Of all the parks I have visited I would say Fort Pulaski’s cannon demonstrations during the summer are one of the best experiences. (I highly recommend visiting Fort Pulaski, one of the best parks in the system).
For years I’ve wanted to actively participate in a living history demonstration and the actual experience matched my best expectations. As I look back on the experience and reflect, I start to think about the name “living history.” True the experience gives us a chance to see what life would have been like for men and women throughout history, but aren’t we living history everyday…
My experiences in the Park Service have allowed me to witness events that in one way or another will go down in history. Last summer President Obama visited Yellowstone National Park and I worked the event. I was at Fort Sumter National Monument when the Park Service took over the Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse (the last major lighthouse built in the US). While I’ve been here in New York I’ve had the opportunity to work at African Burial Ground National Monument for the Grand Opening of their new visitor center and I was on Governors Island when the state of New York turned 150 acres of the island over to the city.
When we look at these events now, we think they are small and everyday events, but we have no idea what people 150 years from now will think about these events. When Abraham Lincoln visited New York City on February 25th 1860 to speak at the Great Hall of the Cooper Institute, the 150 people who listened to him had no idea that this man would become the 16th President, much less one of the most respected Presidents of all time. It’s important to remember that living in history can be just as much fun as watching a cannon firing.
April 7, 2010
Busy! Busy! Busy!
Spring time in the National Park Service! Busy is the only way to describe it. For most parks that are open year round, it all starts in March and April when the spring break crowd shows up out of, what seems like nowhere. One day they have fifty visitors and the next it’s up to 2000. No matter how much you prepare yourself as a Ranger it always seems to come up rather quickly.
Not long after the spring breakers head back to school, the school groups pour in to the parks. Local schools look for places to take field trips and National Parks are quite possibly the best place for teachers to bring their students. In addition to local schools, schools from all over the country are planning their big overnight trips (you know the ones where everyone wears the same shirt so no one gets lost). I remember when I took this trip in eighth grade to Washington DC, 60% of our trip took place on National Park lands and was facilitated by Park Rangers. Before we know it parks are in full summer mode; the best part of the year for a Ranger in my opinion.
For those of us in the parks that don’t have year round visitors the atmosphere of busyness is not lost. Parks in this situation may not have the hundreds of school kids running around but there are plenty of things to keep them busy. Rangers try to finish up all the projects they started over the winter when they thought they had all the time in the world. Parks work to get the summer staff up to speed on the park. The phone starts to ring continuously with all the visitors eager for the park to open once again.
Working in a park during the spring is a lot of fun. As Rangers, we get to see the trees and the flowers slowly come back to life every day. We are anxious to get out from behind our computer screens and back in front of the people. This will be my first summer at Governors Island and I’m really excited about it and to continue to share my experiences through this blog.
March 19, 2010
The toys of our youth…
While moving some books and furniture around this week I came across a collection of toy soldiers in the office and became very curious about them. When I ask about the toys, I was told that last summer while doing some regular maintenance work, a Rangers discovered the stash of toy soldiers or Army Men inside the courtyard of Fort Jay, beyond that there was very little information to go on. So I began to dig through the web and my curiosity lead me through an in-depth journey into the story behind these toys. In all there are ten pieces in our small collection, most of which are marked on their feet with the initials ZK.
The first two pieces identified were the largest pieces standing at about 2.5 inches a piece. After stumbling onto a picture of them on the web I was able to learn all about them. These pieces are modeled after US Army soldiers from 1943 and were produced in the early sixties by a company called Marx/Lido Toys. These soldiers are green plastic, both standing, one represents a machine gunner and the other is a charging soldier with a bayonet affixed to his M1 rifle. These are the oldest pieces in our collection and there is some evidence to suggest they were passed down to the owner “ZK” who eventually buried them at Fort Jay.
