Riverside Hospital (North Brother Island)

Located in Bronx, NY US

  • Built:1885
  • Opened:1885
  • Age:129 years
  • Closed:1963
  • Demo / Renovated:N/A
  • Decaying for:51 years
  • Last Known Status:Abandoned

"The Brothers," as the islands are often called, are located in the East River, between Queens and the Bronx, NYC. They were claimed in 1614 and dubbed "duo De Gesellen" (or "The Companions"), and were left unoccupied for quite some time due to the strong and dangerous currents surrounding them. South Brother Island is the smaller of the two, and was only home to a private summer home for a few years until it burned down in 1909; it was purchased by Hampton Scows for $10.00 in 1979 and subsequently sold to the City of New York in 2007 (for around $2 million) to be preserved as a wildlife sanctuary. North Brother was purchased by the town of Morrisania (located in the Bronx) in 1871, and was home to a tuberculosis hospital built by the Sisters of Charity. The hospital was closed when New York City acquired the island in 1885 to build a new hospital for the treatment of infectious diseases. The diseases that were treated here varied as new germs invaded the city - they included smallpox, typhoid, tuberculosis, measles, diphtheria, scarlet fever, and polio. Many patients from the Renwick Smallpox Hospital on Roosevelt Island were relocated to North Brother once the new facility was built. A ferry located at 132nd Street in the Bronx transported staff, patients, and supplies to the island, yet it remained very isolated - there were no telephone or telegraph lines installed until as late as 1894. There were also dangers with transporting stricken patients in the winter, and much criticism was voiced after a six month old baby infected with measles perished en route to the island. During the turn of the century, overcrowding was a major issue when an outbreak occurred; everyday medical instruments were in short supply and were not cleaned or sterilized properly between the frequent uses. Tents were used when no more beds could fit in the pavilions; the cloth enclosures were precariously heated with wood burning stoves during the harsh New York winters, and a few eventually wound up in flames. The hospital had about 1,200 people in quarantine during a 1892 typhus outbreak.

Bodies of General Slocum passengers line the shores of North Brother Island, 1904

Tragedy struck off the shores of the island on June 15, 1904, when the passenger ship General Slocum caught fire. Unmaintained fire hoses disintegrated in people's hands when they tried to use them, and the lifeboats were either tied down or painted onto the deck. The life preservers were made of a cheap granulated cork that were brought up to meet minimum weight requirements by placing iron bars inside, and crumbled away through holes in the tattered fabric. The captain continued his course into the wind instead of running the ship aground (his reasons being to avoid spreading the fire to the hospital buildings and oil tank), which fanned the flames even higher. Many passengers who jumped were taken to the bottom of the river due to the heavy garments worn at the time, and those who stayed aboard were consumed by flames or mangled by the still-turning paddle. The Slocum was eventually beached at North Brother, where the living had been pulled from the water by firemen and the staff at Riverside, and the dead were lined up along the shoreline. An estimated 1,021 people perished, with only 321 survivors.

The most infamous patient that resided at Riverside might be Mary Mallon, also known as "Typhoid Mary." Mary was a carrier of typhoid, which means she had the disease but there were no symptoms or side effects, yet she could pass it to others. She worked as a cook at various places in Manhattan and Long Island between 1900 and 1907, where she transmitted the infection to a number of people. As they got sick or died she would find employment elsewhere, and she was soon questioned by health officials. Her response was that she did not believe she had the disease, and adamantly refused to cooperate. In 1907 Mary was taken into custody by police officers, and The Health Department gave her an ultimatum - either have her gall bladder removed (where typhoid carrier germs lived), or be exiled to North Brother Island. She refused the surgical operation, which was risky and unpredictable at the time, and was placed at the hospital for three years. Mallon resided in a bungalow, away from the main hospital buildings, and lived alone except for a dog as a companion.

Mary Mallon's Cottage at Riverside Hospital

After a lengthy court battle, where Mary described her life akin to a prisoner's, she was released from the hospital in 1910. She immediately returned to work as a cook under the pseudonym of "Mrs. Brown" at Sloane Maternity Hospital. An outbreak of typhoid that consisted of 25 separate cases was eventually traced back to the cook, and officials identified her as Mary Mallon. She was sent back to North Brother in 1915 to live the rest of her life there. She began working at the hospital in 1918, becoming a nurse and finally a laboratory assistant. Mary suffered a stroke in 1933, and remained bedridden at Riverside until she died on November 11, 1938. She had infected a total of 47 people, 3 of whom had died from the disease.

In 1943 a large tuberculosis pavilion was constructed on the island, but was never used for that purpose (supposedly due to the lack of staff personnel required to operate it). The passing of the GI Bill resulted in the shortage of housing for the city's colleges, and the building was used as a dormitory while the island was leased to the state. College students were transported to and from the island via the E 134th Street Ferry Terminal, by ferry boats Mott Haven and Greenwich Village.

These same ferries were also used for adolescents being treated for drug abuse when the city took control of the island once again in 1952 and planned its final use as a rehab center for serious cases of addiction. The idea was to get adolescents far away from the overcrowded jails and hospitals filled with time-hardened criminals, with a maximum stay of six months. The TB pavilion was converted to treat 100 boys and 50 girls, placed there by their parents or the court system. New admissions were bathed and searched for drugs, then placed in observation wards as they went through withdrawal "Cold Turkey." If the symptoms were too severe, they were tapered off the drug. The program turned out to be rife with corruption by the 1960s, and Riverside Hospital closed in 1963, leaving the entire island abandoned. It is currently off-limits to the public and patrolled often due to the proximity of a nearby prison complex on Rikers Island, as well as joining the purpose of its brethren as a bird sanctuary.

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