New York City Owns A Creepy Island That Almost No One Is Allowed To Visit — Here's What It's Like

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Dave Mosher

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North Brother Island is hidden in one of the busiest cities in the world.Google Earth; Business Insider

Less than a mile from Manhattan — one of the priciest and most densely populated places in the world — sits a mysterious island that people abandoned more than half a century ago.

"North Brother Island is among New York City's most extraordinary and least known heritage and natural places," wrote the authors of a recent University of Pennsylvania study about the location.


The city owns the 22-acre plot, which pokes out of the East River between the South Bronx's industrial coast and a notorious prison: Rikers Island Correctional Center.

It's illegal for the public to set foot on North Brother Island and its smaller companion, South Brother Island. But even birds seem to avoid its crumbling, abandoned structures (and contrary to Broad City's depiction of the island, there isn't a package pick-up center).

In 2017, producers for the Science Channel obtained the city's permission to visit North Brother Island — and the crew invited Business Insider to tag along.

The story of our small expedition premiered this month on "What on Earth?", a popular satellite-image-based TV show that's now in its fourth season. (Our segment closes out episode 12.)


Here's what we saw and learned while romping around one of New York's spookiest and most forgotten places.

North Brother Island is accessible only by boat. Leaving from Barretto Point Park in the South Bronx is one of the quickest ways to get there.

Watch your step — the boat ramp is covered in slippery algae at low tide.

This small aluminum boat was our ride.


The East River was crawling with police, probably because Rikers Island Correctional Institute is less than a mile away — and they are wary of anyone visiting North Brother Island.

No one is permitted to visit the island without permission from the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, which manages the site as a bird sanctuary. One of their escorts also has to tag along everywhere you go.

Pulling up to the island, we navigated around rotten dock supports. The ferry dock and its rusted derrick looked ready to collapse at any moment.

The island was first claimed in 1614 and inhabited in 1885, and its history is checkered with death, disease, and decay.


In June 1904, for instance, a steamship called the General Slocum burst into flames and sank in the East River. Though 321 people survived, the bodies of 1,021 passengers who died washed ashore for days.


The aftermath the PS Slocum steamship disaster. New York Public Library Source: New York Public Library

The arc-shaped Hell Gate Bridge on the East River is visible from North Brother's western shore.

The island's buildings used to run on a coal-fired power plant. Workers loaded the bituminous fuel onto this dock — but now it's sinking, covered in kelp, and totally submerged at high tide.


Sea levels could rise by as much as 2.5 feet in the next 35 years around New York City. If and when a large hurricane rolls through as the waters rise, the surges will swallow the island's habitats, ecology, structures, and history.

After we arrived on shore, we stowed camera equipment, food, and other supplies inside this old transformer vault.

It was falling apart, like everything else on the island, but was one of the most stable structures with a functional roof — and rain clouds immediately began to threaten our day trip.

Streets and sidewalks are almost unrecognizable due to the overgrowth.


But there are signs of previous habitation everywhere, like this corroding trash can.


The island sub-canopy is covered in native plants both small and impressively large.

One of the first buildings I saw was the morgue (right). The fractured chimney of a coal-fired boiler room (left) is also visible from miles away.


At every turn, the decay is both eerie and beautiful.

You have to look where you're going, or you'll run into spider webs big enough to boggle the mind.

From the 1880s through 1943, the city quarantined people sick with highly contagious diseases on the island — including the infamous "Typhoid Mary" Mallon. Those who died were stored in the morgue.

Much of the equipment was left when inhabitants abandoned the island in 1963.


Some facilities are almost unrecognizable. Ivy has completely choked out this double tennis court.


Rather than take the ferry each day, some hospital workers opted to live in the Nurse's Home. Bathtubs have fallen through the ceiling of the 40,000-square-foot Victorian-style mansion, which was built in 1905.

The Staff House is one of the oldest and most dilapidated structures. It was constructed in 1885.


It could collapse any day now.

Further down the main road is the Male Dormitory.

It was also built in 1885, and has trees growing through its roof.

The dormitory became a nursery school for veterans' families who lived on the island during the post-World World II housing crisis, from 1946 through 1951.


After 1951 and until the island's abandonment, the building was used as a drug rehabilitation center.


It feels like wandering around an post-apocalyptic playground at times.

Few animals seem to live here, and a Parks and Recreation official said that mammals are practically nonexistent — no rats, chipmunks, mice, and the like.


The largest building on the island was one of the last to be completed: The Tuberculosis Pavilion.


It is a sprawling four-story, 83,000-square-foot building that was designed to house people sick with tuberculosis, but then World War II broke out.

The $1.2 million facility was finished in 1943 and never treated a tuberculosis patient; instead, it housed World War II veterans.


It is a large, looming, and creepy building that we wanted to explore, but couldn't. But like many structures, we were able to peek through broken or missing windows.


The south end of the tubercular ward had a kitchen.

The island is a place few people would dare spend a night on, but it seemed more sad than spooky to me the more I explored it.


The structures, like the Physician's Home, built in 1926, are on the verge of collapse. But they were probably once beautiful, and might have even been useful today — had they been maintained.

The island struggled to find its purpose after a tuberculosis vaccine emerged in 1943, and soldiers found places to live on the mainland.

Owners of the island tried to reinvent it as a rehabilitation camp for troubled teens, from 1952 through 1963. But patients didn't get the help they needed when returning home after three- to five-month stays. The program was considered a failure.



Everyone left in 1963, and then the city took custody of the island. A lack of close management made it a looting grounds for vandals. To this day, the city has yet to figure out if and how it will let the public set foot there again.

All images (c) Dave Mosher/Business Insider  

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