Nike Missile Battery Launch Administration, Mess Hall and Storage Facility


These are the only remaining structures from the Nike NY-15 Launch Site, which is emblematic
of the development of military protection for the former New York Defense Area from enemy attack during the Cold War period. The Hart Island site is also significant as one of the first Cold War-era sites built in defense of the New York Metropolitan Area, as well as the first Nike missile battery to be located on two separate islands, with the control site at the former Fort Slocum on David’s Island and the launch site with underground missile storage magazines on Hart Island (site 9). All other buildings from this period have been razed. The DOC housed a small contingent of inmates here from 1982 to 1991 and continues to use the compound as a base for operations on Hart Island.

Image©2017 Alon Sicherman l-vision courtesy The Hart Island Project

Episcopal Cross


In 1907, the City Mission Society of the Episcopal Diocese of New York and a member, Mrs. William Greer, raised $600 to commission and erect a granite cross bearing the inscription “He Calleth His Own By Name” on the base. Manufactured by the Harrison Granite Company, the base is four feet by four feet and the foundation is six feet by six feet deep. In his dedication later in 1907, Bishop Doane declared: “in putting this cross here, among these graves of the nameless and unknown children of men, that it shelter their dust in its sacred shadow.” The cross overlooks the burial sites of generations of New Yorkers.

Image ©1992 Joel Sternfeld courtesy The Hart Island Project

Civil War Parade Ground

During the Civil War, this area served as a parade ground for the 31st regiment of the United States Colored Troops, which had consolidated with the 30th Connecticut Colored Volunteers and a number of black Canadians and other foreign-born people of African descent who also served in the New York regiments. From Hart Island, the 31st regiment, under the command of Colonel Henry C. Ward, departed for Virginia, where it was active in several battles, including the siege of Petersburg. The Hart Island regiment was present at the Battle of the Crater and later fall of Petersburg, Virginia, to Union troops on April 2, 1865. It pursued Lee’s Army from April 3 through April 9 and was at Appomattox before, during and after the Confederate surrender on April 9, 1865.

Image: Illustrated London News, August 12, 1865

Hart Island Soldiers Cemetery

c. 1860

Although Hart Island is usually synonymous with “potter’s field” to most New Yorkers, City Cemetery was not the beginning of tax-funded burials. During the Civil War, both Union and Confederate soldiers encamped on Hart Island. At least three dozen units of Union Soldiers mustered in, trained or were discharged on Hart Island while a total of 3,413 Confederate POWs were incarcerated on the island in 1865. A total of 20 Union soldiers who died before June 1865 were interred in a small burial ground on the island. Burial records indicate that one Confederate soldier, A.W. Bennett of the 10th Alabama Cavalry, was interred on Hart Island before being removed to Cypress Hills National Cemetery. The other 217 Confederates who died on Hart Island while imprisoned were buried directly at Cypress Hills. However, most of the active duty military interments on Hart Island took place following the Civil War due to a cholera epidemic in July 1866. Upon acquiring Hart Island in 1868, New York City began preparations to open City Cemetery and the U.S. War Department arranged for the removal of soldiers to Cypress Hills. Unclaimed veterans who died following discharge from the army were buried by the City in a separate “soldier’s plot” on Hart Island. They were later disinterred and moved to West Farms Soldiers Cemetery in The Bronx starting in 1916; others were removed to Cypress Hills in 1941. While all of the remains were moved, an obelisk constructed in 1877 by the Army Reserves to honor soldiers and sailors, as well as fragments of cast-iron fencing, mark the location of Soldier’s Plot.

Image ©2004 Melinda Hunt courtesy The Hart Island Project

Carriage House

c. 1910

During the Civil War, ships transporting Union and Confederate troops anchored in the Long Island Sound east of Hart Island. This carriage house built in 1910 likely replace an earlier structure at this location, close to the beach, where supplies came ashore. Later, docks were built on the western shore, closer to the city. A building similar in scale and location appears in an 1865 engraving published in the Illustrated London Times. This building was subsequently used as a morgue to hold disinterred bodies awaiting pick-up by a funeral director or the Medical Examiner.

Image ©1999 Melinda Hunt courtesy The Hart Island Project

Ball Field

1960 – c. 1992

On May 26, 1960, roughly 600 grandstand seats from Ebbets Field (home of the Brooklyn Dodgers), which had been demolished a few months before, were dedicated for use at the workhouse prison ball field on Hart Island. The ball field was named Kratter Field after its donor Marvin Kratter, the developer who acquired Ebbets Field and donated the seats. The workhouse “All Stars” played against an Army unit stationed at the Nike missile battery on Hart Island. On opening day, The New York Times reported: “A standing-room crowd of 1340 – all but fifty-three of the prisoners on the island – was present.” Unfortunately, the ball field and the seats are no longer extant. Many of the seats were stolen over the years, but in the early 1990s, the DOC removed the rest and the ball field was mowed. The photo above was taken before the seats were removed.

