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Statue of Liberty was my neighbor in the 1930s

Family life with the Statue of Liberty on Bedloe's Island, now Liberty Island, was memorable for an Army brat growing up at Ford Wood in the 1930s.

Statue of Liberty was my Neighbor in the 1930s

The Perkins home is third from the left on Bedloe's Island, now Liberty Island, in this Army Signal Corps photo of New York Harbor taken Oct. 7, 1932 (click on photo to enlarge).

Growing up in the mid-1930s, my brother and I took an excursion boat to school. The only motor vehicle on our streets was a 1-ton Ford Army truck, and we sometimes had to fish baseballs out of New York Harbor. Such was our life on Bedloe’s Island, now known as Liberty Island.

At the time, the island was home to Fort Wood and about 30 Army post families, all of us neighbors of the island’s best-known resident, the Statue of Liberty. There were officers and noncommissioned officers, and a garrison consisting of one company of about 60 military policemen. It was like a big family, with rank less important than elsewhere in the Army.

My father, Maj. Clell Perkins, the Port of New York and New Jersey veterinarian, worked at Fort Jay on nearby Governor’s Island. Each morning, my brother, Tom and I boarded the Hook Mountain excursion boat, along with Dad, at the covered pier in front of the Statue of Liberty to get to school at Fort Jay. All the other officers except Capt. Huskea, the post commandant, worked at Fort Jay, too.

One foggy 1930s morning our boat collided with a ferry, with the wooden side of the Hook Mountain penetrated by the ferry’s catwalk. No on was injured, and the Hook Mountain returned to service after some repairs.  To the joy of us youngsters, the Favorite—the nicer excursion boat for tourists—was our ride while the other boat was being fixed up.

On weekends, we shared our island with lots of visitors to the Statue of Liberty. Many couples arrived at the covered pier to be married in front of her, but we’ve been told that the only island resident to be married there was my sister, Carolyn, when she wed 2nd Lt. Gerald L. Roberson.

On that same pier, Tom got a big splinter in his rear end and had to go to the dispensary to get it removed. All of us kids watched from the porch and enjoyed my brother’s outburst of cuss words during the process.

There was also an open pier for fishing. The fish we caught were small and inedible, but they made great bait for catching blue crabs.

Getting around on Liberty Island took time, because we had to walk everywhere. Beside the one truck, there were three mules, one four-wheeled wagon and a two-wheeled cart that were used when the Ford broke down. The truck delivered coal for heating and brought ice for the iceboxes, since we had no refrigerators. Groceries from the Fort Jay commissary came from across the harbor, and these, too, were delivered by truck.

I remember seeing tender boats delivering groceries and drinking water to anchored barges in the harbor. People lived in cabins on the barges during those tough Depression times of the 1930s, and I’d see them dipping buckets into the harbor to do laundry.

We sat in the stands on Saturdays when the Fort Wood baseball team hosted clubs from nearby Fort Hamilton, Fort Totten, Fort Slocum and Fort Wadsworth. Sometimes we even got to go to games at the other posts.

The baseball diamond, also used as part of the parade grounds, and the tennis court were close enough to the water’s edge so that players regularly sent balls into the drink. To fish them out, we had a contrivance made of lightweight wood and clothesline.

Our post exchange had one or two bowling lanes, but other entertainment had to be reached by boat. We knew a lot of the enlisted men, and our parents sometimes paid them to take us kids to movies and other amusements in New York City. A private’s pay back then was $21 a month, so the extra income came in handy.

We were privileged to see what were then two of the largest ocean liners in the world, the SS Normandie and the RMS Queen Mary, on their maiden voyages to New York in 1935 and ’36. The Normandie, the best-looking ship afloat in those days, made the transatlantic trip in record time. My father knew the ship’s veterinarian, so we got a tour of that great ship.

