The Ghosts of NYC's North Brother Island

Between Manhattan, the South Bronx, and Riker's Island sits an abandoned island with a tragic history.

Between the shorelines of Manhattan, the South Bronx, and Riker's Island floats an abandoned island with a tragic history.

In order to reach North Brother Island, you have to go by boat. And in order to charter a boat there, you have to gain the city's permission—and reportedly the journey to the island is rife with police, watching Riker's Island and checking to make sure no one makes it to North Brother Island without a permit.

So if you're entertaining any fantasies of midnight trysts to the island, don't: A member of the Parks Department has to be with you at all times during your journey there.

That might be for good reason. Judging by its history, North Brother Island is almost certainly cursed.


Though technically property of Manhattan since the 1600s, the island was used by humans as a landfill until the 1900s. The first manmade structure on the island was the Riverside Hospital, established in 1885. It was a quarantine hospital, dedicated to holding people with infectious diseases.

Soon, the island became a locus of quarantine hospitals; another one dedicated to tuberculosis patients was opened up in 1843. (That building remains one of the few mostly intact ruins on the island).

Hospital patientsNYC Municipal Archives

That tuberculosis hospital housed one particularly famous inhabitant, Typhoid Mary—who today we might refer to as a "super-spreader," because she infected over 47 people with TB even though she showed no symptoms herself. She spent years quarantined in the woods and continuously insisted that she was being held against her will. Eventually she became a nurse in the hospital on the island, where she remained until she died.

North Brother IslandABC News

Most patients were forced to go to the island against their will, and since no telephone service is available, many of the hospital's patients were never heard from again. Apparently conditions were horrible, with some patients living in tents when the hospital overflowed. Food shortages in winter and a lack of heat led to high death rates.

Tragedy has defined the island's history. In fact, it was the site of the worst disaster in NYC before 9/11. In 1905, the General Slocum steamship caught fire and over one thousand people lost their lives in the blaze. You can still see a memorial fountain for the dead in Tompkins Square Park.

Slocum Memorial FountainAtlas Obscura

In the 1940s, the island's hospital was transformed into a place where war veterans and their families could live, but most didn't remain there for long, choosing to live in the city instead. In its last decade it was used as a treatment center for heroin addicts; but after staff corruption, a lack of funds, and negative patient reviews continued to plague the center's reputation, it closed for good in 1963. The island was left to disrepair. Some disturbing graffiti from this time remains.

Patient sketch on North Brother IslandAbandoned NYC

Today, the island's manmade creations remain in a state of decay while nature flourishes, turning the island into a wild forest. It's now a bird sanctuary and home to a large colony of Black-Crowned Night Herons, among other majestic winged creatures. 50 years after its last human stronghold was abandoned, nature has almost totally taken over. Vines cover every ruin and Japanese kudzu grows over acres of land. Trees can be seen growing out of pavements, and former streets have become beaches as sea walls have dissolved against the force of hurricanes and time.

Black-Crowned Night HeronWoodswalksandwildlife.comBlack-Crowned Night Heron

Not many people can say they've been to the island, but urban explorer Christopher Payne can count himself among one of the lucky few. The photographer said he visited the island around two dozen times between 2008 and 2013.

"What I find special about North Brother Island is the splendid sense of isolation you feel when you penetrate the perimeter vegetation and arrive in a peaceful, canopied forest. The juxtaposition of decaying buildings with the lush landscape makes for a sublime experience, and it's easy to forget that you're in the middle of New York City," he said. "More than anything else, in a city of millions, here is one small corner where there is no one."

North Brother IslandTravel Stalker

There is something apocalyptic about the island, so overcome with natural life after so much human death. As one Radiolab producer once said, "North Brother Island is what will happen to the whole of our civilization when humanity is dead." In light of evidence that most of our coastal cities will likely be abandoned by humans due to flooding from climate change, we may see more North Brother Island-like ruins cropping up. Perhaps North Brother isn't so much a relic of the past as a foreboding yet strangely comforting image of the future. It's living proof that in spite of all our human tragedies, life goes on.

North Brother IslandNorth Brother IslandJesse Boulay

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