River was my destination on a pleasant winter day. I chose to visit here for a half-day road trip because I had the urge to be on the water. With my boat wrapped for the season, this easy-to-visit island had the water views I needed.
Roosevelt Island is a place I cruise by each season running my tour charters to the Statue of Liberty on www.glencovecruises.com. I would tell my guests all about the island as I motored by at 15 knots. Yet, living in New York for 64 years I had never stepped foot on
Roosevelt Island has gone under four names in 400 years. Growing up in New York, it was called Welfare Island because of the history of hospitals on it. In 1973 its name was changed to honor President Franklin Roosevelt.
In the 1800s to early 1900s, the island was known for having several hospitals, a penitentiary, and a “Lunatic Asylum”. It also housed just one of four nursing schools in the country. In the 1960s long-term plans started coming about regarding the building of apartments and making a community there.
For the 21st century, Roosevelt Island added a technical campus called Cornell Tech. It is a collaboration between Cornell University and the Technion Institute. In the past 20 years, the island has also seen historical restorations, art, and parks added as well as a memorial to President Franklin Roosevelt.
Roosevelt Island is two miles long and 800 feet wide in the middle. It makes the perfect waterside stroll. Its paths and sidewalks that circle the island are flat and always have a water view. A pleasant stroll will take 90 minutes without stopping.
During your walk, you will see the Manhattan skyline to the west. This is a blend of old-style skyscrapers like the Empire State Building mixed with modern glass structures and the new “match stick” towers. You will also see up close the United Nations and the Carl Shultz Park where Gracie Mansion and the mayor live.
On the Queens side look for the landmarked Pepsi sign built in 1940. You can also view the old and new buildings of Long Island City and Brooklyn. Most of the tall buildings were built in the last 15 years. To the south just under 2 miles away is the Williamsburg Bridge, built in 1903.
If you are on the northern tip of the island around full tide you will see the East River charge by. Here it merges with the Harlem River and you can see waves, whirlpools, and eddies in the turbulent waters. From this location, it flows fast in or out of what has been known since the Dutch Days as Hell’s Gate. This is because it could be pure hell if a sailing vessel times the tides wrong. To this day sail and underpowered boats must show respect when boating here.
Roosevelt Island Sights
I recommend visiting the island in two halves. Start your self-tour at the Roosevelt Island Visitor center. This cute historical structure is where you can get a free map, buy a souvenir and ask questions. Take the island in two loops starting here and stopping for lunch halfway.
Start by walking south passing under the double-decker, Ed Koch Bridge opened in 1909. (New Yorker’s still call it the Queensboro Bridge) From 1919 to 1953 a ten-story elevator lowered people and cars to support the hospitals where the visitor center stands. This bridge quickly transformed the farmlands in western Queens into apartments and commerce.
Continuing south you will pass the Graduate Hotel where you can circle back as a lunch option.
A little further along the river you will see the modern designed building of Cornel Tech. Five minutes further south you will see the ruins of the smallpox hospital.
The Renwick Smallpox Hospital opened in 1856 and had 100 beds. In 1972 it became a member of the National Register of Historic Places. Its architecture is Gothic Revival which gives the ruins an eerie look. There are historic plaques with details on the place in front. The view on its east side is better.
The next stop is the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park. The park is located on four acres at the southern tip of the island. It is named after the president’s eighth state of the union address. There is an excerpt of the speech on one of the walls with a large bust of him in between two small walls.
There are tall bare walls on the east and west sides focusing your view south on the East River. An architect I know told me the excellent craftsmanship of the memorial is something you don’t see too often. Personally, I did not care for the closed-in feeling and did not linger. https://www.fdrfourfreedomspark.org/
Making your way up to the east side you will pass the 1892 landmark Strecker Labs. This stone building was the first institution in the county to do bacteriological and pathological research. Continuing north will have you pass back under the Koch Bridge, the ferry dock and up to Grannie Annie’s as a possible lunch stop.
To get a feel of the community on Roosevelt Island, consider walking down Main Street instead of the east side of the island. Here you will see a gallery and the stores that serve the community.
The Blackwell House off Main Street was built in 1796. The Blackwell family owned the island in 1686 and was one of the original namesakes for the island. The house is of modest size. Visitors entering it will see mostly photos as there is nothing original inside. Further up the street is the Chapel of the Good Shepherd dating back to 1889 where services are held every Sunday. Visitors are welcome to view the interior.
From the church continue on Main Street about 500 feet until you see the Roosevelt Island Bridge and make a right to the river. Then make a left going north on the path about 1500 feet to the Octagon.
The Octagon is now an upscale condo. It started as the entrance to the City Municipal Lunatic Asylum in 1839. The place was made infamous in a story by Nellie Bly (more on her below) who faked her way into the asylum for 10 days. She reported the most deplorable conditions. Visitors can enter the Octagon and view the old photos including those of the restoration.
Continuing 500 feet north, stop and linger at large facial sculptures at The Girl Puzzle Monument honoring Nelly Bly. Nelly Bly lived from 1864 to 1922. She was a reporter that tired of female-oriented or lifestyle stories as women did back then.
On a challenge from Joseph Pulitzer, she broke the story about the lunatic asylum taking days to get into character as someone with mental issues. Her six-part expose story made her one of the best journalists in the country. It was also the start of what we call investigative journalism. Another of her accomplishments was challenging Jules Verne’s book Around the World in 80 Days by doing it in 72. www.thegirlpuzzle.com/
The Blackwell Lighthouse is on Roosevelt Island’s north end. This stone lighthouse built in 1872 is 50 feet tall. Its style is gothic revival and was designed by the same architect, James Renwick Jr, who did the smallpox hospital. (He also designed the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.) The light in Blackwell’s Lighthouse was turned off in 1940. Extensive renovations took place in 1970.
Continue your walk back on the west side taking in the Manhattan skyline. In about 1500 feet look for three pieces of art in the water. These three small copper sculptures are called The Marriage of Money and Real Estate. Your loop around Roosevelt Island will end back at the visitor’s center in 15 minutes.
Getting to Roosevelt Island
Roosevelt Island can be accessed in four ways. This includes the scenic seven-minute tram from 59th street in Manhattan, driving across the Roosevelt Bridge from Queens, taking the subway that stops under the middle of the island, or hop on the NYC Ferry. On the island, there is a free shuttle on the red bus that stops all over the island.
Information on Roosevelt Island can be found at https://www.nycgo.com/boroughs-neighborhoods/manhattan/roosevelt-island/
Tab Hauser is captain of www.glencovecruises.com in the summer season. Off-season he does event photography at www.tabhauserphoto.com and travel writes for www.gonomad.com.