Adventure: North Brother Island

I have a new adventure planned.

I am going to sail my ass on a makeshift raft to North Brother Island.

What is North Brother Island? Good question.

I was playing around with Google Earth and was checking out Riker’s Island Penitentiary in detail. You can see the recreation yards and guard towers and all kinds of cool shit. In my mind I always pictured Riker’s to be one massive fortress. This is not the case. It’s a huge multi-facility compound. I didn’t know that.

Anyway, as I swung my aerial view back towards the city I came across a full blown island that I had never heard of. North Brother Island.

North Brother Island is between Riker’s Island and The Bronx sitting in the East River, NYC. It’s a thirteen acre island in the middle of the East River, and lots of New Yorkers don’t even know it exists. There is a reason for that.

North Brother Island is abandoned and off-limits to the public. As such, one might imagine that it has a fascinating history. One would be right. From around 1880 until 1960 the island was home to several hospitals which warranted the quarantining of its patients. Epidemic diseases, mental patients, drug addicts. In 1960 the island was home to what was supposed to be a cutting edge treatment facility for teenage drug addicts. However, widespread staff corruption caused withdrawal of funding and the program closed, as did the island. Aside from the occasional Riker’s Island escapee who uses the island as a temporary haven after a long swim, North Brother Island has been completely abandoned ever since.

I am going to fucking go there.

I’ve done a little research(see: I’ve become completely obsessed) and apparently there are all kinds of cool remnants lying around the ruins of the hospital units. Beds, old medical instruments, solitary cells, padded rooms, all kinds of awesome shit.

I am so fucking jazzed about this.

Rafts will be built. Intel will be gathered. Risks will be taken.

Being that this adventure is absurdly dangerous, I will be recruiting a few more adventurers to come along. The usual adventure crew will be invited–Warren, Sam & Mat. I also invited Tynan of BetterThanYourBoyfriend to jet out from Austin if he’s interested, as I appreciate his taste for adventure.

It’s getting cold, so this may have to wait until spring. We’ll see.

Other interesting things about North Brother Island:

  • A major nautical disaster occured in the East River in 1904 when a ship of daytrippers burned. Over 1,000 of the 1,300 passengers on board were killed. Their bodies washed up on the shore of North Brother Island, as did the ship. Photos and accounts of this are easily accessible with a google search.
  • “Typhoid Mary” spent her last years quarantined in a private cottage on North Brother Island.
  • Since it’s abandonment over 45 years ago, the island and ruins are overgrown with vegetation/vines/ivy and it has become a sanctuary for rare birds.
I am going to North Brother Island.
Fuck, I just might spend the night.

Seriously, how nuts would it be to spend the night in “Typhoid Mary’s” old private cottage?

50 Responses

  1. I obviously accept the invitation.

  2. If I lived closer I would just lend you one of our rafts…and of course come along to provide you daily meals and tuck you into your sleeping bags while singing sweet lullabies…
    We’ve had our hand at a few flotation devices…let me know if I can help.


  3. Whatever you do, we want photos and descriptions, please. How cool is that?!

  4. Amber: I will most certainly be in touch.

    Sister Mary Lisa: Goes without saying. There will be plenty of pictures… if the camera doesn’t get wet.

  5. Well…that sounds fun as hell.If you need help building a raft…I’ve got skills.

  6. I’m in.

  7. this is an awesome idea. bring cameras.

  8. dude the waters in the east river are some of the most dangerous in the northeast. a raft will not cut it and if you tip over you are dead out there.

  9. I don’t even know you and I’d come along. I’ll bring the booze.

  10. Can I come? I’ll bring snacks!

  11. I’m with Anonymous.

    Do a little research on Rikers prison breaks and I think you’ll see what (s)he’s talking about. Plus, if you don’t actually end up capsizing and dying, there’s a pretty good chance the NYPD will show up and haul your ass in front of a fairly unamused judge who is likely to try to charge you for the rescue. Stuff like that…

  12. you’re hot. shame about that relationship of yours…

  13. A big fuck you to both anonymous’s. I swim in the East River morning and then pour some of it over my cereal.

    Don’t naysay our fun.

  14. zelda,

    Thanks, yo.

  15. That is absolutely fascinating, and I want to go.

    I, too, have been recently intrigued by the strange off-limits Islands in the waters around New York (Hart Island has the City’s Potter’s Field and 1850s army buildings…)

  16. you might be end up visiting rikers too!

  17. take pictures! have fun with the typhoid

  18. Holy craaaap, I went and googled more info about this place after reading your post… and I want to go now.
    But how the hell are you going to make it over there? Like one of the other posters mentioned, the river has some crazy currents going on. I’d love to see you pull this off.
    Good luck!

  19. Anonymouses always pee in my cereal too. If you canoe out there, will you pull me on an inflatable tube?

  20. I’ve always wanted to raft over to Mill Rock Park. You can see the island from path along the East River at 92nd Street… if it wasn’t the East River, you could swim to it.

  21. We’re totally staying overnight… may as well get the most mileage out of the adventure as possible. I’m supposed to go up to NY to do a pickup talk for the guys there, so we’ll coordinate…


  22. Tynan,

    Perfect, lemme know.

    This is going to be awesome.

  23. Can I pitch this to one of the Networks?

    You might be able to get funding.

