Brownie Fright Night


Renwick Ruin, Roosevelt Island, NYC

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. 


View from Roosevelt Island, which has been known through the years as Blackwell’s Island and Welfare Island.

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. 


Renwick Small Pox Hospital, named for the architect, James Renwick.

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.


Four Freedoms Park – memorial to FDR from the air. You can see Renwick Ruin on the far lower left.

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.


Heading towards Roosevelt island on the gondola from Lexington Street.  Not a bad commute!

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.  


Another shot of Renwick Ruin.

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.)

Last known picture of Brownie Troop 93!

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 Two, Two by Two

Episode Three, Day is Done, Gone the Sun (and the power)

Episode Four, Make New Friends 

Many thanks to the for their fascinating behind the scenes stories about NYC and its environs.

23 thoughts on “Brownie Fright Night

  1. Hi Jan,

    I just read this on your site. Roosevelt Island. Fascinating! As you know, I couldn’t click into goodies. (This will ease up with time.) Your writing illuminates the story.

    And in addition, you have the best stories! There you are with the brownies, sopping. Yes, yes, I want to hear more.

    BTW you have a sentence with two “ands”:

    They built the hospital using convicts and lunatics for manual labor and and, legend has it

    The computer gunk got worse and worse yesterday, but I have good reason to be hopeful the luck has turned (knock on wood).

      • Well, we might have the ghost of our cat in the house, but if so, he’s friendly 🙂 I’d rather read about the Renwick Ruin, and those poor Brownies and their leader. Having been a Brownie leader for a few years, I can relate to that part!

  2. this was an enjoyable post. I’ve walked around Roosevelt Island a few times while visiting New York. I think I need to go back. The think I remember is how quiet the island is compared to the streets leading up to the Tram Station. I love the pictures and the history.

    • Thanks Dan. Unfortunately we got there too late to see the rest of the island but the gondola ride and seeing Renwick Ruin were the highlight of our trip!

  3. Definitely! More on this Brownie night of terror story! Being a Brownie leader is terrifying enough (I was also a Daisy troop leader, and I called them my “wild daisies”). Fascinating history, too. Creepy.

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