About North Brother Island

Quick Links


Stepping into the interior of North Brother Island is like entering another world. In this seemingly alternative dimension, it’s as if you’ve been simultaneously transported to the island’s actual tragic past as well as a possible post-apocalyptic future for our civilization.

At least that’s how I imagine it feels to walk among the ruins of Riverside Hospital, located on a twenty-acre, forested atoll in New York City’s East River. Because access to the island, now a federally-protected bird sanctuary, is restricted, I’ve never been there.

Instead, I’ve learned everything I could from those who’ve been fortunate enough to experience the surreal, decomposing quarantine facility firsthand, and gracious enough to then share it with the rest of us. As nature continues its destruction of the remaining evidence of the quarantine facility, where thousands died and many more suffered, all that will remain will be the accounts of those who’ve been there, and their photographs and videos.

The history of North Brother Island—both rich and dark—belongs to us all. And it’s even more relevant now that we’ve been living through our own generation’s pandemic. I invite you to explore the resources I’ve aggregated here as well as contact me with any additional information I can add (and use in The Vines Series).

Happy exploring!

Shelley Nolden Signature
I’m always looking for additional resources and photographs, as well as details about people who’ve lived on the island.
If you have any leads for me, I’d love to hear from you.

North Brother Island Map

Click on the image below to see a larger version.


North Brother Island Timeline

10,000 to 20,000 Years Ago

The Wisconsin glacier deposited the material that became North Brother Island.

Native Americans may have visited the island but likely did not dwell there, as North Brother Island contains no fresh water source.


Dutch navigator Adriaen Block named North Brother and its smaller neighbor to the south “duo de Gesellen” (the two “wayfarers” or “brethren”).


Sinking of the British frigate Hussar in treacherous Hell Gate. The ship was rumored to be carrying gold coins for the British army’s payroll as well as 80 shackled revolutionary soldiers.


To address a growing smallpox epidemic the New York Board of Health began efforts to move Riverside Hospital from Blackwell’s Island to North Brother Island.


The new Riverside Hospital facility, designed to treat New York City’s indigent ill, opened on North Brother Island with three of its ten planned wooden pavilions completed.


An increase in infectious disease outbreaks in New York City spurred the addition of more pavilions and tents.

Early 1900s

To combat fears of being sent to Riverside Hospital, which resulted in families hiding their ill from authorities, efforts were made to improve the facility’s campus as well as its reputation.

June 15, 1904

The PS General Slocum steamship caught fire south of North Brother Island. Its captain ran the ship aground at the southwestern end of North Brother Island. Over 1,100 people aboard perished, many of whom were women and children who’d been on their way to a Sunday school church outing at Locust Grove Picnic Ground.


The Department of Health gave Mary Mallon, an asymptomatic carrier of Salmonella Typhi, a choice – to have her gall bladder removed (where the bacteria were believed to reside) or be exiled to North Brother Island. She refused the surgery, which was dangerous and not guaranteed to work.

1914 to 1942

Riverside Hospital primarily treated tuberculosis and venereal diseases, as hospitals within the boroughs had become more adept at treating contagious diseases and smallpox had been eradicated in the US.

1918 – 1919

Riverside Hospital treated returning soldiers with drug addictions (using isolation).


Other hospitals and new developments in public health, epidemiology, and pharmaceuticals reduced the need for the isolation facility.


Mary Mallon suffered a stroke and remained bedridden at Riverside Hospital until her death on November 11, 1938.


The Tuberculosis Pavilion was completed (designed by Electus Litchfield) but never used for its original purpose due to lack of funding / staff.


The Tuberculosis Pavilion closed, along with the rest of the complex, due to a shortage of workers. It was, however, briefly used as a barracks in the later years of WWII.

Post World War II

Several of the larger buildings, including the Tuberculosis Pavilion, were repurposed as apartment buildings for students (and their families) who were studying at NYC colleges under the GI bill. A grocery store, cafeteria, library, and movie theatre were added.

Late 1940s

Following the veterans’ completion of their degrees, the families departed and North Brother Island was temporarily abandoned.

July 1, 1952

Riverside Hospital was reopened as an experimental rehabilitation treatment center for heroin-addicted juveniles.

July 1963

Riverside Hospital was closed. All electricity, phone, and ferry service to the island was discontinued.

