On That Spooky New York Leper Colony Everyone Is Talking About

You've probably seen it on a trip to New York, but you didn't know that North Brother Island was once home to an infectious disease clinic.

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As part of its two-week-long experiment to generate as much traffic as possible, Gawker has published posts about donkey semen, Zooey Deschanel, Gwyneth Paltrow and lipstick lesbians, Zooey Deschanel, the time at which the Super Bowl will air this coming weekend (appropriately placed under the category "Traffic Whore"), and Zooey Deschanel. Earlier this afternoon, as a quick throwaway, Leah Beckmann put up a post entitled "New York's Abandoned Leper Colony Is the Spookiest." (And it is.) The post was just a short paragraph, two sentences long, and a handful of photographs taken by a self-described "guerrilla preservationist."

Smart move. The post, at the time of this writing, has already been viewed about 29,000 times. And, when Gawker's Brian Moylan wrote about the same "leper colony" almost exactly a year ago, his also-short post was viewed more than 150,000 times.

Publishing big, engaging photos, especially if they take viewers to a place they'll probably never get the chance to visit -- and getting out of the way quickly, with just minimal commentary or introduction -- is as close to a guaranteed hit on the Internet as it gets. (I know something about this, having written successful -- in terms of traffic, anyway -- posts that brought readers to the wreckage of the Titanic, into the bedroom of their favorite faceless bloggers, and inside a nuclear reactor.)

But some places require a bit more than just photos. A leper colony in New York? Quarantine zone? Crumbling walls? Ghosts? Don't you want to know more?

Having served as the editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, a compendium of the world's wonders, curiosities, and esoterica, before taking over what would become The Atlantic's Health channel, I know a thing or two about North Brother Island. Indeed, I've edited a short piece about it before. (Aside from the leper colony, North Brother Island is known as the site where the General Slocum steamship went up in flames with more than 1,000 people on board in 1905. For nearly 100 years, until the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, it was the worst loss of life in New York's history.)

* * *

Plopped down in the East River between Riker's Island and the Bronx, North Brother Island is a 13-acre piece of land that has never been completely developed. The only thing that was ever built there, unlike the larger Roosevelt Island nearby, was Riverside Hospital. Even though millions can see it from their windows or their commutes every day, few know about its history. And that's because few have ever set foot on it. Today, the island is a protected bird sanctuary, with a variety of species, including the two-foot-long Black-crowned Night Heron, calling it home. The birds roost on the open brick windows, in the frames of old beds, and on the large rafters running through what were once communal feeding spaces, green shoots breaking through the cement beneath them.

The birds are special. So special, in fact, that the only people allowed on the island are a handful of bird experts who visit to study them, the occasional film crew (North Brother Island was featured in a History Channel special, Life After People, that showed what would happen to buildings if abandoned for 45 years), and armed coastguards who circle the waters of the island to make sure looters and/or curious New Yorkers don't break through the quarantine zone.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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