The North Brother Island is a small island in the East River of New York City, just a short distance from the Bronx. It is now an uninhabited bird sanctuary but between 1885 and the late 1930’s it was were patients of the Riverside Hospital were kept in isolation.
Riverside Hospital treated everything from smallpox and leprosy to venereal disease and heroin addiction; after the Second World War, it housed soldiers who were studying under the GI bill. The entirety of the island has been abandoned since 1963; over a dozen buildings remain, in various states of disrepair.
History of North Brother Island Riverside Hospital
The island was uninhabited until 1885, when the city purchased the island in order to build Riverside Hospital, a hospital for people suffering from contagious diseases such as typhus, tuberculosis, yellow fever, and smallpox. ferry located at 132nd Street in the Bronx transported staff, patients, and supplies to the island, yet it remained very isolated – there were no telephone or telegraph lines installed until as late as 1894.
Tragedy struck off the shores of the island on June 15, 1904, when the passenger ship General Slocum caught fire. An estimated 1,021 people perished, with only 321 survivors. After World War II, up until 1951, the island was repurposed as housing for veterans and their families. It then played host to a rehabilitation center for adolescent drug addicts.
The most infamous patient that resided at Riverside might be Mary Mallon, also known as “Typhoid Mary.” Mallon was initially quarantined at Riverside Hospital in 1907 after investigations by medical authorities revealed that seven of eight families for whom Mallon had worked as a cook had experienced typhoid fever outbreaks. Tests later revealed that Mallon did indeed carry the bacteria, though she appeared to be in perfect health.
Mallon was released from quarantine in 1910 with explicit instructions not to return to her former occupation as a cook. Refusing to believe she was infected, Mallon quickly resumed her work as a cook, and a series of short-lived positions invariably left typhoid fever outbreaks in her wake. She was sent back to North Brother in 1915 to live the rest of her life there. She began working at the hospital in 1918, becoming a nurse and finally a laboratory assistant. Mary suffered a stroke in 1933, and remained bedridden at Riverside until she died on November 11, 1938.
Over the years, new uses have been proposed for the island, but by and large it has been forgotten. Thanks to a threatened species of shorebird, the black-crowned night heron, North Brother has been designated as conservation land, to protect nesting grounds for the herons.
Today the island is abandoned and off-limits to the public. The buildings of the Riverside Hospital have been taken over by vegetation and are in danger of collapse. There are no plans to rehabilitate the buildings or reuse the North Brother Island; it will remain under the jurisdiction of the New York City Parks Department, and will remain a bird sanctuary.