The Unbelievable Buried Town on Governors Island

Note: This does not exist anymore! Read the comments for more information! Do not go out to Governors Island looking for it!

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.

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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:

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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:

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

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

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Detail:

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

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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.

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

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

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

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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!):

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Another chimney:

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This chimney still has a weathervane attached…

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

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Another chimney:

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

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

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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 snowglobes (I erroneously reported it as a snow factory, and was corrected by several readers):

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

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One says “SNOW” (love the dripped paint):

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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.

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Perched in the center of the factory roof is this man, who I can only imagine founded the snowglobe factory. He holds a snowglobe which I believe contains a miniature version of himself inside.

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

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

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…including a fully exposed gas station:

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Two gas pumps lie half-buried out front:

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I love the colors and the mechanics on this one…

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

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

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Inside, the station is in reasonable shape…

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…and even features a fully functioning jukebox!

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On the side of the gas station…

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…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):

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

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

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I had an excellent time wandering the excavation site and learning about the history of Goverthing, easily as thrilling as the time I paid to see the Feejee Mermaid, and I hope it re-opens to the public someday soon.

Follow-up note: This was actually an art installation, since removed. Sadly, there is no buried town on Governors Island.

-SCOUT

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71 comments

  1. This is crazy. Do you know what epidemic spurred the city to take such drastic measures?

  2. If this town was evacuated and buried in the mid-1950s, how did that car in the last picture get in there? It’s from the mid-1960s at least.

  3. This is mind-blowing. It feels like an April Fool’s joke–like this is actually an art installation or something.

    Do you know when most of the structures in the village were built? The church? The houses? That gas station looks like it was built not too long before the town was buried. So weird to see modern streetlights poking out of the ground at a dig like that.

    How did the Belgians discover the site and decide to begin the dig? What safety reasons were there for burying the town that no longer obtain at excavation?

  4. Wow, this is fantastic. It looks like it would be perfect for something postapocalyptic, this is amazing in some visceral, “what happened here” way.

  5. Amazing. Since they obviously didn’t care much about safety, I wonder if there is also a tank filled with leaded gasoline (to supply the pumps) under there? Who knows what else they’ll find.

    Thanks for the photos! Wish we could find some photos of the city BEFORE it was buried…

  6. That is totally amazing. Why would they bury it if they weren’t building something on top? Are the Belgians sure it’s safe to excavate? What if it was a radiation thing? How sure are you it’s a real town and not an installation or some such thing? Could you see down into the church from the belfry?

    I think I need to get out there before 10/11!

  7. Precisely where on Governors Island is this? I’m looking at Google Maps right now, is it by Fort Jay or over to the southwest?

  8. Good sign that something is a hoax: when the descriptive page is the only info you can find on it. Even wikipedia has nary a mention, which they would most certainly have about something of this magnitude.

    Sorry, but I think these were taken somewhere else.

  9. OK – you tricked me. I had fun imagining this was real, and your blog was a perfect conduit for perpetuating a hoax. Since I’ve come to trust your scouting pics as being what you claimed they are, I totally glossed by the ridiculous details here. “Goverthing”? Hah.

  10. Funny how they managed to bury a muscle car from the 1970s there back in the ’50s.

  11. Alright Scout, what’s up?

    Is this thing legit? I’m thinking it’s some kind of art installation or something…there’s no way this is a real buried city…

  12. Ha, I went to see it this weekend and can confirm it exists (and is a lot of fun for $5)…But is it real? Scout is VERY clear in the last line of his post (look up the Feejee Mermaid if you don’t know what it is).

  13. Um… if they covered the town in dirt in the ’50s, why’d they go back and bury a 1974 Dodge Charger there? I know it was an ugly car as well as a bad attempt to keep one of the best Mopar muscle cars in production… but to jump in a time-machine, go back to the 50s, and bury it? It seems a little extreme to me!!!
    Not sure if I’m gonna bite on this one, Homie!! :)

  14. Doh! I fell for it hook, line, & sinker. Scout, this shows just how much trust I have in you. :)

  15. Haha, you totally got me. Still looks super cool, and the serious-on-the-surface writeup made it all the more interesting.

  16. Yes…how could a burial of a town in the 1950’s not be noted in some city log somewhere?
    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/08/31/090831fa_fact_paumgarten

  17. DANG- you got me! Well at the beginning anyways.

  18. Cute, but 1954 was just far too recent a year to pick. If it had been 1854, it might have been believable – but then, of course, no cool street lamps or funky gas stations. Just boring old barns that probably would have long since rotted away. Anyhow, the “snow factory” (come on) completely gave away what seemed almost impossible from the start.

