Take a look inside an abandoned New York City quarantine island that once housed Typhoid Mary and almost no one is allowed to visit

USGS EarthExplorer; Business InsiderNorth Brother Island is hidden in one of the busiest cities in the world.
  • From the 1880s up until World War II, New York City’s North Brother Island island served as a quarantine location for patients with infectious diseases, including the infamous Typhoid Mary.
  • North Brother Island sits next to Rikers Island prison complex and was abandoned in 1963 after a failed stint as a drug rehabilitation centre.
  • It’s illegal to visit North Brother Island without permission from the city due to hazardous ruins and its status as a bird sanctuary.
  • In 2017, Business Insider visited the island, learned about its sordid history, and photographed the dilapidated state of its buildings.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Less than a mile from Manhattan exists a little-known island that has been abandoned for over half a century and whose history is checkered with death, disease, and decay.

“North Brother Island is among New York City’s most extraordinary and least known heritage and natural places,” wrote the authors of a 2017 University of Pennsylvania study about the location.

The city owns the 22-acre plot of land in the East River, which sits between the South Bronx’s industrial coast and a notorious prison: Rikers Island.

Almost no one is permitted on North Brother Island and its smaller companion, South Brother Island, except for birds. But even they don’t seem to want to live among its crumbling, abandoned structures.

In 2017, producers for the Science Channel obtained the city’s permission to visit North Brother Island – and the crew invited Business Insider to join.

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


From the 1880s through 1943, New York City used North Brother Island to quarantine people with highly contagious diseases — including the infamous “Typhoid Mary” Mallon, whose asymptomatic typhoid infection caused dozens of people she worked for to die of the disease. She was institutionalized here until her death in 1938.

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The island’s sordid history doesn’t stop there. In June 1904, a steamship called the General Slocum burst into flames and sank in the East River. Only 321 people survived, and the bodies of 1,021 people washed ashore for days.

Source: New York Public Library


After an unsuccessful run as a drug rehabilitation centre for teens in the 1950s, the island was ultimately abandoned in 1963.

Dave Mosher/Business Insider

Today, 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.


The only way to get to North Brother Island is by boat. This small aluminium one was our ride.


Leaving from Barretto Point Park in the South Bronx is one of the quickest ways to get there.


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

USGS Earth Explorer

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.


You’ll want to watch your step — the boat ramp is covered in slippery algae at low tide.


The island’s buildings used to be powered by coal, which workers loaded onto this dock. Now it’s sinking, covered in kelp, and totally submerged at high tide.


After we arrived on shore, we set our equipment inside this sturdy 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 footpaths are almost unrecognizable due to the overgrowth.


Invasive kudzu vines, which come from Asia, crawl and infiltrate many nooks and crannies of the island.


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


There are also signs of illegal visitation, including this graffiti on a wall ball court.


One of the first buildings we saw was a morgue, on the right. The fractured chimney of a coal-fired boiler room, on the left, is visible from miles away.


Parks and Recreation officials bar the island’s few visitors from entering most buildings since they are in a dangerous state of disrepair.


Some structures, like this Physician’s Home built in 1926, are on the verge of collapse.


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


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


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


So many structures hide among the wild vines, trees, and fronds.


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


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


A few facilities on the island are almost unrecognizable. Ivy has completely choked out this double tennis court.


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


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.


From 1952 to 1963, the building was used as a drug rehabilitation centre for troubled teens.


But patients didn’t get the help they needed when returning home after three-to-five-month stays. The program was considered a failure.


The largest building on the island is 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 $US1.2 million facility was finished in 1943 and never treated a tuberculosis patient; instead, it housed veterans.

Source: Business Insider


It is a large and looming building.


Like many structures, its interiors are visible through broken or missing windows.


The south end of the tubercular ward had a kitchen. Much of the equipment was left when the island was abandoned in 1963.


When inhabitants left following the dissolution of the drug rehabilitation program, New York City took custody of the island. To this day, the city has yet to figure out if and how it will let the public set foot there again, and a lack of management made it a looting grounds for vandals.


North Brother Island might never reopen to the public, though: It’s ground-zero for rising sea levels and storm surges. According to extreme climate change projections, it may be entirely underwater by 2100.

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