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Memorial Day and Governor’s Island

What’s not to like about Memorial Day? The unofficial start of Summer is marked by a three-day weekend, barbecuing, and — if you’re in NYC — the opportunity to mingle with active Sailors and Marines (we, too, are still reeling from the devastating news that this year’s Fleet Week has been canceled). In New York, the importance of this holiday runs deep, as ours was the first state to officially recognize the occasion.

New York States of Mind invites you to join us in recognizing May 27th with the same appreciation and respect that gives our state its Memorial Day bragging rights, plus a tip for spending the weekend on a magical island off the coasts of Manhattan and Brooklyn. In 1866, pharmacist Henry C. Welles, from Waterloo (Finger Lakes), wanted to honor the late Civil War soldiers whose lives ended on the battlefields. With the help of local Civil War hero, General John B. Murray, Mr. Welles successfully organized the first Memorial Day: on May 5, 1866, Waterloo transformed itself with flags hung at half mast and a parade of veterans and town residents at the ready to lay flowers in each of the village’s three cemeteries. One hundred years later, in May 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson recognized the town’s steadfast dedication to our country’s fallen heroes by officially declaring Waterloo the Birthplace of Memorial Day. Fast forward nearly twenty years to 1984, when an island town 275 miles south of Waterloo began its own Memorial Day tradition: Fleet Week.

Fleet Week, cancelled this year due to federal budget cuts, has been a fixture in New York City since 1984. A magnet for locals and tourists alike, this weeklong event provides an opportunity for the public to board active Naval ships, watch military demonstrations and meet the men and women who bravely take to the seas to serve our country. An added bonus is the economic boost the occasion provides. There is no doubt that Memorial Day Weekend 2013 will indeed feel different, but that doesn’t mean Memorial Day weekend has to be any different. So, no matter where you are in the State, spend a moment thinking about Waterloo’s Henry C. Welles and General John B. Murray, whose zealous commitment to our fallen soldiers ultimately led to this holiday we enjoy every May. And, if you find yourself in New York City, head to Governor’s Island to embrace that same spirit that Fleet Week brought us for so many years.

Perfectly timed to the holiday, Governor’s Island opens to the public this Saturday, May 25. Situated just 800 yards from Manhattan and 400 yards from Brooklyn, Governor’s Island inherently has a little bit of Fleet Week built in: its reliance on boats (Island access is only granted via a ferry), its military history (barracks and forts all stand on the Island’s grounds) and its knack for celebration. Two prominent fortresses in the Island’s Historic District, Fort Jay and Castle Williams, once protected New York Harbor from naval attacks as far back as the American Revolution and the Civil War, respectively. Before the sites were opened to the public in 2003, the Coast Guard used them as part of their Governor’s Island Headquarters.

This year, and because of a major revitalization effort of the Island, the Historic District is the only section that will be open to the public. The Bloomberg administration is investing more than $250 million to construct new parks and public spaces on the southern half of the Island, incorporating a tree-lined promenade, and rolling hills that will imitate the Manhattan skyline, protect the Island from storm surges and offer 360-degree views of the surrounding cityscape.

Until the revitalization is complete, the public can tour Fort Jay and Castle Williams, enjoy a day of car-free bike riding, take a hard-hat tour of the Island’s major construction projects or attend one of many special events happening throughout the summer. So, until we ladies can blush again at the site of sailors in their Service Dress Whites, spend Memorial Day on Governor’s Island, remembering the heroes who allow us to spend the day in relaxation.

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