Creepy Island Hopping (2008)

In still waters surrounding the city, eerie lumps of land harbor secrets you never imagined

New York's 40 or so outlying islands, constructed from glacial erosion or garbage and subway ruins, were once home to quarantined typhoid victims, imprisoned mobsters, doomed pirates, impoverished lunatics, and breeding birds. While some have been rehabilitated, many have languished, if not sunk. Those islands that are still accessible contain ravaged architecture, chronic criminals, and wild landscapes. All make for an eerie excursion past dusk.

Dilapidated institutions abound even on the city's more inhabitable islands. Roosevelt Island was redesigned in 1975 as a planned community of prefab homes for U.N. diplomats. But it was the premier 19th-century dumping ground for the poor, sick, or criminal. A penitentiary whose inmates once included Emma Goldman, "Boss" Tweed, and Mae West was raided in 1934 for corruption, as imprisoned mobsters were caught running drugs via carrier pigeon, among other iniquities. On the southernmost tip lies the castle-like smallpox hospital built in 1856, now surrounded by overgrown weeds and filled with debris. And at the opposite end there's the Octagon Tower, a remnant of the New York Lunatic Asylum, as well as a 50-foot Gothic-style lighthouse built by convicts in 1872.

From the lighthouse park one can see Wards and Randalls islands. Wards is accessible by a mint-green footbridge over the East River (offering a view of Mill Rock Island, a vacant eight-and-a-half-acre spot used by the army to make and test explosives) and is home to a Triborough Bridge construction site, an ivy-clad brick homeless shelter, and the Manhattan Psychiatric Center. Since 1992 on Randalls, high school sports teams have played soccer and football on fields built over an 1843 burial ground for the city's disadvantaged, and adjacent to the Fire Department Training Academy, which puts out fires staged in fake buildings in its parking lot.

In 1869 the city stopped using Randalls as a "potter's field" and instead ferried over 500,000 bodies from City Island to Hart Island in the ensuing decades. Hart, originally named for its heart shape, has a former Civil War training ground, almshouse, mental hospital, and traffic school. In addition to still housing much of the city's unknown dead, it was also the site of a tragic teenage boating accident in 2003.

City Island, meanwhile, with its perpetual smell of fish and quaint squat cottages, is eerie only in its likeness to a generic beach town. But one can take the bus from City to Hunter and Twin islands (connected to the Bronx via a landfill—now Orchard Beach). On Hunter you can walk down "Carriage Road," the trail where island owner John Hunter's wife hit her head against a post and became a lifelong invalid. On Twin's trails you will have to brave wild overgrowth and swat bugs in the marshland, though the Parks Department urges you to admire its sprawling variety of trees and birds.

Jails from Hart and Roosevelt were both moved to Rikers Island in the 1930s and '40s. Made with dirt from the Lexington Avenue subway, it was a garbage dump before housing New York's prison complex. Visible from Rikers is North Brother Island, the creepiest of islands, used to contain various contagious diseases and to rehabilitate hardcore drug users. Now inaccessible, it was once home to the infamous "Typhoid Mary," a stubborn Irish house cook who single-handedly infected 25 people, though she showed no signs of the disease herself. This island also bore witness to one of the worst maritime disasters in New York history. In 1904 the steamboat General Slocum caught fire and collapsed on the shore of North Brother, dragging 1,021 German churchgoers to their deaths. The island now contains one ravaged lighthouse, which used to guide boats through Hell's Gate (an appropriate mispronunciation of the original Dutch hellegat meaning "beautiful pass"), whose waters are so powerful as to deter further development and most visitors.

Such quarantine islands also dotted the waters south of Manhattan, especially once Ellis Island became the immigrant "gateway to America" (previously it had been the site of pirate executions). Today it shows off photos of immigrant deformities and hocks immigrant bobbleheads in a French Renaissance building whose interior smacks of a decrepit high school. The approximately 12 million people who entered New York through Ellis Island were frequently disease-ridden, and a 1907 landfill turned contagious disease hospital on the island was not room enough. In the 1860s, the islands of Swinburne and Hawthorne were created from dredged sand for quarantine and medical observation respectively (though the latter once also harbored infected parrots and much later, porn films).

Although Swinburne and Hawthorne escaped Staten Island's 1916 "Garbage War" and anti-garbage activist Edward Doyle prevented nearby Prall's Island from becoming a dump, garbage was sent to Lake's Island in Fresh Kills. An island like Jamaica Bay's Barren Island, however, was proud of its garbage, and boasted of receiving 1,256 dead horses in a single day for fertilizer. Today you can walk around Barren's "Dead Horse Bay" and even camp out, although the loot Pirate Gibbs allegedly buried there has since washed to sea.

The mystique surrounding these islands has encouraged the city to use them to boost tourism. Governors Island is proud of its "Castle Williams," a fort so effective in its circular design that it intimidated attackers during the War of 1812. It then became a prison for P.O.W.s and later a Halloween haunted house for the children of the Coast Guard. The city is still puzzling over what to put in its former "killing field" and dry moat, now empty save for Canadian geese. Coney Island, on the other hand, became a natural pleasure ground, after storms fused three disparate islands into one (and once it was connected to Brooklyn in 1918). Some of the island's freak show displays have included premature infants and lion corpses.

Then there are islands considered so useless they are worse than overlooked. The Bronx and Queens both keep refusing to identify South Brother Island as their own. Two islands east of Hart are deemed East and South Nonations because both the Dutch and the British rejected them. Blundering and distracted, the city has neglected many of its islands, but these nevertheless remain primed for further reckless exploration and wild scheming.


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