Thursday, January 13, 2011

North Brother Island - Riverside Hospital

The overgrown main road running north-south through the island; to the right are the nurses' residence and doctors' cottage, and to the left, the maintenance building and tennis courts. [Print]

NEW:  Many people have asked for prints from North Brother Island over the years, but I've been reticent to put together a comprehensive prints list because making individual prints is so time consuming.  But I have just set up a gallery on my SmugMug page that has over 100 images available - including about 50 that didn't make it into this blog post for space reasons or because they were taken after publication.  So if you're interested in owning an image from this series - or just want to see the photographs that didn't make it in here - browse on over and have a look!

A Brief Introduction

Of all the forgotten and mysterious places in the Five Boroughs of New York City, few have histories as rich and interesting as that of North Brother Island. Situated in the Hell Gate, a particularly treacherous stretch of the East River, North Brother was home to the quarantine hospital that housed Typhoid Mary, was the final destination of the General Slocum during its tragic final voyage, and was the site of an experimental drug treatment program which failed due to corruption. Riverside Hospital, the name of the facility on the island throughout its various incarnations, treated everything from smallpox and leprosy to venereal disease and heroin addiction; after the Second World War, it housed soldiers who were studying under the GI bill. The entirety of the island has been abandoned since 1963; over a dozen buildings remain, in various states of disrepair.

The gantry crane at the ferry slip which would transport patients and staff to its sister slip in Port Morris. [Print]

North Brother Island remains off-limits to the public due to its designation as a protected nesting area, and it is home to a rare colony of black-crowned night herons. As such, it remains an inscrutable mystery to most New Yorkers, even though it is closer to the Empire State Building than most of Brooklyn. Derelict for nearly half a century, it provides fascinating glimpses into demolition by neglect, into the architecture of quarantine, and into the collective history of the islands of the outer boroughs; like Hart Island to the northeast, and Blackwell’s Island to the southwest, North Brother was used as a dumping ground for indigent New Yorkers stricken with social disease. Here is a look at the island in its present condition, as well as a brief overview of its history.

The Western Buildings

An access road leads between the morgue to the right, and the physical plant and coal house to the left. [Print]

The situation of the building which housed the morgue and pathology labs right beside the ferry dock at first seems a little strange – why would the island’s planners put a building symbolic of death near the entry point of a place where the hope was recovery and convalescence? The answer lies in the fact that this building was originally the island’s chapel – explaining the gothic-arched windows inlaid with stained glass, as well as its odd location. When the island’s population expanded, a new wooden chapel was built to the south; the old chapel was repurposed. This proved convenient during outbreaks as well; bodies could be removed to the potter's field on Hart Island or to other cemeteries with relative haste after autopsy.

The refrigeration room in the morgue. Individual cabinets for corpses were not used in this morgue. Mary Mallon - widely known as Typhoid Mary - worked in the pathology lab in the same building during her second confinement on the island. [Print]

The exam table in the morgue. Note that this was not the autopsy table, which would have been a single-piece lipped table with sluices for the blood to drain. Sadly, this artifact was removed from the island in late 2008. [Print]

Lightning struck the larger smokestack in the 1990s, obliterating several feet of heavy bricks. Here, a number of these bricks have destroyed the roof of the morgue/pathology building. [Print]

A view of the physical plant (left) and coal house (right) from the roof of the morgue. In the distance, the maintenance building and the top of the nurses' residence are visible. [Print]

North Brother Island was remarkably self-sufficient; while it required that food and water be brought in, the former by ferry and the latter by pipeline, it was able to provide steam, electricity, and eventually, an internal telephone system and electrical fire alarm system. The physical plant contained all of the necessary machinery to power the island via coal, which was stored in a large building to the south of the plant. A separate ferry dock was built specifically for the quick importation of coal to the island.

The interior of the coal house, facing east. [Print]

A 1,000 lb scale in between the coal house and physical plant, presumably used to weigh coal. [Print]

The main building of the physical plant in winter. [Print]

A west-facing view of the interior of the physical plant; at the end are the southernmost boilers. [Print]

The northernmost boilers, two stories tall. [Print]

For Quarantine Alone

Island quarantine hospitals were a fairly common phenomenon in the 19th century through the middle of the 20th, and on the tip of Long Island, the US Government’s only quarantine facility for animal disease is still in operation on Plum Island. This usage makes sense – access to and from the island could be controlled, escape would be difficult, and it was correctly thought that the sources of contagion would not naturally pass over a body of water. Blackwell’s Island, later Welfare Island and now Roosevelt Island, housed a quarantine hospital known as Riverside, as well as the municipal insane asylum and other city facilities. Riverside Hospital, a smallpox hospital still partially extant and known as the Renwick Ruins after its architect, was overcrowded by the 1870s, and so a plan was put in place to build a new island hospital specifically for the quarantine of contagious disease.

Contrary to a persistent urban legend involving a Catholic orphanage or nunnery, North Brother Island was almost completely undeveloped when work began on it in the 1880s. The only structure present on the island when work began was a small shack. In 1885, the first patients were received at the second incarnation of Riverside Hospital. Various pavilions and tents were hastily constructed to segregate different diseases; smallpox, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, typhoid, diptheria, and even leprosy were demarcated on the island. The architecture was bland and utilitarian, and the treatment methodologies were primitive, but for the time being, the overcrowding on Blackwell’s Island was no longer an issue.

Other issues soon arose, however. It was difficult to find physicians willing to work shifts on the island, and at various times, the island might have been entirely without a true doctor – nurses would have to make do with what knowledge they had. Conditions on the island were rather dreadful. The early incarnation of the physical plant was not powerful enough to counter a bad winter, and thus the heat was rationed out; consequentially, death rates rose dramatically in the colder months. At various times, when weather did not permit the ferries to run, there were food shortages.

