08 December 2015

Sail over New York's East River - in the Roosevelt Island Tram

Roosevelt Island is a narrow island in New York City's East River. It lies between Manhattan Island to its west and the borough of Queens to its east, and is part of Manhattan. The entire island is only 3.2 km long but then the population is only 10,000 people.

One family made its mark on the island from the beginning. In 1637 the Dutch Governor purchased this small island from the local Ind­ians. After the English defeated the Dutch in 1666, Captain John Manning seized the island, which became known as Manning's Island. Only 20 years later, Manning's son-in-law Robert Blackwell, became the island's new owner. In 1796 Blackwell's great-grandson Jacob Blackwell built Blackwell House, which is the island's oldest land-mark and one of the city's few remaining examples of 18th-century architecture. In fact until 1921, the island’s formal name was Blackwell’s Island.

Roosevelt Island in the East River
Queens to one side, Manhattan to the other.
Queensboro Bridge spans the island, from one side of the river to the other.
Roosevelt Island Bridge spans only the Queens half of the East River.

Only in 1828 did the City of New York purchase the island, and throughout the C19th the island started to house big institutions, mainly hospitals and prisons. By 1832 the city had erected a pen­itentiary on the island, defining the next 100 years as overcrowded, chaotic, inadequate, grim and corrupted.

The Penit­ent­iary Hospital was built to serve the needs of the prison population. There have been many prisoners on the island over the decades, but I am going to select four of the bravest women ever to step foot on American soil: 1. Madame Restell (1812–1878) was gaoled for helping women achieve safe abortions 2. Emma Goldman (1869–1940) was gaoled several times for anarchic activities in support of contraception and against conscription in World War I; 3. Margaret Sanger’s sister Eth­el Byrne (1883-1955) was locked up for providing contraceptive advice to women in Brooklyn and 4. Billie Holiday (1915–1959) was found guilty of prostitution.

By 1839, the New York City Lunatic Asylum opened, including the Octagon Tower which originally served as the Asylum’s main entrance and administrative centre. This five-storey rotunda was made of locally quarried blue-grey stone, and after recent restoration, it became the handsome central lobby of a large block of flats.

Octagon Tower
Lobby of building containing 500 flats 

In 1852, a workhouse was built on the island to hold petty violators in cells. The Smallpox Hospital was opened in 1856. In 1861 prisoners completed construction of the City Charity Hospital, which served both pris­oners and impoverished families. In fact the entire island must have felt like a veritable centre for asylum and prison facilities back then.

In 1872 the Blackwell Island Light, the historic 15 m Gothic style lighthouse, was built by convict labour on the island's northern tip to help light the nearby insane asylum. But at the end of the C19th century, clients from the Asyl­um were being transferred to another island. The last con­victs were not moved off Blackwell’s Island until 1935, when the penitent­iary on Rikers Island opened. Since the asylum is no longer open, visitors mainly go to the lonely lighthouse for the views north towards Randall's Island.

Communications both within the island and between New York’s boroughs became the most important innovations in the C20th. The long Queensboro Bridge, as seen in the photo, started construction in 1900 and opened in 1909; it passed over the island but did not provide direct vehicular access to it at the time. Only in 1930 did an elevator on Queensboro Bridge allow car and trolley access. The trolley connected pass­eng­ers to a stop in the middle of the bridge, where they took an elevator down to the island. Then the small Roosevelt Island Bridge between the island and Astoria in Queens was built in 1955, as seen on the left hand side of the top photo.

In 1976 the Roosevelt Island Tramway was ready, connecting the island directly with midtown Manhattan. But it took a few years before the New York State legislature created the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation to operate the tramway. In 2010 the Roosevelt Island Tramway reopened after renovations.. so it once again glides over Upper East Side avenues and the East River. Visitors say it feels as if they were travelling to a Swiss holiday resort in the mountains – halfway through the four-minute journey, the tram reaches its pinnacle above the East River!

The Roosevelt Island Historical Society runs a small visitor's centre in a historic, relocated streetcar entrance kiosk, just next to the tram terminal. 

Roosevelt Island Tramway
sailing over the East River.

Some institutional building continued. In 1939 they opened the Gold­water Memorial Hospital with 1000 beds in a number of buildings. 30 years later, Bird Coler Hospital was also opened, so the Goldwater Hospital quickly moved to Manhattan, leaving the Lunatic Asylum buil­d­ings abandoned. In 2013, in the destructive way that has typified perfectly fine existing buildings on the island, Coler Hospital's south campus was destroyed. Little was saved across the island, actually - in 1998 only the Blackwell Island Light was restored.

Eventually recommendations for the island's modern development were sought in 1968-9. Roosevelt Island is owned by the city, but was leased to the state of New York's Urban Development Corporation for 99 years. Federal funding was to come from the New Community Act.

The island's master plan, adopted in 1969, divided the island into three residential communities, and forbade the use of cars on the island. Public tran­sport would be regular and capacious. The first phase of Roosevelt Island's development was called “Northtown” - high-rise multiple-dwelling residential buildings. The Octagon, as we saw, was one of the island’s six landmarks. “Southtown”, the next cab off the rank, will include domestic residences, retail businesses and four new restaurants.

Blackwell House


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Thank you--I have occasionally read bits about Blackwell's Island and Roosevelt Island, but have never pieced the complete story together. I somehow am not surprised that so much has been lost in recent years, when they should have known better. I do love the octagonal tower--such buildings were an architectural fad in the 19th century. The Blackwell house looks like it could be in any town in New England or the Midwest.

Roosevelt Island is definitely on my list for a future trip to New York.

Andrew said...

I rather wish I knew about the island before we visited NYC and we may have found time to visit. There are so many wonderful older building in New York. What a shame some on the island were not saved.

Train Man said...

Great views, teensy cabin.

Dina said...

Train Man

the tram trip was spectacular (even though I am a chicken with heights).

Hels said...


My late aunt and uncle lived in New York so I was there every few years. Despite thinking that I knew at least Manhattan and Brooklyn very well, Roosevelt Island was a total mystery. If it wasn't for a search for cities that had a tram system in place, I still would not have found it.

Losing the Victorian architecture is a] a terrible waste of perfectly good resources and b] a tragic loss of what made Roosevelt Island history special :(

Hels said...


There is never enough time to see everything, go everywhere. However at least if we know about historical sites before leaving Melbourne, we are better able to plan. I am especially peeved because all the first cousins in New York know I am besotted with post-colonial history.

Hels said...

Train Man

Great views, both along the length of the East River in both directions, and across to Manhattan and to Queens. I wish I added photos to the post that showed the views better.

Be brave!

Hels said...


hello fellow chicken!! I much prefer being in a train, ship, bus or car than a vehicle (of any size or shape) floating in the air. However high-rise multiple-dwelling residential buildings are so ordinary in New York; only the tram can show us the special island trees, water's edge, Four Freedoms Park and sculpture, red buses etc

Mandy Southgate said...

Oooh, I've been plotting to take my other half to NYC for our 15th wedding anniversary in 2017 - he has never been. I hadn't even heard of Roosevelt Island but I'd love to explore it!!

Hels said...


I had never heard of Roosevelt Island either. Yet everyone on the planet who has ever seen Law And Order on television has heard of Rikers Island, in the East River between Queens and the Bronx. I find that strange.

Have a great wedding anniversary trip :)