Abandoned, Historic, Hospitals, Overgrown

Getting Lost on North Brother Island

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A tuberculosis pavilion crowns the treetops of North Brother Island like an Aztec ruin.

Most New Yorkers have never heard of North Brother Island, but they should take comfort in the fact that new trees are growing and manmade things are going by the wayside just a stone’s throw from Rikers and a few miles from LaGuardia Airport. New York City’s abandoned island proves that as much as we think we have a handle on things, nature is never far behind. Just give it time.

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Many of the older structures are splitting at the seams, but there’s little hope or interest in preserving them.

In the case of North Brother Island, it took fifty years to transform a sparsely planted hospital campus to a bona fide wildlife sanctuary surging with fresh green life. Established as a city hospital for quarantinable diseases in 1885, it became a disreputable rehab center for adolescent drug addicts prior to its abandonment in the 1960s. To add to the intrigue, the island was the site of a catastrophic shipwreck and the residence of the notorious Typhoid Mary. (For a detailed history of Riverside Hospital, see Ian Ference’s thorough account over at the Kingston Lounge.) Today, opportunistic ivy floods the old lawns and races up the corners of the dormitories. Elsewhere, invasive kudzu—a Japanese import—holds at least an acre of land in its leafy grip. Few animals roam this untrodden landscape, with the exception of a handful of raccoons that took a dip in the East River and discovered the greenest place around.

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An airplane takes off from nearby LaGuardia airport with a gantry crane in view.

Even though it’s one of the least inhabited places in New York City, you can still find pathways on North Brother Island.  Parks employees and occasional visitors leave a network of rabbit trails on the forest floor, but they taper off on the south side, where a few ruins beckon you further into the weeds. I trudged through the brush for over an hour only to end up right back where I started, and it wouldn’t be the last time I was forced to admit defeat to the thorny wilds of Riverside Hospital. The island plays tricks on you, but it’s liberating to lose your way.

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Surrealism made doubly surreal in a patient mural.

In order to protect the habitat and visitors from harm, North Brother Island is permanently closed to the public, and strictly off-limits during nesting season. Frequently patrolled due to its vicinity to Rikers, it’s known as one of the most difficult places in New York City to get to, which makes it an object of equal frustration and fascination for urban explorers near and far. (I was lucky enough to accompany a photographer with a long relationship with the Parks Department and a buddy with a boat—one or both are pretty essential if you’re trying to get here.)

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The largest and most intriguing book I’ve ever seen was filled with the most mundane details.

If you never make it to North Brother Island, take heart in the fact that it’s best appreciated from afar, where distance allows the imagination to fill in the obscured reaches beneath its canopy and populate the crumbling towers visible on its shore. An abandoned island is the most natural thing in the world to romanticize, but in the light of day, the enigma dissolves. As menacing as the old buildings may appear, they’re ultimately indifferent.

But at day’s end, the sun slips low on the horizon and the ruins of Riverside Hospital begin to gleam. Our boat departs just as the light approaches a kind of golden splendor before winking into darkness. Receding from view as you near Barretto Point at sunset, North Brother Island regains a bit of its mystery. Come to think of it, no one’s ever been permitted to go there after dark…

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Green leaves and blue skies illuminate a crumbling auditorium with jewel tones.

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Inside the tuberculosis pavilion.

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Metal barricades in an isolation room kept residents from breaking the windows.

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Most of the hospital’s glass fixtures had been vandalized…

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…but the island exhibits a near-complete lack of graffiti.

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A spiral staircase in the former Nurses’ Residence.

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Walls were stripped to their skeletons in this dormitory.

No floors

A doorway holds steady in a collapsed section of the Nurses’ Home, where a few saplings have taken root.




21 thoughts on “Getting Lost on North Brother Island

  1. It reminds me of Jurassic Park III. Thanks for sharing your adventure!


    Posted by Claude | 10-9-13., 1:39 pm
  2. WOW! Best yet.


    Posted by ellis3000 | 10-9-13., 2:27 pm
  3. Always enjoy your adventures to lost worlds. Better you than me.


    Posted by kqduane | 10-9-13., 6:58 pm
  4. Thanks so much….I have been waiting anxiously for your next post. This is fascinating and the photos are great…many thanks


    Posted by Frank | 10-9-13., 7:03 pm
  5. Wow – great pics, thanks for your efforts !


    Posted by John Tringham | 10-10-13., 6:05 am
  6. How can I be part of the trip there?

    If you’re not taking pictures, then you’re not taking pictures.



    Posted by Tom Komp | 10-10-13., 8:54 pm
  7. I know that, in my next trip to New York, this location will be part of my todo list. Thank you for the discovery 🙂


    Posted by Helena Toscano Photography | 10-26-13., 7:52 am
  8. Wow. This is really incredible. 🙂

    I’ve heard of North Brother Island, but only briefly. Reading this has peaked my interest more in learning about this island.

    Many thanks for sharing!!! 🙂


    Posted by zeenyc75 | 11-24-13., 3:17 pm
  9. Watching unforgettable. It was filmed on the island. This is fascinating.


    Posted by Gjs | 8-29-14., 10:18 pm
  10. Just got back from an amazing adventure on North Brother Island

    left a Geocache for the more experienced explorer as well:

    This piece of history will soon disappear by the hands of the City and some greedy wealthy investor with the excuse for another “wonderful” and safe “public” place to be enjoyed by the new yorkers.

    All that glitter is not gold.

    Good Luck.


    Posted by Earl Turner | 11-25-14., 12:44 pm
  11. This location has been on my bucket list for ages. The beautiful photos have not sated my dust lust, but, I thank you for this portal to North Island regardless. Simply beautiful.


    Posted by Nanijay | 2-12-15., 5:02 pm
  12. After WWll North Brother was a home for returning vets and their wives when they were students and there was serious lack of housing for college students. My parents lived there when my dad was at NYU. They took a ferry over from NY. Sometimes the ferry
    broke and they had to share the Rikers Islamd ferry. There were many students living there who went to school at NYU, Columbia and other NYC colleges.


    Posted by Nancy myers | 12-29-15., 10:30 pm
  13. Something about that island gets my pulse racing! I often pass it on a fishing boat (the Capitol Princess, which docks at 23rd St/East River) en route to the Sound. And learning that that’s where Typhoid Mary spent much of her life in quarantine! I would so love to set foot on North Brother Island! Surely there must be a way to get a sanctioned, guided tour! Would this be handled by the Parks Department? Museum of the City of NY??


    Posted by Rebecca Klinger | 11-15-16., 11:30 pm
  14. I would like to purchase this island to restore it to its foremore glory. Is this possible???


    Posted by John Horne | 3-20-20., 6:45 pm


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