Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Visit to Hart Island

Operation: Hart of Darkness
A guerrilla landing on Hart Island in the name of peace and discovery

            Growing up sailing the waters of Manhasset Bay in the Long island sound I would always ask my father about that giant smoke stock peeking from that odd, lonely island. “It’s a potter’s field, cemetery for strangers” he'd say, as he quickly passed over the subject and pointed out the beautiful sunset (he loved to go sailing at magic hour). It always carried the allure of the unknown to me.

Manhasset Bay, Long Island Sound - Not too far east of Manhattan Island. 

            It is the history beyond the potter’s field that makes Hart Island so fascinating. Below is a condensed time line of its history to bring you up to speed.

*1654 - Thomas Pell buys a large track of land from Siwanoy Indians, Including the now known Hart Island.
*1774  - Pell heirs sell the land to Oliver DeLancey.
*1776 - Maps start referring to the landmass as Hart Island. In July, America is founded.
*1863 - The 25th Calvary muster in. The earliest known recorded mustering on the island of Union recruit units in the Civil War.
*1864 - The Hart Island regiment will see action at the fall of Petersburg on April 2, 1865. It will pursue Lee's army from April 3 through April 9 and be at Appomattox before, during and after the Confederate surrender on April 9, 1865. These soldiers will give their life for the union of a young nation.
* 1865 - The final prison established by the Union for Confederate soldiers opens. 235 POWs will perishe there.
* 1868 - The City of New York purchases Hart Island for use by the DOC to operate a City Cemetery.
* 1869 - 45 acres at the north opens as a Potter's Field on April 20. The first person interred is Louisa Van Slyke, aged 24.
* 1870 - Yellow Fever epidemic hits New York. The southern part of the island is used to isolate those infected.
* 1877 - The NYC Army Reserve constructs a monument to honor the Union Civil War soldiers and sailors interred on the island.
* 1895  - A branch workhouse is established for drug addicts and aged or infirm inmates. It will remain in use until World War II.
* 1916  - Remains of some Union troops who died on the island are removed to the Soldiers Cemetery in the Bronx.
* 1941 - The remains of another group of Civil War dead are disinterred, this group being removed to a Cemetery in Queens. . . . During WW II, the Island is turned over to the Navy for use as a disciplinary barracks for Navy, Coast Guard and Marine personnel.  The closest WW II will ever get to the shores of America comes when three Nazi Sailors surfaced in a U-Boat near Long Island. They are taken as POWs to Hart Island.
* 1946  - Hart Island is returned to the DOC and the jail is reactivated.
* 1948 - Inmates erect a 30-foot high “peace” monument in the
 center of the burial site to the north to honor the unknown dead.
 * 1955  - United States Army Air Defense Command declares use of the north
 end to operate its Nike missile battery. Site NY-15 is opened.
* 1966  - Site NY-15 is closed. Planning begins for using the island to
rehabilitate drug addicts. Phoenix House will thrive there until 1976.
* 1982 - Housing for a small contingent of inmates opens.
* 1991 - Inmate housing ends but cemetery operations continue
with day work units from Rikers to bury the dead.
* 2012 – 900,000 call Hart island their final resting place. Professor Murray Makes a landing based in peace and discovery with a noble crew of explorers. 
Hart Island - 1877
            Fast forward 20 years from sailing with my father under an orange sky to me sitting on a friend’s boat set on a course for Hart Island. It was a beautiful, sunny morning in September and the wind carried a couple of seagulls past the boat. The smell of the brisk salt air ignited my senses. I love a fresh fall morning. Our mission: to land on Hart and conduct an exploratory journey in hopes of discovering, for ourselves, some forgotten American history – right in our own backyards. History that our local government, for a variety of reasons, wants kept from us.

            As soon as our craft cleared the shore of Cow's Neck and turned west out of Hempestead harbor, Hart came into view. My friend points out “It's sunny and beautiful everywhere, but look at the dark gray clouds hanging over the Island” very eerie indeed.

            The boat took us as close as we could get, perhaps 100 feet from the northern tip of the island. While six of us made the cruise out, two would stay aboard the boat and provide mission support via our two-way radios and use of the on-board satellites and radar while four of us, including myself, would land on the island to explore. 

            Splash! We hit the water and started to swim over. The weather was mild and the swim was easy, something we came to appreciate later. After a few short minutes in the water, I felt my feet touch down on the rocky shoreline. It felt good to put feet onto solid ground and to know that I was standing on the Island cloaked in so much mystery. As we started to move forward we knew we needed to get off the beach as soon as possible to avoid detection. Moving as quickly as we could, we climbed over rocks and made our way past the remains of at least five or six wrecked motor boats (The entire shore line of the island is littered with these abandoned boats). From the moment we stet foot on this place a foreboding aura settled around us. These once pristine boats, once used to provide fun for families and friends, now sitting dormant as corrosion, rust and desolation takes hold.

