The Mysterious Ghost Island of New York City
When one thinks of desolate, long abandoned haunted places hidden from civilization one might be inclined to conjure up thoughts of ancient ruins strewn about faraway jungles or mountains. There is a tendency for us to regulate the forgotten corners of our globe to these far-flung destinations well removed from the grind of our never-ending progress and our bustling, bristling cities. We like to think that these are places out over the horizon, places for explorers and adventurers, far removed from our daily lives. We think there is no mystery in the midst of our sprawling civilization. Yet one such place can be found sitting right in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the world. It is a land that was once important to us, but which time has long forgotten; a now lonely, haunted realm steeped in sinister history and overgrown with the unstoppable forces of nature seeking to reclaim it. It sits amongst us right under our noses, ignored and left to the ravages of the relentless tide of time.
The bustling, teeming city of New York City, in the United States, may seem like it should be the last place one would expect to find a lost, abandoned, and by some accounts haunted island, yet here in the East River among vast concrete jungles lies one such place lost to the ravenous gnawing of time, largely forgotten by the masses, and steeped in dark history. North Brother Island is a 20-acre speck of land that sits nestled in a turbulent area of the East River between The Bronx and Riker’s Island, ominously named “Hell’s Gate.” The island is clearly visible there amongst the urban jungle and towering buildings around it yet at the same time seems to be a mostly forgotten no-man’s land that few people ever pay much attention to, as if almost lurking in a parallel dimension invisible to the modern day. Yet this unassuming, ignored slash of trees and rock has a spooky, at times harrowing history that few are aware of.
North Brother Island was first inhabited in some form in 1885, although these early inhabitants most certainly did not go there by choice. The first building constructed here on this year was the notorious Riverside Hospital, which was put there to serve as a quarantine zone for people afflicted with small pox, who wallowed in its cold grey structures as the staff and workers commuted by ferry to and from the doomed and diseased every day. It was not long before the hospital was opening its doors to others with a range of severe, infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, scarlet fever, diphtheria, typhus, venereal diseases, and even leprosy, who all lived in either the hospital itself or the ramshackle huts, pavilions, tents and cottages that sprung up around it like weeds.
The facilities here were not voluntary, and the quarantine was for the most part forced. At the time, New York City was experiencing a rapid influx of new immigrants, and to keep the city clean, safe, and sanitary, those with communicable diseases were quickly rounded up and forcibly taken to the island, where they mostly lived in squalor. Although patients were able to opt for a private clinic, few of the patients sent off to North Brother Island were wealthy enough to afford such facilities, and so they had no choice but to come here to languish in the notoriously hellish conditions. The living conditions here were described as very unsanitary, to say the least, the medical care crude and unsophisticated, and there were frequent food shortages and horrifically cold conditions in the winter with a lack of heating.
As a result of all of this, the mortality rate for those who were banished here was very high, to the point that being sent to North Brother Island was seen as practically synonymous with a death sentence. Since the bedraggled patients were not allowed to leave until they recovered and these were the days before telephones, many of the people left for North Brother Island never to return, their friends and families never hearing from them or knowing what had become of them. This island that sat just offshore of the rapidly growing city around it quickly become a black hole that relentlessly drew in death and disease, and it was greatly feared by the general populace, who refused to go anywhere near it. Even the ponderous ferries of the river gave it a wide berth.
By far the most well-known patient to have lived on North Brother, indeed probably the only patient from here any one would know of or care to remember, was Irish immigrant Mary Mallon, also ominously known as Typhoid Mary. Mallon was the first person ever recorded in the United States to be an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever, meaning that she did not develop symptoms herself but was able to pass the deadly pathogen on to others. During her career as a cook in the New York area, death seemed to follow her around as people in the affluent families she worked for seemed to always come down with typhoid fever. She was finally identified as a carrier and forcibly confined to North Brother Island in 1907.
Mary did not take this confinement against her will lightly, adamantly insisting that she was in no way responsible for infecting those around her and claiming that she was being persecuted for being an immigrant. So convinced was she that she did not carry typhoid fever that she refused removal of her gall bladder, which was seen as a major factor in the spread of the disease. In 1910 her wish to be freed was granted on the condition that she sign an affidavit stating that she would stop working as a cook and take proper hygienic measures to stop spreading the disease.
Although Mary agreed to these terms and was allowed to return to the mainland, she worked briefly as a laundress before changing her name and resuming the better paying work as a cook, which not surprisingly led to more infections of typhoid fever wherever she went. The worst outbreak she was directly responsible for was at Sloane Hospital for Women in New York City, where she worked in 1915, and which resulted in 25 people coming down with the disease and two dying from it. After this, authorities arrested Mary and she was sent back to North Brother Island, where she would spend the next two decades languishing until her death at the age of 69, on November 11, 1938 from pneumonia. Ultimately, Typhoid Mary unintentionally infected a total of 53 people with typhoid fever during her life, and still believed she was not responsible at the time of her death.
