New York's Hart Island Is Becoming A Park

Hart Island was once a penal colony, and it has been run since the 19th century by New York’s jail system, which used inmate gravediggers and kept it off limits until 2021, when the city transferred the island over to the parks department, The New York Times reported. 

Now, in a remarkable break with the decades-old policy of keeping Hart Island burials secretive and its graves unseen, the department is opening New York’s most forbidden place for public access.

The city still conducts about 1,100 burials every year on Hart Island, adding to the million bodies already buried on this 131-acre strip in Long Island Sound off the cost of the Bronx. But in the coming months, the dead will share the island with nature classes and guided tours under the department’s Weekend Adventures series, which will be led by urban park rangers.

Sometime later this year, parks officials expect to open the programs to a limited number of users under “managed visitation” a pilot intended to answer the delicate questions of how to open access to an island that is home to acres of unmarked mass graves.

The city’s Human Resources Administration, which took over burial operations and records, has cleared decades of undergrowth. The Department of Design and Construction has razed and removed 15 crumbling buildings, leaving panoramic views and a more open feel. Gone, too, is the large “PRISON KEEP OFF” sign on a decrepit waterfront building.

The graves will remain undisturbed. Officials have no plans to turn the nation’s largest public cemetery into recreational space with playgrounds and picnic tables. There are no amenities like bathrooms, shelter, or electricity. Visitors are greeted with a rudimentary parks department sign and a few small statuettes of angels and the Virgin Mary.

At the moment, the island is served by a single city-run ferry long used to shuttle morgue trucks on the brief ride from City Island, a quiet residential enclave in the northeast Bronx that juts into the sound.

Future transportation options will include a 3.5-mile shuttle bus from the 6 train to the ferry (which has no parking lot) or a new dedicated water route from the Bronx. 

Park officials were initially hesitant to take over the island because of its many challenges, including lack of basic utilities and the presence of inmate burial crews. 

But inmate labor ended in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, when deaths overwhelmed morgue capacities and doubled the usual interment rates. With Covid sweeping through jails, the burial crews were replaced with contracted laborers.

Wikipedia states that Hart Island (sometimes referred to as Hart’s Island) first public use was as a training ground for the United States Colored Troops in 1864. Since then, Hart Island has been the location of a Union Civil War prison camp, a psychiatric institution, a tuberculosis sanatorium, a potter’s field with mass burials, a homeless shelter, a boys’ reformatory, a jail, and a drug rehabilitation center. 

The remains of more than one million people are buried on Hart Island, though since the first decade of the 21st century, there are fewer than 1,500 burials a year. Burials on Hart Island include individuals who were not claimed by their families or did not have private funerals; the homeless and the indigent; and mass burials of disease victims. 

Access to the island was restricted by the Department of Correction, which operated an infrequent ferryboat service and imposed strict visitation quotas. Burials were conducted by inmates from the nearby Rikers Island jail. 

The Hart Island Project, a public charity founded by visual artist Melissa Hunt, worked to improve access to the island and make burial records more easily available. 

Transfer to the Parks Department in 2019 had been sought for over twenty years and was hoped to was public access to the Island. Burials at Potters’ Field continued after the transfer.

Related Articles On

Who Is Buried On Hart Island?

Hart Island Might Become Open To The Public

Hart Island Transferred To NYC Parks Department

< Return To Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.