  19. Astounding! Mainly because it seems this place was unknown or simply forgotten – bizarre that can be so.

    Yet another thing to do when I’m next in NYC.

  20. why did they bury it? I don’t mean rather than bulldozing it, I mean, what happened there they they wanted it ended?

  21. hehehe, great story

  22. If it was a hoax, it’s a startlingly elaborate one. I can’t see how they could possibly afford to bury all this stuff and hire a staff to walk around from the $5 admission fees. In the exhibit it was said that the factory made snow GLOBES, not snow. There were very authentic-looking newspapers from the evacuation–of course they could have been doctored, but again that’s a lot of work for a hoax. Governor’s Island was indeed expanded greatly in 1909 from subway landfill–the exhibit said that during this expansion it ended up incorporating the tiny civilian island of Goverthing. Again, if this is a hoax it’s on an incredibly massive scale and I don’t know who would have the resources to pull it off.

  23. I visited the dig last weekend, and one important correction: apparently the factory in Goverthing was not a snow factory but rather a snow-globe factory, which of course would have been more practical to export.

  24. Hoaxes, if intended to be convincing rather than foolish, should avoid plot holes such as this:

    “As demolition was not an option at the time, the hamlet was simply buried under tens of feet of soil and forgotten.”

    Because when circumstances prevent you from demolishing something, you’re generally still able to bring in tens of feet of soil (that could otherwise be used for beneficial landfill projects like the expansion of Battery Park), boatload by boatload, carted from the dock to the site, and then slowly dumped over a large swath of land. That’s always the easiest way to remove access to a condemned site.

  25. This place would be the perfect set for a live action film of Thundarr The Barbarian

  26. I had to read it several times before I realised it was a Hoax. You really tricked me.

  27. Well, Scout, I bought it hook, line and sinker. But then you know how it is with people born in the ’50’s. ;)

    PS I love this blog.

  28. UHHHHH…..If I’m not mistaken that’s a 1973 Dodge Charger in the last pic…….Kinda makes it hard to have been buried in the 1950’s….

  29. I’m not sure why these clowns, uh, Belgian archeologists, thought anyone would buy this as real. Agreed with the poster that said they should have gone back to 1854 to be at least a bit credible. And phones didn’t look that wacky in the 1950s.

  30. I used to go to Governor’s Island all the time as a kid. My mom worked there for a while at the BX / NX / PX (don’t remember what they called it).

    I had no idea there was a town buried under the place. I wonder why they felt it was more economical to bring so much soil out to the island to bury it? I mean, that stuff is buried really deep!

    And of course, I wonder why they did it at all. I’m living in Asia at the moment but when I move back to the US it will be to NYC, so I’ll be sure to check that out.

  31. This is absurd, how could this have possibly happened? i want to know more.

  32. Wow…an amazing art exhibit! I’m kind of sorry I read the updated blog 1st…but honestly, I would have called friends of mine immediately to verify this ‘story’. 1954 wasn’t that long ago and I have some older friends who would have ‘remembered’ this.
    Still, an outstanding exhibit/hoax and I can’t wait to go check it out!

  33. This is total BS–I grew up on this island and I can assure you that there was NEVER any of this there….entertaining to read though.

  34. Let me tell you! I lived on this island for 13 years and moved a month before they closed it offically. I went to school here through elementary school and then off to the city I went for public school. In all my years (and still many of those I talk to from my childhood) never knew there was something deeper hidden! We knew there were stories. I remember a sleepover one summer in Fort Jay, we used to play manhunt in the old mote, I remember the stories of the indian graveyard and I remember the history of the base. I moved in 96 and havent been back since it reopened, but I am definetly taking a trip before it closes! Thanks for sharing this fascinating discovery!

  35. This was the coolest thing I’ve seen in a long time!! Thanks!!

  36. Thanks…. Really believed it till’ the last sentence :D

  37. For starters-I posted a comment on the Dig’s website & it disappeared..how do you like those snowglobes ??? I recently visited the site & read the blogs & the NYTimes article. Assuming(perhaps a mistake) that this is not a hoax then: has anyone contacted the US Military for info release under Freedom of Information Act re: Goverthing? Why was the town allowed to exist ? & a snowglobe factory?? Was this “factory” a front-bootlegging during Prohibition,spying during WWII?What materials were used in making snowglobes?Has the ground been tested for heavy metal contamination?Maybe the site should not be a Dig but rather a SuperFund site ? I could go on & on….