Disease was not even the only death associated with the island, as North Brother Island was the scene of what remains the worst maritime disaster ever recorded in New York history, and which was the single worst loss of life in the city in general until the specter of the tragic 9/11 terrorist attacks. On June 15, 1904, the passenger steamship General Slocum was carrying a large number of German immigrants from St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on their way to a church picnic when the ship somehow caught fire. The burning, flaming ship eventually sank, and when the smoke cleared around 1,021 of the 1,342 people on board had died, either from the fire or from drowning. The wreck remained ensconced within its watery grave until it was salvaged to be converted into a barge, Maryland, which strangely enough would also sink into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean in 1911 while on a voyage to deliver a load of coal.
Starting from the 1930s, the spread of more and more medical care facilities throughout the city, an increased quality of medical treatment, and changing attitudes on the mainland against quarantining large numbers of people against their will, the hospital on North Brother Island experienced a period of slow decline until the 1940s, when it was finally shut down. It was at this time that the island went through a sort of rebirth and resurrection into a new life as a housing development for veterans of World War II and their families. During this period of renewal, the dark past of the island was paved over with roads, tree-lined avenues, and well-manicured lawns, and new buildings were constructed to replace the old. For all appearances the island seemed to become a normal suburban development just like any other, the only reminders of its sinister past the morgue for disease victims and a building called the Tuberculosis Pavilion looming over the landscape.
This new life did not last very long. Those who lived on the island grew weary of having to slog back and forth by ferry every time they wanted to go to the mainland, and the city itself deemed the whole project to be impractical. This conspired with the increasing availability of cheap housing on the mainland and the conversely expensive prices on the island to slowly cause the housing development to wither and crumble away. The island gave one last dying gasp in the form of a drug rehabilitation center for heroin addicts in the 1950s, but this too was to be short lived and the island fell silent in 1963, when all human activity there was ceased and the buildings decommissioned and abandoned to be left behind to the ages. It then was returned back to nature, and became a protected sanctuary for colonies of numerous species of bird, which flocked here to nest among the ruins that mankind had left behind.
In the absence of mankind, the island began to succumb to the inexorable approach of nature closing in to reclaim what had once belonged to it, and it has reverted into a feral, wild place. It is hard to look at the island now and not imagine that it is like an apocalyptic landscape left behind by an extinct human race. Everywhere one looks there are signs of the unfurling fingers of civilization’s failing grasp upon this place as it loses its grip to weeds, trees, and the creeping rot of entropy. Here decrepit, crumbling buildings loom up out of thick underbrush and trees like the forgotten ruins of some lost civilization in the middle of a faraway jungle. Corridors with peeling, flaking, fading walls lie strewn with the cast off rubble and the abandoned detritus of mankind, and buckling stairwells snake upwards along with the vines that constrict and choke them. Indeed, all of the trappings of mankind are being choked out of existence here. The once quaint roads and avenues lie broken and penetrated by trees that have erupted forth from beneath. The blooming vegetation has gotten so thick in some places that it is nearly impenetrable, completely overrunning and erasing any signs of this place having ever been inhabited at all. This is a labyrinth of the fading, decaying mark of mankind struggling with and clawed at by the vibrant nature springing up to devour and absorb it.
North Brother Island in its current state is a portrait of what the world might become in the absence of humans, and overlaid across the whole, haunting sight are the faint sounds of civilization wafting over the river, such as car horns, sirens, construction, and loudspeakers from nearby Riker’s Island penitentiary; all like external sounds seeping into a sleeper’s dream of some past life. Considering that the island is now off limits to visitors and only accessible by people who have special permission from the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and a handful of bird researchers, as well as the occasional urban explorer thrill seeker entering illegally, it is not hard to imagine that within a decade or so there will be no trace that humans were ever here at all. It will be as if nature has completely digested our structures and the physical signs of our civilization, leaving only the ghosts of the past untouched to wonder about the landscape. Photographer Christopher Payne, who spent 5 years exploring and photographing the island for his book North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City, said of this place:
Most people view ruins as if they were looking into the past, but these buildings show what New York could be years from now. I see these photographs like windows into the future. If we all left, the entire city would look like North Brother Island in 50 years.
It is perhaps no surprise at all that North Brother Island, with its history of death and who knows how many unmarked graves hiding within the underbrush, is said to be lousy with ghosts. Visitors have reported various strange phenomena here, which have perhaps made them reconsider their journey to these desolate shores. Eerie sounds, phantoms voices, unseen hands touching, pulling, or shoving, malfunctioning electrical equipment, and EVP phenomena, this place covers the whole spectrum of ghostly phenomena. There have even been some cases of urban explorers fleeing the island in sheer terror, vowing never to return. This is a place not only spooky in appearance, but also apparently permeated by the despair and ghosts of its history. It makes one wonder if the sheer weight of pain and hardship can congeal and imprint itself onto a place just as surely as an image onto film. Perhaps these are events and emotions that etch upon the fabric of reality itself. It is a creepy thought to be sure.
There are mysterious places all around us, some of them hiding in plain sight. Whether it be because they are burdened with a tragic, dark history, tormented by the memories of the long dead who suffered there, or literally haunted by the spirits of the past, these are eerie locations not necessarily confined to the isolated corners of the world. Sometimes these locales can be found right amongst us, living parallel to our thrumming cities as if on another plane of existence, forgotten echoes of a bygone time reverberating through reality. There amidst the streaks of our city lights and the tireless activity of humankind these places squat, stuck between the dreamland of dead history and the bright beacons of our burgeoning development; lost, rugged, mysterious lands in a sea of concrete.