1965 to 1980s

Plans were made (and then abandoned) to turn the facility into a “Center for Derelicts.” Other alternatives considered over the years include a maximum security prison, landfill, homeless shelter, and a quarantined facility for AIDS patients.


The New York City Audubon Society and the NYC Department of Environmental Conservation determined that the island had become heavily populated by several species of colonial wading birds.

Mid 1990s

Lightning struck the smokestack on the boiler house.


The New York City Department of Recreation acquired the island and designated it a “Forever Wild” resource with no public access.


A group of students from the University of Pennsylvania, led by Randall Mason, surveyed the island with ecologists and biologists at the NYC Parks Department.


The black-crowned night herons abandoned the island for unknown reasons.


Superstorm Sandy ravaged the north side of the island but left the buildings largely undamaged.


The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation stopped accepting applications for approved access to the island due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


Additional Resources

These on-line articles provide both insight into the island’s grim past as well as haunting images that influenced my writing of The Vines.

North Brother Island

Forgotten New York. 2004, September 11

Riverside Hospital (North Brother Island)

Opacity. Kirsch, Tom. 2005

North Brother Island – Riverside Hospital

Kingston Lounge. Ference, Ian (2011, January 13)

Inside the Lost Island of New York: Eerie Pictures of the Abandoned Leper Colony Just 350 Yards From the Bronx Hazelton, Liz (2012, February 4)

Getting Lost on North Brother Island

AbandonedNYC. Ellis, Will (2013, October 9)

Exploring New York City’s Abandoned Island, Where Nature Has Taken Over

Smithsonian Magazine. Nuwer, Rachel (2014, May 14)

The Mysterious New York City Island You’ve Never Heard Of

Slate. Teicher, Jordan G. (2014, May 14)

This Island In New York Has A Dark And Evil History That Will Never Be Forgotten

Only in Your State. Monroe, Lea (2016, July 15)

New York City Owns a Creepy Island That Almost No One is Allowed to Visit — Here’s What It’s Like

Business Insider. Mosher, Dave (2019, June 3)

Photos: A Rare, Legal Visit To “Spellbinding” North Brother Island

Gothamist, Jen Chung (2014, October 16)

The Secret of North Brother Island: The Abandoned New York City Island Where Typhoid Mary Was Held Captive

The Daily Beast. Robin, Josh (2017, December 29)

The Tragic History of North Brother Island

History 101. Kennedy, Rose (2019, December 30)

North Brother Island – Abandoned Quarantine Facility in New York

Dark Tourists. (2020, September 29)

Lighthouse Friends: North Brother Island

Lighthouse Friends

The General Slocum Disaster of June 15, 1904

New York Public Library. (2011, June 13)

The videos below provide more information on North Brother Island, its history and current status.

North Brother Island

PBS MetroFocus

These photograph collections give a haunting, yet beautiful perspective on the forbidden North Brother Island. Look carefully and you’ll find details within these images that are referenced in the novel.

Christopher Payne

North Brother Island Photography Collection

Deborah O’Grady

North Brother Island Photography Collection

Tod Seelie

North Brother Island Photography Collection

Ian Ferrence

North Brother Island Photography Collection

These great books and studies were invaluable resources to me while researching North Brother Island and other topics related to novel. I highly recommend you check them out!

LAB 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Germ Laboratory

Carroll, Michael Christopher – William Morrow Paperbacks, 2005

Fever: A Novel of Typhoid Mary

Keane, Mary Beth – Thorndike Press, 2013

The New York City Long Range Sludge Management Plan Generic Environmental Impact Statement III: North Brother Island Phase IA Archaeological Assessment

Kearns, Betsy and Kirkorian, Cece – Historical Perspectives Inc., 1991

North Brother Island Conservation and Access Study

Mason, Randall – PennPraxis, 2017

Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum

O’Donnell, Edward T – Broadway, 2003

North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City

Payne, Christopher – Empire State Editions, 2014

In The Children’s Hospital

Riis, Jacob A

How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York

Riis, Jacob A – Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1890

Riverside Hospital New York City North Brother Island

Riis, Jacob A – Cosmopolitan Magazine, July 1902

North Brother Island: Balancing Ecology and Cultural Heritage

University of Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Program 2005, New York City Department of Parks and Recreation – University of Pennsylvania, 2005

Microbe Hunters

Paul De Kruif and F Gonzalez-Crussi – Houghton Mifflin, 2002