I Kayaked to New York City’s Abandoned North Brother Island

In a city crammed with 8 million people, North Brother Island has sat abandoned since the 1960s. It's about a thousand feet from the shores of the South Bronx, and over the centuries it's been home to quarantined smallpox victims and Typhoid Mary, NYC...

Aug 30 2013, 2:52pm

In a city crammed with 8 million people, New York City’s North Brother Island has sat abandoned since the 1960s. It's about a thousand feet from the shores of the South Bronx, and like the adjacent Rikers Island with 14,000 inmates in its infamous prison, and the potter’s field on Hart Island where 850,000 unclaimed bodies are buried, North Brother Island has been used to house things that the city would rather not think about.

In 1885, a hospital was built on the 13-acre site to quarantine smallpox victims. Those displaying the disease’s characteristic fluid-filled blisters would be rushed to the island by ferry. A third of all patients died there, and three quarters of the survivors were left disfigured by scars. In time, the hospital expanded to house carriers of numerous infectious illnesses. The one-woman-epidemic Typhoid Mary was forcibly detained there for over two decades in the early 20th century. She died on the island in 1938. The New York Times, in a tiny obituary, called her a “veritable peripatetic breeding ground,” and a “human culture tube,” of the bacteria that causes Typhoid Fever. She was North Brother’s most famous inhabitant.  

In 1904, the steamship General Slocum, carrying church members from the Lower East Side’s Little Germany, sank after catching fire in the shallow waters near North Brother Island. Patients and staff members of the hospital helped rescue victims who had been weighed down by iron bars added to the ship’s life vests by the manufacturer in order to meet a puzzling minimum government weight requirement. One thousand twenty-one of the 1,342 passengers died. It was New York’s greatest loss of life until the September 11th attacks nearly a century later.

A housing shortage after World War II saw North Brother used to accommodate returning G.I.’s and their families. For a while, it was a city within a city, with its own power plant and theater.

After the departure of the soldiers, the island was abandoned until the 1950’s when it became a treatment center for adolescent drug addicts. Graffiti scratched into one of the isolation room walls still reads: HELP ME I AM BEING HELD HERE AGAINST MY WILL. Widespread faculty corruption and patient relapse were responsible for the closing of the island in the early 1960’s.

Since then, North Brother has been declared a bird sanctuary and the buildings left to decay. In its half century of disuse, nature has rebounded, hiding buildings under ivy and filling them with vegetation. I set off recently by kayak to photograph what remains.

Roc’s new book, And, was released last year. You can find more information on his website.

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