An abandoned island with a forgotten past

Quick notes

  • The island was first used as a hospital complex to treat infectious diseases

  • Mary Mallon was quarantined on the island after causing a typhoid outbreak

  • New York’s worst maritime disaster occurred on its shores

North Brother Island is one of two abandoned islands situated in the East River of New York City between mainland Bronx and Rikers Island. Covering over 20 acres, the island was home to many hospitals and medical facilities for sufferers of quarantinable diseases including smallpox and leprosy. In 1904 it became the site of a national disaster when a passenger steamboat sank close to the island with a huge loss of life.

The island had been home to World War II veterans and a drug treatment facility but today sits in ruin. Nature has taken back what once was a progressive treatment complex leaving a mass of decayed ruins and overgrown shrubbery. Today it is a designated wildlife sanctuary and protected area. Although inaccessible to the public, plans are underway to allow limited access to the island in the future.

The home of Riverside hospital and Typhoid Mary

In 1885 the Riverside Hospital was established on the uninhabited island. Previously situated on Blackwell’s Island, the hospital was initially set up to care for victims of smallpox but expanded to treat patients with other quarantinable diseases. Since access was only by boat it was an ideal location for keeping sufferers away from the healthy population.

Other hospitals also operated on the island including The Tuberculosis Pavilion which opened in 1943 to treat victims of this severe lung complaint but was closed after the availability of the tuberculosis vaccine in 1945. It is one of the buildings that still remains structurally intact on North Brother Island.

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One of its famous inhabitants was Mary Mallon who came to be known as “Typhoid Mary.” A young emigrant from Ireland, Mary found work as a cook in New York City. In all her various employments people became ill until an investigation was launched into the outbreak of what was found to be typhoid fever. Mary was credited as the first healthy carrier of typhoid fever and subsequently arrested.

By the time she was admitted to the hospital, she had infected 53 people even though she showed no symptoms herself. She remained in quarantine for over 20 years living in a small bungalow close to the hospital until her death in 1938.

The sinking of the General Slocum

On June 15, 1904, the General Slocum, a side-wheel steamboat, caught fire and sank close to North Brother Island. She was carrying 1,342 passengers, many of whom were members of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on their way to an annual church picnic. The fire started in the lamp room amongst the rags and tins of oil and soon spread.

The boat was equipped with safety equipment that had been poorly maintained. The fire hoses disintegrated as they were used. Many of the passengers donned life preservers as they fell in the river but they were rotten and failed to save the women and children who were dragged down in the water by their heavy woolen clothes.

In 1904, North Brother Island became the site of a national disaster.

The inhabitants of North Brother Island saw the burning boat and raised the alarm. The hospital’s pumps were readied to spring into action but it was too late. Over 1,000 people died in the fire or were drowned before the boat was wrecked on North Brother Island’s shores.

After World War II, the island’s buildings including The Tuberculosis Pavilion were used to house war veterans during the nationwide housing shortage but they fell into disuse in the 1950s. North Brother Island then became a drug treatment center for adolescent drug addicts.

The facility offered the latest therapy including rehabilitation and education but its cure for heroin addiction was controversial. Teenagers were isolated and locked in a room to force them to get clean. Many felt they were held against their will.

After its doors closed in 1963, the island fell into ruin and is now a designated wildlife sanctuary.

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