North Brother Island

The East River in New York City separates the island of Manhattan from Queens, beginning at it’s southern end, the Raritan Bay which leads to the Atlantic Ocean. As it flows North, it merges with the Harlem River at the Triborough Bridge and Randall island, flowing past Rikers Island, under the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge and the Throgsneck Bridge, and on into Long Island Sound. The area around Rikers Island and Laguardia airport is known as the Bay of Brothers. It is called this because of two smaller islands known as North Brother Island (13 acres) and South Brother Island (7 acres). Although Randalls and Rikers are accessible by car via bridge, neither of the Brother Islands can be accessed without a boat.

As the bay Of Brothers flows south and meets with the East River it becomes very narrow. This section of river is known as Hell’s Gate, from the Dutch equivalent Helle Gadt. It was given this name because there is a 2 hour difference between the tides in the east river and those in the Bay of Brothers. Water is often trapped in this area, and when it releases after both tides, the narrow channel is a whirl of eddies, dangerous currents and riptides. It is a very dangerous section of river.

The islands were seen by the first Dutch settlers to colonize the area, and were claimed for the Dutch West India Trading Company in 1614 by Adrien Block. The settlers never established any settlements on the island, no doubt due to the hostile waters. A lighthouse was built on North Brother Island in 1869 and after several upgrades, functioned until 1953. The lighthouse keeper’s house still remains but is deteriorating after 50 years of disuse. The first known use of South Brother Island was by a brewery owner named Jacob Ruppert, who built a summer cottage in 1897. North Brother Island was developed heavily two years earlier when Riverside Hospital opened there. It was a repository for exotic and infectious diseases like typhus, TB, cholera, yellow fever and smallpox. A similar hospital was established on Roosevelt Island. More wings and buildings were established to house the many patients who became ill during various outbreaks of these diseases over the next twenty years.

Mary Mallon was a cook for wealthy families in the NY area, and the authorities took notice that several families she worked for came down with typhoid. She was tracked down and sent to Riverside Hospital for 3 years before being released. The Health Commissioner thought she understood the nature of the illness and that she was a carrier. She was an uneducated immigrant however, and was suspicious of the authorities. She also was suspect because she herself never became sick, as most carriers of typhoid did. She was specifically warned not to work as a cook, and was advised to frequently wash her hands. In 1915 the health dept became aware she had violated both of those orders and had spread typhoid again. She was captured and sent to Riverside Hospital where she remained until she died in 1938. She became known as typhoid Mary. The legend says she killed thousands but the reality is she probably caused less then 50 deaths. read more about it on Snopes

Mary Mallon AKA Typhoid Mary

A new pavilion was constructed at Riverside Hospital in the 1940’s, but rather then housing TB patients, it would become a dormitory for college students at City College, Columbia and Fordham U students, as well as a home for war veterans. In 1952, the hospital began accepting hardcore heroin addicts; they would be the primary patient type housed here until the hospital closed in 1963. The island and the hospital have largely been ignored by humans for the past 40 years.

The island was witness to the greatest boating accident in NYC history. The General Slocum was a steam powered ferry with 1300 passengers and was headed from the East Village in New York to a church picnic off Long Island. A small fire below decks quickly became an inferno. The ship’s crew had no training in fighting fires, and the fire hoses literally fell apart from lack of maintenance. Lifeboats were painted and nailed to the decks. Lifejackets were nailed to the walls, and were in such bad shape they actually dragged people to their deaths. The boat has recently been painted, feeding the fire and causing it to spread. Captain Van Schaick debated docking at several piers nearby but feared of an explosion of the numerous oil tanks that were nearby, and pushed full speed ahead to North Brother Island. This increase in speed fanned the fire further.

Despite the heroic efforts of police, firemen, local ship captains and the staff of Riverside Hospital where the ship beached itself, 1,021 people died. Although more Americans died then did on the Titanic or in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911, most people have no knowledge of this tragedy. It remains the greatest maritime disaster in NY history, and the greatest disaster of any kind until 9/11. It also remains the most deadly peacetime maritime disaster in American history. In these days few people contributed to charity, and few people accepted it. Working hard was the way one provided for themselves and their family. handouts, even well intentioned were considered an insult. Despite this attitude, over $5,000 was raised in relief money by 6PM the day of the fire, and by 10PM it topped $9,000. Eventually over $150,000 was raised to pay for funerals and burials, pay for two monuments and to help the familes, especially those of children who lost their parents and brothers and sisters and had no one. One concern with charity was that it would wrap the values of those who received it, and teach them that being soft was acceptable. Misuse was another concern, and there was quite a debate in the aftermath over the donation of 20,000 in fund money to the local parish where so many of the victims went to church. Some families refused assistance, until it was promised that all records of their having received charity would be destroyed.

