Created with landfill in the 19th Century, Hoffman and Swinburne islands are those mysterious tree-covered patches of land off the East Shore of Staten Island. They were built to quarantine immigrants (after Staten Islanders burned down two quarantine hospitals in Tomkinsville in 1858).
I look at the islands often while running on the FDR boardwalk, and I think of what they once were and of what they almost became—Robert Moses wanted to build dry land connecting them to the mainland of Staten Island. And I have always wondered what these islands look like up close.
Last weekend I was able to approach the islands, as part of New York Water Taxi’s Audobon Winter EcoCruise to see winter birds and harbor seals. The smaller Swinburne Island was the more interesting of the two, as it serves as a temporary home for some of the 300 seals that take up residence in New York harbor in the winter. Though none were on dry land, several seals were in the water, bobbing their heads up to take a look at the strange yellow catamaran that paid them a visit on a blustery Sunday afternoon.
You can see in the pictures below that Swinburne is also home to ruins. According to our guide (and some blogging kayakers), Hurricane Sandy took a toll on the island. Last year, the ruins of three buildings stood on the island; now only one and a third of a building stand.