Why North Brother Island Is New York’s Best Kept Secret

Published July 22, 2021
Updated October 17, 2021

North Brother Island is now like the world's other abandoned locales: overrun with lush trees, ivy, and tall grasses, a mere shadow of its former self.

As with many forgotten places, few people — even New York locals — know that North Brother Island exists. While the island was once home to the famed Typhoid Mary, it has since been overtaken by Mother Nature’s gentle yet unyielding hand.

North Brother Island

A dot on the East River that’s nestled between the Bronx and Rikers Island, North Brother Island is now like the world’s other abandoned locales: overrun with lush trees, ivy, and tall grasses, a mere shadow of its former self.

New York City

Source: Smithsonian

Abandoned Island In New York City

Although North Brother Island was inhabited for less than a century, it has a rich history as the home to various hospitals and facilities. In 1885, Riverside Hospital was constructed on the island as a place to treat smallpox patients and keep them from the general public.

Since North Brother Island is only accessible via boat, it was an ideal location for quarantining sick individuals, as the East River kept outsiders at bay.

Abandoned Church in New York

Source: Smithsonian

Abandoned Brick Buildings

Source: Slate

[Nurse Quarters on Brother Island

Typhoid Mary (aka Mary Mallon), who infected more than 50 people with typhoid fever, was one of the hospital’s most infamous residents. Mallon was one of the first “healthy carriers” of the virus, and she fought hard to maintain her freedom, despite infecting numerous individuals in the process.

She was eventually forced to live on North Brother Island quarantined, where she had a small bungalow that was separate from the main hospital building, and where she died.

Typhoid Mary

Abandoned Books

Source: Smithsonian

Eventually, the Riverside Hospital closed, and in the 1940s, North Brother Island became a home for war veterans and their families. Over the next decade, these families slowly trickled out, moving to homes that were more conveniently located in New York. After the mass exodus, the island became a rehabilitation center for heroin addicts. By 1963, the 20-acre island was uninhabited.

North Brother Island in The Winter

Source: Slate

In May 2014, photographer Christopher Payne ventured out to the island to document North Brother Island in a collection of stunning photographs.

Since the island has been off-limits to the public — it’s considered a safety hazard, as well as heron preserve — Payne has been one of just a few people able to capture the eerily beautiful merging of architecture and nature. Published in a book titled North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City, Payne’s photographs are one of the only visuals we have of the Island in its current state.

Abandoned Morgue

Source: Smithsonian

Abandoned North Brother Island

After you’ve explored North Brother Island, learn about its most famous resident, Typhoid Mary. Then see another little-known New York City island: Rat Island.

Kiri Picone
Bay Area transplant Kiri Picone is a writer and marketer who loves bizarre news and the color purple.