The grieving city demanded answers. Captain Van Schaick, executives of the Knickerbocker Steamboat Co., and the Inspector who certified the General Slocum as safe only a month before the fire were indicted. The captain was convicted and sentenced to ten years in Sing Sing prison, but was pardoned by President Taft after three years. The officials of the Knickerbocker Steamship Company escaped from any jail time despite evidence they bribed officials and falsified records to cover up the unsafe conditions aboard ship. That evening at the Knickerbocker Steamboat company pier on Statene Island, a bolt of lightning from a freakish storm hit the pier of the Slocum’s sister ship the Grand Republic. A small fire broke out and was quickly extinguished. Were Pat Robertson alive at the time, I imagine he would’ve said that God was angry at the steamboat company officials for causing the deaths of over 1,000 innocent people. And no one would’ve disagreed with him either.

President Roosevelt named a commission to investigate the tragedy, which held hearings in New York and Washington, D. C. These hearing leds to many people losing their jobs, and a wave of new safety regulations for all ships. These new regulations were quickly enacted and this led to dramatic improvements in steamboat safety. The victims of the General Slocum fire were almost entirely German, and almost entirely from one neighborhood on the lower East Side known as Kleindeutschland: Little Germany. There wasn’t a person in the community who didn’t have a relative who died or personally someone who died. When those 1,021 people died they took the community with them. The remaining families could not cope with the sudden loss, and before very long Little Germany was no more.

There is a monument to the disaster in the Lutheran Cemetery Slocum monument, and another smaller monument can be found in Tompkins Square Park (between Avenues A and B and East 7th and 10th Streets, just north of Kleindeutschland). In 1991, this monument was restored by the NYC Parks Department. Interestingly, there is no mention of the General Slocum on the monument; just the words, “They were earth’s purest, children young and fair.”

Despite the focus on safety and training, accidents continue to happen, and will always happen. Some are preventable, some are due to bad judgement, while others are due to outright greed and those acting out of self preservation. Said Reverand Belford at one eulogy “To expect God to change the laws of nature would be presumption. The disaster was not an act of God. It was an act of man. It comes from greed, neglect of duty, from defiance of law and conscience.” As I am putting this together, the sad news from Egypt is that a ferry has sank with nearly 1100 people presumed dead. There was a fire, and the crew decided not to turn back to their point of origin but to continue on their journey. The families, stricken with grief and anger have sacked the offices of the ferry company. A government investigation will be conducted, just like in 1904. I am sure the company’s records will be inspected, much as they were in 1904. Survivors will tell what they remember, much as they did in 1904. The outcome whatever it is, will spur a newfound emphasis on training and safety so that a disaster like this shall never happen again.

Until the next time disaster strikes.

Birds have flourished in the absence of human activity. North Brother Island is owned by NYC, and South Brother Island is owned by Hampton Scows, Inc, and there are no plans to develop it. Both islands are restricted from public access as they are considered vital nesting grounds for local birds. Egrets, herons, gulls, and double crested cormorants all have nests on the islands. The city and the NY Audubon society are working to remove non-native plant and trees such as Norway Maples and Judzu vines and replace them with birch and hack-berry that protect prime nesting areas. species in the hopes that it will encourage the breeding of birds, and encourage other birds to return, as the harbor herons did in the 1970’s. The NY Parks Dept seeks volunteers to do work on NBI involving bird counts.

The only people who visit the island (besides wildlife experts and Parks Dept employees) are urban explorers. Here is the Forgotten NY page about it. Read more about the island’s history on the NY Parks Dept website.

Besides the treacherous waters, it’s inadvisable to visit NBI because of it’s close proximity to Riker’s Island. Police patrol the waters to avoid attempts at escape. Here is one person’s story of their encounter with the harbor patrol just off NBI.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. […] you know nothing about NBI, here is my original entry detailing the long and varied history of this unassuming island in the Bronx River. it’s well […]

    Reply

  2. I never knew this story before, thank you.
    I always thought typhoid marry was a nurse in the typhoid ward that spread it around to others outside the ward. Public education…

    Reply

  3. I liked this. Your work is to be commended. I for one did not know the story of NBI. I am born here in NY and until I read this article I never knew what happened to typhoid Mary. I knew she was put away but I did not know this was where she was stowed away. Great History information you have provided that should be available to more people.

    Reply

  4. […] you know nothing about NBI, here is my original entry detailing the long and varied history of this unassuming island in the Bronx River. it’s well […]

    Reply

  5. […] idea was that they would film an entire pilot episode, featuring the jet, Bannerman Castle and North Brother Island. The entire episode would be shown to the networks to see if they wanted to pick it up as a full […]

    Reply

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