New York City seems like the center of the world—so much so that its geography can seem irrelevant when you’re on a visit. But when you zoom out on the map, you might begin to notice the other land masses surrounding Manhattan, from Roosevelt Island to Staten Island to Governors Island. Then an old grade-school term just might come back to you: archipelago. New York City is indeed part of an archipelago, or chain of islands, at the edge of New York state. Much has been made of Liberty Island (where Lady Liberty lives) and Coney Island (not an island but a peninsula). But you’ve probably never heard of South Brother Island or Mill Rock. Read on, and you’ll learn a little about the history of these smaller islands and how you can visit them today!
City Island, off the coast of the North Bronx, is home to around 4,000 residents. This beachfront community is a tiny enclave on a 1.5-mile-long-island. The beaches are private, but it’s worth a trip for the New England-esque community and some of the best seafood in the area, like Johnny’s Reef Restaurant on the southern tip. Travel via the Seaside Trolley, which is free on the first Friday of each month.
North Brother and South Brother
These East River islands were named de Gesellen (Dutch for “the Brethren”) in 1614, but the names later Anglicized by English settlers. North Brother Island was the site of a lazaretto (or hospital for quarantined patients). Its most famous patient was Mary Mallon, or “Typhoid Mary.” Mallon, a New York cook, was confined there for two separate terms and died on North Brother Island in 1938. The remains of the hospital remain partially intact, but only herons and egrets live on these 30 acres now. The 21-acre South Brother Island was bought by Colonel Jacob Ruppert in 1894. Ruppert, a brewer and former owner of the New York Yankees, built a summer house there, which was occupied until 1907 and burned down in 1909. A sand and gravel company bought South Brother for $10 in 1976. The City of New York purchased the island from this company in 2007 for $2 million. Neither island is open to the public.
Nearby North and South Brother is the 400-acre Rikers Island. You may know Rikers as the site of New York City’s largest prison—which is really 10 jails making up one larger complex. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in 2017 that Rikers would close within 10 years due to widespread prison violence. On a given day, Rikers houses around 10,000 inmates, most of whom are awaiting trial.
Randall’s Island lies off the shore of East Harlem, and you’ve probably seen it if you’ve ever crossed the Robert F. Kennedy-Triborough Bridge on your way to LaGuardia Airport. From afar, the island’s most distinctive feature is the bright-blue Icahn Stadium, a state-of-the-art track and field arena. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Randall’s housed smallpox patients, juvenile delinquents, Civil War veterans, and the mentally ill. After the Parks and Recreation department acquired the island in 1933, the island was joined with Wards Island to make it larger at 480 acres in total. At the former Downing Stadium (now the site of Icahn), Jesse Owens won the Olympic Trials in 1936, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt sitting in the crowd. After extensive rehabilitation, Randall’s Island has become a vibrant public park full of bike and walking tracks, a golf center, 20 tennis courts, and over 60 playing fields for other sports. So if you’re ever in the mood for a run or a game of soccer, head to Randall’s Island via the footbridge at East 103rd Street. There are also pedestrian walkways and car access via the Kennedy Bridge.
Once two separate islands named Great Mill Rock and Little Mill Rock, this island is located about 1,000 feet away from East 96th Street on the Upper East Side. William Hallet purchased the two close islands in 1664 from Native Americans. It was later used to store cannons during the War of 1812, then used to test and execute explosives by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A nearby outcropping called Flood Rock, which had frustrated ships in the East River for years, was demolished on October 10, 1885, in the largest planned explosion until the atomic bomb decades later. The remains of Flood Rock were used to fill in the gap between the two Mill Rock islands to make one larger island, about 8.6 acres in size. Now uncultivated and (dare we say) wild, Mill Rock Island is now under the jurisdiction of the NYC Parks Department and is not open to the public.
