PHOTOS: North Brother Island ‘leper colony’

Urban remains on North Brother Island.

Photographer Ian Ference, 30, of Crown Heights has spent the last five years documenting a little-known island off the Bronx, North Brother Island.

Once home to a New York City quarantine hospital built in 1885, the island housed patients sick with smallpox, typhoid, scarlet fever and leprosy. Today, dilapidated medical offices, dormitories and abandoned schools for the ill remain, Ference said.

“There’s been very little of any human interaction on the island for the last 50 years,” Ference said. “It is utterly astounding.”

The island’s most famous patient was “Typhoid Mary,” an Irish immigrant who unwittingly spread the deadly fever to as many as 53 others before she was forcibly isolated by public health authorities against her will.

Ference has made 15 trips to the island, which is managed by the city’s Parks Department, since he was first granted access in 2008.

“The island is spitting distance from the shore,” Ference said of the ten-minute boat ride he takes to North Brother. However, it’s no joy ride. Boats must traverse “The Hell Gate,” a narrow strait in the East River between Queens and the Bronx where the island is located. “The water is quite treacherous,” Ference said. “There are crazy tides that will rip a boat downstream.”

Ference photographs the island for eight hours at a time, careful not to disrupt the natural decay.  

“It’s virtually untouched,” Ference said.”The roads are still there, albeit buried under some measure of dirt and leaves.”

Ference has found everything from antiquated medical equipment to radioactive barium, which he says may have been used to treat patients.

The self-proclaimed “guerilla preservationist” will return to the island in the coming weeks before it is closed off on March 17th, when the island will be cordoned off until September as a protected bird sanctuary.


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