Hart Island has long been an obscured and out-of-reach location for most New Yorkers. Located in the Long Island Sound just off the shore of the Bronx, the island has been used as a mass burial ground since 1869. Run by the Department of Corrections until management was transferred to the Parks Department in 2021, access to this island has historically been strictly regulated. Now, in an effort to “increase access to the island, reduce historical stigmas surrounding its past, and educate the public about its role as an important piece of City infrastructure,” the Parks Department will offer free public tours for the first time, starting this November.

Hart Island ferry dock

To secure a spot on one of these Tuesday morning tours, you must register on the Parks Department website. Registrants will be selected via a lottery system. You’ll need to act fast, as the lottery opens two weeks ahead of the tour for a limited time. Tours will run twice a month, with the very first tour happening on Tuesday, November 21. Led by Urban Park Rangers, the 2.5-hour walking tours will include ferry transportation to and from Hart Island.

Visitors used to be restricted to a small gazebo near the ferry dock so that the majority of the island was viewable only from a distance. While family members of those who are interred on the island could schedule gravesite visits, burial grounds were off-limits to the general public. On the new public tours, guests will visit a historic chapel the city is working to preserve, a Civil War memorial, and former missile silos, among other selected sites.

Abandoned church on Hart Island
1930s Chapel

In preparation for welcoming the public to the island, the historic site has undergone many changes in the past few years. Most notably, the Department of Design and Construction (DDC) recently completed a $32 million project to remove old structures. The island’s historic chapel, one of the few historic structures that were spared, will receive stabilization work from the DDC. The Parks Department has also planted new trees, cleared overgrowth that was obstructing grave plots, and added a landscaped area with seating near the island’s ferry dock.

Abandoned buildings on Hart Island

Since 1991, Hart Island has solely been used as a burial ground. Civil War veterans, individuals who died of AIDS-related illness, and COVID-19 victims are just a few of the estimated one million people interred there. It is the largest public cemetery in the country. Throughout its history, the island has served many other purposes such as a quarantine station, a psychiatric hospital, a tuberculosis ward, a reform school, a homeless shelter, a rehabilitation facility, a military base, and a jail.

“We’re thrilled to begin offering free public history tours of Hart Island, allowing New Yorkers an intimate look at the island for the very first time,” said NYC Parks Commissioner Sue Donoghue, “I encourage New Yorkers to join the Urban Park Rangers to explore Hart Island’s unique past, present, and future.” You can see all of the upcoming tour dates and find out when the lotteries open on the Parks Department website.

Next, check out 10 Secrets of Hart Island