Ian Ference, a photographer and historian living in New York, has spent nearly four years documenting the remains of North Brother Island, a 13-acre piece of land sandwiched between Riker’s Island and the Bronx in the East River that’s been abandoned since 1963.
During the first half of the 20th century, North Brother “was home to the quarantine hospital that housed Typhoid Mary, was the final destination of the General Slocum during its tragic final voyage, and was the site of an experimental drug treatment program which failed due to corruption,” according to Ference.
Today, the island is off limits to the general public. From March through September, it serves as a nesting ground for a number of endangered seabirds.
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Since 2008, Ference has taken more than 17 trips out to the island through special permission from the New York City Parks and Recreation Department. He has been kind enough to share some photos of his journey—he’s collected more than 2,000 images so far—and tell us what it’s like to explore a forgotten portion of New York City’s Five Boroughs.
How did you first hear about North Brother Island?
I’ve been aware of North Brother Island for well over a decade. I started inquiring into how to obtain access in 2003 and was finally able to obtain access in 2008. I’ve long been interested in the history of quarantine and isolation hospitals in America. I’ve made site visits to several dozen such facilities, including several island isolation hospitals akin to North Brother Island. But North brother is a particularly wonderful example. It’s relatively untouched by vandalism. There was a period in the 1970s when kids from the Bronx used to party on the island because it wasn’t particularly well-patrolled, but due to incidents of boats capsizing in Hell Gate—the body of water surrounding North Brother Island—and some incidents of people accidentally landing on Riker’s Island, the patrols have been stepped up over the years. Since the 1980s, it’s been relatively difficult to gain access without permission. Fortunately, I was able to obtain permission through the New York City Parks Department.
Did you go alone?
There were two other photographers and a photo assistant who accompanied me out to the island. I was also with representatives of the New York City Parks department.
Can you describe your experience—are there specific smells or sounds that resonate?
Unlike some of the sensationalistic hype surrounding the hospital there’s no ‘medicinal’ smell in the corridors of the tubercular ward. The tubercular ward was never used to treat tuberculosis. It was constructed between 1942 and 1943. In 1943 the island was abandoned for the first time until it was used again for the second World War to house veterans who were returning to study under the G.I. Bill. So it was never actually used as a medical hospital and people are actually using their imaginations too much when they imagine that they smell medicinal odours in the hallways.
The general smells on the island are what you would expect of an abandoned complex. In the spring, there are nice floral scents from the flowers that are growing out of everything, and the smells of rotten decay that tend to permeate decaying architecture. Water damage is the main culprit in the slow decline of these buildings. The physical plant that contains the boilers and other [apparatus] for generating and distributing utilities throughout the island do have areas that still have distinctive smells of oils and lubricants that would have been used in the mechanical processes. These don’t evaporate over time the way that water soluble fluids do. So there is that scent.
Let’s be honest—you were virtually alone, taking pictures of an abandoned island that was once home to a quarantine hospital and an experimental drug treatment program. Did you find it creepy at all?
Eerie and creepy nonsense is something that’s dreamed up by people who want to hawk ghost-hunting shows. It’s primarily masonry buildings out on an island that are slowly falling apart due to the ravages of water damage. It’s not creepy at all. It’s kind of sad in terms of some of the architecture [which] is actually quite elegant, especially for municipal architecture from the time period it was built in; it’s a lot more optimistic and less dreadful than you’d think a quarantine hospital might be.
Were you particularly surprised/shocked by anything you found?
The thing I found most fascinating was how remarkably intact, as what you might of think of a total community it was. Besides food coming off the ferries and water coming in off of a water main that was built from the mainland, the island was more or less self-sufficient in terms of power generation and internal telephony systems. Many telephone poles are still standing. They had a system of roads with curves and everything you’d except to see on the mainland. They would have vehicles—they’ve since been removed—out on the island for transport. But a lot of the stuff is still there. A lot of it is buried under 48 years of dirt, debris, and leaves. Trees are starting to grow out of cracks in the pavement, but if you put on some gloves and dig down you find everything from fire hydrants to steam tunnels to lamp posts. It’s very rare to find an institution this size where the entire abandoned infrastructure has survived relatively intact for 48 and a half years.