In 3D! (Red and Blue old school glasses!)
            Finally, after navigating along the rock and wreck strewn beach, we came upon our first point of interest; The Civil War memorial erected in 1877 to commemorate the union soldiers interred there over 150 years ago. We shared a moment of silence to acknowledge their sacrifice while fighting to keep out country united. Some of the remains were removed in 1916 and the rest in 1941, reinterred at military cemeteries in Brooklyn and the Bronx, but this was their initial resting place. We snapped some photos and shot some video and carried on down the main road heading South.

            Our plan was to explore the main structures located mid-island (Power plant, church etc) and then move north to explore the cold war missile silos (from the Ajax program established by the army in 1956) , Peace Monument (1948) and original potters field from 1869.

            As we walked down the road a pair of geese trotted directly in front of us, as if they were leading us to our next destination. Appearing beyond a copse of trees to our left was the stone structure that I believed, based off information gathered from readings, to be the Civil war era stables. Upon reaching the structure, however, the intelligence I had gathered was called into question. The plaque on the front of the building reads “1910” in roman numerals. I am not sure if this structure dates back to the civil war with an added plaque in the Teens or if is a replica building that was actually built in 1910. Anyways, we snapped some photos, explored the area and carried on.

Video of the Geese leading the way


 While the wind danced around the trees and greeted us with much gusto, we reached the Dynamo Room, built in 1912. Home to the power plant, huge turbine engines and the towering smoke stack I had seen as a child.

            A “dynamo” is an electrical generator that produces direct current with the use of a commutator. Dynamos were the first electrical generators capable of delivering power for industry – ushering America into the industrial revolution. The dynamo uses rotating coils of wire and magnetic fields to convert mechanical rotation into a pulsing direct electric current. There shall be light!

            The Dynamo room provided electrical power to the island for decades until they ground to a rusty halt sometime in the distant past. All of the electrical hardware is still intact, giant levers on the walls, enormous cables that once carried thousands of volts of electricity lay moldering on the floor. The rooftop had decayed over decades of neglect and in places the steel gray sky was visible above, and the occasional tree grew up from the debris. As we pondered the area for a moment a light drizzle begins, we knew we needed to move forward with our exploration.


            Looking to the sky, all I saw was gray. I did miss my friend the sun, but what better way to investigate a creepy old island then on a creepy overcast day. We hung a right and head down a dilapidated path to one of the Phoenix house buildings (phoenix house was the re-purposed use of the buildings for drug rehabilitation).

                As we made our way into the first floor we see that the entire area is filled with file cabinets, boxes of documents and all kinds of paper work strewn about. No proper filling system seemed to be in use as mold festers.

Opening the door to the Phoenix House 

           We crack open a few of the record books – daily logs from the on-goings when the Island was used as a prison for inmate overflow in the 1980's, A point in time where New York City will experience some of it’s highest crime rates. We spend some time going through the record books, looking for interesting tidbits of information. As the smell of mold starts to become too much we go back outside for some fresh air, the drizzle has picked up a bit but no concern to us, we are on a mission of discovery!

            As we make our way over to the Chapel and Pavilion building we heard a crackle on the radio, It was our  boat's captain - “how you guys making out over there, over” he says “doing fine, you guys?” says my other buddy back to him. “Taking a look at the radar, small storm headed our way, proceed with caution”. Looking up at the Westward sky we saw dark clouds on the horizon. “Roger that”, we replied.

in 3D!
The rain picked up a bit. Thankfully the tree covered area we currently found ourselves in would provide some shelter while we decided to wait out the rain before moving north. We take some more time to explore the Chapel (built in 1935) and Pavilion building (Built in 1885) originally an insane asylum for women. More photos are snapped as we try to piece together the story of Hart Island by using these amazing ruins as plot points. 

Vines have taken over this lamp post.

    a 360 degree view of mid island, Downtown Hart. 
We wondered southbound down the road a bit and came to a more recent section of the potter’s field. How did we know it was fairly recent? Well let's just say that certain aromatic qualities of the area led us to believe that.

            The term potters field is an interesting one. It dates back to the first testament in Jerusalem where, literally, a potter – a man who made pots for a living, sold a vacant plot of land next to his home for the town to bury their unclaimed dead – thus the term Potter's Field for a public cemetery.

            One of the things that caught our eye were these white PVC pipes sticking out of the ground, pipes with numbers on them - and they were everywhere. What could they be? We asked our selves. As we moved in closer for a better look a gust of wind blew a distinct smell right into our face – We knew right then and there what these pipes were venting. I will say at this point I started to become very queasy. It was a sobering moment, as we realized we were standing directly in the middle of the most recent burial area. Until this point it was all fun and games – exploring war memorials and ruins from a bygone era – but this was real, this was the harsh reality of what goes on here.

We shared another moment of silence for the poor souls that call this their final resting place. No one deserves this, an unmarked pine box with a pipe venting the rest of your mortal remains into the atmosphere. Each venting pipe symbolized the resting place of 150 people. One of the interesting things we found was a utility table used by the inmates.

