Islands Created for Quarantines – The New York Times
Anyone who has looked askance at a coughing neighbor or a maskless jogger in recent weeks understands how anxiety and suspicion can take hold when a virulent infectious disease assaults a crowded city.
In New York, the ugly apogee of disease-related Nimby-ism came in September of 1858, when a well-organized mob of Staten Island residents, inflamed by xenophobia and fear of deadly yellow fever, stormed a 30-acre quarantine hospital in the area now known as St. George and set the place ablaze.
In the aftermath of this violence, which stemmed from the location of an infectious-disease facility within a population center, The New York Times noted with grim irony that “the great problem of the age seems to be, to establish a Quarantine without having it located anywhere.”
Though finding such a paradoxical site may seem impossible, public health officials found a creative way to pull it off: they built a quarantine on a somewhere that hadn’t previously existed anywhere.
To be specific, after a few years during which a floating hospital was used to isolate people suspected of carrying communicable diseases, in the early 1870s the federal government constructed two artificial islands in the city’s Lower Bay as a home for a new quarantine station serving the Port of New York.
Hoffman Island, at 11 acres the larger of the two, was built between Coney Island and Staten Island’s South Beach, south of the slender waterway known as the Narrows; it was equipped with three brick buildings and later expanded. Four-acre Dix Island, a wind-whipped speck of land, was created about three-quarters of a mile farther south and outfitted with a row of long white hospital wards. It was later renamed Swinburne Island.
An 1879 report of the New York State Commissioners of Quarantine described the inspection process for arriving ships.
Three and a half miles below Swinburne, the Lower Bay’s “boarding officer” was stationed on an anchored vessel called the Illinois. All ships from the West Indies, South America or Africa’s west coast — regions known for infectious diseases — were compelled to drop anchor there.
The boarding officer would then visit the ship on a small boat. If he discovered anyone onboard suffering from cholera or yellow fever, a quarantine steamer was summoned and the sufferers were lowered into it — strapped into special chairs if the weather was surly — and ferried to Swinburne Island for treatment and isolation.
During the cholera scare of the 1880s, “the lower bay was crowded with ocean liners in quarantine,” The Times reported, with infected migrants treated on Swinburne while their fellow travelers were quarantined on Hoffman for observation.
In 1890, as European emigration surged, the huddled masses examined by New York’s quarantine service included 370,000 steerage passengers. More than 1,500 were removed from eight steamships and transferred to Hoffman.
On Staten Island proper, the quarantine’s headquarters was located on the shoreline above the Narrows in the area now known as Rosebank. The picturesque complex, which housed no patients, included the homes of the health officer and two deputies.
By 1892, when a reporter from Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly visited, a two-story telegraph office and quarantine boathouse sat by an L-shaped dock.
In a small tower, a telegraph operator received reports from Fire Island and Sandy Hook on approaching ships. As a vessel drew near, the operator poked his telescope out one of several narrow second-floor windows to confirm the ship’s name and other details.
Down below, a bell on a forked pole was tolled, summoning, from one of the houses on the hill, a blue-uniformed doctor who was to be transported by tugboat to examine the vessel’s travelers.
Those suffering from smallpox were sent to North Brother Island, on Long Island Sound. Fellow travelers who had not been vaccinated received inoculations and were sent to Hoffman for observation, where they remained for as long as two weeks.
Hoffman’s New Administration Building contained a big kitchen and dining room, with the bottom five feet or so of the interior walls lined with white enameled bricks to allow for easy cleaning. The building also housed the disinfecting chamber, which was largely made of iron. Here were arrayed sliding frames, each containing three wire baskets, into which inmates’ clothes were placed.
According to Frank Leslie’s magazine, the room contained 9,000 feet of coiled piping, from which “superheated steam is let in under high pressure.”
By the early 1890s, Swinburne’s facilities had been expanded to include 10 airy, pitched-roof hospital wards made of wood, where cholera and yellow-fever patients were treated. At the end of one of the rows of wards stood the brick mortuary and crematorium buildings, the latter distinguished by its bleak, telltale chimney.
On Staten Island, just up the road from quarantine headquarters, stood Clear Comfort, the Victorian Gothic home of Alice Austen, one of the first women photographers in America to work outside a studio. From the doorway of her house, which today is a museum, Austen could see and photograph steamships anchored in quarantine.
In the early 1890s, she was commissioned by her neighbor, Dr. Alvah H. Doty, the quarantine’s health officer, to document conditions on Swinburne and Hoffman Islands.
“For a Victorian woman, she was breaking all the rules, taking more than 50 pounds of photographic equipment with her,” said Victoria Munro, executive director of the Alice Austen House. “It was very brave for anyone, but especially a young woman to do this at that time.”
Fascinated by both technology and immigrants, Austen continued to photograph the quarantine islands for more than a decade after her one-year commission ended, compiling a vivid record of the sanitation procedures and lives of the patients and workers.
Her oeuvre includes an image of a mattress decontamination chamber, which was displayed last year in a Museum of the City of New York exhibit called “Germ City.” Another Austen photograph depicts forlorn immigrants penned behind a fence on Hoffman Island.
“Obviously they had endured terribly harsh conditions in their own countries, and then survived the difficult trip across the sea,” Ms. Munro said. “Whether they managed to survive quarantine was another story.”
For about a year beginning in 1917, Hoffman served as a military hospital, its remoteness preventing soldiers from spreading a very specific variety of wartime ailment. “Accessible only by boat,” a U.S. Army surgeon general’s report observed, “this island made an admirable location for the treatment of venereal diseases.”
By the 1920s, the quarantine islands had been decommissioned, after immigration was curtailed first by World War I and then by the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924.
During World War II, Hoffman was home to a training school for merchant seamen, equipped, according to Popular Mechanics magazine, with “docks, slips, towers, masts, guns, cargo booms, offices, school buildings and red brick barracks.” The island also housed an anchorage for an anti-submarine net that extended across the entrance to New York Harbor.
Both Hoffman and Swinburne became part of the National Park Service in 1972, but they are off-limits to the public. Paradoxically, then, though the islands belong to the Gateway National Recreation Area, the only recreation permitted is practiced by visitors of the feathered and aquatic persuasions.
Hoffman is now fringed by the skeletons of derelict docks, its overgrown interior marked by the foundations of razed buildings. On Swinburne, ruins of five sizable structures can be seen, including a brick chimney that probably belonged to the crematorium.
Hoffman is a nesting site for five species of long-legged wading birds, according to George Frame, a park service biologist. And both islands are frequented by corpulent, bewhiskered seals, who bask seasonally on their rocky shores, happily disregarding all governmental urgings to maintain social distancing.