Just 350 yards east of the Bronx, an uninhabited island known as North Brother Island lies in the East River, sealed off from the world. Before it became off-limits to the public in 1963, the city-owned island served many purposes since the 1880s. Some are more unsettling, such as quarantining victims of diseases and treating drug-addicts, and some are practical, like housing returning second world-war veterans.

We previously discussed North Brother Island on a tour of New York City’s other islands. Today, we’re looking deeper at North Brother Island’s unstable past.

In 1881, Riverside Hospital was commissioned on North Brother Island due to overcrowding on other island quarantine hospitals in New York. The facility treated everything from smallpox to tuberculosis, taking in unfortunate patients who were forcibly removed from Manhattan’s streets due to their contagious diseases. It was here in 1907 that the notorious Typohid Mary was confined. Mary didn’t exhibit symptoms and refused to admit she was a carrier, leading to her exile after outbreaks in the places she worked. After two decades of quarantine, she died on the island in 1938, followed by the hospital’s closure shortly after in 1942.

After World War II, the island was repurposed to provide living accommodation for student veterans studying in New York colleges. But without warning, the housing shortage across the country subsided and created more housing options; which in turn left the island neglected once again.

North Brother Island reopened as a facility to treat young drug offenders in 1952, and the island’s buildings were repurposed to function as both a center and a school. Drug addicts were banished to the island and locked in a room until they were clean. But the program was short-lived; by the early 1960s, widespread staff corruption and patient recidivism forced the facility to close, leaving the island untouched by humans ever since.

Currently, the North Brother Island is a protected sanctuary for birds, owned by the Department of Parks and Recreation. Because birds need a certain amount of protection and distance from predators, the environment of the island represents a critical nesting habitat, one of the only few throughout New York City. There is limited access to the island due to the sensitivity of the bird-breeding habitat. Unlike other spaces in New York, North Brother Island is a place where people have given up on inhabiting. North Brother Island has been reclaimed by nature, and perhaps it’s best to leave it that way.

Christopher Payne is the author of Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals and New York’s Forgotten Substations: The Power Behind the Subway. Read more about Payne’s photography on Untapped Cities and on his website

10 thoughts on “Inside New York’s Abandoned Neighbor, North Brother Island

    1. Occasionally there may be a surprise stop on a NYC Parks kayak trip: https://untappedcities.com/2015/08/31/nycs-urban-park-rangers-canoe-trip-with-surprise-stop-at-north-brother-island/
      But there’s the latest news on the study about potential public access: https://untappedcities.com/2015/10/30/new-study-will-explore-public-accessibility-to-nycs-north-brothers-island/

      You may also enjoy our latest article on the secrets of North Brother Island: https://untappedcities.com/2015/11/02/the-top-10-secrets-of-nycs-abandoned-north-brother-island/

  1. Unfortunately i learn about brother island through a facinating documentary that shows you how nature is stronger
    than men and basically destoyed everything on the island . I know it`s a bird sanctuary but did it ever occure to anyone that maybe hab they preserved the sanatorium and converted the rest of the bildings that it would a made the BIGGEST island museum and given a chance to everyone to learn about the true story of north brother island . WHY DON`T YOU DWELL ON THAT FOR AWHILE

    1. Maybe because they’d rather let it be a natural place where the birds, which exist NOWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD, can live rather than having another old hospital converted into another museum in the world… seriously there are thousands upon thousands of abandoned hospitals and only one site these birds chose to inhabit. Obviously that’s why they didn’t do that.

  2. I’m glad North Brother island still serves a purpose as a bird sanctuary. I do fear for people who go to the island to explore the old buildings as they are all threatening to collapse causing injury or death to anyone wandering inside. For safety reasons those buildings should be torn down; I say this because the island and buildings have been extensively photographed and are on line for all to see. I am thinking of the public safety-no offense to the curious.I have had a hard time finding photos of North brother island in its heyday save for those when the island was used for drug rehab. If Mary Mallon were to come back and see the island now she would probably be glad it is crumbling away.

    1. i strongly disagree with tearing down the buildings. I believe that they should either preserve them or just leave them as they are. Explorers like myself know the risks of entering severely decayed places like that.

  3. im here to tell u i think the the island has dirty water i dont no what you drink for a living

  4. I find this an intriguing place that I would love to visit. I think it would be well suited/shared with a state university to enable students hands on lab work in Oceanography , Ornithology, etc.. This is land that can be revived and utilized in a positive manner setting aside the bird sanctuary to live among these ideas. Tours of the Island and its purposes……This cannot only positively affect our youth and education but it can also bring about much needed jobs and untapped revenue for the state. All to be done with respect to the current habitat. I would be willing to head the project in conjunction with the powers that be. This has peaked my interest.

  5. Very interesting history of North Brother Island. Hopefully the bird sanctuary is more successful than the past endeavors on the island.

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