    • If you go there, watch-out for poisonous spiders, snakes, insects. its not a place for flip flops….high leather boots only. and there’s no way you can sleep in a sleeping bag ON THE GRASS! nightime snakes, rats or whatever, some poisonous….you’re taking a chance.

  24. That’s Potters field. The inmates do the burials.

  25. you really need to check the currents to get there. i read a book from some urban explorers a while ago and they went there. said it had incredibly dangerous currents and they actually eventually had to get the coast guard involved to get them out there and back. just an fyi.

  26. Doesn’t it go without saying that you will be researching the velocity of the current, tides, flood, ebb and no doubt wind patterns along the river with the time of year you plan to set off…

    …you may be crazy, butcha aint no ignoramus!


  27. Yes, that definitely goes without saying.

    The currents are the most dangerous part of the trip.

    I have no intention of being billed for a Coast Guard rescue. I imagine that they are not cheap.

  28. I don’t know, I’ve always been partial to South Brother Island myself.

    Amazing story, though. I can’t believe one disaster wiped out an entire neighborhood in New York. Little did I know I lived in “Little Germany.”

  29. If the people in this article made it to North Brother Island, so can you. Note that they left at night and got there before daybreak to avoid being spotted:

    see also the main page of Tide and Current Taxi…

    Try a boat though, not a raft.

  30. anonymous,

    I have already been in touch with the person that article is about. She is very friendly and is helping us figure out the tides and currents.

    I’m five steps ahead of you, pal. What do you take me for?

  31. Dude, can I come too? I’ll bring my sense of adventure and my drinking boots. Zelda’s on target: relationships are certainly a shame…

  32. You are an idiot. The people who make it to the islands in the East/Hudson Rivers are professionals or have a boatload of experience. The currents in NYC are outrageous, normal boats have a hard time, a raft, no chance.

    Once again, YOU ARE AN IDIOT.

  33. I’m in the Coast Guard and I’m also stationed in New York. Trust me, you try to go to North Brother Island and we will, repeat and full emphasis on the word “will,” not only see you, but we’ll have assets out there (both Coast Guard and NYPD) that’ll arrest you. Ever heard of FLIR? Forward looking infrared? That’s one of our toys…get on that island and I guarantee you that you’ll have nowhere to hang out or hide. Not saying any of this to be a prick, just telling you the truth and trying to save you some heartburn on down the road.

  34. Hey. Me and a couple of freinds are planning the same thing. We got kayaks and canoes and are unexperienced. We also want to go in spring in 2007. Could you email me at
    I wanna talk about planning and what precautions should be taken. Thanks

  35. Dammit. I’m like a whole year late for this awesome trip. Anyone still interested in going? This sounds like a great place to explore. I too saw the island when i was using google earth and I’d really like to get over there. Last comment was in 2007 and its now 2008… hmm, I hope someone out there is still up for it. If anyone has any info e-mail me at

  36. you’re all gonna drown – down among the dead men


  37. Dont try it guys if the waters dont kill ya (since a tiny rubber boat or snorkle and fins is the only thing that will keep you off modern RADAR) the Coast Guard or Department of Homeland Securiety will !
    Its in Laguarda Airport paths, Rikers Island and an Oil storage in the Bronx) the sea cops and helicopters come at you in all directions.

    -Joe Manhasset NY

  38. ryan did you ever make the trip? I’m interested in going myself. let me know if you did or if you didn’t please let me know what stopped you from doing it. i have lots of money and power and could more then likely make it happen.

  39. Did this ever happen? I’d love to come! I’m all about adventure. Been scaling under construction skyscrapers since I was a kid…

  40. What’s the story with this trip? did any one go? Let me know.

  41. North Brother Island was also used as Student housing in the 1940’s. My Dad was a student and I lived there from late 1947 through mid 1949. Even though I left at age 4 1/2, I have many fond memories of this Island. I’d love to go back too, but would not take the risk without proper authorization. It was an intresting place for a young boy to live as there was a constant stream of airplanes (remember Constellations?) and lots of different types of watercraft to observe. Also there was the Ferry that would occasionally take me to the mainland.

    • hi martin,
      i lived on north brother island for two or three years from late 1947 (when i was born) till ’49 or ’50 while my father was going to julliard. our parents must have known each other. i remember going back and forth on the ferry and the groups of mothers sitting on benches watching us kids play in the playground by the water. i think i was very friendly with a boy named chipper mattia.

      • Thanks for the reply. I also had one older sister and one younger brother at the time. We moved to Woodside for a year and then on to Alabama. The names don’t ring a bell, but considering the time that has passed, that is probably to be expected.

        As I recall, there was a pretty good size group of kids that played around the pavillion mostly in areas where we probably should not have been.

        Maybe others who were with us will see this and share their memories.

  42. I am in Colorado and that was exactly the same way I found out about this place, too. For some reason I am just fascinated with it!! Can you imagine the ghosts and spirits that are there? OH DEAR what an experience you are going to have!!

    • I have a feeling they never quite got there. I think the Coast Guard guy nailed it…they are probably watching with infrared, motion sensors or both.

      I doubt the currents would make it all that hard if you planned ahead. But your IR signature is going to be visible for miles. Probably the best way to go is call around the parks dept and beg/plead/wheedle and cajole for an escorted tour. I bet you can get one eventually when it is not nesting season.

  43. @A.C.T.I.O.N: It’s great to hear about who you are contributing the health of the island. Very cool!

    Thanks for letting me know.

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