The second set of soldiers identified were five pieces produced by the Tim Mee company. These pieces are slightly smaller and represent soldiers from a different era than the first set. Two of the soldiers are green, one is shooting a bazooka and the other is a radioman transmitting a message. Then there is a howitzer field cannon which is also green and has a couple of worn-out stickers on it that may or may not have come with the set. The final two pieces in this set are tan in color, one is crawling with an M16-A1 and the other is loading a mortar. This five piece set could have come together in one bag or is a mixed collection from one company collected over time by ZK. These pieces are somewhat rare because they were produced in the late sixties when many toy soldier companies stopped production because of anti-war sentiments surrounding the Vietnam War.
The final three pieces in our collection cannot be identified at this point. The Army Men toys were so popular, cheap, and numerous that companies didn’t bother branding them, which makes research difficult. These pieces are a lighter green featuring a soldier standing with an M1 rifle, a jeep, and field cannon.
This research has been a lot of fun for a kid-at-heart like me; although I don’t remember having Toy soldiers as a child I remember them mostly from their scenes in the Pixar movie Toy Story. The Army Men were featured multiple times during that film most notably when they conducted “birthday reconnaissance’ during Andy’s party and when Sid blew one up with a firecracker in his backyard. Luckily for us here at Governors Island in the real world “ZK” did not do the same and we get a brief window into the past.
Want to see a picture of the little guys visit my Twitter page for a link.
March 10, 2010
Dare I say…springtime
Well I would hate to jinks myself, but over the past few days it seems like spring just may be rolling into the New York area, a welcome sign for this Southerner. We’ve been on a bit of a warm streak lately just barely missing the sixty degree mark over the past five days. I’ve finally been able to leave the snow jacket at home and break out the old Park Service fleece, of which I have always been a big fan. Sunday brings us daylight savings time when we’ll all jump ahead an hour (with exception of Arizona of course). Sunset will be pushed all the way back to seven o’clock, a far cry from the four thirty sunset of early January.
Out here on our little island of grass and trees just outside of the concrete jungle the stage is set for the return of green grass and trees filled with leaves. Although none of the original trees remain on the island from the pre-European days, we have a great assortment of trees ready to provide shade to the thousands of visitors who will visit the island this summer. However, there is one tree that is not quite ready to take on that task, the American Chestnut Tree.
The American Chestnut used to be one of the most dominating trees on the American landscape. During the nineteenth century these trees stretched along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains reaching from parts of Maine all the way into Florida and from the eastern foothills to the Ohio Valley. However, at the turn of the century chestnut blight was discovered in trees at the Bronx Zoological Gardens. Within years virtually all (99.9%) American Chestnut trees in the United States were gone, nearly four billion trees, a quarter of the country’s hardwood population. Through the efforts of the National Park Service, the American Chestnut Foundation, as well as many other organizations, there is an attempt to return the American Chestnut to the soil it once dominated. Through research a technique was developed to create blight-resistant trees. Five of those saplings were planted here at Governors Island National Monument in December of 2008 and I am excited to see them grow, and “come alive” if you will, during this coming spring. Hopefully, when the next generation of park visitors start bringing their children to the island they will be trying to keep them from climbing too high in the majestic American Chestnut.
March 1, 2010
National Historic what???
Governors Island is a 172 acre island in the middle of New York Harbor, Governors Island National Monument however is only 22 acres in area, so what’s the deal with the other 150 acres of the island?
Well the island is divided into many different areas, the immediate 78 acres surrounding the Monument are part of a National Historic Landmark District and the remaining 72 acres on the south end of the island are landfill from the construction of the 4, 5, 6 subway line. The City and State of New York own the entire 150 acres and they administer the land through the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation or GIPEC. The 72 acres of the south end of the island will be changed in some form or fashion that is yet to be determined, but will include a public park. The 22 acres of the park will clearly be maintained by the NPS in order to fulfill its mission. So what about the 78 acres of the National Historic Landmark District that are outside of the Monument and while we’re on the subject; what is a National Historic Landmark anyway?
