Last night, several members of the Untapped New York team were part of the panel Rediscovering New York: Revealing Forgotten Landscapes at the Brooklyn Historical Society. Short documentaries from Unforgotten Films about three unique sites in New York City — Fort Totten, the New York Pavilion at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, and Hart Island, were shown, with panelists on stage who were interviewed in the films.
In the discussion, one of the places that came up time and again for the audience and panelists was Hart Island, New York City’s mass burial ground on an island off of the Bronx. One audience member asked what else was on Hart Island, and we spoke to the real diversity of prior activity there — much like the history of other islands in New York. Among the many things Hart Island has been — a narcotics rehabilitation center, a quarantine zone for yellow fever, a prison, women’s insane asylum, a tuberculosis hospital, and of course, the burial ground for over a million New Yorkers — it was also a Cold War Nike missile base.
Deer frolic around the former Nike missile launch area
You can still see clearly the remnants of the Cold War Nike missile launch area on Hart Island. The surface-to-air missile installation was overseen by the U.S. Army Air Defense Command from 1954 to 1961 for the purpose of defending against a potential Soviet attack. The Hart Island installation was one of at least nineteen in the New York City region.
Though the control operations for the missiles was located on David’s Island, another abandoned island off New Rochelle, the launch area was on Hart Island which can be seen from David’s Island. What you see in the photos here are the foundations of the buildings where missiles were tested and assembled. An earthen mound nearby would have been where the missiles were fueled. The Nike project was launched in the last two years of World War II, and was succeeded by the Hercules missile system after 1961.
Currently, Hart Island is accessible to the general public one day a month for the general public, who can only go to a viewing pavilion close to the dock. The visits are arranged by the Department of Corrections and you can sign up by filling out an online form, emailing or calling. People with family buried on the island can visit the grave sites. We have had the opportunity to visit the island more fully on press visits.
Change is coming however, with the recently approved transfer of jurisdiction of Hart Island from the Department of Corrections to NYC Parks. The bill which passed in City Council reverses centuries of a long-standing arrangement which has its origins in the city’s charter. When the changeover occurs, it is expected that public access to Hart Island will increase, although the details of the jurisdiction change have not been decided upon.
Next, check out more secrets of Hart Island. You can find remnants of a nuclear missile site in Queens, at Fort Tilden.