Located in the waters north of Manhattan lies two and a half acres of barren rock with a distasteful history that matches its uninviting name. Welcome to Rat Island.
Rat Island is part of a chain of tiny islands that sit in Long Island Sound. Originally it was purchased by New York City in the 1880s to be used as part of the Bronx’s Pelham Bay Park, but the lore attached to it is quite a bit darker.
Among the stories about to Rat Island is that of prison escape. Prisoners working on the nearby Hart Island—New York’s largest potter’s field where Riker’s Island prisoners work burying unidentified corpses—are said to have made escape attempts by swimming to Rat Island. As they swam over, they wore boxes on their heads in the hopes of being mistaken for floating garbage.
Rumor also has it that it was the home of a detention center for yellow fever victims. Most historians dispute this, as it would be unnecessary since Hart already had one near its prison.
Rat Island has switched hands many times over the past couple of centuries. It no longer belongs to the city and from the 1970s through 2010 it was owned by marine contractor, Red Brennen, who used it as a barge salvage yard. After he retired, he tried to sell in 2009 for $300,000 (the city valued it at $426,000). Unsuccessful, he waited a year and put it up for auction. It sold for $160,000 to local Bronx resident, Alex Schibli, who had been the island’s groundskeeper long before buying it.
Schibli lives in the fishing community of City Island, which is one of the other islands in Long Island Sound. Schibli lives so close to Rat Island that he frequently kayaks around it. Since it is a notorious spot for illegal parties, he took it upon himself to remove any debris left behind. Schibli is so infatuated that the island that he purchased it for the sake of preservation, but takes issue with the unattractive name, pointing out that the island is actually devoid of rats. He’s mulling over the idea of renaming it completely, after his granddaughter. “Malina Island” has a much nicer ring to it, and might give the small rock an opportunity to shed it’s bad reputation.
Visit New York State with Atlas Obscura Trips
Only in Queens: Tasting Our Way Through New York’s Most Diverse Borough
Manhattan may have name-brand recognition and Brooklyn a certain cache, but Queens is the city’s largest and most diverse borough. Join us, October 4-7, to dig into Queens’ rich neighborhood life.