In 1935 Congress passed the Historic Sites Act which allows the Secretary of Interior, through the National Park Service, to set aside certain areas or buildings of national significance as National Historic Landmarks. These landmarks can be found throughout the country from coast to coast. Here at Governors Island there is a whole district comprised of buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries. At my last post in Yellowstone, I worked at the Northeast Entrance Station built in 1934 was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985. In my hometown of Charleston, SC there are 42 landmarks including historic plantations, revolutionary war powder magazine, college buildings, and even the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier. So you can see the vast extent of these designations but what do these landmarks truly represent, the Empire State Building is a National Historic Landmark but when you go there you will not find a National Park Ranger waiting to tell you the story of the building. Designation as a historic landmark merely allows the owner of the property, whether they are private or public entities, support through the National Park Service in the preservation of the site and/or building. Designation does not however dictate how the site is to be managed or preserved. Unfortunately, if the owners of the Empire State Building decided to tear it down and build a new building there, its current designation would not save it from demolition.
So what about the buildings that make up the Governors Island National Historic Landmark District, what will happen to them? Luckily the city and state of New York created an organization that has preservation in its name to oversee the land so we are confident these buildings will be around for many years to come. Partnered with this organization, the National Park Service is able to give tours of the entire district during the open season, allowing visitors to learn about the national importance of this island.
To find out about National Historic Landmarks in your area and to learn how you can help to preserve them visit their website at www.nps.gov/nhl
February 12, 2010
Those who came before us…
“Winter is here. Weather cold and clear. The earth is frozen hard.”
-Lieutenant Alonzo E. Bell
Co. I, 32nd Regiment NC Troops
Prisoner of War 1861-1862
Well for any of you watching the news recently, you certainly know that winter has arrived on the East Coast. Washington DC, Baltimore, and Philadelphia have all set new records for winter snow fall. For the NPS in New York, Wednesday the 10th meant shutting down and keeping employees at home. This is my first winter in the north and my first opportunity to see a snow storm with my own eyes. Growing up in the south my memories of snow are extremely limited, I know there was a storm in December of 1989 right after Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston, but I was only two at the time. For me snow was always exciting, it was like Disney World, you only got to see it every so often and when you did it was never enough.
You could say the last 48 hours have changed my understanding and appreciation for the definitions of winter and snow. However, they have also changed my appreciation for what the southern men, who were imprisoned here at Governors Island, must have gone through. Thankfully, I’ve never been imprisoned, but I have been inside the cells in Castle Williams and I know how they would have looked during the Civil War. These cells were open casemates with only one wall that had two open embrasures (or windows) and had floors made of stone and wood which were covered with hay. These men had, like me, rarely ever experienced winter in the north. However, unlike me, they were not well provisioned to handle the cold.
During the Civil War both sides, north and south, were woefully unprepared for the way the war would progress and thus were not prepared to deal with prisoners of war. In fact, the United States would not recognize Confederate prisoners as “prisoners of war” because the US government did not recognize the Confederate States as a nation. This meant that when prisoners arrived at Fort Columbus and Castle Williams, they were housed in the only available space, whether that space was meant to house men or not. Eventually, as the war progressed things would improve for the prisoners at Castle Williams as people became aware of the conditions there. Using Castle Williams as a prison during the Civil War would define its use for the next century.
Today we look at the snow covered landscape of Governors Island and we stand in awe of its beauty but as we do we should remember the struggle many men went through on the island. Next time you are out enjoying the snow I would encourage you to pause and think about the people who lived there a hundred years before you would have handled the weather, and be thankful there is a warm place for you to go when you are done.
February 5, 2010
One of the best things about working for the National Park Service is getting to visit so many wonderful places and work all over the country. During my personal travels, I have visited over 60 park sites from The Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, all the way to Yellowstone National Park and finally to my current park Governors Island National Monument. These parks vary widely in what they encompass, where they are, what you see, and what you do when visit. However, no matter which park you visit, whether it be the original park or one of the newest, there is one constant (other than those guys and gals running around in funny hats) you will make a connection with these parks in some way or another.