Dad also knew the vet for the Barnum & Bailey Circus, and we got to meet Jack Earle, the famous 7-1/2-foot giant, when the circus came to New York.

I’ll never forget the beauty of the Statue of Liberty with her lights glowing in the falling snow. Another thing that always fascinated me was the amount of cork left on the shore when the tide went out. Years later, I realized that these were likely the remnants of life preservers from decades of tragedies at sea.

When Dad got reassigned to the Philippines, we had to leave Rags, our Airedale, with the Fort Wood MPs. While still overseas in the ’40s, we learned that Fort Wood had been deactivated—but the troops reassigned to Camp Dix, New Jersey (now Fort Dix), took their beloved Rags with them and posted her at the camp fire station.

This old “Army brat” lived on many posts for over 17 years, but Fort Wood was the most unusual and interesting of them all.

Dan Perkins • Johnstown, Ohio

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Karen L. Gray June 7, 2012 at 6:25 pm

Wow!! That was so very interesting to read. I didn’t know there were houses on the Island, let alone people living there. I live in Iowa & have always wanted to see Lady Liberty. You mentioned things of the past that are taken for granted now-a-days & not even thought about except in the old movies. I’m glad you included a picture with your article. I love listening to my Dad talk about living on a farm here in Iowa back in the 30′s & 40′s. I’m going to show him your pic & article. He will be amazed probably more than I was. Thanks for sharing.

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ann stevens June 8, 2012 at 7:22 am

WOW,thanks

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Veva Young June 12, 2012 at 8:11 am

I loved the story, Lady Liberty Was My Neighbor. Like Karen, I have always wanted to visit the Statue of Liberty. I still hope to be able to that someday. Thanks to Dan for sharing the great story & the photo of the Island too.

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Maryann June 16, 2012 at 12:14 pm

Even though I was not born until 1972, I love reading these magazines, cover to cover. I wish we had simpler times and more old-fashioned values. I would rather read up on this than watch any American Idol.

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Andi Rosenthal July 5, 2012 at 9:14 am

Thank you for this beautiful story. I have been fascinated with the islands around New York for some time, and this article just adds to the fascination. I’m so happy that this story was not lost in the mists of time.

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Irma steen July 7, 2012 at 7:16 am

Most interesting report of your childhood…..and what a view….with Manhattan in the background….watching all the large ships come into the harbor. Maybe one day you would like to go back there after 80+ years, and bring back old memories…when you do, you can take me along…..IRMA

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Robert Richey July 11, 2012 at 3:09 pm

Loved the story. I found the mention of cork washing on shore interesting. I read a story of a great tragedy that happened in one of the rivers somewhere around the first of the 1900′s. An excursion boat loaded with German descendants on a church outing caught on fire and a lot of people died. It seems that the old cork lifejackets had deteriorated to the point of being of a powdery state, and when children wearing these hit the water the jackets absorbed the water and down went the children. The fire hoses on board were dry rotted and couldn’t be used. The whole story is an interesting read and the tragic end was the result of a slew of errors from everyone.

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Eleanore Nash Plissner July 12, 2012 at 10:51 am

I truly enjoyed your story, and, reading about things I did not know about Bedloe Island. I live on Staten Island and ride the ferry. Of course, I have been to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and enjoy hearing about their history. Whenever guests come it is on the must do list. Thank you for sharing this with us.
Ellie

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Sherry Langione July 18, 2012 at 8:22 am

Thank you for sharing with all of us, what a time to be growing up! You mustv’e seen things and changes one could only dream of. Thanks again!!!

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Diane Leahy July 23, 2012 at 9:27 pm

Wow! I loved reading this story. I’ve always loved the Statue of Liberty and always wanted to live on Liberty Island.

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Jerry Christian March 24, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Wow, what an interesting story. Thanks.

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Pat W August 27, 2013 at 8:28 pm

My husband spent his teenage years on Governors Island, right across the way. He also had to take ferries to his high school. Interesting times.

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