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.