Taking my current location as an example the connections are endless. The similarities between New York City and Charleston, SC are numerous although not always obvious. Both coastal cities, with strong ports, in important parts of the country their early progression is similar. New York has always been considered one of the most important ports in the world and there was a time when Charleston was considered the London of the New World. Both cities were captured during the American Revolution and because of this fact; both were heavily fortified, through systems of coastal defense, in the time between the Revolution and the Civil War. On Governors Island, the first Fort Jay was constructed in 1796; similarly the Fort Moultrie was built in 1798 as a part of the first system of defense. Both of these forts were rebuilt during the second system in 1809. Probably the strongest connection between the two cities is Castle Williams and Pinckney. The first American designed forts to be built, there are only three of these forts in the world and Castle Pinckney is the only one built outside New York harbor. Rather, Castle Pinckney sits a quarter mile off of the peninsula of Charleston on Shutes’ Folly Island. For me that alone is a powerful connection, but you can go even further. Governors Island is surprisingly similar to Sullivans Island where Fort Moultrie stands and where the Fort Moultrie Reservation was located until 1947. Today you would have a hard time seeing that because of the development and privatization of Sullivans Island. Had Sullivans Island remained a military post for the same duration as Governors Island, I believe they would look very much alike today.
For me the connections are made when I am reminded of something from my home or my family. For you it may be different but I guarantee when you visit your National Parks if you open your mind and immerse yourself in the surroundings, you will find those connections which are important to you. So I would challenge everyone who reads this to test my theory this year and Experience Your America.
February 1, 2010
An Island Community…
As I enter my second month here at Governors Island National Monument, I start to feel more and more like I belong to the new Governors Island community. Community has always been a very important thing out here on the island especially during the island’s military service. While stationed here it was important for soldiers and their families to build bonds and share experiences, especially in times of war.
As I’ve said before, the effectiveness of the fortifications on Governors Island had a short life ending around the 1830s. After that, the island served as a major post and even a major headquarters for the US Army. During these times, the men stationed here were for the most part officers and brought their families with them to live on the island. Even though we are on the doorstep of the biggest city in the United States we are still “A World Away…” (as the title of our blog series says), transportation to and from the island was difficult and can still present challenges today. This fact made it necessary for the island to be almost self-sufficient. With this in mind, the Army and Coast Guard brought organizations to the island to create the idea community, make living on the island just like living in a small town anywhere in America.
Over the years the island has included a YMCA with pool, a post theater, a hospital, an Episcopal Church, Catholic Church, Synagogue, New York City public school, daycare, community center, youth center, a Super 8 Motel, and even a Boy Scout meeting room in Castle Williams.
Visitors can see most of the building today when they visit the island. As you stroll down, what we call “downtown Governors Island”, you can see the YMCA building next to the post theater. As you travel back to the forts you can see the Catholic Church, the original PS 26 building before it was moved to the south end of the island and the Episcopal Church. One of the most interesting things I have seen is a Boy Scout curtain still hanging in Castle Williams. As an Eagle Scout myself, this item has allowed me to make a real connection with the people that lived on the island.
Seeing these buildings and viewing these tangible items the idea of community really presents itself and you can connect on a personal level with the families that lived on the island. Even if you weren’t in the Boy Scouts or a member at the YMCA, you probably know someone who was. Governors Island has always been a community and the National Park Service and its partners work to continue that tradition while we manage the island for “the use and enjoyment of the people”.
January 26, 2010
The 21st Century Park…
One of my major tasks here at Governors Island is the establishment of new and social media for the Park to use. For those of you not familiar with the government terminology, I’m speaking of Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, blogs, and RSS feeds. While I tackle these tasks, I begin to wonder how the Park Service has gotten its message out in the past.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been watching Ken Burn’s film “The National Parks: Americas Best Idea” and it has opened my eyes about how the Parks and the National Park Service were established and promoted in their early years. Before the agency came into existence and the automobile became attainable by middle class America, the only way to get to the parks was by train. The railroad companies took advantage of this fact and built many lines leading directly to the parks scattered throughout the west, each company promoting “their” National Park. For example, the Northern Pacific Railroad had a station just outside the current Roosevelt Arch at Yellowstone National Park. As the automobile became more and more popular and the National Park Service began building roads through the parks, travel by train declined. During the Great Depression the WPA (Works Progress Administration) was commissioned to create posters to attract visitors to the parks. More recently, the National Park Service has operated a centralized website that allows visitors to plan their visit by selecting a park by interest, location, activity or name. On a local level, parks will from time to time produce press releases to local media in order to promote special events. To my knowledge, this is the extent of “advertising” used by a majority of parks in the National Park Service today.
