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How to Get to North Brother Island

(and What to Do When You’re There)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011 - 05:03 PM

North Brother Island North Brother Island (Lynn Levy/WNYC)

The New York City Parks Department would probably want me to start this way: North Brother Island is a ruin. It hasn’t been occupied, nor used for anything by anyone except nesting herons, since the early 70’s. Thus, it’s dangerous.

At best, you’ll probably walk away with a case of poison ivy. (We were spared somehow.) At worst, you could fall down an open utility shaft. The disused hospital where the city used to isolate tuberculosis patients is crumbling and may be rife with asbestos. Same with the other former medical buildings on the north end of the island. Even walking around is a chore. The whole place is choked with kudzu and porcelain berry. North Brother Island is what will happen to the whole of our civilization when humanity is dead.

Sean on North Brother Island

But I’m actually going to start this way: North Brother Island is more fascinating by accident than most intentionally fascinating places are. It feels as though one day, everyone living and working there just dropped everything and left. It feels as much like that day was yesterday as it feels like it was 100 years ago. The hospital smells medicinal, maybe from all of the x-ray film piled up on the floor of the x-ray room. Random fire hydrants and lamp posts stick up through the thickets and weeds – but soon you realize there’s nothing random about it. There are roads under all that thick overgrowth. And curbs. A curb is so urban a thing this place can’t have ever claimed one, but it did. Roofs and basements should never meet each other, but they do here.

A collapsed building on North Brother Island. Mary lived in a cottage near this spot while under quarantine.

We visited this island for our story on Typhoid Mary. She was quarantined here and we wanted to find her cottage. (It doesn’t exist anymore.) North Brother Island is so close to the city I figured you could just canoe to it. And you can. If you want to be arrested. To visit the island you must:

1) Contact the parks department. They don’t even let themselves visit the island most of the time. March to October is off limits. That’s when the herons nest.

2) If the parks department gives you permission, you have to charter a boat, which can be really expensive. To make it more affordable, find other folks who need to visit and split the cost with them.

3) Thing is, a big group requires a big boat and a big boat can’t dock on the island. There’s no dock. We had to tie off on a rotting piling, motor over in a smaller boat, three by three, and beach ourselves onto the sand. In short, to get to North Brother Island, you have to mildly shipwreck yourself.

We think these quarters were used by nurses on the island.

What to do first:

If you’re pressed for time, explore the buildings first. From the spot where you beach, the hospital is straight ahead and to the left. (Ignore the broken, tilted awning above the entrance that says “Christian Center Sanctuary of Hope.” It’s a practical joke/art project.) But the hospital isn’t even the creepiest place. The creepiest place is (what we think was) the “Nurse’s Home.” Bullet holes perforate an outer door – all exit wounds. All the theater seats in the entertainment hall have collapsed. The curtain runner above the stage would still work were there a curtain. The wall switches still move up and down, with that loud, mid-20th century “tock.” 

The abandoned theater.

A porch in disrepair.

Still, the hospital is pretty incredible. We walked through the wards where TB patients were quarantined. Private rooms were available too, including one with bars on the windows and a door slot through which maybe food was delivered. Whoever was treated in there can’t have been very stable. In one of the offices, there are mimeographed handouts strewn across the floor as though a receptionist had an apoplectic fit and quit on the spot. “STUDIES ON ADDICTION FROM RIVERSIDE HOSPITAL,” they say. After this was (in essence) a leper island, it was a drug rehab facility.

Sean inspects a hospital room.

The view from the hospital room.

What to do next:

Walk south toward the lighthouse, past the smooshed chapel that looks like the house that landed on the witch in the Wizard of Oz. Keep an eye on the water until a sparkling view of Manhattan emerges. Seeing the city from this remove is a little like seeing Earth from the moon – especially if you imagine you’re Mary Mallon and aren’t allowed to go home, no matter how much you plead or cajole the doctors who are constantly testing your stool. It doesn’t feel like any place in the East River should ever have been so built up and inhabited, let alone so abandoned and allowed to melt down like this.

View of Manhattan through a broken fence.

Whatever you do, remember you’re one of a rare breed of people who have seen North Brother Island. So count yourself lucky. Oh, and take lots of pictures. Like our producer Lynn Levy did. This is Lynn:

Lynn Levy braving the ruins.

Thanks Lynn.