  38. we went last weekend and had a blast. don’t forget to look in every metal tube sticking out of the ground. there are surprises everywhere. Also the “nut holder” in the exhibit is pretty hysterical. awesome fun.

  39. En esa ciudad que vivían, ¿liliputienses?
    No me cuadra…los surtidores de gasolina están descubiertos pero el interior de la gasolinera está prácticamente enterrado. Además las farolas parecen fabricadas en los ’70-’80.
    Por otro lado ¿por qué arqueólogos belgas en vez de locales?
    ¡¡Karen estoy contigo!! Esto es una broma.

  40. Saw this today. Kind of make me think it really is an art installation. When I asked how much of the church is buried, the guys in the blue coats said 13ft. Then how is it possible for more then a third of the door frames where exposed at the gas station? And to back up the guy about the Dodge charger, I noticed the left taillight was on. Now unless someone rigged the light to go on when they turn this installment on, no way could a battery from that time still be functional. Also, some of the chimneys are exposed only when they where dug around. Not sure how tall a person would have to have been to be able to use a church that’s only 13feet standing room with homes that are build smaller then the church it self. And the water tower is lower then the church? Why have a water “tower” then? Doesn’t make sense.

  41. In case anyone had any doubts, I found this on the web:

    Governors Island will be the stage for performances on several venues on the island. Non verbal open air performances, site specific art projects in Governors houses, theatre and music in nostalgic theatre tents at the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, a temporary theatre street. The theatre street will be completed with temporary bars, restaurants and an old merry go round!

    More then 150 artists from the Netherlands and NY will create an temporary art colony on the island.
    A visit to New Amsterdam will be adventurous and exciting and a unique opportunity to relax and explore art projects on this historic and beautiful island.

    Compagnie Kaiet of Belgium is presenting their work “Sunken Village” and is looking for 3-4 non-paid interns to assist with the installation during the last week of August and the first week of September. We are creating an archeological dig of a village buried in 1953. The public will be free to roam around the site, constructing the narrative and sub-narratives of the village and it’s inhabitants. The work will all be out of doors and we will be working Monday through Saturday to complete the installation by the 9th of September. It is physically demanding work though the pay-off will be immense at it’s completion.

  42. Wow, amazing stuff. Demolition was “not an option,” but moving huge amounts of earth was?

  43. This is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. I am loving your website. I haven’t done a single productive thing all day since I started reading!!

  44. Funny, I actually visited this when it was being displayed in Antwerp, Belgium. They definitely changed it for its Governor’s Island setting, but the carillon etc. are even more remarkable to see in their American setting.

  45. Superb artistic creation that we are traveling in the past in search of objects that we use every day.

  46. please, tell me this site has or will be used for a movie. it screams “plot” from jump

  47. This has got to be an April’s Fool Joke. It’s too awesome to be true. Wow.

  48. Absolutely amazing discovery. The city continues to unearth new surprises. thanks for sharing

  49. Am I justified in seeing a vague “Citizen Kane” connection to this art installation? Digging for answers to the past based on small snippets of the past, to use a terrible pun? There’s even a connection to the snow globe of the film!

  50. You tricked me!

  51. i visited gnrs island two wekends in a row, no town buried, no site, no nothing. very almost funny.october 2010

  52. I beloved up to you will receive carried out right here. The comic strip is attractive, your authored subject matter stylish. nevertheless, you command get bought an edginess over that you wish be delivering the following. ill indisputably come further earlier once more as exactly the same just about very continuously within case you defend this increase.

  53. A remarkable project. This vehicle should be preserved and restored.

  54. I can’t believe it!! I was in NYC last month and I took my bike to Governor’s Island just to see this!! I can’t believe it was simple a hoax/art exhibition. I actually asked multiple workers about it. None knew anything about it. Finally I found a security guard who knew about it and explained to me the hoax.
    You got me.

  55. I was born in the 50’s you must be very young indeed if you think telephone equipment ws primitive in the 1950’s. Perhaps those are old telephones, but they are not from the 1950’s after all there were computers operating in the 1950’s.

  56. That car at the bottom of the page is from the late 60s, so that doesn’t really fit with the “buried in the 50s” storyline.

  57. Greetings from Los angeles! I’m bored at work so I decided to check out your website on my iphone during lunch break. I enjoy the info you present here and can’t wait to take a look when I get home.

  58. If the city was buried in the fifties,(which is what I take from the story), how did a 1970’s Dodge Charger get buried there?

  59. I think this is a real great blog.Thanks Again.

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