These issues, of course, were nonissues for the well-to-do, who could afford private care and thus would never set foot on the island. The indigent and immigrant populations, however, developed a healthy – but counterproductive – fear of the island. Because few came back from North Brother, and those that did told of deplorable conditions, many hid the fact that they were ill, and thus continued to act as vectors (infecting agents) for various contagions. Robert Martin, a merchant treated on the island, remarked that “the experience while there can be compared to the Black Hole of Calcutta” – this only 16 years after the facility opened. Thus, in 1902, the city began a campaign to change both the operation and the image of North Brother. Visitations were allowed, within reason, whereas previously they had been forbidden. Concrete and masonry pavilions replaced shoddy wooden buildings and tents. Doctors were available now at all times, and the nursing staff was bolstered. A telephone system was put into place, and connected with the City telephone system, allowing patients to have contact with relatives. Although the fear of the island was not eradicated, it was somewhat abated by these measures.

By 1914, the island primarily functioned to treat tuberculosis and venereal diseases. Smallpox had been eradicated in the United States by the late 1890s, and most other contagious diseases were treatable to the point that they could be handled by hospitals within the Boroughs. Tuberculosis, however, was still not well understood, and a great deal of stigma was attached to the illness. Thus, Riverside would be one of several island facilities in New York to treat the disease from the safe position of quarantine. Seaview Hospital on Staten Island, and buildings on Swinburne and Hoffman islands, would also provide quarantine facilities for the City. Treatment of tuberculosis would be the primary goal of North Brother Island between 1915 and its first closure in 1942.

Doctors' Cottage & Nurses' Residence

The western facade of the doctors' cottage, the interior of which is largely collapsed. The utilitarian municipal architecture has some nice flourishes, such as the third-floor dormers and romanesque entryway. [Print]

Second floor of the doctors' cottage, looking south into the collapsed western wing of the building. [Print]

A remarkably undisturbed room on the third floor of the southern wing of the building. [Print]

Although the wall of this bathroom floor has fallen away, the tub is still securely in place. [Print]

The pathway in between the doctors' cottage to the left, and the nurses' residence to the right.

The nurses' residence after a snowfall. Construction on this building was finished around 1904. [Print]

Main stairwell inside the western (middle) wing of the U-shaped nurses' building. [Print]

A typical two-room dorm inside the nurses' residence. One half provided sleeping quarters for 1 or 2 nurses, and the other half was a lounge area, with a private sink. [Print]

A sink and shelving unit which was a standard fixture in each quarters. [Print]

Each quarters has a knocker with a nameplate and room designation. This is room 212 in the north wing. [Print]

The courtyard in the middle of the residence, with a wraparound porch. [Print]

An iron spiral staircase on the eastern tip of the southern wing. This room was originally a screened-in porch. [Print]

A raptor found dessicated in one of the dormitories. North Brother Island has few food sources for land animals, but maintains a diverse population of birds. [Print]

The fourth-floor south hallway has suffered significant water damage, and will soon be impassible. [Print]

A room at the western tip of the southern wing contains an exam table. [Print]

The fourth floor landing of the southern staircase. [Print]

The southern facade of the building is completely covered in climbing vines such as kudzu. This invasive species, not native to the area, is threatening the trees and the heron population, as well as impacting the structural stability of the buildings. [Print]

A tennis court, across the road from the nurses' residence, dates back at least to the 1920s. [Print]

The General Slocum

In 1904, in one of the most catastrophic maritime events in US history, the PS General Slocum, a steamer built just over a decade previous, caught fire in the East River, eventually beaching on North Brother Island. Over a thousand people lost their lives in the disaster, which had a number of disparate causes.

The General Slocum was a passenger transport, and on June 14, 1904, it had been chartered by a church group consisting primarily of women and children for a picnic trip to Long Island. Shortly after disembarking, a fire broke out in one of the machine rooms. A young boy attempted to warn the ship’s crew, but he was ignored. It was fully 10 minutes after the fire started that the captain became aware of it. Instead of beaching the ship immediately, the captain continued on course, straight into the headwinds which were fanning the flames. The ship went up like tinder.

Poor maintenance on board the ship left it without any effective firefighting measures, and the manufacturer of the life preservers had cut costs, rendering them effectively useless – there are reports of mothers strapping their children in and tossing them into the water, only to watch in horror as the jackets bore the children under. The captain eventually beached the ship on North Brother Island; by this point, over 80% of the passengers and crew had died by fire or by drowning. The captain himself jumped ship and got on to the first available lifeboat; he was eventually convicted of criminal negligence and spent 3 years in Sing Sing. For hours after the tragedy, bodies continued to wash up on the shore of North Brother Island, and a number of photographs exist of the beach strewn with victims.

"Typhoid" Mary Mallon

The notion of a healthy carrier – a person who acts as a vector for a disease whilst remaining entirely or predominantly asymptomatic – is commonplace in the world of modern medicine. This was not the case a century ago, however, and this perhaps explains the strange and tragic case of Mary Mallon, known the world over as Typhoid Mary. An Irish immigrant who was likely a lifelong carrier of typhoid - her mother had suffered from the disease during the pregnancy - Mary herself never exhibited symptoms. And it was only by chance – and by the clever deductions of physician George Soper – that she was identified as a carrier, the first known case in history. Her own refusal to acknowledge this fact led to two involuntary stays on North Brother Island; the first would last from 1907 to 1910, and the second would last from 1915 until her death in 1938.

