In the shadow of New York City’s most infamous prison sits an island with its own unsavory reputation. Thick with overgrown vegetation, its abandoned buildings are slowly crumbling away, leaving only the ghosts of the past behind. And nobody is allowed to set foot on its empty shores. But what happened here? And why has this eerie settlement been frozen in time for more than 50 years?
North Brother Island
Located in the middle of the East River, North Brother Island has a long history stretching back more than 150 years. But despite its conspicuous position between Rikers Island and the Bronx, it is often overlooked by those seeking to learn more about New York City.
Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll discover a terrifying story of death and disease, culminating in the abandoned ruin you see today.
In 1963 the last inhabitants of North Brother Island packed up their belongings and sailed away, leaving nature to reclaim their former home. And ever since, time has stood still.
Now, thick foliage has grown over the abandoned structures, creeping up walls and through broken windows until only greenery remains.
But what was the original purpose of this isolated island in the heart of America’s most populous city? Who would have lived and worked here before it was abandoned — and what purpose did its crumbling buildings originally serve?
Today, access is strictly prohibited, suggesting that at least some trace of North Brother’s dark history remains.
A New York anomaly
Located just a few miles from Manhattan, and even closer to the Bronx, North Brother Island is certainly something of an anomaly in modern-day New York.
On the banks of the East River, skyscrapers pierce the sky in every direction, while throngs of people fill every sidewalk for miles around. But just across the water, silence and stillness reigns.
So how did this unlikely refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city come to be? Well, the modern history of North Brother Island began in the early 17th century, when European explorers arrived on America’s eastern coast.
According to some, it was the famous privateer Adriaen Block who first claimed the region on behalf of the Dutch West India Company.
At first, the island and its smaller counterpart to the south were dubbed De Gesellen, a Dutch term meaning wayfarers or journeymen. But it’s the third possible translation of the word, brethren, that has stood the test of time.
And 400 years after they were first discovered, these outcrops of land are still known as North Brother and South Brother Island.
The rise of New York City
Later, the two islands passed into the hands of the British colonists, with one James Graham acquiring the land in 1695.
By this point, New York City had begun to grow into a bustling metropolis, but the owners of these spits of land in the East River were unable to raise their own developments.
The water around the island, you see, was hazardous and wild, earning it the nickname Hell Gate — a moniker that’s still in use today.
First discovered by Block during his early forays across the East River, this strait connects the Upper Bay area with Long Island Sound, and the topography creates a churning hotspot of currents and waves.
Meanwhile, beneath the surface, several hidden reefs add to the dangers of Hell Gate. And when you take into consideration other hazards, such as whirlpools, it’s easy to see how the strait earned its name.
But despite the waterway’s grim reputation, many brave sailors still attempted to plow through this part of the East River.
No other choice
At the time, of course, they had little choice.
For many years, anyone wanting to enter or leave New York City had to pass through Hell Gate — there was no other convenient way of reaching the Atlantic Ocean beyond. Even so, there were many vessels that never made it to their final destination.
In fact, Hell Gate was so treacherous that, by the mid-19th century, the waters were claiming a staggering 1,000 vessels every year.
Could the ghosts of these lost ships be the reason that North Brother Island is shrouded in a sinister, foreboding atmosphere? Or is there something even darker haunting this abandoned place?
Calming Hell Gate
Eventually, the ferocious waters of Hell Gate proved too much for the city to bear, and plans were drawn out to establish a safer route.
And in 1876 work began to detonate explosives beneath the surface, eliminating the dangerous reefs and creating a smooth passage through the strait. Seven years later, the operation was complete.
An unsettling place
Today, then, the strait does not claim quite so many lives — although its evocative name lives on through the Hell Gate Bridge.
And fortunately, it’s no longer necessary to cross this stretch of the East River by boat, thanks to the blood-red structure that now spans its infamous waters. But even without the shipwrecks and the tragedies, North Brother Island remains an unsettling place.
