The watery barriers of islands often prevent the infiltration of outside influences, as seen in the history of Broad Channel. For Hoffman and Swinburne Islands, however, these barriers were intended to keep potentially harmful change from spreading outward. Ellis Island is rightly considered the gateway to New York City during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While this is the case, some immigrants took a detour through Hoffman Island or Swinburne Island. The two man-made islands, designated as quarantines for arriving immigrants, were created in the 1870’s in an area of the Lower New York Bay referred to as Orchard Shoals. Hoffman, the larger of the two, detained passengers exposed to contagious diseases while the sick and visibly infected passengers were hospitalized on Swinburne.
The photograph above, from our Digital Gallery, shows of a group of children detained on Hoffman Island, apparently under guard. [I’m not sure when the photograph was taken though it seems the police uniform would be a good indicator. Can anyone out there offer a good guess?] As the number of immigrants coming to the United States rose sharply towards the end of the century it became clear that these small islands were no longer adequate facilities for handling sick passengers or those exposed to contagious diseases arriving daily in New York Harbor. Though they were enlarged and renovated, Hoffman and Swinburne Islands grew desolate by the 1920’s after a decline in immigration due to the First World War. After years of inactivity, Hoffman Island was designated as a training ground for the merchant marines in 1943. The Library of Congress has a collection of photographs from this time period, which you can view by searching for "Hoffman Island" in the American Memory Project. Presently, both islands are in the Gateway National Recreation Area transforming a former quarantine into a refuge for birds. For more on these islands see The other islands of New York City, the book which inspired this series of blog posts. If you can read Italian you may also want to view a personal account of an Italian detainee on Hoffman Island called L'isola della quarantina.