The North and South Brother Islands are a pair of petite isles nestled between the Bronx and Rikers Island within the bustling metropolis of New York City. South Brother Island, previously under private ownership until 2007, now belongs to the city and is part of the Bronx County.
North Brother Island, on the other hand, holds a unique historical significance. Once serving as a quarantine facility, it features a substantial hospital at its core, which was used to isolate individuals afflicted with various illnesses brought into the city. Today, North Brother Island stands abandoned, having been designated as a haven for avian species. Interestingly, these islands were initially named “De Gesellen,” meaning “The Companions,” when claimed by the Dutch West India Company in 1614.
North Brother Island’s history dates back to the 1880s, though it ceased operations in the 1960s. The Riverside Hospital was constructed on the island to treat patients grappling with diseases like typhoid and smallpox. Later, in the 1950s, it transitioned into a rehabilitation center for teenagers addicted to heroin. For nearly six decades, the island remained uninhabited, with the dilapidated buildings drawing curious tourists.
Nature gradually reclaimed the island, transforming it into what appeared to be a lost civilization within the heart of New York City. However, the island’s history is marked by a tragic event: the General Slocum steamship disaster on June 15, 1904, where over 1,000 people lost their lives, either succumbing to the flames or drowning.
One notable figure associated with North Brother Island is Mary Mallon, famously known as Typhoid Mary. She was the first identified asymptomatic carrier of typhoid in the United States. A cook by profession, Mallon unknowingly infected 22 individuals, resulting in three deaths. She spent the remainder of her life at Riverside Hospital and passed away from pneumonia on November 11, 1938.
In the 1950s, Riverside Hospital transitioned into the nation’s first facility to offer assistance and treatment to young drug offenders. These addicts were confined to separate rooms until they achieved sobriety. Unfortunately, allegations of mistreatment arose, including claims of patients being held against their will, leading to the institution’s closure.
Numerous proposals have been tabled over the years regarding the fate of this abandoned island. Various mayors of the city have considered options such as converting the facility into housing for the homeless, selling it, or preserving it in other ways. Subsequently, it was transformed into a sanctuary for birds, particularly herons and other species, and is currently off-limits to visitors. Since 2008, several bird species have abandoned the site, though the exact reasons remain unknown. The most prevalent avian resident on the island is the barn swallow, whose nests adorn the island’s ruined structures.
However, since 2016, the City Council has explored the possibility of allowing legal visits to North Brother Island for interested citizens. A visit by Council member Mark Levine confirmed that the island remains hazardous, with unsecured structures and a rampant overgrowth of porcelain berry, kudzu, and poison ivy.
This enigmatic hospital also played a role in cultural history, inspiring the play “Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?” in which renowned actor Al Pacino had one of his early performances. Additionally, in 2009, it served as a filming location for the eighth episode of the History Channel’s “Life After People,” illustrating the fate of man-made structures left abandoned for over 45 years.