The Haunting History of Hart Island: New York City’s Inaccessible Ghost Town

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Just a few miles away from the bustling cityscape of New York City lies a desolate and secluded island that holds a dark and mysterious history. Hart Island, a small 130-acre piece of land at the mouth of Long Island, is known for its abandoned buildings, widespread brushland, and its status as a ghost town. In this article, we will delve into the eerie past of Hart Island and explore why it remains largely inaccessible to the general public. From its role as a cemetery for over 1 million unnamed bodies to its connection to the recent COVID-19 pandemic, Hart Island holds a haunting tale that will send shivers down your spine.

The Dark History of Hart Island

Hart Island’s history dates back more than 300 years when it was colonized and taken away from Native Americans who called it their home. Initially, the island served as a hideaway for wealthy families who owned it, but its purpose drastically changed over time. In 1864, it became a training camp for the USCT, a regiment mainly comprised of African-American soldiers. The following year, Hart Island transformed into a prisoner-of-war camp for Confederate Army soldiers during the American Civil War. Shockingly, 235 soldiers died in the camp within just four months.

In 1868, New York City purchased 45 acres of Hart Island for $75,000 and officially turned it into a public graveyard. Unclaimed and unidentifiable bodies from the city were brought to the island for burial. The island’s cemetery, known as Potter’s Field, began to replace existing burial facilities in Manhattan. While one part of Hart Island dealt with the deceased, other sections were dedicated to the living. During the 1870 yellow fever epidemic, the island served as a quarantine station for ships arriving in New York from infected areas. That makeshift hospital treated those with symptoms, and the deceased were buried in the public graveyard.

A History of Suffering and Seclusion

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Hart Island took on various roles, each one darker than the last. It housed a mental asylum for women, a ward for tuberculosis patients, a boy’s workhouse and reformatory, and a prison for elderly men. The conditions in some of these institutions were found to be inhumane and cruel, leading to investigations and subsequent closures.

In 1924, a glimmer of hope shone upon Hart Island when a businessman named Solomon Riley bought a small piece of land with dreams of creating an amusement park for African Americans who were banned from entering other New York City amusement parks. However, the government seized the land due to its close proximity to a jail and a hospital, preventing Riley’s plans from coming to fruition.

A Ghost Town and Final Resting Place

After World War II, Hart Island was reopened as a prison, and a homeless shelter was constructed, housing approximately 2,000 unhoused individuals. Following the closure of the shelter, a rehabilitation center for alcoholics took its place. The island also served as a location for other prisons and a drug rehabilitation center throughout the years.

Despite its varied uses, the one constant on Hart Island has been its cemetery. By the end of the 1950s, over 500,000 people were buried in the public graveyard, and by the 2010s, the number had surpassed a million. Initially limited to only one-third of the island’s land area, the cemetery expanded over time. In 1985, many victims of AIDS were laid to rest on Hart Island, some in deep graves separate from others due to unfounded fears of contamination.

Inaccessibility and Controversy

Since 1977, Hart Island has remained an abandoned ghost town, largely inaccessible to the general public. Even family members of those buried on the island were forbidden from visiting the graves until 2015. Many families were unaware that their loved ones were buried on Hart Island until it was too late. The city’s burial records only go as far back as 1977, leaving records prior to that destroyed and identification of burial sites difficult.

Thanks to the efforts of organizations like the Hart Island Project, families are now permitted to visit the island and pay their respects to their loved ones. However, visitations are limited, highly regulated, and occur only twice a month. Proof of a death certificate is required, and each visitor can be accompanied by a maximum of four guests. Other members of the public are allowed to visit a viewing area once a month, but it is far from the grave sites and requires advanced planning.

The Largest Tax-Funded Cemetery

Hart Island’s cemetery remains an active burial ground, with an estimated 1,500 people buried there each year. It is not only the largest tax-funded cemetery in the United States but potentially the largest in the world. Previously, prison inmates from Rikers Island were responsible for burying the dead, earning only 50 cents per hour for their labor. However, due to the recent influx of COVID-19 victims, trained workers in hazmat suits have taken over this role.

While Hart Island’s grim history and chilling present may bring to mind horror movie settings, it is a place with a haunting truth. Mass graves, abandoned buildings, and the remnants of its previous uses as rehabs, quarantines, and asylums contribute to its eerie atmosphere. As the number of burials increases due to the pandemic, access to the island has been temporarily halted.


Hart Island, the once-private island turned public graveyard, holds a solemn place in the history of New York City. Its desolate landscape, harboring the remains of over a million souls, serves as a grim reminder of the city’s past. While accessibility to the island has improved in recent years, it is still a haunting and secluded place for many families. As mass burials continue due to the current pandemic, Hart Island remains a somber testament to the lives lost and the suffering endured.

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