North Brother Island is most famous today from the beautiful photographs of its crumbling state, but its history and secrets are what give the place its mythical status in New York City. In light of the study to explore opening North Brother Island to public access, we’re sharing our favorite secrets of this island in the East River. Many of these secrets are sourced from the great book North Brother Island, The Last Unknown Place in New York City by Christopher Payne and Randall Mason.
10. North Brother Island and South Brother Island Were Known as the “Two Brothers” Islands
In 1791, the Two Brothers islands were put for sale at an auction at the Merchants Coffee House, where all business and politics seemed to take place in the early days of the colony. In the print advertisement, it was offered as a “eligible situation for a pilot or a house of entertainment,” due to its location along the river and noted that already extant on the North Brother Island was a “dwelling house, barn, orchard, and a variety of fruit trees, with a quantity of standing fire wood and timber.”
9. North Brother Island Was Originally Part of Westchester
Initially, North Brother Island was part of the Bronx, which was part of Westchester. In 1881, a bill transferred North Brother Island to New York, which was just Manhattan as the consolidation of the boroughs did not take place until 1898. Thus, other early short-term structures to built on North Brother Islandwere temporary hospitals by Westchester County in the mid-19th century.
8. Traces of the First Lighthouse on North Brother Island Still Remain
In 1868, after failed attempts to establish a lighthouse in 1829 and 1848 (the landowners refused to sell), a piece of land on the southern tip was acquired in 1868 by the federal government. The lighthouse built here was the first long-term structure built on the island. According to Randall Mason in North Brother Island, The Last Unknown Place in New York City, the small lighthouse built had a mansard roof and octagonal tower. Today, Mason rates, “traces of the lighthouse and federal owned property remain.”
7. North Brother Island Was Considered a Success For Infection Disease Control
By 1881, plans were underway to create an infectious disease hospital on North Brother Island, shifting the current operations off Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island). While there was certainly controversy over the practices of the institution, both medically and socially, Mason writes in North Brother Island, The Last Unknown Place in New York City, “North Brother Island worked. It protected the city from pestilence. The threat and fear of infectious diseases were great, and Riverside Hospital was essential to treating it in terms of the new science and policies of public health.”
Cities like Philadelphia looked at New York City’s solution as an example. Photographer and reformer Jacob Riis was also a supporter of the undertakings at Riverside Hospital, finding it peaceful and effective, and felt, as Mason writes, “exile to North Brother Island was necessary to protect the city and well worth the cost, both social and financial.”
6. Typhoid Mary Epitomized the Decline of North Brother Island as a Medical Facility
Mason in North Brother Island, The Last Unknown Place in New York City, after the initial success in controlling epidemics in New York City, North Brother Island “soon became a place of moral compromise, lax care, and anti-immigrant discrimination.” The infamous Typhoid Mary (aka Mary Mellon) was simply a figure that epitomized the challenges and forthcoming decline to come to North Brother Island. She was a healthy carrier of typhus and worked as a cook for the upper classes of New York.
She infected more than twenty people and was first sent to North Brother Island from 1907 to 1910. She was released on the condition that she could not work as a cook, but continued to do so under an alias where she infected more. She was sent back to North Brother Island for life from 1915 to her death in 1938. She lived in a small house built just for her so that she could be in complete isolation. In the book Fever, about Typhoid Mary, Mary Beth Keane writes “I really believe that, if she had infected a tenement with hundreds of people in it, and far more deaths had been the result, she wouldn’t have been put in the position she was in, working as she did for a wealthy family.”
5. In the Early 1900s, 25% of the Island Was Landfill
Four acres of land were added to the eastern side of North Brother Island in 1909, accounting for 25% of the total island, on top which were built dormitories and other buildings. As Christopher Payne tells us, he ended the photography for the book North Brother Island, The Last Unknown Place in New York City shortly after Hurricane Sandy, where much of the landfill eroded away. The photograph above shows manhole covers that once connected to sewers on what was once a street on North Brother Island.
4. General Slocum Sinking at North Brother Island Was Largest Loss of Life Until 9/11
Photo via Wikimedia Commons from National Archive
Until the events of September 11th, the sinking of the General Slocum was responsible for the largest loss of life in New York City. The tragedy forever changed the composition of the Lower East Side. On June 15, 1904, St. Mark’s Evangelical Church chartered a boat, the General Slocum, to take 1358 members of its German-American congregation for a fun-filled day on the water and on a Long Island beach.
Not far from shore, a fire burst out, and quickly consumed the ship. The combination of faulty lifeboats and life jackets, a panicked crowd of non-swimmers, and a cowardly crew that sought their own escape first led to mayhem and death. The crisis was made worse by the captain’s refusal to bring the burning ship to shore, ostensibly to prevent the fire from spreading, and the unfortunate timing of the fire occurring while the boat was in Hell Gate’s notoriously rough waters.
The General Slocum sank just off North Brother Island with victims and debris washing up on shore. The staff of the hospitals of the island served as rescue staff for the event. 1,021 people died either by fire or drowning that day, with only a few hundred surviving. The disaster also devastated the large German-American population on the Lower East Side.
3. North Brother Island Served as Post-WWII Housing for Veterans
North Brother Island had declined in importance as a medical institution as scientific advancements and new ideas on care emerged in the years leading up to World War II. Faced with the housing crisis following the war, the government leased land and buildings on North Brother Island to house returning veterans. It should also be noted that after World War I, North Brother also treated veterans with drug addictions. A ferry system was set up to bring veterans to the city’s universities to complete their education or for work. A small village emerged, replete with amenities like a grocery store, library, movie theater – not too dissimilar from Governors Island later which had a Burger King and a motel. About 500 people lived on North Brother Island and Mason writes that the “island population may have reached 1,500 at its peak in the late 1940s.”
Those who lived here during this time, some whom came to speak to Christopher Payne and share their mementos after the release of his book North Brother Island, The Last Unknown Place in New York City say it was an idyllic time. This was not to last however.
2. North Brother Island Was a Drug Treatment Facility
In the 1950s and ’60s, drug abuse came to the forefront as a major public health issue. In 1952, the Tuberculosis Pavilion and other buildings were repurposed as drug treatment facilities, with isolation returning as a preferred method of treatment. Graffiti that can still be seen on the walls of buildings today showcase the difficulty of patients on the island during this time.
1. Abandoned North Brother Island Can Be Visited Occasionally, if You’re Lucky
Canoe-view of North Brother Island
It’s an urban explorers dream to get to North Brother Island, which has been a bird sanctuary. The islands are managed by the New York City Parks and Recreation Department, and if you aren’t some o the lucky few who have gained access for research or other reasons directly through the Parks Department, you may be treated to a surprise visit on a kayak trip, as we were this summer.
Bonus: In the 1970s, Casinos Were Proposed for North Brother Island
According to Robert Sullivan, in the introduction to North Brother Island, The Last Unknown Place in New York City, two city councilman in 1971 proposed to build “The Vegas of the East” on North Brother Island. Other suggestions have included prisons and every so often, architecture students dream up visionary plans for the island. The new study, announced by New York City councilman Mark Levine and undertaken by PennPraxis is the closest yet to restoring public access to North Brother Island.