North and South Brother Islands, New York

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Coordinates: 40°47′54″N 73°53′54″W / 40.798266°N 73.898424°W / 40.798266; -73.898424

The remains of Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island, 2006.

North and South Brother Islands are a pair of small islands located in New York City's East River between the Bronx and Rikers Island. North Brother Island was once the site of a hospital, but is now uninhabited and designated as a bird sanctuary. Until 1964, South Brother Island was part of Queens County (within Long Island City, beginning in 1870[1]), but it is now part of Bronx County.[2] It had long been privately owned, but it was purchased by the city in 2007.

According to the New York City Parks Department, North Brother Island has about 20 acres (8.1 ha) of land,[3] and South Brother Island is about 6 acres (2.4 ha).[4]


Bodies from the General Slocum wash ashore on North Brother Island, 1904.

Both North Brother Island and South Brother Island were claimed by the Dutch West India Company in 1614 and both were originally named "De Gesellen", translated as "the companions" in English.[5]

North Brother Island[edit]

The northern of the islands was uninhabited until 1885, when Riverside Hospital moved there from Blackwell's Island (now known as Roosevelt Island). Riverside Hospital was founded in the 1850s as the Smallpox Hospital to treat and isolate victims of that disease. Its mission eventually expanded to other quarantinable diseases.

The island was the site of the wreck of the General Slocum, a steamship which burned on June 15, 1904. Over 1,000 people died either from the fire on board the ship or from drowning before the ship was beached on the island's shores.[6]

Mary Mallon, also known as Typhoid Mary, was confined to the island for over two decades until she died there in 1938.[7][8] The hospital closed shortly thereafter.

Following World War II, the island housed war veterans who were students at local colleges, along with their families. After the nationwide housing shortage abated, the island was once again abandoned until the 1950s, when a center opened to treat adolescent drug addicts. The facility claimed to be the first to offer treatment, rehabilitation, and education facilities to young drug offenders. Heroin addicts were confined to this island and locked in a room until they were clean. Many of them believed they were being held against their will. By the early 1960s widespread staff corruption and patient recidivism forced the facility to close.[citation needed]

Now a bird sanctuary, the island is currently abandoned and off-limits to the public. Most of the original hospitals' buildings still stand, but are heavily deteriorated and in danger of collapse, and a dense forest conceals the ruined hospital buildings. In October 2014, New York City Council member Mark Levine, Chair of the City Council's Parks Committee, led a delegation to visit the island,[9] and declared his desire afterwards to open the island for limited "light-touch, environmentally sensitive" public access.[10]

South Brother Island[edit]

Jacob Ruppert, a brewery magnate and early owner of the New York Yankees, had a summer house on the island that burned down in 1909.[5] No one has lived on the island since then, and there are no structures extant. Ruppert owned the island until the late 1930s, and in 1944 it was purchased by John Gerosa, president of the Metropolitan Roofing Supply Company, who had wanted to construct a never-built summer retreat for his workers on the island.

A Snowy egret displaying plumage. This species is one of the inhabitants of the South island.

In 1975, the City sold South Brother Island to Hampton Scows Inc., a Long Island investment company, for $10.[5][11] Hampton Scows paid property taxes every year but did not develop the island.

In November 2007, the island was purchased in a complicated transaction in which $2 million of Federal grant money from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program was allocated to the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Point Community Development Corporation. The Trust for Public Land then acquired the island on behalf of those organizations, and then donated it to the city's Parks Department for use as a wildlife sanctuary.[4][5] It will be managed by the city's Parks Department and the Bronx Zoo.[11][12] South Brother Island was the 13th island to come under the Parks Department's jurisdiction.[4]


From the 1980s through the early 2000s, North Brother Island supported one of the area's largest nesting colonies of black-crowned night heron. However as of 2008 this species has abandoned the island for unknown reasons.[13] Barn swallows use the abandoned structures for nesting, and can be seen flying over the island.

On South Brother Island, dense brush supports a major nesting colony of several species of birds, notably black-crowned night heron, great egret, snowy egret, and double-crested cormorant. New York City Audubon has monitored nesting colonies on the island for over twenty years.[14][15]

In popular culture[edit]

North Brother Island was featured in episode 8 ("Armed and Defenseless") of Life After People on the History Channel. It was used as an example of what would happen to structures after 45 years without humans.[16] It was also featured in the Broad City episode "Working Girls" and the Unforgettable episode "The Island".

