The Battleship That Took Over Union Square

During World War I, a 200-foot battleship complete with armaments appeared right in the middle of Union Square. It was a massive presence, taking up almost the entire stretch of public ground for three long years. But how did it get there? And where did it go?


Slide the arrows from left to right for a then-and-now comparison between the 1917 Bain News Service photo of the ship under construction and a Google Street View shot of Union Square in 2010.

The Recruit, as its name implies, was actually a giant wooden fabrication, plopped in the middle of one of NYC's busiest thoroughfares to be the center of the US Navy's New York recruiting effort at the end of World War I. According to the New York Times, it was responsible for enlisting some 25,000 recruits before it "set sail" for Coney Island in 1920. There, it was expected to serve out its time as a recruitment center at the Luna Park amusement park. It never made it, and nobody today seems to know where it finally ended up.

Image via Bain News Service/ Library of Congress

From the south looking north, the buildings around Union Square are still mostly the same. Although in the newer photos you see a few midtown skyscrapers cropping up in the skyline, including the Empire State Building.


Images via Chhobi/ and Bain News Service/ Library of Congress

Inside the square, there's a large statue of George Washington more or less where the front of the boat was. The statue was first erected in 1856, but it actually used to live in the southwest corner of the park. It was moved to its current location during the reconstruction of the Union Square in 1929. The statue you see in the 1917 photos is actually of the Marquis de Lafayette. It's still there today but hard to see from the street, because it's buried in trees.


Will we ever see a battleship in Union Square again? Nah. The best we can hope for a swarm of surveillance drones buzzing the holiday booths on some cold, distant winter night. And what's the fun in that?


Images via cphoffman42/Flickr

Top images via Bain News Service/ Library of Congress and Google


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