Mary was a cook by trade; she worked for a number of families in New York and out on Long Island. Several of these families were mysteriously stricken with typhoid fever over the seven year period she was active, between 1900 and 1907. Soper realized that a previously unknown factor could be at work – Mary could be spreading the bacteria without falling ill herself. When she was approached with this possibility, Mary grew defensive and angry; from her point of view, it didn’t make sense that she could spread the contagion yet not be sick herself.

In 1907, Soper published his research nonetheless, and Mary was seized by the city police and exiled to North Brother Island. Still convinced that she could not possibly be transmitting the disease, she fought for three years to be allowed back to the mainland. Finally, in 1910, she agreed to a proposal by the New York City Health Department that she would not work as a cook, and that she would take all possible hygienic measures to ensure no further cases could be attributed to her. She was allowed to depart North Brother in February of that year.

But she remained unconvinced that she was a vector for the bacterium, and continued her generally unhygienic practices. When she found her salary as a laundress to be significantly lower than what she had made as a cook, she took the pseudonym Mary Brown and began working as a cook in a hospital. Due to her generally poor sanitary habits, she quickly caused another outbreak at the hospital, which infected two dozen people, killing one. City health officials quickly tracked her down, and she was returned to North Brother, this time for the remainder of her life – over two decades on 20 acres of land. She had her own cottage, and eventually began socializing in the Nurses’ Residence and working in the pathology lab (both pictured above). In 1938, Mary died of a stroke. Her cottage was bulldozed, being cluttered and unsanitary to the point that people were afraid to enter the structure. Live typhoid cultures were found during her autopsy.

Auxiliary Buildings

A former childrens' ward was converted to a library when Riverside became a rehabilitation hospital. [Print]

The maintenance building contains general odds and ends; here, some keys sit next to a chemical stalagmite. [Print]

An old phonebook in the maintenance building is still relatively intact. [Print]

Before abandonment of the island, the altarpiece from the chapel was removed to the maintenance building, where it still sits on a table. [Print]

The second chapel, made of wood, has almost completely collapsed; all that remains standing is the wall and entryway to the west. [Print]

A great deal of infrastructure remains on the island. Lampposts, telephone poles, manholes, roads with curbs, and so on all exist, although most are buried in bushes or covered in vines. Here, a fire hydrant is relatively undisturbed. [Print]

Riverside Repurposed

Riverside Hospital stopped functioning as a quarantine hospital in 1942. It was, for a short time, abandoned, before finding a brief use as housing for World War Two veterans studying at New York colleges. It was serviced by two ferries that would regularly stop at the western slip, but this use proved inefficient and expensive, and when cheaper housing was obtained, the island was once again abandoned. In 1952, it would reopen under the final incarnation of Riverside Hospital – as an experimental juvenile drug treatment facility offered as an alternative to incarceration.

It is interesting to note that the tuberculosis pavilion, built in 1941, was never in fact used to treat tubercular patients. The island was abandoned, and all patients suffering from this disease were moved to alternate municipal facilities. The TB hospital found its first use as a dormitory, and then became the main residence and treatment building for Riverside Hospital’s drug treatment program. The doors to many of the rooms were retrofitted into seclusion rooms with sheet metal reinforcement and heavy deadbolts; these rooms are iconic in discussing the failed experiment in drug treatment undertaken on North Brother, as they spoke to the initial withdrawal management.

A patient, newly arrived at Riverside Hospital and addicted to heroin, would be placed in one of these rooms with no conveniences except for a bare mattress and a mess bucket. They would be forced to undergo withdrawal in the seclusion room without any palliatives; medicine was only given in situations deemed to be life-threatening. After several days, when withdrawal was complete, the patient would be introduced into the general population.

It was believed that this harsh return to reality, followed up by a stay of no less than 90 days on the island, and bolstered by athletics and education, would provide the best chance against relapse. To this end, all of the buildings on the island were remade; the services building became the school, the nurses’ residence became the girls’ dormitory, and the tuberculosis pavilion became the admissions hospital and boys’ residence. The building next to the TB pavilion – originally a childrens’ ward – was remade into a library and annex to the school.

The optimism of the founders of this new program was quickly shattered, however. Recidivism rates were extremely high, and even within a militaristic island hospital designed with quarantine in mind, patients were still finding means of obtaining and using drugs within the hospital. There are accounts of boyfriends making the trip across the Hell Gate in order to visit in the middle of the night; accounts of orderlies getting paid in cigarettes to smuggle heroin on the ferries; accounts of physical and sexual abuse on and by patients. Official literature from the last few years of the program reads as more and more desperate; meanwhile, the city prepared to shutter Riverside entirely. In 1963, the island was abandoned for the third and final time.

Tuberculosis Pavilion & School

The front of the 1941 tuberculosis pavilion. [Print]

A reception area in the central administrative portion of the pavilion. [Print]

A hallway inside the pavilion. [Print]

An x-ray room within the first floor medical wing of the pavilion. To the right is the control room. The tiles here have fallen away to reveal walls lined with integral lead blocks.

