Gowanus Lounge: Serving Brooklyn

Urban Environmentalist NYC: Brother Islands’ History Revealed

August 8th, 2008 · 2 Comments

Few people know about Brother Islands because they are so difficult to reach. But they have a long and fascinating story that is deeply entwined with the history of New York. Situated in the East River slightly north of Riker’s Island, North and South Brother Islands were claimed in 1614 by Captain Adriaen Block for the Dutch West India Company. He christened the islands “duo De Gesellen,” which translates to “The Companions.” They remained undeveloped for nearly two centuries, mainly due to the powerful and dangerous currents surrounding them. (The waters are still treacherous to this day.) North Brother was sold to the town of Morrisania in the Bronx in 1871 and South Brother remained a part of Queens until as late as 1964. In that year, the city felt compelled to unite the two islands by moving the borough boundary to include South Brother in the Bronx.

Taking each island on their own, their stories become more even more interesting… South Brother, the smaller of the two (approx. 7 acres), was once the summer home of Jacob Ruppert the beer magnate (and owner of the Yankees during the Babe Ruth era!) who built his summer place there in 1894. His tenure on this island was relatively short. He used it until 1907; it burned down in 1909. Eventually, the City of New York sold the island to John Gerosa, who intended to build a summer retreat for his workers. This never happened—and in 1975 the City sold it to Hampton Scows for $10.00. True to its quiet history, South Brother was never developed and has remained unused and unoccupied to date. In November 2007, the City of New York purchased the island and announced that it would be preserved as a wildlife sanctuary. The price was in the neighborhood of $2,000,000 – a very good investment for Hampton Scows!

North Brother Island (approx. 13 acres and pictured here) has an especially sad and lurid history. Perhaps the unhappiest note in the island’s history occurred on June 15, 1904—when the island played a tragic role in the General Slocum disaster (something we will write about another time). But even before then, the island’s tragic associations were deep. For years, it represented a home for Gotham’s unwanted. The city took over the island in 1885 at the height of a typhus epidemic, rushing to build Riverside Hospital. The hospital opened that year to care for victims of infectious diseases like typhus, cholera, yellow fever and smallpox. By the turn of the century, a new peril emerged: tuberculosis. This necessitated the erection of more buildings to house and separate the patients. During these years, the most famous resident, Mary Mallon or “Typhoid Mary,” lived in a separate cottage on the island. She was confined there for nearly 30 years until her death in 1938. The buildings deteriorated and fell into disuse during WW II, but the island received new life after the war with the influx of healthy boarders. The GI-Bill caused a shortage of housing at the city’s colleges. The state leased the island from the city and used the island for dormitories for its students, ferrying them back and forth. The city reclaimed the island in 1952 and it returned to being a place for its outcast and unwanted—this time a rehabilitation center for adolescent drug addicts. Ripe with corruption, the city finally closed Riverside Hospital in 1963, ending its institutional history. Many plans have been floated since then, bit none have come to fruition. Every year the overgrowth becomes denser and one can imagine the ruins as a set for a gothic movie, with actual ghosts inhabiting the abandoned buildings.

For some fantastic photos of the North Brother Island buildings, check out www.northbrotherislan.blogspot.com, and to see the islands join the Center for the Urban Environments cruise of “The Other Islands of New York: Northern Islands” this Sunday, August 10th. Call 718-788-8500, ext 217 for reservations and see our website, www.bcue.org (Urban Tours) for details. Pre-payment is required. You can also check out the excellent book by our tour guides, Sharon Seitz and Stuart Miller, “The Other Islands of New York City” which fleshes out the truncated version here.

–Ruth Edebohls

(Ruth Edebohls is the Coordinator of Urban Tours at the Center for the Urban Environment. To learn more about the Center click here.)

Tags: CUE · Urban Environmentalist

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