The Dark Story of Randall's Island

Randall’s Island is home to many of NYC’s favorite music festivals; Governor’s Ball, Electric Zoo, and this year’s highly anticipated Panorama are all located on Randall’s Island. The island is perfect for events like these because it has no neighbors to annoy with the noise and boasts acres of free space and parks. Attending one of these festivals can afford any visitor an optimistic view of the island.

However, Randall’s Island wasn’t always a place filled with laughter and happy people.

It used to be where NYC hid their poor, sick, and incarcerated populations, with the water surrounding it serving as a moat. In fact, Manhattan’s Psychiatric Center can still be found on Ward’s Island (the southern tip of Randall’s Island).

Randall’s Island and Ward’s Island used to be two separate islands. A manmade channel called “The Little Hell Gate Channel” separated them until it was filled during the early 1960’s, thus conjoining the two to make what is there now.

The name Little Hell Gate Channel was fitting, because once you crossed that channel you would find yourself on an island inhabited by NYC’s misfits.

Ward’s Island was less than a square mile in size. Small as it was, it was still able to fit most of NYC’s dirty laundry. Not only did it house the city’s sewage treatment plant, but it was also where it dumped its terminally ill patients, the criminally insane, and juvenile delinquents.

It can be said that the island first started to go downhill in 1776 when George Washington declared it a quarantine area for those infected with smallpox.

After that, it just snowballed—the island gained an orphanage with a shady reputation, a broken down homeless shelter, a potter’s field (a burial place for paupers and the unidentified) with an estimated 100,000 bodies buried in it, an insane asylum (which was called “the idiot asylum”), and an abusive juvenile detention center.

In 1854 the House of Refuge was built on the island. It was run by The Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents and was highly praised back in the day, with over 1,000 youths contained in its fortress-like establishment. Children who misbehaved or disobeyed the rules were punished by being hung by their thumbs and reports were found detailing inhumane treatment by drunken officers. Multiple armed revolts were staged by the young boys imprisoned. The society is commonly regarded as being a precursor to what the juvenile justice system has morphed into today.

It also housed one of the world’s largest hospitals, The State Emigrant Refuges, which is where the city sent all the sickly and destitute immigrants that tried to enter. Anyone who was found to be sick right off the boat was put on a steamboat bound for Wards Island—cripples, mentally ill, the blind, deaf, and others who were thought might become a public charge were admissible under a bond.

A man by the name of Robert Moses is responsible for the successful transformation of Randall’s Island. He dreamed the island would become a place for recreation and a link for the city’s citizens. In the early 1930s he pushed a bill through state legislature that forced many of the public institutions on the island to relocate.

Aimee Boden, Park Administrator for NYC and President of Randall’s Island Park Alliance, calls Robert Moses “the great grand-daddy” of Randall’s Island.

“You really cannot be living in New York and not know who Robert Moses is,” she exclaims. “He was an enormously influential power broker in New York City and the adjacent communities.”

Robert Moses was many things to Randall’s Island—not only was he a greatly influential city planner for NYC with offices located on the island, but he was also the one to declare Randall’s Island a national park. He eventually planned the Triborough Bridge to cut through it, connecting Manhattan, Queens, and The Bronx.

“The park attracts visitors both for large events and for daily use of the fields,” Anne Wilson, Senior Director of Planning at the Randall’s Island Park Alliance, tells BTRtoday. “It used to be a place where a large number of public institutions that people didn’t want on the mainland were situated.”

Ward Island maintained it’s dark occupancies the longest, even during the 1930’s when music festivals started to happen on the island.

Music festivals became a hit on Randall’s Island after the success of “The Carnival of Swing” in 1938 that attracted over 20,000 people. It was the first festival of its kind and was bold enough to mix African-Americans and Caucasians on one island to enjoy some of the jazz greats, like Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

Today, Ward’s island is still home to the NYC sewage system, Manhattan Psychiatric Center, and The Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center for the criminally insane. So, even the splendor of music festivals, the beautiful parks, and recreational events can’t rid the island of it’s dark past.