Roosevelt Island is the skinny land mass wedged between the Upper East Side and the shore of Queens. It is 787 feet wide at its widest point and 2 miles long. Like other New York islands, Roosevelt was once the site of a smallpox hospital, a laboratory, and an insane asylum (Nellie Bly and Charles Dickens both wrote about it). Some of the historical structures remain in whole or in part today, with a 1796 farmhouse called Blackwell House and an 1872 lighthouse at the northern tip of the island, which are both closed to the public. The island's visitor's center is located in an award-winning restored kiosk adjacent to the aerial tram. Mostly, Roosevelt is a residential area and makes for a pleasant walk or bike ride with fabulous views of the New York skyline. At the southern tip of the island you'll find the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, which is tree-lined and built on an expansive scale. The island is accessible via tram that connects to Manhattan at East 59th Street, or the F train.
Legally, Long Island is not considered an “island” as of a Supreme Court ruling in 1985, although it is surrounded by water on all sides. Another fun fact: two of New York’s boroughs, Queens and Brooklyn, lie at the western tip. But you have to get past those areas to feel like you’re really in Long Island, which is home to beachfront communities like the Hamptons, as well as vineyards and nature preserves and small towns. Aptly named, this island is the longest and largest in the continental U.S., at 118 miles wide and about 23 miles long. You can get there by car, Long Island Rail Road, or the Hampton Jitney.
Photo: Roey Yohai Photography
Ellis Island was once called Kioshk, or Gull Island, by Native Americans in the area and known for its nearby oyster beds. These 3.5 acres were later named for Samuel Ellis, who bought the land and retained it from 1774 until 1808, when it was acquired by the U.S. government. Throughout the nineteenth century, the island was used as an arsenal for the military. Ellis Island was expanded via landfill to form a 27-acre space and transformed into the famous Immigration Station near the turn of the twentieth century. This facility operated from 1892 until 1954, during which time 12 million people passed through en route to America. These facilities were rehabilitated in the 1980s in order to open the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, which is open to the public and accessible via Statue Cruises. When you visit, you just might find a record of your relatives in the books!
Near to Ellis Island, Liberty Island was valued by local Delaware Indians for its oyster beds before European colonization of New York. Later (a common theme with these islands), the area was the site of a lazaretto in the late eighteenth century. In 1807, the star-shaped Fort Wood was built on the island in anticipation of the War of 1812. We now know this fort as the distinctives structure at the base of the Statue of Liberty, which the French gifted the U.S. in honor of our nation’s centennial. The copper Lady Liberty was designed by the French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, while the granite pedestal, which lies in the courtyard of Fort Hunt, was designed by Richard Morris Hunt. The statue was unveiled on October 28, 1886. She is a whopping 305.5 feet high, including the base. Today you can take a Statue Cruises ferry from New Jersey or Lower Manhattan to visit her yourself. You can learn more about her from the visitors center and even explore her crown from the inside.
Governors Island was a key strategic site for revolutionary forces during the Revolutionary War. General Israel Putnam, Washington’s second-in-command, built a military fort on the island, which he used to fight off the British navy in 1776 (British cannonballs were found in the ground over a century later). Today the island is open during the summer for picnics, bike rides, walks, festivals, and—get ready—hammocks. That’s right, there are 50 red hammocks in Hammock Grove, perfect for a luxurious rest in the sun. There’s also a food court at Liggett Terrace, which sells everything from Blue Marble Ice Cream to dan dan noodles at Noodle Lane. Governors Island lies just yards away from Red Hook in Brooklyn and close to downtown Manhattan as well. It is accessible via ferry.
Take the free ferry to Staten Island and discover the least-visited of New York City’s five boroughs. The island was named after the Staten-Generaal (or “States General”) of the Dutch Republic, which controlled the island for a portion of the seventeenth century. Staten Island is about 60 square miles in size, with 35 miles of waterfront, including public beaches. The island is also home to a zoo, Snug Harbor botanical gardens, and Green Belt, the largest park in the city. The largest Sri Lankan population in New York City resides in Little Sri Lanka, a neighborhood on the island worth visiting for the food alone (go for San Rasa, a Michelin-starred restaurant). Staten Island deserves an afternoon at the very least—take that orange ferry and discover what you’re missing.