Hoffman and Swinburne Islands were built to accommodate people with deadly contagious diseases after residents of Staten Island, NY (one of New York City's five boroughs) were outraged with the continued use of their borough as a quarantine site.
In 1860, piles of sands dredged from New York Harbor were heaped into two mounds until they formed the new Quarantine Island—Hoffman and Dix Islands—Hoffmann at 11 acres, and Dix at two-and-one-half acres. The administration buildings for the quarantine operation were built at Rosebank on Staten Island, not far from Fort Wadsworth.
Hoffman Island was named for John T. Hoffman, who served as mayor of New York City before becoming New York Governor in 1869. Dix Island was named for John Dix, a United States senator and governor of New York State in the mid-1800s. . Dix Island’s name was eventually changed to Swinburne Island in honor of Civil War hero and surgeon Dr. John S. Swinburne, who as port health officer oversaw the development of the islands. Swinburne Island, or the Lower Quarantine, was completed in 1870 and Hoffman Island, or the Upper Quarantine, was finished in 1873.
Ships carrying steerage passengers would arrive at NYC harbor and doctors from the Quarantine Station would board the ships to give a cursory examination of the passengers. All ships from West Indies, South America or Africa’s west coast — regions known for infectious diseases -- were compelled to stop for inspection. Travelers suffering from contagious diseases were hospitalized on Swinburne Island; those exposed but asymptomatic were detained on Hoffman Island.
It is estimated that prior to 1920, some 20 million immigrants entering New York Harbor were packed into steerage class, which often featured unsanitary conditions, cramped quarters, and limited air circulation. As a result, many were infected or exposed to contagious diseases. During the cholera scare beginning in 1880s, the lower bay was crowded with ships pending quarantine. Cholera plagued the world in 1892, and between August 31 and October 8, 914 cabin passengers, 3,405 steerage passengers, and 1,469 crew members were held for observation at both Hoffman and Swinburne Islands.
During WWI, the islands’ hospitals were used by the U.S. Army and Navy to care for thousands of soldiers with venereal disease. As the 1920s progressed, the immigration to the United States greatly subsided, so the need for the facilities for quarantining was not as great.
In 1934, a fire destroyed many of Swinburne’s buildings and following that, from 1934-1937, Hoffman was used to quarantine imported parrots as a precaution against parrot fever, an infectious disease that can spread to humans.
In 1938—the U.S. Maritime Service opened a school on Hoffman Island which was operated through WWII During that time, the island was home to a training school for merchant seamen, equipped, according to Popular Mechanics magazine, with “docks, slips, towers, masts, guns, cargo booms, offices, school buildings and red brick barracks.” The island also housed an anchorage for an anti-submarine net that extended across the entrance to New York Harbor. But since 1947 the islands have been off limits to visitors.
In the mid-1960s Robert Moses considered turning the two islands into a city park, but that did not come to fruition. In 1972, the two islands were deeded back to the federal government as part of Gateway National Recreation Area. Today they serve as bird sanctuaries for nesting shore birds—herons, gulls and others, as well as seals-- and are monitored by the NPS and the NY Audubon Society.