The remains of one of the x-ray apparati. [Print]

An airy dayroom at the end of the south wing speaks to the pavilion's original purpose as a ward for TB patients. [Print]

The building features two of these large bathtubs. [Print]

The utilitarian main stairwell in the center of the building. [Print]

A view down the southern stairwell. [Print]

The exterior of one of the seclusion rooms. This is the only such room which does not have an extra layer of sheet metal over the door. [Print]

The deadbolts were retrofitted when the hospital was repurposed as a rehabilitation facility. This seclusion room door has two locks to ensure that even the strongest patient cannot escape, and is reinforced with sheet metal. [Print]

The interior of a seclusion room. A heavy mesh screen, added after the initial construction, protects the windows from the withdrawing patient. A window provides a view into the room from the nurses' station, so that the patient is visible at all times during their withdrawal. [Print]

A chain and lock secure the screen that bars access to the windows. [Print]

Several murals are still visible on the second floor, although most of them have been punched through, presumably by vandals in the 1970s when it was popular to sneak onto the island by boat. [Print]

On one of the murals, a patient has written a vulgar poem expressing his feelings about the institution. [Print]

Originally designated the "Services Building", this building was referred to as the "School" after the hospital reopened in 1952. [Print]

While being altered to function as a school, shoddy construction techniques were employed for the partitioning. Here, the main hallway is askew under the weight of the metal beams in the wall. [Print]

The principal's office; here, the door is helping to stop the wall from falling over further. [Print]

The auditorium boasted a number of seats and a small stage. [Print]

The gymnasium, built in the hopes that athleticism could help overcome addiction. [Print]

The lavatory behind the basketball backboard. This area has suffered significant water damage. [Print]

Although most of the schoolrooms have been stripped bare, this printing press remains. [Print]

The window has fallen out of the wall in this science classroom. [Print]


Riverside Hospital, in each of its incarnations and with its shifting goals, was always an optimistic undertaking with underwhelming results. The cost of running a quarantine hospital on an island, along with advances in medicine and poor living conditions, outmoded the facility to the point that it closed. In its later life, it was a valiant attempt by some high-minded individuals to treat another societal ill, that of drug abuse. But once again, poor conditions and institutionalized corruption led to its closure. In both cases, the patients were generally poor, and generally confined to the island against their will, though in both cases their confinement was supposed to be for the greater good of society. This sentiment seems fitting:


Found on the wall in one of the seclusion rooms in the TB pavilion, it was certainly the writing of one of the youthful drug offenders in the last months of Riverside’s functioning. But it could just as easily have been written 78 years earlier, by an immigrant confined for displaying signs of diptheria just as the hospital opened, or perhaps in the 1930s by Mary Mallon. The one thing uniting almost all patients in the various versions of Riverside that existed is that they did not wish to be there; they were being treated for socially stigmatized diseases and disorders, by a society that kept them against their will. Whether the end result was positive or negative is a question for history to decide.

Today, North Brother Island looks more or less as seen in the photographs shown here, and in some cases, worse. There are no plans to rehabilitate the buildings or reuse the island; it will remain under the jurisdiction of the New York City Parks Department, and will remain a bird sanctuary. In another year or two, the fourth floor of the nurses’ residence will be inaccessible. It won’t be long before the doctors’ cottage finishes falling in upon itself, much as the lighthouse and chapel have already done. The TB pavilion, constructed with more modern techniques and materials, will be around a good while longer. Meanwhile, the pundits can debate whether or not the island has accomplished more good or ill for society; one thing that is beyond debate is the fact that the island has a unique and fascinating history, and one that should not be forgotten.

The gantry crane at sunset; a rainbow behind a cloud gives the appearance of a second sun. [Print]

I would ask anybody with a personal connection to the island – patients, staff, the children thereof – to please email me with your story; eventually, I’d like to turn this study into a larger-scope project, and reveal more about the history of the Island.


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Anonymous said...

Great article! Actually takes you there and makes you imagine what those poor went through. Thank you

AJ said...

I appreciate your work!!! I love the history behind the old buildings! Its true old walls do talk!

Robin said...

Great pictures. Love to see stories like this about historical places.

Anonymous said...

So glad I stumbled upon this...history almost lost. Thank you.

Al Larabee said...

When I was a boy we went past the island on fishing trips but never stopped there. At the time,1950,it was a secret and forbidding place that had many different stories told about it.
Thanks for the photos and the article.I did enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

I live in rural Addison, Michigan and seen your photographs posted on Yahoo. Excellent work you have done getting these photos and posting them for the world to see. I so enjoy photographing old buildings and things and find them hauntingly magnetic to the sould and what was. Keep up the great works and hope you post more intresting place like this island full of twisted history. Loved you work.. Tracy McKinney

Unknown said...

Blown Away! Can't think of anything intelligent enough that would stand above anything already mentioned by others. What a piece. I'm not a New Yorker, Californian of all things but I love the history and have marveled at the sites and buildings on every visit in the past. Always enjoyed the structured tours but always yearned to sneak a forbidden and maybe illegal visit to those sites you only see from a distance and wonder,"what happened there?" Alright "History Channel" pick this up and take it to the next level!! And Thank You for bringing this to view for all of us.

Adrianne said...

Thank you, Ian. As an architect, I am moved by the deterioration of the buildings but glad that it is a refuge. I know how difficult it is to navigate walls and floors missing or askew. The moss, the tiles...all reminiscent of all the "State Schools" which were build in Mass. and now demolished or about to be demolished.
That's a heck of a lot of brick! Love the staircases and sunlight/shadows. Even the paint-flaking patterns are mysteriously fascinating and alluring.

Anonymous said...

This is absolutely awesome!! Thank you for sharing this with us. This is the best and most interesting piece of work I have seen in my life. Thank you so much!!!

Anonymous said...

Great history and photos. New York should do something constructive to save at least a portion of the island history. Great Job.

Donna S. said...

What a lovely, haunting, beautiful,educational story that immediately drew me onto the Island. Photographs were amazing, how you were able to capture the natural light is awesome! You are truly a very talented person. I would love to see this narrative on the History Channel.

Tamera said...

Fascinating. Great photography too. I've read a little about Brother Island, but you really dotted all the I's and crossed all the T's for me. I learned so much. I'm officially your newest blog stalker.

Kolakaluri SriKiran said...

