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North Brother Island: New York City’s abandoned quarantine island is completely overrun by nature

Anastasia Kolomiets

The North and South Brother Islands are two small islands that are located between the Bronx and Rikers Island in New York City. South Brother Island is part of Bronx country, and until 2007 it was privately owned, after that it was purchased by the city.

North Brother Island functioned as a quarantine site, and it has a big hospital in the middle of it where the sick people from the city were shipped and shut away. Today, it is abandoned and designated as a bird sanctuary. The islands were claimed in 1614 by the Dutch West India company and originally were named De Gesellen which in English means The Companions.

North Brother Island opened in the 1880s, and it was closed in the 1960s. The Riverside hospital was built there to treat patients infected with typhoid and smallpox, and in the 1950s it converted into a drug rehab center for teenagers who were addicted to heroin. For almost 60 years, the island has been uninhabited and, because of the ruinous state of the buildings, it became a very popular tourist destination.

Everything on the island was swallowed up by weeds as if New York has its own lost civilization. The island is best remembered for the shipwreck tragedy that happened on June 15, 1904, when the steamship General Slocum burned on the site. Over 1,000 people died, some of them of drowning and some of them from the fire.

The first person (Mary Mallon) identified as an asymptomatic carrier in the United states was confined in the hospital. Author: Jay Gorman. CC BY 2.0

The first person (Mary Mallon) identified as an asymptomatic carrier in the United states was confined in the hospital. Author: Jay Gorman. CC BY 2.0

The first person that was identified as an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid in the United States was confined to the island to live in isolation for over two decades. Her name was Mary Mallon, better known to Americans as Typhoid Mary. She was a cook, and it is said that during her career she infected 22 people, three of whom died.

The remains of Riverside Hospital. Author: reivax. CC BY-SA 2.0

The remains of Riverside Hospital. Author: reivax. CC BY-SA 2.0

Mallon lived for the rest of her life at Riverside hospital, and on November 11, 1938, she died of pneumonia. As mentioned before, in the 1950s the hospital became the first in the States that offered help and treatment to young drug offenders. The addicts were confined in separate rooms and locked inside until they were clean.

The Ferry dock on the island. Author: H.L.I.T. CC BY 2.0

The Ferry dock on the island. Author: H.L.I.T. CC BY 2.0

As many hospitals who are tasked to work with hard cases, the institution’s staff was blamed for being cruel with the patients. There were a lot of complaints that the addicts were kept in their rooms against their own will, which forced the facility to close. Many ideas have been brought to the table throughout the years about what to do with the abandoned island.

Abandoned Plant on the island. Author: Julie McCoy. CC BY-SA 4.0

Abandoned Plant on the island. Author: Julie McCoy. CC BY-SA 4.0

Many mayors of the city have discussed various options. Ed Kock thought that the best way to preserve the island was to convert the facility into a house for the homeless and John Lindsay wanted to sell it. Later, it became a bird shelter for herons and other birds and currently is off-limits for visitors. Since 2008 many species have abandoned the site but no one knows what the reason is. The most common bird that can be seen flying over the island is the barn swallow whose nests are all over the ruined structures.

Abandoned building used as a bird sanctuary. Author: Julie McCoy. CC BY-SA 4.0

Abandoned building used as a bird sanctuary. Author: Julie McCoy. CC BY-SA 4.0

But from 2016, the City council is proposing a way for citizens to take legal trips to North Brother Island. After the Council member Mark Levine visited the abandoned island, it was confirmed that it is still hazardous for anyone to cross its grounds. After over 50 years of neglect, the place is left with many hazards, and the structures are not secure. The whole place is choked with porcelain berry and kudzu, and there is poison ivy everywhere.

The island is not opened to the public because it is not safe. Author: Jessica Sheridan. CC BY 2.0

The island is not opened to the public because it is not safe. Author: Jessica Sheridan. CC BY 2.0

It is said that this hospital was the inspiration for the play Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie? in which the actor Al Pacino had one of his first performances. Also, in 2009 it was the filming location of the eighth episode of Life After People on the History Channel. It was an example of what will happen to the structures built by men if there was no one living there for over 45 years.