Why has North Brother Island been so well-preserved compared to other abandoned structures?
In most places, there are three factors that impede the natural process of decay that you see on North Brother. One is when there’s no geographical barrier such as water to stop people from accessing the complex. Local kids go and wreak havoc on places with spray paint and baseball bats. Another reason is that scrappers, who are people who break into old buildings to steal scrap metal and sell it for recycling purposes, tend to wreak havoc on places. Third, and most significantly, in most places there’s a need to repurpose land that isn’t currently being used. So if a building has been vacant for 30 years and is beyond repair—like more than half of the buildings on North Brother—typically they would demolish that and something else would be built. But it would be monetarily unfeasible to make North Brother a part of the New York infrastructure again. They can’t build a bridge out to it because that would block traffic on the East River. And a ferry system for an island that’s only 14 acres of land is rather absurd.
Can you tell me more about the writings found on the walls of the quarantine hospital?
Most of the writings would date from about 1952 to 1963, which is about the years that the Riverside Hospital was repurposed into a juvenile drug rehabilitation centre. Most of the writing you can ascribe to the patients who were there, but some of it is clearly the workers joking around in staff rooms. Again, it’s remarkably intact. It’s not intermingled with modern graffiti and spray paint like you’d see in most land-bound institutions of that size.
What happens if you try to visit the island today without permission?
There are severe penalties for anyone who gets caught landing a boat on the island. Just from many trips out there, I’ve run into police on foot patrolling the island. So if anyone gets it into their head that they can just sneak out there without permission, I caution against that.
Ference is hoping to turn his study of North Brother into a larger-scope project that reveals more history about the island. He asks that anybody with a personal connection to the island, including patients, staff, or their children, to email him with their story. You can see all of Ference’s work at his website, The Kingston Lounge.
The gantry crane at the ferry slip which would transport patients and staff to its sister slip in Port Morris.
The overgrown main road running north-south through the island; to the right are the nurses' residence and doctors' cottage, and to the left, the maintenance building and tennis courts.
An access road leads between the morgue to the right, and the physical plant and coal house to the left.
The refrigeration room in the morgue. Individual cabinets for corpses were not used in this morgue. Mary Mallon, widely known as Typhoid Mary, worked in the pathology lab in the same building during her second confinement on the island.
A view of the physical plant (left) and coal house (right) from the roof of the morgue. In the distance, the maintenance building and the top of the nurses' residence are visible.
Second floor of the doctors' cottage, looking south into the collapsed western wing of the building.
A typical two-room dorm inside the nurses' residence. One half provided sleeping quarters for 1 or 2 nurses, and the other half was a lounge area, with a private sink.
Each quarters has a knocker with a nameplate and room designation. This is room 212 in the north wing.
An iron spiral staircase on the eastern tip of the southern wing. This room was originally a screened-in porch.
A raptor found dessicated in one of the dormitories. North Brother Island has few food sources for land animals, but maintains a diverse population of birds.
A former children's' ward was converted to a library when Riverside became a rehabilitation hospital.
The maintenance building contains general odds and ends; here, some keys sit next to a chemical stalagmite.
Before abandonment of the island, the altarpiece from the chapel was removed to the maintenance building, where it still sits on a table.
The second chapel, made of wood, has almost completely collapsed; all that remains standing is the wall and entryway to the west.
While being altered to function as a school, shoddy construction techniques were employed for the partitioning. Here, the main hallway is askew under the weight of the metal beams in the wall.
An x-ray room within the first floor medical wing of the pavilion. To the right is the control room. The tiles here have fallen away to reveal walls lined with integral lead blocks.
An airy day room at the end of the south wing speaks to the pavilion's original purpose as a ward for TB patients.
Several murals are still visible on the second floor, although most of them have been punched through, presumably by vandals in the 1970s when it was popular to sneak onto the island by boat. On one of the murals, a patient has written a vulgar poem expressing his feelings about the institution.
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