In Lower New York Bay, between Sea Gate and Staten Island, lie two tiny islands, easily seen from the foot of the Verrazano Bridge: Hoffman and Swinburne, a couple of miniature Governor’s Islands at the entrance to the Narrows. But both were manmade, built from landfill in the 1870s and covered in brick buildings to house quarantined immigrants arriving with contagious diseases into the Port of New York.
I recently went out on a seal-watching boat ride with American Princess Cruises, whose boat docks just over the Marine Parkway Bridge, across from Fort Tilden, on the bayside. And while I enjoyed spotting the puppy-dog faces of the harbor seals who use the islands’ rocky shores to sun themselves — whose populations in the Long Island area have rebounded since the late 20th century, after Nixon outlawed hunting them, returning to the city ca. 2001 — I was more interested in getting up close to the islands themselves, whose distant wildernesses have fascinated me since I was a kid, riding in the backseat on drives down the Belt Parkway toward Caesar’s Bay and beyond. (The seal-watching only lasts from March to April; for the spring season, APC heads dolphin- and whale-watching trips, which presumably go the other way, out toward the Atlantic.)
We didn’t get close to Hoffman, just Swinburne, but the difference between them is a matter of scale: the former is roughly 10 acres, the latter three. (John Hoffman was then the mayor, later a New York governor; Dr. John Swinburne was the health officer.) The buildings that once dominated them are mostly gone, many long decayed into ruin. And in just the last few years it’s gotten worse—recent photos on blogs show a few more buildings and structural remains on Swinburne than are standing today. Perhaps it was a consequence of Superstorm Sandy?
You could imagine the island’s having been battered. On a warm and sunny day in April, it was cold alongside its shore, like the temperature had dropped 10, maybe 20 degrees. With the wind whipping, you could feel how forsaken the patients who once inhabited these islands must have felt, particularly without a stunning view of the Verrazano Bridge to suggest a link to humanity, thriving ashore (though at least there would have been more boats).
A Harper’s Weekly article from 1879, however, describes Swinburne as salubrious:
When the Boarding Officer from the Illinois finds any yellow fever or cholera patients on the incoming vessels, a signal is set, and one of the steamers belonging to the quarantine service comes and bears away the sufferers to Swinburne Island. Immediately upon reaching there they are stripped of their clothing, which is at once burned in a furnace constructed for that purpose, and they are placed in the sick wards. If recovering, the patients are removed across to the convalescent wards. They are then permitted to take daily exercise on the walk surrounding the wards, or to recline by the hour upon the grass-plots in front of the Superintendent’s residence, where they are protected from the sun’s rays by a heavy canvas. This change to outdoor life rapidly hastens their recovery, and, in fact, the whole surroundings of the hospital are so conducive to health, that nearly all the patients who are brought here in time are restored, and yellow fever has no terrors whatever for the persons and employés (sic)upon the island, of whom but one has ever contracted it. When sufficiently well, the convalescents are taken to Brooklyn or rejoin their vessels. In case of death, the bodies are placed in plain coffins and carried in small boats across the bay to the burying ground at Seguine’s Point [on the South Shore of Staten Island].
The islands were built for $400,000 (in 1866 dollars), and sold to the Federal Government in 1921 for almost $1.4 million (which probably evens out, very roughly, after inflation; the government’s handy inflation calculator only goes back to 1913). Because of the Quota Law, which sharply curbed the number of immigrants arriving in the U.S., and improvements in quarantine protocol, the islands went unused, and by 1937 the feds had offered to give them back to the city, according to a Times article, though this was delayed when WWII broke out and the islands were used for training.
For the last half of the 20th century, politicians pitched copious plans for the islands: Mayor LaGuardia imagined summer camps for kids; Robert Moses and Bernard Baruch imagined a giant park. But instead the buildings were razed, the islands lay fallow, and eventually they came under control of the National Park Service. Today, they’re bird sanctuaries, strongly evoking Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, and closed to the public.
Still, if you have a boat, you can get up pretty close—close enough at least to scare the seals back into the water.
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