Status: Former Hospital and Quarantine Site; Mass Fatality and Disaster Site; Former Drug Rehab Site; Bird Sanctuary
No Public Access
The first historical mention of this island – along with it’s sister island (South Brother Island) – is in the early 17th century. They were then named “De Gesellen” meaning the companions and were owned by the Dutch West India Company.
By the end of that century the area was under British control and islands were granted to James Graham. Graham made no attempt to settle or develop the islands citing dangerous currents around them.
Originally part of Long Island City the islands were made part of Queens County and annexed into New York City (Bronx) in 1898 (North Brother Island) and 1964 (South Brother Island).
In 1869 a lighthouse was built on the island and in the 1880’s Riverside Hospital moved from Blackwell’s Island (Roosevelt Island) to North Brother Island. Riverside which was originally founded as a Smallpox hospital became a treatment center for all infectious diseases once it was moved to the new island.
The island then became a quarantine center.
The island allowed the separation of patients with smallpox, typhoid, tuberculosis and polio from the general population of the city. Numerous patients succumbed to these terrible diseases and never left the island.
The infamous “Typhoid Mary” was confined to this island and later died there.
Conditions on the island were terrible, to say the least, visitors were prohibited, there was no electricity or phones, there was no heat in the winter and oftentimes the patient population was so high many patients lived in tents.
On June 15, 1904, the paddle-wheeler General Slocum started up the East River with 1,400 passengers – mostly woman and children – of the St Mark’s Lutheran Church on their way to a church picnic. While traversing Hell’s Gate the passengers became aware of a fire that had started in a forward compartment probably from a discarded cigarette or match.
It would be 10 minutes before the captain was notified, he immediately ordered the ship to be grounded on North Brother Island.
The ship had not been kept up by the it’s owners and it’s safety features were virtually non-existent. The fire hose was tattered and full of holes, the life boats were unusable – some of them were actually chained and painted to the deck – and the life jackets were in such bad shape they disintegrated.
Horrified mothers were throwing the children overboard with life jackets only to see them fall apart and their children sink to the river bottom. The majority of Americans at the time did not know how to swim and most who jumped ship drowned.
Even after grounding on the island many people jumped off the aft of the boat and still drowned in the deep water.
955 passengers and 2 crew died in the disaster with the majority being under the age of 21. This event was the worst maritime disaster until the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. It was also the worst man-made disaster in New York City until the World Trade Center attack on 9/11.
The majority of the dead washed up on the shores of North Brother Island.
After the Second World War the island was used for housing of the veterans and their families while they retrained at colleges in the city. This was due to a housing shortage.
The island was first abandoned when that need passed until the mid-1950’s when a facility was opened for the treatment of adolescent drug addicts. Heroin addicts were locked up until they suffered through the withdrawals and were deemed clean; many people thought youths were being held there against their will.
In 1963 the facility was closed due to costs and staff corruption.
The island has remained uninhabited and off limits to most since. The many buildings have been left to deteriorate and nature has completely taken over. The island was privately owned until 2007 when the Federal Government bought it and gifted to the city of New York.
Renovating the island to any other use has proven too cost prohibitive and it is now a bird sanctuary under control of the New York City Parks Department. It is only accessible by boat and entrance if forbidden except through permission by the city.
Attempting to access the island without permission is trespassing and police activity in the river is generally quite active due the proximity of Riker’s Island and the prison there.
The apparitions of former patients in hospital gowns are seen through the island as well as on the shores. The soaking wet apparitions of people deemed to be the victims of the General Slocum (see above) disaster are also seen along the shoreline where the ship was grounded.
The apparition of a disabled – and sometimes burning – paddle-wheel ship has also been seen on the river between Hell’s Gate and the island.
There are numerous reports of unexplained lights on the island seen from Manhattan.
Phantom screams are often heard coming from the remains of Riverside hospital.
Other reported activity: warm and cold spots; touches tugs and pulls by unseen entities; disembodied voices and whispers; movement in the corner of your eye; unexplained mists and feelings of not being alone and being watched.