For anyone looking out across the East River, the island exudes a dark and brooding air, its buildings barely visible amongst the thick vegetation that has grown up over the years.
Despite its alarming appearance, though, this abandoned spot in the heart of the city has proved difficult for some to resist.
Over the years, several intrepid explorers have made their way over to North Brother Island, despite the fact that it is technically off-limits.
There, they have found crumbling roads, abandoned buildings, and greenery so dense that a machete is required to slice through the undergrowth. But even in the face of all this decay, a haunting sort of beauty remains.
Isolated and wild
“The buildings are very dilapidated and few artifacts remain to indicate how the spaces were last used,” photographer Christopher Payne told Vanity Fair magazine in 2015. “Everything portable of value has been stripped away by vandals. Nature and neglect have done the rest.”
Later, he added that the isolation and wildness of North Brother Island were a large part of its appeal.
A grim past
But why hasn’t the island been built over with skyscrapers and luxury apartments like so many other parts of New York City? After all, waterfront real estate is certainly worth big bucks this close to Manhattan.
But this particular property comes with a grim past which might explain why developers have steered clear.
For more than 200 years after European settlers arrived in the region, North Brother Island remained uninhabited. Then, in 1869 a lighthouse was built on the outcrop, presumably to assist ships navigating the perilous Hell Gate.
But by this point, choppy seas and deadly currents weren’t the only things claiming lives in New York City.
Thanks to cramped, unsanitary conditions and a rapidly expanding population, the city had become a fertile breeding ground for infectious diseases. And in the 1850s a dedicated smallpox hospital opened on nearby Blackwell’s Island, known as Roosevelt Island today.
At a safe distance from the boroughs of Queens and Manhattan, the facility was used to quarantine patients who might pose a risk to other people.
Three decades later, in the mid-1880s, the facility, known as Riverside Hospital, was relocated to North Brother Island.
And for the next 60 years, it served as a quarantine center as New Yorkers battled against a litany of contagious diseases. As well as smallpox, staff soon found themselves tackling both tuberculosis and typhoid on their remote island.
Cut off from the city
With no telephone or telegraph connection until the mid-1890s, North Brother Island was certainly cut off from the rest of the city.
But the first great tragedy to hit Riverside Hospital was not a result of its isolated nature. Instead, it came in June 1904 when the steamship General Slocum foundered in the East River.
En route to a picnic spot in Long Island, the General Slocum was carrying almost 1,400 passengers and crew when tragedy struck.
As the ship approached Hell Gate, a blaze broke out across the deck, prompting the captain to speed towards North Brother Island. But in his haste to reach safety he inadvertently fanned the flames, helping the fire to spread.
To make things worse, the General Slocum’s safety equipment was inadequate, with inaccessible boats and heavy life preservers that caused the wearer to sink swiftly beneath the surface. In the ensuing chaos, more than 1,000 people lost their lives.
And even though the staff of Riverside Hospital rushed to provide assistance, fewer than 350 survivors were pulled from the water.
Just three years later, another dark chapter in the history of North Brother Island began to unfold. Back in 1900 an Irish woman named Mary Mallon had begun working as a cook for wealthy families in New York City.
Unfortunately, she had been spreading typhoid ever since, leaving behind a trail of death and disease as she moved between households.
By 1907 investigators had finally caught up with the woman dubbed Typhoid Mary, and she was shipped off to North Brother Island to quarantine.
Because she was asymptomatic, though, she refused to believe that she was a carrier of the deadly disease. And as a result, she fought her healthcare providers every step of the way.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mary was not the only resident to complain bitterly about her treatment on North Brother Island.
According to reports, the hospital was often full to overflowing, with patients relegated to beds in makeshift tents; heated by wood-burning stoves, they were prone to burning down. To make matters worse, equipment was not sterilized properly, which contributed to the spread of disease.
Trail of pestilence
In 1910 Mary was sent home from Riverside Hospital on one condition: that she refrained from working as a cook.