Nice to know the world that was in those years when certain epidemics were rampant.Tears ran down unable to hold on in my eyes while reading the graffiti of a patient saying He/She was held there against his/her wish. A good effort of recording the recent past.

Anonymous said...

I am just curious by wandering through these old buildings did you wear some kind of breathing protection. I would think such an old building would have asbestos

Anonymous said...

Fascinating--thank you for all of your work on this. What a shame someone can't take it all over and fix it up--possibly as a museum, etc.

Anonymous said...

did you find any of these people

Anonymous said...

What an amazing find. Simply fascinating. I am enthralled by all things old pertaining to early NY and this was awesome. Thank you. said...

My fiance's last name is Mallon and has stated in the past that her family is related to Mary Mallon. I wonder how much there is to this claim and if there is more to her story. This series of pictures has revived my interest in the matter.

tiffiny090180 said...

Genius. I was riveted by the level in which your mind sees the world. These photographs are breath-taking. I am hooked.

TeacherMikeFtlFl said...

I went to NYU's Film School and lived in Manhattan from 1969 to 1972. I must admit I've never heard of North Brother Island.
I love seeing these photos. They tell so much about lost or unknown history. Keep finding these places, you are making a great contribution to our culture.
Mike Olesko-Ft Lauderdale, Fl

Tiffy B said...

I was just surfing the net and ran across this story, never heard of this island in New York. WOW! what interesting facts and very heartfelt pictures. It's a shame that this is a wasted piece oh history and real estate

Johnny H. said...

My father was committed to Laurel Heights Sanatarium in Shelton, CT in 1936 after being diagnosed with TB. My mother was a registered nurse there for 13 years and was my father's nurse. My father cured and was discharged in 1942. They married in 1943 and I was born a year later. I recall so many stories they'd share about "the heights" as they'd refer to it. This photo journal effort is an amazing glimpse into a world that only people who survived TB and their children could fully appreciate. When I was in grade school, it was easy to see which classmates had parents that cured of TB because we were all herded up once a year and sent to the nurse's office to be examined by the doctor. It was a bit embarassing but what did we know? It wasn't until years later that we found out.

Jennylulovesart said...

I have heard of this lightly by my grandma who lived in NYC during that time. Well done in your covering of it. I want to now know more. Your pictures were riveting. I wish you well in this project.

Anonymous said...

A very good read indeed, and obviously great photos, haunting decay can be so beautiful! Thanks

Dylan Moseley said...

This was amazing to read about, and the photos are just haunting, and so full of emotion. You gave such a sense of what these people went through. God Bless them all, and bless you for documenting this heartbreaking and sad piece of american history. People need to understand that not all of Amercian history was pleasant, however we need to hear about it all.So important! I was very moved.

Michael said...

Incredible Photos,m the one wih the Intect room (green room) can only mean here is a Ghost still keeping that room intact , with the history of that island I would not be the least bit surpised if there are ghosts roaming the island.

Anonymous said...

Wow this was so interesting! great job! So why hasn't some Bill Gates or Donald Trump bought it up for some private residence or resort?

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for documenting this. I hope you will consider doing more in other places, that show the abandoned and forgotten factories, hospitals, and Americana that is rapidly fading away.

Appreciative in Lansdale, PA

Robin May said...

why doesn't someone take the artifacts to put in a museum cataloging this site? There are many such articles worth saving such as the main stairwell railing, exam tables, spiral staircase, x-ray aparatus, printing press, dressers and beds, alterpiece, keys, 4th floor landing rail, etc. Surely in a city the size of New York, there would be at least one museum who would think these items worth saving. Even in Nebraska, we cherish such heritage and these things would have been preserved long ago. And to add to several other posters...if this island is off limits, just how did you get to go there not once but twice since some of your pictures are taken in the summer with lush green plants and some show snow.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the information on this place. I would love to see pictures of this place in working condition. I love to read things on history of places in the U.S. Thanks again

Anonymous said...

excellant got fully lost in veiwing, just lost in time.

Anonymous said...

Hello,I just happen to see the pictures and I click on them,and it was very interesting,I love the history,I'm from NY and never new about the brother Island,Thank you so much for doing a great job.

RN2B2013 said...

This is really cool site. I am a nursing student and just find it fascinating to learn about the past in terms of medical care and to see how far we have come. It is not imaginable to most of us today that we would isolate people with certain illnesses to an island. Would love to read stories of former patients and staff.

KathyReese said...

I too just came here by chance. Yet I stayed and read your entire piece and looked at all the photos. I wish I could have gone along with you on your adventure. Amazing!

Anonymous said...

Amazing pics. Thanks for sharing. If it's closed to the public, how did you get access?

nicole said...

i think that some one should open this up like an ellis island i love old place like this

Anonymous said...

I would love to know about the lives of the hospital staff both on and off duty. Perhaps there are still some around who might be able to tell us.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. Very well done. It is sad how this property and its' history have been forgotten or buried. It is fortunate that you have taken an interest with your photos and words to bring this story to the forefront of this generation. Your report makes me yearn for the rest of the story. I hope past patients, children etc will contact you to provice further information so you can perhaps write a book. Good Luck.

katherine said...

Hi,found your story very interesting.I am from NYC and I never knew there was a place such as Notrh Brother and to think that they would treat ppl that way. I will pass this on to my friends and family. I'm pretty sure that there is someone out there knows about that place.Please keep up your good work and keep me posted of what else you may come across.

Anonymous said...

Happened to see a few photos on my news page before doing a goggle search to find this site. Couldn't help but admire the photos but sadly realize the haunting story behind them. Like others I need to go back and read the narrative. Kudos to you for reminding us, or making us aware of places like this. A visual history lesson indeed !

