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