See also[edit]



  1. ^;sort:Pub_List_No_InitialSort%2CPub_Date%2CPub_List_No%2CSeries_No;lc:RUMSEY~8~1&mi=26&trs=100
  2. ^ New York. Laws of New York; 1964, 187th Session, Chapter 578, page 1606.
  3. ^ "Daily Plant: Over 2001 Acres Gained by October 2001" New York City Department of Parks and Recreation website (November 21, 2001)
  4. ^ a b c "The Daily Plant: South Brother Island Goes To The Birds" New York City Department of Parks and Recreation website (November 29, 2007)
  5. ^ a b c d Williams, Timothy (November 20, 2007). "City Claims Final Private Island in East River". The New York Times. Retrieved May 26, 2008. South Brother Island, seven acres of dense forest, bittersweet vines, flocks of wild birds and little else, is a speck in the East River — and a glimpse of what the rest of the city might have looked like thousands of years ago. 
  6. ^ "The General Slocum An Unlucky Craft. Has Had Collisions And Accidents By The Score. Has Run Ashore Many Times. She Was a Crack Harbor Boat Thirteen Years Ago. Capt. Van Schaick's Good Record". The New York Times. June 16, 1904. Retrieved February 28, 2010. The General Slocum was one of the best known vessels about New York Harbor. Since the time of her launching, in 1891, she has been employed in so many different capacities, and on so many different runs, that possibly five out of every ten people in New York City have at some time been aboard of her, or have seen her at close range. 
  7. ^ "'Typhoid Mary' Dies of A Stroke at 68. Carrier of Disease, Blamed for 51 Cases and 3 Deaths, but She Was Held Immune". New York Times. November 12, 1938. Retrieved February 28, 2010. Mary Mallon, the first carrier of typhoid bacilli identified in America and consequently known as Typhoid Mary, died yesterday in Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island. 
  8. ^ Williams, Timothy (November 20, 2007). "City Claims Final Private Island in East River". The New York Times. Retrieved May 26, 2008. The island — the smaller sibling of the better known North Brother Island, which is 500 feet to the north and once the quarantine home of Typhoid Mary... Neighboring islands, including North Brother, became sites for hospitals that treated infectious diseases like typhus and tuberculosis and for mental hospitals, power plants, jails, homeless shelters and cemeteries for the indigent. 
  9. ^ Foderaro, Lisa (October 15, 2014). "On an Island Under Vines, New York City Officials See a Future Park". New York Times. Retrieved November 2, 2014. 
  10. ^ Chung, Jen (October 16, 2014). "A Rare, Legal Visit To 'Spellbinding' North Brother Island". Gothamist. Retrieved November 2, 2014. 
  11. ^ a b Freedlander, David (November 20, 2007). "New York's South Brother Island to be a sanctuary". New York Newsday. Retrieved May 26, 2008. The island, an overgrown, uninhabited 7 acre piece of land battered by wind in the East River, was sold to the investment group Hampton Scows Inc. by the city in 1975 for $10. Now the federal government is purchasing it from the group for $2 million, a markup of 20 million percent, and turning it over to the city's Parks Department. 
  12. ^ Block, Dorian (November 27, 2007). "City buys South Brother Island on East River for bird refuge". Daily News. New York. 
  13. ^ Craig, E. "Audubon's Harbor Herons Project: 2009 Interim Nesting Survey Report" (PDF). New York City Audubon. 
  14. ^ Craig, E. "2012 Interim Nesting Report" (PDF). NYC Audubon. Retrieved June 25, 2013. 
  15. ^ Berger, Joseph (December 4, 2003). "So, You Were Expecting a Pigeon?; In City Bustle, Herons, Egrets and Ibises Find a Sanctuary". The New York Times. Retrieved August 21, 2007. By contrast, South Brother and its bigger sibling, North Brother Island, have resisted such an invasion. North Brother's vegetation – a jungle of thick brush, low trees and tangled bittersweet vines set among the ruins of a dozen quarantine and hospital buildings – has produced a secure haven for the black-crowned night heron, the city's most populous heron species. More than 230 crude nests of sticks and twigs were counted there last June. 
  16. ^ "Armed and Defenseless". History Channel. Archived from the original on October 28, 2009. Retrieved February 28, 2010. 

Further reading

External links[edit]