Anonymous said...

You left me wanting more. I could not walk away from this article. Loved the pics. Felt as if I was there. I am a nurse and could see myself there. Very surreal! Loved this story. Thank you.

Sandy Solomon said...

I found this fronm the Yahoo main page, I am interested in old architechture and must say that I have enjoyed reading and looking at the photos and comments. Would love to explore the island myself. Please keep up the good work.

Wirklich Verruckt said...

This is such a fascinating and evocative work of photography and the related research. I am humbled by your ability to witness and not take more away or add to the destruction. The idleness and need to make a mark that lead to vandalism are not something I feel I have been immune to. One trivial point . . . please excuse its irrelevance: in the final photo, that cannot be a rainbow producing the illusion of a second sun. A rainbow will always be an arc the center of which is on a line from the sun through the viewer's eye. In other words, on the opposite side of the viewer from the sun. I believe it's a sun dog, which is the intersection of two ice (rather than water) caused atmospheric events. One is a circle around the sun, similar to the more familiar one around the moon (there are potentially two, one larger than the other). The other is a line of light parallel to the horizon and passing through the sun. Both are so faint as to be commonly invisible, but their intersections, one on either side of the sun, are bright enough to see in daylight, and are called sun dogs. There should be two, but often only one is visible due to interference.

Desislava said...

Simply amazing! All of it reminds me of a game called "Mystery Case Files: Escape from Ravenhearst" and I keep wondering if there's any chance that the creators of that engrossing game (you should try it if you haven't yet) got inspired by this dilapidated hospital or, who knows, maybe by this particular post of yours! Congrats on the great work, keep this kind of research coming!

Anonymous said...

Like a "Silent Hill" place... Terrible...

\pie said...

Amazing text and fotos :-)! Thanks

Karen said...

Great story and photos. Wanted to see more photos of the buildings before nature took over like when it was actually being used. I love historical stories like this. Makes you think and wonder. I wonder if there are any spirits of past residents roaming the island too.

Em said...

You are gifted. This is an amazing body of work.

I had no idea this place existed and have been transfixed by the pictures and history.

Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I also happened upon this by accident. What amazing pictures..I just couldn't stop looking at them. Your photography is Wonderful and so touching. Please keep up the wonderful work. I will look forward to more. Thanks so very much.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for making this available. I read Mary Mallon's biography & always wondered about the island. I would love to read a book about the island & all of its history.

anti- said...

Interestingly, many of these photographs appear elsewhere with an attribution to a different photographer: Ian Ference.

the duchess said...

Found your blog from The Blaze/Glenn Beck and glad I did. Your work's incredible. Well done.

will said...

the "The auditorium boasted a number of seats and a small stage.
" picture look at the top of the doorway u will see a little person btw awsum photos

Anonymous said...

Great Job!! I was driven here by a photo I saw on the free Metro News Paper...these photos are amazing..!!! I will be a good Idea to make this a museum...!!! I also read about Thypoid Mary she was there for years after she infected a lot of people with the bacteria.

Anonymous said...

Outstanding pictures and excellent write-up on the island. Keep up the good work and looking forward to further works.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to see photos of what it looked like in its heyday

Waseem said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Greg Lyon said...

These photos are amazing and the history is too. I happened upon North Brother Island on Google Maps and the did a search and found this web site. Spent a very interesting hour or two reading it. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Typhoid Mary Mallon should've been executed for putting the residents of NYC at risk. In the early 1980's the island would've best been used to house HIV/AIDS patients to protect the public and prevent the spread of disease.

Anonymous said...

I was in the Coast Guard working patrol boats on Governors Island in the late 70s. We used to visit the buildings here and they were in much better condition; it’s amazing what 35 years will do to a place. We also used to go to Ellis Island before it was restored. Later, I did the same job at Ft. Totten in Queens and was able to go to David’s Island and other places.

People don’t realize what amazing New York history is still there, waiting to be (hopefully) found. Thank you for sharing these pictures, it brought back a lot of memories from an earlier time in my life.

Harvey said...

Creepy place! You couldn't pay me to be there after dark! Excellent pictures though.

Brent Armstromg said...

Beautiful photos but spooky!

Carl Brown said...

Looks like nothing a little elbow grease couldn't fix up!

@Theresa7News said...

Fascinating, compelling.. so glad I stumbled onto this. Expertly written and the photographs are beautiful and haunting. I want to know more, see more.. What a waste of a cultural and architectural treasure. Is there nothing to be done to restore this place?

Anonymous said...

You have done an amazing job at depicting photographs and explaining the history of this island. I am quite impressed and I hope to learn more about the history of NY from you. Thank you so much for sharing!

Anonymous said...

This is amazing; the history, the photographs. Thank you for sharing,please do some more exploring.

Anonymous said...

This feels like a wierd thing to say, but the decay is so beautiful in the way that something reclaimed and cleansed by nature is. There's something comforting about that (not to make light of the intense suffering that took place there, the result of policies that were thought progressive at the time. Our attitudes towards health, sanitation, the role of the state all change, but in the end, Nature will take it all back and put the human condition in perspective.

Anonymous said...

What a sensational undertaking with remarkable results. You are to be commended for a fantastic job!

Eddie J. Santos said...

