Taken in conjunction with Marie Lorenz, who provided not only good company, but passage on her lovely hand-made boat, the Tide and Current Taxi.
There are dozens of islands in the waters around New York City, and many of them have rich and little-known histories. Perhaps the most fascinating of all of them is Hart Island, 131 acres of land just east of City Island at the western edge of Long Island Sound. Originally called "Heart Island" due to the fact that its footprint resembles the shape of the organ, the "e" was soon dropped.
Hart Island has been a prisoner of war camp a number of times; in the mid-19th century, it housed confederate POWs; in the mid-20th, it held POWs from World War 2. The island has also been home to a prison and a womens' asylum, a workhouse and NIKE missile base. But if the average person knows anything at all about Hart Island, it is likely the fact that, since 1869, the island has served as New York's sixth potter's field. Approximately 800,000 bodies are buried on the island, making it the largest publicly funded cemetery in the world.
In addition to the potter's field, which takes up the entire northern half of the island, and has now moved to the southern tip, there are a number of buildings remaining on the island.
Southern entrance to the Pavilion building.
The Pavilion building, built in 1885, was originally an insane asylum for women. It handled the overflow from the asylum on Roosevelt Island, and typically received chronic cases. In the 1970s, it saw its final use as a drug rehab facility called Phoenix House.
The dedication plaque on the Pavilion building.
Patients at Phoenix House did occupational therapy as a part of their treatment. In the Pavilion building, they worked on leather shoes. Some of the shoes are scattered about near the building; it's remarkable that in over three decades, they remain in relatively good shape.
The first floor of the Pavilion building. All evidence points to this floor having been repurposed as a combination of kitchen and dining hall.
View into one of the kitchen areas in the Pavilion building.
Second-floor landing of the northern stairwell.
The second floor of the Pavilion.
It appears as if all the shoes were piled up here when the shoemaking operations ceased.
Hart Island has a web of overgrown streets connecting the various buildings in the center of the island. A few of the roads, such as the one leading to the monuments at the north end of the island, show signs of recent use, but most have been completely abandoned along with the structures, the streetlights, and the rest of the once-bustling central portion of the island.
Attached to the physical plant is this Romanesque dynamo room, built in 1912.
Many of the smaller structures on the island were used by the Department of Corrections as records storage buildings. Today, hundreds of thousands of pages of moldering records slowly decay in these abandoned buildings.
In 1935, a new Catholic chapel was built to replace one which had, by that point, become dilapidated. The chapel is still in remarkably good shape.
The exterior of the chapel.
A view towards where the altar would have been from the mezzanine level.
The stained glass is sadly gone from this window. On the milk crate on the mezzanine, there are two grenades. Downstairs in the chapel proper, dozens of grenades are piled up in another milk crate.
Towards the southern part of the island, a small white building stands next to recent excavations. As the potter's field expands, the buildings will be demolished to make way for new graves.
The last building we visited was at the edge of the newest burial fields. Another structure that was part of the original womens' insane hospital, and repurposed to be a part of Phoenix House, this ward building was in much worse shape than the Pavilion building. The floors were ready to go in several places, and the roof had completely fallen in on significant sections of the northern part of the building.
In the courtyard between the wards to the west, there was an open burial pit in which a goose had taken residence.
Much of the second floor was collapsing. Here, the roof is making a valiant effort to fight off nature, but as always, the water has been winning the battle.
Some patient beds remain on the somewhat more intact southern side of the building.
Beneath the ward in which the patient beds were found, we came upon a room that had several empty pine boxes inside. The bags full of Tyvek suits and rubber gloves helped tell the story of the boxes - here were the former resting places of people who had been buried on Hart Island, but disinterred at the requests of their families.
(ADDENDUM: Melinda Hunt has pointed to the lack of certain specific markings on the boxes, as well as the lack of dirt, as evidence that these were not, in fact, disinterred coffins. Rather, they were coffins that were never buried. I believe her correction warrants notation on this blog.)
I might at this point mention the work of Melinda Hunt, and her Hart Island Project. Hunt has been working for years to open up the records of the people buried on Hart Island, in order that families can more easily find the graves of their kin. At the same time, she works to destigmatize the concept of mass burials; while there is a misconception that only the homeless are buried in the potter's field, this is simply not true. The majority of those buried are infants; in addition, those who cannot afford burial elsewhere often come to Hart Island, as well as anybody whom the city cannot identify within a certain time period.
On our way out of this building, we passed by one of the mass graves, apparently for adults. Since no burials were being performed on the day of our visit, the graves were covered over with plywood. A half-dozen yellow rubber gloves lay nearby. When 150 coffins fill each adult grave, they are covered over with dirt, and marked with a simple marker.
The first person buried in the potter's field was Louisa Van Slyke, a 24-year-old woman, in 1869. Since then, over three quarters of a million people have found final rest on the island. The records for most of these burials were lost in a fire.
The potter's field at Hart Island is the largest cemetery in the United States.