 

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Comments [38]

George R. Gallagher from Grottoes, VA

Fascinating! Ma grandmother was born in Astoria in 1892 and lived all her life there. She had vivid memories of the Genl. Slocum disaster. Another relative worked on Roosevelt Is. when it was called "Welfare Island." This was a great article with excellent photos. The authors should do a similar photographic safari of all the islets in the NYC area for us expats. I live in VA, and it's amazing how many ex-New Yorkers I meet every week - the accents give them away!

Oct. 17 2014 12:05 AM
Mary Mallon

For anyone still wishing to access the island:
After a quick search of the NYC Parks department website, it appears that they are currently doing some clean-up and nature preservation. This is expected to last until 2016. They will not be issuing new permits until this time.

source:
http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/north-brother-island/map

Aug. 25 2014 01:45 AM

To all the grammar Nazis on radiolab.. This is the internet, STOP TELLING PEOPLE HOW TO TYPE OR HOW TO SPEAK. Everyone is allowed to do as they please. If i want to use bad grammar online i will, just enjoy this beautiful post about this mysterious place and shut the "f" up.. god damit!

Jun. 23 2014 10:45 PM

I'm so glad I found this post... I did hear your podcast about 'Typhoid Mary' but I had no idea that you had this great posting about it. I have done some photography over my lifetime and always love to find these kind of places I call "Nature Triumphant"... I have a friend who is a former model that enjoys going out with me to use our collaborative creativity to create something 'beautiful' out of these messes... here's an example:

https://www.facebook.com/vlad.jersian/media_set?set=a.10151265053986488.514693.502061487&type=1

May. 14 2014 03:43 PM
yvette mckenzie from Columbia, SC

I'm so glad to see this post. My mother actually stayed in this hospital from 1949-1951. Yes she had TB. She often talked about this hospital, describing the beautiful buildings and grounds. I thought she was at Edgewood Hospital on Long Island because it was also used for TB patients. But she is very sure that she was in the Bronx. I have only one picture of the buildings and grounds. It looks like a typical brick building of that era with lovely scenery.

Apr. 19 2014 09:44 PM

Fascinating podcast. Well presented and riveting.

But what is the deal with all the overly prescriptive grammarians chastising perfectly acceptable, colloquial uses of language? Who are these self-proclaimed experts of English and why is it okay for them to use sentence fragments in their comments, but unacceptable for the presenters to make use of standard spoken constructions in the podcast? Pretty absurd expectations of language and hypocritical criticism of its users.

Mar. 03 2014 02:31 PM
Christine from Philadelphia

Listening about origin of diseases, chimps. Fascinating. But did I just hear you say "Her and her colleagues"...really? Shame on you smart people.

Aug. 25 2013 01:33 PM
sj hopkins

You're always interesting. But. Having just listened to Patient -0- , and I quote: "woulda WENT down" ? Seriously? Sloppy grammar has no place on your show. that comment reminds me of the cafeteria at the middle school. In this world of online learning, you have No excuse for not knowing how to speak correctly.

Aug. 24 2013 03:58 PM

I was just recently reading about Typhoid Mary. Really interesting story, and so much more to it than we know, I suspect.

Aug. 24 2013 02:24 PM
Howard Silver from New York,NY

A video of a a group of urban underground explorers who I accompanied to North Brother Island several years ago is at:
http://vimeo.com/3811912

Anyone thinking of going there by kayak should be aware that very strong treacherous currents surround that part of the East River. It's dangerous.

Also the floor or grounds of a ruin of a heating plant there was covered with what seemed to be large chunks of flaking asbestos that had once covered the pipes in there.

Aug. 23 2013 03:58 PM
Hans from Ohio

All these articles I keep reading say that birds (herons) are the only inhabitants of the island. Well I'm sure they're the most protected of the island's inhabitants, I can say with relative certainty that they're not alone - there have to be mammals, too (rodents especially)!

Just sayin...

Aug. 23 2013 12:53 PM
Phil Gasbarro from Mount Vernon, Ohio

I lived on North Brother Island while my father studied at Julliard and Columbia University.(1949-1951) (My dad, William R. Gasbarro, majored in clarinet performance and studied under Arthur Chrisman.) We lived in apt 3 of McGiffert Hall, which was located adjacent to the lighthouse. My first recollections of life were on the island, and I'd love to visit it again sometime.