©1991 Joel Sternfeld courtesy The Hart Island Project



Arriving on Hart Island, visitors are directed by Correction officers to a wooden gazebo enclosed by a white picket fence. This is as far as the vast majority of visitors – the general public – can go on the island. In 2006, the DOC erected this shelter for the Interfaith Friends of Potter’s Field, a prayer group organized by the nonprofit Picture the Homeless. DOC agreed that the group could assemble at the gazebo on a bi-monthly basis, but access to gravesites was still prohibited. In 2013, a group of eight women, working with the Hart Island Project, organized and petitioned New York City to visit the mass graves of their infants buried on Hart Island. On March 14, 2014, Elaine Joseph was the first woman to be permitted to walk to an infant burial site. In December 2014, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a federal class action lawsuit demanding gravesite access for relatives of the buried. Those who are not relatives are only permitted to visit the gazebo, which is open to the public on the third Thursday of each month.

Image ©2017 Alon Sicherman l-vision courtesy The Hart Island Project

Hart Island Natural Ecology

Hart Island is a saltwater, non-barrier island whose 131 acres include areas of woodland, scrub, vineland and closed forest. A saltmarsh occurs on its west side. Visitors arriving by boat at either the coal dock or the ferry dock will notice a small lagoon that is part of an expanding wetland area being naturally reclaimed. Formerly known as Spectacle Island, there were two land masses joined with a bridge of land in the middle similar in appearance to eyeglasses. Landfill added in the 1880s has been washing this fill away, recreating a lagoon. In addition to the saltmarsh, Hart Island has several wildlife habitats consisting of abandoned buildings, high bluffs, successional forests and a riprap shoreline. It is home to 28 species of wildlife and 65 plant species. The buildings and roads are deteriorating and earlier landscaped areas are succeeding to meadow. Institutional structures are being removed to provide new burial space, a process that is disruptive to the natural ecology due to the industrial scale of the graves that stay open for long periods. Erosion is a problem in areas close to the burials along the shoreline. Mitigation is expected to begin in 2019 with funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Image ©2004 Melinda Hunt courtesy The Hart Island Project

Hart Island, The Bronx

municipal cemetery in the United States. It was part of the property purchased by the English physician Thomas Pell from Native Americans in 1654. On May 16, 1868, the Department of Charities and Correction (later the Department of Correction or “DOC,” which split off from the Department of Public Charities in 1895), purchased Hart Island from the family of Edward Hunter to become a new municipal burial facility called City Cemetery. Public burials began in April 1869. Since then, well over a million people have been buried in communal graves with weekly interments still managed by the DOC. The burials expanded across the entire island starting in 1985. Over its 150-year municipal history, it has also been home to a number of health and penal institutions. The island is historically significant as a cultural site tied to a Civil War-era burial system still in use today.

During the Civil War, in April 1864, the federal government leased Hart Island as a training camp for the 31st regiment of the United States Colored Troops. For four months in 1865, Hart Island was host to a prisoner-of-war camp for 3,413 captured Confederate soldiers. Hart Island was also leased to the federal government for training and defense purposes during World War II and the Cold War. Following the Civil War, personnel from the U.S. Sanitary Commission were stationed at Bellevue Hospital and helped to establish a morgue for examining and identifying the dead. In 1866, the City Council passed new sanitary codes prohibiting new burial grounds from opening in New York City. The Potter’s Field then in use on Wards Island (established in the 1840s) closed, and City Cemetery on Hart Island (then part of Westchester County) opened in 1869.

In 1872, a highly efficient grid system of burials began on Hart Island that is largely unchanged today. Trenches were laid out in three layers of 50 graves. In 1931, this system changed to sections of two across and three deep with 50 bodies per section. Each pine box is listed as a grave and recorded in ledger books. Consequently, the City’s mortuary service, still operated by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner at Bellevue Hospital, can readily disinter a body for further examination or return it to families claiming the deceased at a later date. In 1931, the City also began recycling graves, which is legal after a body has decomposed to skeletal remains. Due to these practices, City Cemetery is large enough to accommodate New York City’s burial needs indefinitely, making it an important municipal resource.

In 2013, the New York City Council passed legislation requiring the DOC to post its database of burials online and to list its visitation policy. In 2013, a group of eight women working with a charity, The Hart Island Project (HIP), petitioned the City to visit the graves of their infants buried on Hart Island. In 2015, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit establishing rights for families to visit graves on Hart Island. Families are now able to visit once a month by appointment. HIP was founded in 1991 to provide public access to information about burials and, in 2014, launched The Traveling Cloud Museum, an online database with an interactive map for locating burial sites and collecting stories of the recently buried. These resources are intended to reconnect Hart Island with communities across the globe.