The Underground City on Governors Island

11/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Today, I finally got on the ferry and went out to Governors Island. For you non-New Yorkers, Governors Island is an island located just south of Manhattan and was once used as a military base. An entire complex of buildings, including forts, churches, and army barracks, still remains in excellent condition on the island. Off limits for years, the island has recently been opened up to the public, with free ferries from Manhattan and Brooklyn. I can't recommend it enough: wander the grounds, have a picnic, bike the perimeter, and take in some beautiful views of southern Manhattan.

Though there's a lot to write about, I wanted to focus on something that was simply too amazing to believe: an archaeological dig currently in the process of unearthing an entire town buried beneath Governors Island.


Since January, Belgian archaeologists have been working strenuously to excavate the ruins of a former Governors Island hamlet called Goverthing (a bastardization of a Dutch word). With a 400 year history dating back to Manhattan's first settlements, the hamlet was the last civilian colony on Governors Island by the 1950's. In 1954, the town was forcibly evacuated by the city of New York, who had deemed it a safety hazard for a variety of reasons, and effectively had it condemned. As demolition was not an option at the time, the hamlet was simply buried under tens of feet of  soil and forgotten.

The town was recently rediscovered accidentally by contractors conducting demolition work on the site to build a park, which has since been canceled in favor of a full excavation of Goverthing. A tour costs $5, and I definitely recommend seeing the incredible work they've done in person. The site is only open through October 11, after which it will be closed for further excavation work.

As you first walk in, you'll first see the top of the town's former water tower sticking out of the dirt:


Incredibly, the well beneath it still runs to this day. For this public exhibit, the excavators have attached a make-shift pump to draw water up - and it works! You can try it when you visit and see a stream of water pouring out:


As you walk along, you'll see the tops of rusted power line towers poking up from the ground, cables still attached:


One can only imagine how deep into the ground they must go:




The centerpiece of the excavation site is the town church (note the chimneys of what are most likely former residences in the foreground):


I really wish I had taken notes on the history of Goverthing while I was there - it seems to be a bit hard to find any information at all online, for some reason. Apparently, the original weathervane has been removed to protect it from the elements and can be seen in the history exhibit indoors.


The archaeologists have removed a stained-glass window from one side of the steeple to allow entry to the belfry.


A complex system of bells and chimes can be operated manually, still in full working order:


As you walk the grounds, you start to notice more and more chimneys poking out of the dirt, waiting to be unearthed:


Some even have antennas still attached (remember, it was the 1950s when the town was buried, and you needed to get reception somehow back then!):


Another chimney:


This chimney still has a weathervane attached...


...though it is in a sad state of deterioration from the elements:


Another chimney:


You also start to notice street lights as you move to what must have been the town's center:


Another streetlight. It's frankly fascinating to think of yourself perched so high up over the remnants of a former town:


According to one of the archaeologists that was on site to answer questions, there was a single factory in town during the 1900's, which manufactured snow (remember, it was the 1950's, and year-round snow was difficult to come by back then):


The top of two factory chimneys - you can still see "SNO" written on the left one. Also note the two smaller towers in front:


One says "SNOW" (love the dripped paint):


The other says "WATER." I'd love to someday take a tour of the snow factory, and hope it is fully unearthed by next summer.


Perched in the center of the factory roof is this man, who I can only imagine founded the snow factory. Apparently, his light could once be seen all over town.


Ancient birds nests still dot the factory arch. 1950's birds nests?


As you make your way along, more significant progress has been made in excavating...


...including a fully exposed gas station:


Two gas pumps lie half-buried out front:


I love the colors and the mechanics on this one...


I also like this one, though I'm not sure how it pumped gas with only a moviola flip book inside:


I also love the 1950's curves and angles of the gas station entrance:


Inside, the station is in reasonable shape...


...and even features a fully functioning jukebox!


On the side of the gas station...


...are these bizarre devices, which I can only imagine were phones (remember, it was the 1950's, and phone technology was primitive at best back then):


Finally, as you are walking out, you'll pass several cars, half-exposed and in a sad state:


Another car. Amazing the city would simply bury them in, and not sell them at auction or something.


I had an excellent time wandering the excavation site and learning about the history of Goverthing, and at $5, it's a steal. Bring some friends to completely surprise and check it out next time you're on Governors Island. It was easily as thrilling as the time I paid to see the Feejee Mermaid.


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