We wish them peace.

We see some cartoons drawn, Homer, Bart and Peter Griffin – evidence of wanting to mentally escape the situation they were in. We decided we had enough of this section, the rain started to pick-up even more as my buddy sayid “It's gonna get a whole lot worse before it gets better.”

            We headed back north to the Chapel and Pavilion building. We spent some more time in that area. I will say it is starting to get a little chilly now, We have been wet and damp in our cloths for more than 2 hours at this point. Shelter is needed! We find a small door on the side of the church and head inside. This has the makings of a horror movie right here. I always found it so ironic that old churches really creeped me out. These places, originally built with good intentions as the “house of god” look as if they harbor menacing lost souls when they fall into ruins.

            The floorboads creaked in these doorless chambers, strange and mysterious sounds echoed through the halls. The air was deathly still as motes of dust float by the few beams of light that found a way in. This is a time when ghosts would be present. Luckily for us, we didn't come across any (or did we?) I kick something on the ground, not sure what it is, I picked up this small metal canister.

Later when we are home we do some research and figure out it is actually a tear gas canister. The church had scores of these canisters in and around the area. What was this from? What happened there so many years ago? I guess we will never know for sure. My friends and I speculated these gas canisters are from one of two events. Maybe there was some sort of prison uprising in the church and this tear gas was used to control the out break or maybe when the prison was finally closed in 1991 a few guards thought it would be fun to fire these off before they left their final tour of duty on Hart. 

            By this point the rain has pick up and is in full force. I am trying to keep my phone and camera dry and while using my shirt as a dry rag... we heard another crackle over the radio. “I am showing severe weather headed our way, radar is reporting a tornado warning for our direct vicinity, you guys should start heading back to the boat.” “Dammit” I cried out. We would have to cut the trip a bit short.

Our plan was to move North and investigate the missile silos, peace monument and original potters field but it was not to be done on this day. The weather had turned on us and we quickly knew we had a small window of time to get back to the boat before all hell would break loose. My buddy shouted to us “Lets get our shit together and get the fuck out of here.”

            We start to hurry, cramming gear back into our bags as we jog back to the beach. Our trip had come to and end so quickly I commented, my Buddy said “The trip ain’t over until we’re back on that boat.” I knew at this point it was going to be difficult to reach the beach where we landed, too many rocks to climb over and the weather wasn't improving, time was slipping away. We radioed back to the boat and asked them to come to a closer beach to our current location. Unfortunately the boat would not be able to get as close to the island because of rocks but at the point we didn't care.

 A final goodbye to the lost buildings of Hart.

The order of chaos.

            We brought a plaque with us to leave on the island, inspired by the plaque the Apollo astronauts left on the Moon missions. We wanted to mark that we had come to this place, in the name of peace and discovery. We found a suitable place for our plaque and on we went. Since time was of the essence we decided to take a shortcut through one of the older burial sites. I stepped lightly, aware that the current use of vents in the new burial areas pointed to the fact that older burial sites that may have caved in due to gas pocketing. Older burial grounds didn't have the vents. I feared that at any moment I would step right into some soft earth and fall right into a grave. Luckily, this didn't happen and we made it to the beach.

              The storm was in full force at this point, everything was grayed out around us. We could see the boat about 400 feet from the beach. This was going to be a more challenging swim back (considering now my backpack was full of loose bricks and other archaeological samples for studying in my laboratory) we crashed into the water and start to paddle over. The water is damned choppy, waves hitting me in the face, swallowing more salty water than I would have liked. About two minutes into swimming, not moving as fast as I would have wanted, the boat seems a million miles away as a current start to make me drift westward...away from the boat. I started to get a little nervous at this moment but I kept my mind straight and just paddled towards that boat, saying to myself “slow and steady wins the race (or gets your ass back to the boat alive!)” and when I reached that boat and placed my arms on the side to bring myself up it was one of the most satisfying feelings of my life. My friend described my face at this moment as one of the most intense, primal faces of determination and survival he has ever seen.

Actual footage of the waters we just swam back to the boat in. 

            I was happy to be on that boat but sad to be off the island, there was more to see. We fired up the motors and started to make our way. About three minutes after getting on the boat the storm picked up to it's optimal strength. My buddy turns to me and says “It’s almost as if that island was kicking us out. It put up with us for a couple of hours and then just said fuck you its time for you to go. We don't want you here anymore, souls are trying to rest!” I looked over at him and I knew there was a large part of me that felt he was right. That island is aware.

            I will never forget my trip to hart Island for the rest of my life. A place the majority of people will never see or even know about. But for that one morning, for that small sliver of time, my friends and I were the keepers of that island, we walked the paths that carried so much history, we took in the sights and the smells (for better or worse). Four living people amongst 900,000 lost souls. As we said good bye to Hart Island, I will keep the memory of these unknown people in my heart for the rest of my life and wish them peace in eternity.