NEW YORK -- The little island in New York Harbor where President Reagan and President-elect George Bush will meet Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev Wednesday is a serene fortress that never fired a shot in battle.
Its stone forts sat out the War of 1812 while the fighting occurred elsewhere. Now they will make colorful background for the world's television cameras when the U.S. and Soviet leaders gather for the fifth and last formal meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev.
The tight little island, a dot in the water with a magnificent view of Manhattan's Battery Park and Wall Street's office towers, is now a U.S. Coast Guard base. Itis off limits to the public, as it has been for most of the past 350 years.
Governor's Island experienced its first media invasion in 1986 when Reagan arrived to throw a switch and light a new torch of the Statue of Liberty on nearby Liberty Island.
Craggy Governor's Island entered history books in 1637 when the Dutch bought it from local Indians. Called Nut Island by Dutch settlers, it was taken over by the British in 1698 and got its new name because colonial governors used it as a summer retreat.
By 1800 it had become U.S. federal property and the site of Fort Columbus, now called Fort Jay. Another fort, Castle William, was completed in time for the War of 1812, but the expected British attack on New York Harbor never came.
Over the years, Governors Island served as a quarantine station for yellow fever victims, as a resort with a race track, and as a camp for Confederate prisoners during the Civil War.
In 1878, Fort Jay became the Eastern headquarters of the U.S. Army. In World War I it was headquarters for Gen. John J. Pershing and an embarkation center for the American Expeditionary Forces bound for the battlefields of Europe.
Governor's Island came under the U.S. Coast Guard in 1966 and now has a population of 4,000 people, including dependants, who come and go by boat.
Reagan and Bush will receive Gorbachev at the Admirals Quarters, a 27-room mansion that was built in 1840 and 75 years later served as Pershing's World War I residence. Today it is home for the island's commanding officer.
Nearby Governors House, built in 1708 and the island's oldest building, also is used as senior officers' quarters.
The size of Governors Island has changed drastically over the past 350 years. Originally described as covering 120 acres, it was eroded by choppy tidal waters to just 65 acres by 1900, when reclamation work began. In the 1930s it was enlarged with rock debris from excavations for a New York City subway, and now covers about 173 acres with a coastline of 2 miles.
The 18th century race track is lost to history, but in its place is a nine-hole golf course.
Access to the island normally is 'very limited,' said Lt. Cmdr. Paul Milligan, the U.S. Coast Guard's resident public affairs officer. Visitors need 'a valid reason' and special permission for 'coming aboard,' as he put it.
Governors Island is home of the International Search and Rescue School, a Coast Guard-Air Force operation that has graduated more than 7,000 students from 65 countries, Milligan said.
Another school, PS 26, takes the island's children through the sixth grade.