In today’s digital world where children spend eight hours a day on electronics, where the print media is slowly giving way to web-based media, and where, in some cases, petitions are no longer signing a piece of paper but joining a “group” on Facebook. The grass-roots movements of the 20th century were responsible for the establishment of parks like Rocky Mountain NP, Great Smokey Mountain NP, and Mammoth Cave NP. In this new century, Twitter, Facebook, and blogs are the grass-roots movements and the National Park Service plans to use them to their fullest extent to support and promote the parks. As one of the few parks established in the 21st century, Governors Island has a unique opportunity to be a leader in this movement.
January 20, 2010
The work continues…
As the winter rolls on and the days start to get longer the work here at Governors Island National Monument continues at a feverish rate. Erin and I continue to work on the Interpretive Matrix, which will be used by future interpret staff to find new connections and develop new programs for visitors. The deadline for this project looms ever closer, even though it will be a living document continuously being added to. Imagine if you will, trying to accumulate a comprehensive history over three centuries and you can see the massive size of this project. This history encompasses more than just the history of Fort Jay and Castle Williams, but also the other buildings on the island, the island itself, the ecology here and in the harbor, New York City, and the Nation at large. The Matrix is one of our main focuses right now but it is not the only thing going on here at the Park. We are also working on developing youth programs that align with the National Park Service’s initiatives to increase youth involvement in the Parks. Work on Castle Williams continues as well, next week we’ll be having a meeting on how the Castle will look after this phase of construction is finished. As you can see even though the island in not open the Park is still hard at work getting ready for June 5th when we’ll once again open our gates to the public.
January 13, 2010
Welcome to my Winter 2010 blog! Through this blog I hope to share with everyone my experiences as a Park Ranger at Governor’s Island National Monument. Even though I’ve only been here for a little over a week, I am already hard at work. The past week has been spent studying and learning about the history of not only New York City but also the island and the structures that are located here. The National Park Service protects and interprets some of the most unique structures you can find in New York Harbor. These included Fort Jay and Castle Williams, both forts built to defend the city prior to the War of 1812.
Castle Williams is the truly exciting structure for me personally. There are only three of these types of forts left in the WORLD today! The others are Castle Clinton, located at the tip of Manhattan, where you can get your tickets to travel to the Statue of Liberty. Next time you head to the Statue, take some time to explore Castle Clinton. The third Castle Pinckney, located in Charleston Harbor South Carolina, is no longer accessible and serves as a brown pelican sanctuary. Last week we were lucky enough to go inside of Castle Williams. This was especially exciting for me because as a Charlestonian and have longed for years to know what Castle Pinckney would look like on the inside. As you travel through the passage ways and stairwells of Castle Williams you start to understand how the men who were stationed and imprisoned on this island must have felt. The Castle was converted to a prison, originally during the Civil War, and more drastically transformed around the turn of the century. To think that men actually slept in those casemates (arched rooms where the cannon fired from) is truly hard to imagine. Gaining an understanding of how the men lived and were imprisoned in Castle Williams is very rewarding but that is not the only thing the Castle has to offer! From the top tier of the fort you can experience the BEST view of New York Harbor anywhere. Views of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Battery Park, Castle Clinton, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Brooklyn Heights are unbeatable! Visiting the Castle has been one of the highlights of my time at Governors Island National Monument. Hopefully it will be for your family too!
The Castle will be closed Summer 2010, as we work to open the inner workings of the fort to visitors. But you can visit our Flickr sites to see pictures and stay tuned to our Twitter posts about upcoming podcasts and videos of the Castle inside and out!
Last updated: February 26, 2015