Aug. 07 2013 08:16 PM
Robert

It clearly states, "Post a comment", not "Pose a question"

Aug. 04 2013 09:17 AM
Yvonne from VA

Apparently no one comes back to this site and posts ANSWERS to the questions here........... why leave a comment area then? go figure.

Jul. 15 2013 11:12 AM
christine

pls let me know any updates. I have all the necessary resources to do a fully publicized documentary. I am currently looking for permission to the island.

Jul. 14 2013 09:01 PM
Tiffany from Long Island

Can you explain the legal process to gain permission to visit the island? I looked on the NYC parks website and nothing was found. Not even a suitable contact without having to call. Please advise. Any help is much appreciated.

Jul. 10 2013 01:29 PM
Jeff Phillips

Do you have a contact number for filming on North Brother Island? The film commission was no help, neither was Parks or Park Conservancy departments. No one I've spoke to has even heard of this place, which is amazing.

Any help would be appreciated.

Cheers,

Jeff

Jun. 21 2013 12:55 PM
suzanne t. galjour

I lived on North Brother Island in 1947-50. My father was a G.I., and housing was provided for servicemen after the war. My sister Germaine was "born" on North Brother. Of course, she was actually born in Manhattan because we took the ferry there to see a doctor. Musicians lived in Mezes Hall; my father was going to Julliard at the time, I believe. Anyway, I still remember passing Mary M.'s little sad shack. I am really distressed about the condition of the Island; why did they let it deteriorate? Anyway, you have a great site, and I thank you for it!

Jun. 10 2013 09:19 AM
Regina from Brooklyn, NY

@Brittni Motyka: Any progress?

May. 25 2013 12:32 PM
Brittni Motyka

I am very interested in making a short documentary on the history of North Brother, I have called about a dozen different parks department offices and no one seems to think obtaining a permit is a possibility. A friend of mine works for a boating company and we have everything we need except the permit... any advice would be a HUGE help!

Apr. 09 2013 03:27 PM

@Mike W. from Denver...would you consider putting your photos online? It would be so interesting to find photos of the buildings when they were new, then see your pictures and compare to the haunting, evocotive ruins they are now. I haven't been able to find many photos of the buildings when they were new. Does anyone have a source they could share?

Feb. 06 2012 03:42 PM
Humanimalien from Milky Way

Showing people forbidden fruit is different than giving them the map to the tree.

What a hero! Share the secret with everyone!

Blame yourself when you can't go back.

Feb. 04 2012 12:26 PM
Alastair from Leeds, UK

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2094823/New-York-leper-colony-Eerie-pictures-inside-abandoned-world-lost-island.html

A fantastic article on this place from one of our papers in the UK. Thought you guys might be interested :)

Feb. 02 2012 07:46 AM
Janette from Phoenix, AZ

The pics and description make me think of another island very similar, and almost as hidden. In Boston Harbor there are islands, and most inhabitants have never visited them, some actually don't know they are there. One in particular, Peddocks Island, is the site of a former military base/ POW camp from WW2 era. They have pulled down a lot of the buildings for public safety reasons at this point but you can still see roads, lampposts, crosswalks etc if you visit. When we camped there (with a permit) in the mid 1980's I was around 10 yrs old. We weren't supposed to go past a certain spot without a tour guide, but according to the law, anything below the high tide line is public property. My dad and I used to use that loophole to walk around on the beach and then climb up a bank and explore the roads. The buildings were still standing, although you'd have to be a moron to go in one. The floors had deteriorated to the point that many clawfoot bathtubs were now on thhe first floors, because they'd fallen through the bathroom floor upstanirs. You could still see the detailed craftsmanship of the tin ceilings. There was everything you would expect a small self sufficient town to have,
On the other side of the island there is a portuguese fishing village that is dying out, as the ownership of the cottages can't even be passed through families. When the person who owns a cottage dies, it becomes state property. It's a very cool place. Too bad they are flattening it slowly....

Jan. 27 2012 07:07 PM
shelly from home

i want to know if its still open or if they closed it done thanx hope to have an answer

Jan. 05 2012 08:52 PM
john Reilly

I would really like to visit the island can you explain the legal process to gain permission? thanks

Dec. 23 2011 07:40 PM
Mike Wofsey from Denver

I visited North Brother over twenty years ago. The building with the auditorium was a NYC public school, PS169, (I'm almost positive that I can't remember the number correctly) that by number designation was a remedial school of some kind, in this case, obviously for the recovering drug addicts.