By accident, coincidence, or even providence, I just happen to come across this site reading about the Gen. Slocum (steamboat) tragedy.
I was born and raised across the East River into the South Bronx, born in the mid 50's and lived there through the mid 70's.
As kids, my friends and I would go to the river, via 149th street, across Bruckner Blvd, onto the trains the train tracks off the river. We would play, vandalize and even break into the trains...not very proud of that now, some 44 years later.
Sometime my friends would also fish but never eat the eels they would catch. It was just for the sport.
All we knew about Brother Island was that the "crazies" were kept there, and that it was a haunted place....always curious.
Now seeing the pictures, reading about Typhoid Mary, and the steamboat tragedy and the abandoned facilities with its cruel and abusive history, of course it makes good "gee whiz" reading.
The long history of pre and post civil war New York, with its immigrants and development during and after the industrial revolution is really interesting. It's just too bad I didn't have the mind to find out more about the history of the city and state I was born and raised in. But to a degree, catholic school in the 60's
made it a point to expose us to some history about New York.
I miss New York terribly and find myself surfing the web learning more about this great city and state.
Thanks so much for the short study...well done.
As in the words of a "famous" Austrian actor, "AHHL be Bach!"
Texas is home now.
Love & Respect Uptown, Boogie Down...BRON-X!!

John B said...

Glad I came across these pics! My Great Grandfather was one one the few (sometimes the only) visiting doctor of the contagious disease ward (abt 1905 - 1923)

Bill (doc bee) said...

Lovely photos, thoughtful write up. Thank you.

Wendi Jo said...

This is a fascinating story. Just today I had to give a persuasive speech for one of my classes with any topic of my choice. I choose the importance of renovating and reusing places with one of my main points being seeing helps you remember. This is one of those places that I would renovate or destroy. Seeing this island and those buildings helps people remember, if they were gone there wouldn't be anything to remember. Thanks for keeping history alive through your photography.

Wendi Jo said...

*correction: I wouldn't renovate or destroy. Sorry about that just noticed that.

Emily said...

I found your blog while image-searching "ramshackle porches" for a lesson on To Kill a Mockingbird...and ended up discovering the back story of Typhoid Mary for my biology class. Thank you for the research and the images. I'd like to see them someday in real life & hope til then to not see them in my dreams!

Anonymous said...

Fascinating, THANK YOU for this blog. I found this island while poking around on g00gl3 earth, looking at the area where my dad grew up (Astoria -- NOT on No.Brother, LOL!)

Tamisha said...

My father and his parents lived on NBI from 1949-1951. My grandfather was going to school to learn how to make dentures. I have pictures of my father all over the island. I also have pictures of the massive storm that swept through in November 1949.

Anonymous said...

I would love to do an investigation there. I bet it's just riddled with spiritual activity.

Anonymous said...

My parents, and older brothers born on the mainland lived on the Island as infants, from 1945-1948 while my father attended Fordham law school. The island was full of returning veterans attending NY grad schools with similar starting families. They always felt it was a very unique place to live, and formed life-long friendships there. Sad to see it in its current circumstances.



ABHI TYAGI said...

i like your old hospital land photos. i am impressed with your great creativity and dedication.

Kort said...

I'm interested in the history of North Brother Island, and your article and photos here is probably the most complete modern record I've yet to find. The photograph is excellent as well. Thank you for sharing this.

Anonymous said...

According to what I have read about the Slocum disaster,the far majority of the dead (about 800)were women and children on a Sunday School holiday voyage. They were members of the largest Lutheran church in Manhattan: St. Marks, on the lower east side. The men were, of course, distraught. They mostly moved away, and the church closed and became a Jewish synagog. Hence, because of the housing vacancies, many Jewish immigrants moved in, making up a majority of area residents to this day.

The description of the Captain's actions, according to what I have reads, was, on this site, largely inaccurate. The Master (his true title), had attempted for years to get his vessels owners to replace the rotten fire hoses and life preservers, to no avail. After this disaster, legislation was finally undertaken to regulate fire fighting and passenger safety for vessels, culminating in part, with the Jones Act of 1906.

Anyone who is knowledgeable of the New York harbor knows that the only place the Master could have headed for to run her aground was the Brothers Island. Other places would have been of no use, and more deaths would have occured.

The criminalization of the Master's actions resulted in the formation of a Harbormaster's Association, which later became the seed of one of the oldest maritime unions, still very active, the International Organization of Masters, Mates, and Pilots.

It is interesting to read how newspaper and popular ignorance leads to conclusions very different from factual accounts.

Captain, USN ret and Licensed Master, Oceans,Any Tonnage, ret.


Anonymous said...

Congratulations. Wonderful article. You have educated all of us and showed us how sad it is when we let a part or our history just disappear. It is such a shame it couldn't be saved and/or reused.

Anonymous said...


Wow! Delivering a load of Blue Moon beer to the Manhattan Beer Distributors directly across from the Island. I asked the young black gate guard what's on that island over there. He shuttered and said, "nuthin, ain't shit over there." So I had to find out what made him shutter like that and found your excellent blog. Thx, Gary

Anonymous said...

Absolutely amazing! You have taken photographs that have bought the place alive. In one of them I could almost smell the grass and forest reclaiming the structures. Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful work.

David Remy said...

Wonderful job! The pics are amazing! Its obvious that you've put in a great deal of time creating this blog. I love all the historical detail, the timeline really helps understand what went on there, the different incarnations of the island, and its eventual demise. Recently I have been studying other islands in the NYC area, such as Hart island and David's island, the home of the former Fort Slocum. Again, thank you and keep up the good work!

Crystal1390 said...

I was just wondering if you have been back since Hurricane Sandy or if you know the effects of the storm on the remains of the structures?

Rachel said...

this was very interesting to read and the pictures were very captivating :)

mjazzguitar said...

This reminds me of some of the photos of the abandoned buildings in Detroit.

Anonymous said...

Amazing information and photographs. I am afraid the information here will be lost forever and condos will be erected in its place. I hope we dont lose this. Thank you for taking the time share this with everyone.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much, pics are stunning and the story is truly absorbing, although extremely sad

Nicah_666 said...

