Island History

A Brief History

Manhattan's Other Island

The Beginning

Roosevelt Island, located between Manhattan and Queens in the East River, has undergone numerous changes both in name and use and been passed to numerous owners in its recent history. Originally it was called Minnahanonck or "nice island" by the Native Americans of the Hudson Channel. In 1633, the Dutch Governor of the Hudson convinced the Canarsie Indians to sell him lands that included Roosevelt Island. The island was then used for farming foods such as hogs; hence they called it Varckens Eylandt or "Hog Island." Eventually the British defeated the Dutch, seizing control of lands in America. King James II gave his sheriff of New York, Captain John Manning, Varckens Island.

The island was subsequently passed down within Manning's family and in 1796 his grandson James Blackwell had a clapboard cottage built on his island. Now the home is landmarked and known as Blackwell House.

Roosevelt Island Tram

Roosevelt Island Tram

First Development

By 1823 New York City had become a bustling trade hub and the country's largest city. To combat the rising rates of crime, poverty, and general threats to public health, the city began purchasing the islands surrounding Manhattan for the construction of institutions for rehabilitation. The theory, according to city leaders, was that institutions on quiet islands would be healthy and placid and conducive to caring for the sick or allowing criminals to reconsider their actions. In 1828, Blackwell's Island was purchased by the City of New York from the Blackwell family. Later that year Blackwell's Penitentiary was built by inmates transported from Newgate Penitentiary in Manhattan with stone they quarried from the Blackwell's Island. Because of its proximity to Manhattan, inmates at the island's prisons included celebrities like Broadway performer Mae West, singer Billie Holliday, and notoriously corrupt New York City politician "Boss" Tweed.

The prison opened in 1832, and a little further up the island the New York Lunatic Asylum was opened in 1841. The New York Lunatic Asylum was also built with the island's distinctively mottled granite. The central octagonal tower from the Asylum's original structure remains as part of the Octagon Apartments. Two more hospitals followed soon after: Penitentiary Hospital in 1849 and Charity (City) Hospital in 1857. In 1850, the first New York almshouses opened on the island to care for the city's destitute. To serve the spiritual needs of those destitute, the Chapel of the Good Shepherd arose in the middle of the system of almshouses. Several more chapels followed to accommodate the growing population. Also in 1850, a minimum security workhouse was built for petty crime offenders. The nation's first hospital to treat patients with smallpox was built here in 1856. Smallpox Hospital thus became mandated by city law as the quarantine area for all smallpox sufferers. It then closed subsequent to the success of the smallpox vaccine. In 1921, Blackwell's Island became Welfare Island to reflect the focus of the islands establishments.

Decline and Revitalization

As the island's institutions became abandoned toward the end of the 19th century, the population declined. Goldwater and Coler Hospitals were established and shortly thereafter became the only entities remaining on the island. It was desolate to the point that the New York City Fire Department was using the empty structures as training sites.

In 1968, Mayor John Lindsay appointed a committee for redevelopment of Welfare Island. The committee published a plan which was later incorporated into the General Development Plan produced by Governor Nelson Rockefeller's New York State Urban Development Corporation (UDC), which he formed in 1969. The UDC then commissioned a development design for the island which was completed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee and exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In a ceremony in 1973, Governor Rockefeller and Mayor Lindsay were present for the renaming of Welfare Island in honor of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. At the ceremony, architect Louis Kahn revealed his design for the memorial park to be constructed on the island's Southpoint.


The redevelopment of Roosevelt Island was then underway according to the designs of Johnson and Burgee and the first residential complex, Island House, opened in 1975. The following year saw the addition of three more housing complexes: Eastwood, Westview, and Rivercross. These four first phase buildings are collectively known as the WIRE buildings. The aerial Tramway then opened in 1976 as installation of a subway station on the island was delayed and the elevator from the Queensboro Bridge required servicing. The uniqueness of the Tram/s image, a cable car to Manhattan, quickly made it an iconic structure and the symbol of Roosevelt Island. It currently carries over 2 million passengers a year high over the East River. A subway station was finally opened for Roosevelt Island in 1990, serving the additional residents of Manhattan Park, an apartment complex built the previous year. Manhattan Park, like its predecessors the WIRE buildings, included hundreds of apartments for low income Section Eight housing in addition to its market rate offerings. Once the United Nations Development Corporation released a study calling the original residential capacity estimate for the island of 20,000 too high, the development plan was amended accordingly. The Octagon and Riverwalk Apartment complexes have since been completed, adding 2,500 rental and condominium units to the island.

Status and Jurisdiction

Roosevelt Island, according to courts, election boards, and the post office, is within the jurisdiction of Manhattan. The island does provide its own public safety department as well as a waste disposal system in the form of AVAC (Automated Vacuum Collection), a garbage suctioning series of underground pneumatic tubes. This system was constructed in 1975 and is one of only two functioning city-scale systems in the US; the other serves Disneyworld.

The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) was established by the New York State Legislature in 1984 as a public benefit corporation appointed with control over the operation, maintenance, and development of the island. The State of New York's lease on the island expires in 2068, at which point control will revert to New York City.