Over 13,000 men, women and children died between 1856 and 1875 at this place now known as Renwick Ruin. For a vast majority of the dead, this would be their only home in America, having been quarantined there for small pox just after their arrival in New York City. What a welcome.
The island Resnick Ruin sits upon once belonged to the Blackwells, a prominent NYC family in the 1800s. Apparently they fell on hard times and had to sell the land to the state which then proceeded to build, in this order, a prison, a lunatic asylum and Renwick Small Pox Hospital. They built the hospital using convicts and lunatics for manual labor and, legend has it, later employed these same convicts and lunatics to watch after the small pox patients. In 1875 it became a “maternity and charity training” hospital and the island became known as Welfare Island. Click here for more information about this ghostly island.
Today a four acre memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt sits just beyond Renwick Ruin which seems oddly appropriate. He was probably the one president who would have understood their suffering.
Although the Ruin and nearby lunatic asylum (the Octagon) are said to be amongst the most haunted places in the world, many young professionals are anxious to make the island their home.
You might think that an abandoned asylum would make a questionable choice for a soggy weekend retreat in late October, wouldn’t you? Especially if the campers were a group of over-imaginative ten year old Brownies and their five mother/chaperones. You might scratch your head and say “what were you thinking?” Well, I was young. . . and dumb.
Here’s my story which is as true as memory serves after twenty years.
Episode One: Brownie Fright Night
I was behind the wheel of a brand new Saab turbo with three girls in the back and one in the front trying my best to stay in caravan with the other four drivers (mothers with carloads of 10 year olds) when the song “Sympathy for the Devil” came on the radio. It was an omen. Was that Ruthie’s SUV still in front of me? I couldn’t tell. Rain streaked across the windshield, brake lights melting as the windows frosted. Where’s the damn defrost? Quiet girls! I’ve got to concentrate. Christy, is that your mom’s car?
We’d gotten a late start which made our predicament that much more dire. None of us had been to the Arequipa Girl Scout Retreat in Marin County before – including our Brownie leader – and we only had sketchy directions as to how to get there. (Folks, this was in the olden days before GPS and cell phones.)
The plan had been to leave right after school but one little girl had piano lessons and another forgot crucial-to-her-survival allergy medicine and since both were the daughters of women who signed up to drive and chaperone, the Brownie Leader and I (her assistant) were forced to grin and bear it. Getting mothers (or fathers) to sign up for a weekend camping trip with their girls – as anyone who’s ever been a Brownie leader knows – is like pulling teeth. Especially for us. Our campouts had a bad reputation. We were constantly either rained out or our escapade was cut short by Hurricane Erika who liked to defy gravity and thus always seemed to have a cast on either an arm or a leg.
We’d just reached the Richmond San Rafael bridge in heavy Friday night traffic when rain began to fall, hard. Oh Lord, I prayed, please let the retreat be on the other side of the bridge.
It was not.
Episode Three, Day is Done, Gone the Sun (and the power)
Many thanks to the Boweryboyshistory.com for their fascinating behind the scenes stories about NYC and its environs.