Visiting Roosevelt Island

5 Oct

Roosevelt Island is a small island in the East River – only about 147 acres of land – yet it packs a big punch with a lot of New York City history.

From Manhattan you can access the island either by subway (the F train), by car (across the 59th Street Bridge (aka The Queensboro Bridge), or my favorite mode of transportation – by the Roosevelt Island Tramway.

The tram costs a Metrocard swipe, and if you use your card to get to the tram (60th Street @ 2nd Avenue), the swipe for the tram is a free transfer.

Here comes a tram, now!

It’s getting closer…

You get inside, and back the other way you go. Up and over the city of Manhattan

then over the East River, along side the bridge.

The views are great – and a little bit scary. It feels like you are in Willy Wonka’s glass elevator.

In 2006, due to mechanical problems, two trams (one heading to Roosevelt Island, and one heading to Manhattan) were stuck over the East River for 7 hours – with 69 people hanging!


Wikepedia describes in detail:

On April 18, 2006, at about 5:22 p.m. EDT, the two trams were stuck over the East River for seven hours because of mechanical problems, trapping 69 people. Rescue baskets capable of holding up to 15 people were sent up to the stranded cable cars at 10:55 p.m., with children and elderly going first, and each rescue taking about 20 minutes. These baskets also carried supplies to the trams, such as blankets, baby formula, and food, for the remaining passengers. Passengers on the Roosevelt Island–bound tram were rescued by about 2:55 a.m. on April 19, while those on the Manhattan-bound tram were not rescued until 4:07 a.m.”

This knowledge adds to the thrill of the ride, I suppose… (actually, in March 2010, the tram closed for 9 months and was completely upgraded and modernized.)

Here we are arriving on Roosevelt Island. In the background, those brown buildings are the old Smallpox Hospital.

Yes, Roosevelt Island (previously known as Welfare Island) has pretty much been the place that New York City sent the “undesirables”. It was purchased by the city in 1828. In 1832 the city built a penitentiary out there, then in 1839 the New York Lunatic Asylum was built, and in 1856 the Smallpox Hospital was built.

There’s been undoubtably a great deal of misery out on these 147 acres of land.

Now, it feels like a peaceful getaway. The Smallpox Hospital buildings are ruins, closed to the public, but are being renovated and a park is currently being constructed in the area. It should be opened to the public next year.

The Lunatic Asylum eventually turned into a hospital, but all that remains is the Octagon Tower, which is now part of a residential development.

Here’s the plaque on the Tower:

I really love how it claims “the site was selected because the pleasant island surroundings were thought to be conductive to both physical and mental rehabilitation.”

(Er, right. I wonder how many “lunatics” here were “rehabilitated”. There must be a book. I will do a little research and will report back… to be continued…)

On the northern tip of Roosevelt Island, is the Blackwell Island Light (at one point in history, the island was called Blackwell Island.)

It was built in 1872. According to our friends at Wikipedia,

Legends abound about the construction of the lighthouse. Two names, John McCarthy and Thomas Maxey, are associated with the various legends. The 1870 report of the warden of the lunatic asylum indicated that an industrious patient had built a seawall near the Asylum that had reclaimed land. The legends indicate that an inmate of the asylum built a fort to defend the island against a British invasion that he feared. Some versions indicate that he had incorporated Civil War cannons. The legend indicates that builder was bribed with bogus money to demolish the fort for the construction of the lighthouse. Other stories indicate that an Asylum inmate constructed the lighthouse. For many years, a saying was inscribed in a stone near the lighthouse:

This is the work
Was done by
John McCarthy
Who built the Light
House from the bottom to the
Top All ye who do pass by may
Pray for his soul when he dies.”

Another beautiful, but mysterious landmark on Roosevelt Island.

Across the river, in Queens, is this building. I don’t know what it is, but I think it’s lovely.

If anyone can tell me what this is, please do so in the comments area!

I saw a seagull fish for a tasty lunch:

Despite it’s turbulent history, Roosevelt Island is now a very nice place to visit. There’s a lovely walkway around the island along the river, and I can’t wait until the park on the south tip opens.

All too soon, it was time to take the tram back across the river to Manhattan.

Another thrilling (and somewhat knee-trembling) ride!

I definitely recommend the tram ride and the visit to Roosevelt Island. For just the swipe of a Metrocard, it feels like you’re going to another world.




One Response to “Visiting Roosevelt Island”

  1. Johnny D October 5, 2011 at 1:39 pm #

    Thanks for the report and the nice photos! I liked the lighthouse and the seagull pictures best. And I believe the building you like with the red and white chimneys is the Transcanada Ravenswood power plant in Queens. More info here:

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