Keep Away: Why this New York Island is Closed to Visitors

5:22 pm  |  11.10.2021

In the East River, between the Bronx and Queens, lies the small island of North Brother Island. There are several buildings on it, but they have long been overgrown. The island has been deserted for more than 50 years and nobody is allowed to enter it. Nevertheless, some photographers managed to take pictures of the crumbling houses.

About the Island

The history of North Brother Island reads so ominously that one might think that this place literally attracts misfortune. Perhaps this is the reason why the New Yorkers almost completely excluded the 5.3-hectare small island from their consciousness, despite its central location only a few hundred meters from the lively Bronx.

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The island’s location alone sounds ominous: The Hell Gate is a strait in the East River between the Bronx and Queens, in which currents are so dangerous that hundreds of ships sank here at the end of the 19th century. Even today, this part of the East River is considered particularly difficult to navigate.

North Brother Island is located in the East River, in a strait that was named Hell Gate in the 17th century.


North Brother Island and its smaller sister island, South Brother Island, were discovered as early as 1614. Because of the currents and treacherous eddies in the river, the islands remained uninhabited for a long time. Then in 1885, the city decided to build a quarantine hospital on North Brother Island, the Riverside Hospital. Infectious diseases such as leprosy, tuberculosis, smallpox, typhoid, and polio raged in densely populated New York, often fatal at the time. The location of the island seemed perfect: close to the city and isolated by the water.

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Nature takes more and more possession of the old walls, the floors are covered with moss.

The new hospital quickly filled up and took over the patients from another quarantine station. After a few years, the Riverside Hospital was bursting at the seams, and during a typhoid wave in the 1890s, more than 1200 patients were housed in tents outside the hospital due to a lack of space. The hygienic conditions at that time must have been catastrophic, there was a lack of medical equipment and staff.

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Ship Accident Off the Island

In the middle of this already difficult time, the worst shipping disaster in the USA to date happened right in front of the island: On June 15, 1904, the paddle steamer General Slocum caught fire while crossing the East River and sank. 1,021 people died, most of them women and children from New York’s German immigrant community. Many drowned in the strong current of the river or were crushed by the ship’s paddlewheel. It is believed that the number of victims was even higher because children under one year of age did not need a ticket. The completely burned-out ship ended up stranded on North Brother Island. Riverside Hospital staff and patients helped rescue survivors and formed a human chain between the coast and the hospital. Only 321 people survived the accident.

The old chimneys, and the basic structure of the buildings.

North Brother Island hit the headlines again a few years later when the hospital took in its most famous long-term resident. Mary Mallon, also known as “Typhus Mary”, had worked as a cook in New York for years and infected more than 50 people with typhus without being noticed. The first time the Irish immigrant came to North Brother Island in isolation for three years was in 1907. When she again infected several people with typhoid fever after her release, the New York health authorities referred her to North Brother Island for life, where she finally died of pneumonia in 1938. A little later the hospital was closed.

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Drug Addicts 

If you thought this is the end of the island’s more than gloomy history, we will, unfortunately, have to disappoint you. After the Second World War, the city initially used North Brother Island as a housing project for war veterans studying in New York City for about seven years – this was perhaps the most carefree time on the small island. From 1952, however, according to various sources, there were again bloodcurdling screams from the walls of the island. This time it was not sick, but young drug addicts who were put on rehab on the isolated island – many of them allegedly against their will. Heroin addicts are said to have been locked in the clinic until they were clean.

The headboard of a hospital bed lies between scraps in one of the rooms.

Famous Photo

More than 50 years have passed since then. 50 years in which the island was completely left to its own devices. Although entry is strictly forbidden, some photographers have managed to get to the island – either illegally or with a seldom granted special permission from the city. Like many other abandoned places in the world, North Brother Island also exudes a special charm that moves somewhere between horror and fascination. The photos show how the buildings are falling into disrepair, the floors and walls are covered with moss. The furniture from a bygone era, rusty beds, and bent treatment tables are still here. The floor of a room is completely littered with books.

Books were left behind in one of the buildings on the island. They have been here for more than 50 years.

The state of the island is unlikely to change anytime soon. You could imagine a lot here today. For example, guided tours for New Yorkers and tourists who want to know more about the island’s eventful history. Or a hip hotel or a rich celebrity who is setting up his private domicile here. But nothing of the kind is planned.

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Until further notice, North Brother Island will remain uninhabited and closed to the public. But maybe that’s a good thing because there is something positive to report from North Brother Island: Benefiting from the sheltered location, the lush nature, and the rare presence of people, a large colony of night herons has now been established on the island settled.

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