The island has gone through three histories, the first as a hospital and tuberculosis pavilion, the second as a location for veteran's vocational training, and finally as the drug "rehab" island.

Rehab is a rough word for what happened there, it was described by an occupant as a "pathological zoo" with unauthorized testing that didn't fall under the eye of the health inspectors because they could barely visit the place. After it was closed, many of the angry teenage "inmates" swam across the East River and ripped parts of it to shreds.

The location of Mary Mallons old house is almost directly beneath the old Chapel, which still has the remnants of a cheap piano or organ in it, on the West side of the Island.

I have lots and lots of photos of the place before it had decayed as much as has today. There was also a morgue, power plant, several training buildings, doctor's houses, nurses housing, a garage, workshop, the public school, the main pavilion and several other buildings. The spine of the island is riddled with steam tunnels that are now flooded with oil and grown over with vines, so walking there is dangerous.

This story doesn't mention that it was also the site of one of the worst maritime disasters in U.S. history, where over 1,300 people died when the Steamship General Slocum caught on fire and beached. Until the WTC disaster, it was the worst in NYC history.

Dec. 08 2011 09:51 PM
Assen Popoff from Huntington, WV

GoogleMaps satellite appears to have captured a day of visitors, with a boat seemingly moored at the the wharf.

Dec. 05 2011 10:35 AM
elly from upstate new york

lived there for almost 2 years in 1949-1952 it was for veterans and familys .there were tennis courts ,baseball field handball, and a very unreilable ferry. It was govenor Deweys" gift' to veterans. single veterans in the large building and a very expensive little grocery store.

Dec. 02 2011 07:10 PM
Vanessa from Burnt Ranch, CA

I'm another one of those weirdos who loves old abandoned hospitals. Check out www.opacity.us - they have a great page on North Brother Island/Riverside Hospital. Great episode, you guys. Keep it up.

Nov. 29 2011 08:04 PM
Randolph M Diamond from Manhattan

2 questions: If you do get permission from the Parks Dept. to visit, can you then go on your own, eg. via kayak?
Next, if you go and get injured, can you sue the city?

Nov. 23 2011 06:34 PM
keith from Dupont, Washington

Want another island of obscurity (besides S.I.) to report on among the borough's of N.Y.? Try Hart Island, where all the unclaimed are buried. Located between Queens, Bronx and Rikers.
It's the ultimate in decay...

Nov. 23 2011 02:13 PM
Jessica from Boca Raton, FL

That's for sharing the photos --very cool to see!

Nov. 23 2011 01:40 PM
Shawn Gilheeney from Providence R.I.

Awesome episode and great to get to see photos from the story. Helps put it in an even more real context. I love watching nature reclaim what we have built also
all my abandon space/building pictures are here shawngilheeney.com

Nov. 19 2011 02:15 PM
Ian Ference

Also, for more on the history of the island and some photos, check out: http://kingstonlounge.blogspot.com/2011/01/north-brother-island-riverside-hospital.html

Nov. 17 2011 12:04 PM
Ian Ference

Actually, the building with the bullet holes in the side door and the theatre was not the nurses's residence; the nurses' residence is the building pictured in the fourth photo from the top - it was constructed in three sections, and each wing has distinctive characteristics.

The buildings with the bullet holes, theatre, gymnasium, printing press, etc, was built in the 1930s as the Services Building, and when they converted the island in 1952 for use as a drug rehab, they added partitions to build the theatre, gym, and classrooms.

Typhoid Mary's cottage was bulldozed and the rubble removed days after her death - it was piled with junk and likely a health hazard.

Nov. 17 2011 12:02 PM
Kathryn Jacob from Dallas, Texas

this is crazy - i love abandoned buildings as well. loved the book (the world without us) and we also have a coffee table book called (asylum) which documents closed mental health hospitals aka insane asylums. i lived on the upper east side for a while and didn't even know this was there.....jealous you got to see it. crazy pictures. creepy, creepy, creepy....

Nov. 16 2011 02:48 PM
William Loring from South Bend, IN

Excellent photos and text, and a great episode.

I would love to visit this island some day. I love old, abandoned, decaying buildings. Watching nature reclaim what we have built.

Nov. 16 2011 09:21 AM

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