But she defied these instructions, and her trail of pestilence continued, leading to several new outbreaks of typhoid across the city. Eventually, investigators caught up with her and returned her to quarantine on North Brother Island.
This time, Mary would stay on the island for good. Given her own private accommodation, she lived in isolation for more than 20 years, eventually passing away in 1938 after a bout of pneumonia.
Having never shown any symptoms of typhoid, she continued to believe that she had been the victim of a gross injustice until the day she died. In fact, some say that her disgruntled ghost continues to haunt the ruins of Riverside Hospital today.
The last building to be raised on North Brother Island was the Tuberculosis Pavilion, launched in 1943 to tackle the next bout of infectious diseases sweeping through New York City. Just two years later, though, vaccine use became widespread, leaving the hospital redundant.
Around the same time, health authorities declared that large-scale quarantining facilities were no longer necessary thanks to advancements in medical care.
The GI Bill
Fortunately, the next incarnation of Riverside Hospital was a far happier one, as the facility was adapted into homes for veterans returning from World War II.
Under the GI Bill, former soldiers had access to education at New York City’s prestigious colleges, and many brought their families to settle on North Brother Island.
“An idyllic place”
“When I spoke with a veteran and his wife who lived on the island as newlyweds just after World War II, they recalled it fondly as an idyllic place to raise a family,” Payne told Vanity Fair. And for five years, this blissful — if slightly unconventional — arrangement continued.
But in 1951 ownership of the island transferred from New York State to New York City, and its story took yet another dark turn.
In their next incarnation, the buildings of Riverside Hospital became a rehabilitation center for drug-addicted youths. But again, allegations of corruption and mistreatment dogged the remote facility.
And in 1963 it closed its doors for good — although not before inspiring a playwright and helping to launch a Hollywood career.
Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?
The facility on North Brother Island, you see, is thought to have inspired Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?, the 1969 play by Don Petersen. And if the title doesn’t sound familiar, the name of one of its supporting actors will.
In fact, it was after winning a Tony Award for his performance that the legendary Al Pacino took his first steps towards fame.
But not everyone viewed the rehabilitation center as disturbing and corrupt. Payne continued, “I also met a man who was sent there in the 1950s as a drug-addicted teenager.
He said his experience there — and the compassionate care he received from a social worker — changed his life and helped him kick his habit for good.”
Such testimonials, though, were not enough to save Riverside Hospital. And despite numerous plans and proposals, the facility has remained abandoned ever since.
According to reports, one real-estate tycoon tried to auction off North Brother Island in the 1970s, but a local politician blocked the sale. Apparently, he wanted to see the land transformed into a recreational space instead.
Reclaimed by nature
Sadly, these hopes never materialized. And North Brother Island was left to be reclaimed by nature, the buildings of Riverside Hospital slowly decaying over the years.
Today, structural damage has left the property in dangerous condition, and would-be visitors are required to obtain special permission from New York City officials.
So what does the future have in store? Reports claim that back in the 1990s there was a proposal to develop North Brother Island into a jail that would have served as an extension of nearby Rikers Island. But ultimately, these plans were rejected.
Then in 2001 the outcrop was officially designated a sanctuary for birds, coming under the control of the New York City Parks Department.
Now, black-crowned night herons are the main inhabitants of North Brother Island, disturbed only by the odd journalist or photographer who makes the trek across the East River. But that might not be the case for much longer.
In 2014 Mark Levine of New York City Council visited the abandoned site, igniting the debate over public access once more.
According to reports, Levine imagined a North Brother Island open to the public in an “environmentally sensitive” way. Later surveys, though, revealed the true extent of damage to the existing structure — and the prohibitively high costs of making them secure.
And so, the ruins of Riverside Hospital remain in limbo, just as they have for the last half-century. Will we ever see them resurrected? Or will they remain a time capsule forever trapped within the waters of the East River?