Hey Ian!
I must say you take photos full of life, history, scare and dedication. You truly show how the life has been there and how much history it is on the island that we need to keep alive and restored. All that happen from the beginning on the island til it was abandon is a history lesson and for many a life experience. I agree to restore it and capture it as a history place with many stories to tell sounds like a real good idea! We all need to know what has happen in the earlier days and what our grandparents etc was going thru. Life is a mystery but filled with history to tell.
I came across this page by a picture you have taken and I'm stunned, intrigued to read more, learn more, see more pictures. I do look forward to you write a book and fill it with pictures from all your adventures.
I don't live in the US but in Sweden and it's interesting to read about haunting and abandon places like these that have a huge history to them. I do look forward to see more from you Ian. Ty so much for amazing photos and a well done history in it. Keep up this amazing work and wish you well on new or old adventures!
Sincerely Veronica N H/Sweden

Anonymous said...

Thank you for doing this piece of history for others to see. If only the politicians, park officials, and others in office have the passion you have to show the world a little of NY hx then maybe something would be done to preserve the island, only through your blog will this be achieve. Again thank you.

Edward J Cejka said...

it is a very nice all history are very nice and all photograph thanks for sharing it.

Eartl Turner said...

Just got back from an amazing adventure on North Brother Island

left a Geocache for the more experienced explorer as well:

This piece of history will soon disappear by the hands of the City and some greedy wealthy investor with the excuse for another "wonderful" and safe "public" place to be enjoyed by the new yorkers.

All that glitters is not gold.

Good Luck.

Lissa Libutti said...

I come back to your article time and time again, and I have sent many friends the link as well. It's amazing. The photos are beautifully haunting, the history is fascinating and sobering, the reality is grim but told with such compassion. It's riveting. Perfection! Bravo!!

Anonymous said...

My Grandfathers brother died in Riverside Hospital in 1868. He came over from an orphanage with Scarlet Fever and Pneumonia. I have often wondered where they sent the dead with no family for burial. Do you have any idea? And I love your pictures, I feel a sense of connection knowing I had a family member that was treated and died there. Please reply to me at

rkalaska01 said...

Fantastic account and pictures. It is hard to believe that it was only 50 years ago that it was abandoned. Kudzu is one of the most destructive introduction of an invasive plant to the US. It is hard to believe that it will be gone in another 50 years. Accounts like yours will keep this history, as hellish as it was, alive. I will never forget what happened there. I will look for your other accounts of these forgotten places. Thanks for all the information.

Pondsister said...

Dear Richard, What marvelous work!
I came across several film negatives in my late parents' belongings from the time they lived on North Brother Island. My father was a WWII veteran student at Union Theological Seminary. Their address there was Apt 43, Johnson Hall, Riverside Campus, N. Brother Island, Bronx 54, N.Y. My mother loved living there with the many other married student families.
The photos are mostly of people, but there are buildings showing, too. Some may be of Union Seminary in Manhattan, and at least one is was taken at the Bronx Zoo (giraffe included), but I have a few prints from that batch of negatives that were taken on NBI and labeled as such. Are you interested in seeing them?

Nolagirl said...

My sister was "born" on North Brother Island in 1948. Me, my mother and father lived in Mezes Hall, and I still have a photograph of me and my Dad sitting on the steps, enjoying a summer day.

I remember only one family but time (I am 70 now) has blurred their names. Billy was the boy. My father attended Julliard and there were many musicians in Mezes Hall. Your photographs are so haunting, and I do remember Dad taking me for a walk, then he passed by this "shack" and said Typhoid Mary lived there. I was too young to grasp this, but never forgot it. And I've never forgotten North Brother Island, either. It seemed like a dream I'd had but couldn't prove, until now. Thank you so much for these wonderful, haunting photos and the well written commentaries.

And when I said my sister was born there, we all lived there, but my Mother had to take that dilapidated ferry to New York City to have her born there. Too bad there were no doctors living on the Island in 1948!

judith rocchio said...

Riverside Hospital was used to treat narcotics addicts under 21. Yes, some of these patients did swim across to the Bronx to get drugs. But there was some good beginning to happen until Mayor Wagner answered Anna Kross' plea to use Riverside for her women's detention facility. That would have been in the latter part of the fifties.

My stepfather, Raphael Robert Gamso, MD, was the physician who directed the hospital until it was pulled away for Ms. Kross' wishes. I don't even know if she ever followed through with what she said she was going to do.

But, besides the TB history and the heartfelt trial for drug addicts under 21, there is no reason in the world to just let it die. There must be a developer in NYC interested in making it come back to life. It is very sad to just let it die.

Judith Rocchio 802-698-8346

Laura from Iowa said...

What an amazing collection of photos! And a wonderful job of telling the story of the Island. I learned so much and will pass it to others I know are interested. Unfortunately, no matter where you are located, today most would rather tear down the old instead of restore it. Thank you for your work!

Roxana Ica Suteu said...

I wonder why nobody is buying this island and try to fix it up.That would be lovely,to have this place made as new with new buildings.I also wonder if this island would be for sale,how much would cost?.

bonnie said...

Gorgeous. I've landed there a few times but didn't go into the ruins.

Found this after wondering where these guys had gotten their pictures - figured Google image search would find the originals.

bluebell said...

Thank you for your exhaustive work on this subject. I am particularly enthralled by the facade of The Tuberculosis Pavilion which is awesome, to me, for the incredible amount of detail that went into the brickwork, only to be abandoned: a true lost work of art that would be revered in any other location. I wish that more close-up photos were available, and that the architectural background of the building could be explored: the architect, the construction of the brickwork, etc.

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