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An aerial view of Hart Island in the Bronx, NYC
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You can now take a tour of NYC’s mysterious Hart Island

It’s the largest public cemetery in the nation with 1 million buried there.

Shaye Weaver
Written by
Shaye Weaver

A grim, usually off-limits part of New York City is opening to the public.

The mysterious Hart Island, which has served as a potter’s field since 1869 and has been largely closed off except to workers and family members, will now open for tours on a regular basis.

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Starting this week on November 21, NYC Parks’ Urban Park Rangers will lead free tours on select Tuesday mornings of certain portions of the island to educate people about its critical role in the city and to destigmatize its past, the Parks Department says.

To the east of City Island, Bronx, Hart Island is just 1 mile long and has a dark history. Its first use in the U.S. was as a training ground for the U.S. Colored Troops in 1864. Since then, it has been used as a Union Civil War prison camp, a psychiatric institution, a tuberculosis sanatorium, a potter’s field, a homeless shelter, a boys’ reformatory, a jail, and a drug rehabilitation center.

As of now, it is still used as a cemetery—the largest public cemetery in the nation—where more than 1 million bodies are buried, including Civil War soldiers, and those who have died from AIDS-related illness and COVID-19. They are typically people who were not claimed by their families or did not have private funerals; the homeless and the indigent; and from mass burials due to disease.

In recent years, the city has added programming, done major upgrades such as the demolition of aging buildings handled by DDC, planted new trees and made the island more beautiful and safe.

In order to go on the free tour, you’ll need to register on NYC Parks’ website. If the tour reaches capacity, participants will be selected by lottery.  

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