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New York’s Forgotten North Brother Island

Set sail for the mysterious shores of North Brother–a deserted island in the midst of the Big Apple.

Off the coast of the Bronx lies the last unknown place in New York City.

North Brother is a 20-acre island of ruins in the middle of the East River. Cut off from the city, yet deeply connected to its history, the eerie site is rich with tales of isolation and tragedy.

In 1885, North Brother became the quarantine quarters of Riverside Hospital. There, carriers of deadly contagions were sent for treatment in separation from the growing populace of New York. Typhoid Mary, the notorious Irish cook who infected over 50 people with her cooking, called North Brother home–whether she liked it or not. Mary was forcibly secluded on the island twice, first from 1907 to 1910, then again in 1915, where she remained until her death more than two decades later.

Related: The Ghosts of New York: 5 Boroughs, 5 Hauntings 

North Brother was also the site of New York’s worst maritime disaster. In 1904, the General Slocum steamship caught fire in the East River, just south of the island’s shore. Over 1,000 people–mostly women and children–lost their lives in the catastrophe, with many of the bodies washing up on North Brother.

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  • Photo Credit: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

The island later became a drug treatment center for juvenile offenders. But by the 1960s, the facility had closed and the island was abandoned for good.

At which point, nature took over. The once-manicured lawns and massive brick buildings were slowly swallowed up by underbrush and ivy. As the Big Apple blossomed into a city of 8.4 million people, North Brother quietly returned to a wild state.

Related: Hart Island: The Big Apple’s Mass Burial Ground of Unknown Dead

The island is now a sanctuary for herons and off-limits to the public. Recently, photographer Christopher Payne was granted permission to document North Brother in all its decaying wonder. Payne, who specializes in capturing vanishing landscapes, was instantly drawn to the remote island: “If you can get there,” he says, “the rarest of solitudes awaits you.”

Get a glimpse of North Brother’s strange beauty in Payne’s photos below, then check out his stunning book, North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City.

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  • View of Manhattan From the Shore of North Brother

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  • Remnants of the Boiler Plant From the Roof of the Morgue

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  • Natural Sky Light From Inside the Boiler Plant

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  • The Facade of St. John-By-the-Sea Church

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  • A Side View of St. John-By-the-Sea Church

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  • Remains of the Service Building’s Auditorium

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  • North Brother’s Morgue in the Fall

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  • North Brother’s Morgue in the Summer

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  • The Tuberculosis Pavilion in the winter. The building is the island’s largest structure and served as housing for juvenile drug offenders.

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  • The Tuberculosis Pavilion in the Spring

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  • The Tuberculosis Pavilion in the Summer

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  • A grammar book from 1930. North Brother had its own school, P.S. 619, for the children with communicable diseases who were quarantined on the island. It later served the island’s juvenile drug offender population.

Photos courtesy of Christopher Payne; Newspaper image via The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History 

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Created on 04 Feb 2015
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