NYC launches first-ever Hart Island public walking tours

November 15, 2023

Image courtesy of David Trawin on Flickr

Hart Island, the nation’s largest public cemetery, will open to the public for the first time this month. The city’s Parks Department on Wednesday announced that free walking tours of the Bronx island will be offered twice per month starting November 21. Hart Island, which has served as the final resting place of more than one million people since the Civil War, has long been inaccessible to visitors, with extremely stringent security and once-a-month visitation days. Now, with NYC Parks managing the site, the public can get an up-close look at the island’s history, helping undo historical stigmas. The tours will last roughly 2.5 hours, with ferry transportation provided to and from the island.

Hart Island has served as the city’s public cemetery since 1869, with New Yorkers who were unable to afford private burials or who were never claimed by family. While currently only used for burials, the 131-acre island has previously been used as a quarantine station, a psychiatric hospital, a tuberculosis ward, a reform school, a homeless shelter, a rehabilitation facility, a military base, and a jail.

The highly-anticipated NYC Parks walking tours aim to enrich participants on the island’s public history, how the area became a municipal cemetery, its wildlife and natural features, the burial process, and current advocacy efforts to sustain it.

“We’re thrilled to begin offering free public history tours of Hart Island, allowing New Yorkers an intimate look at the island for the very first time. Our Urban Park Rangers have created informative and reflective programming that highlights the island’s important role in New York City history,” NYC Parks Commissioner Sue Donoghue said.

“As Hart Island will continue to be the City’s main burial ground for the foreseeable future, we’re also pleased to unveil, in collaboration with sister agencies, the positive improvements and beautification efforts that have taken place to improve the experience at gravesite visits for those visiting loved ones buried on the island. I encourage New Yorkers to join the Urban Park Rangers to explore Hart Island’s unique past, present, and future.” 

The first tour is scheduled to take place on Tuesday, November 21. To attend a tour, interested participants must register through an online form and then be selected by a lottery.

Additional public tour dates include:

  • December 5, 2023
  • December 19, 2023
  • January 16, 2024
  • January 30, 2024
  • February 13, 2024
  • February 27, 2024
  • March 12, 2024
  • March 26, 2024
  • April 9, 2024
  • April 23, 2024
  • May 14, 2024
  • May 28, 2024

The free public walking tours aren’t the only activities coming to the island. New nature classes, known as the Urban Park Rangers Weekend Adventures, will be offered in the next few months. These classes include activities like canoeing, hiking, archery, and fishing.

In November 2019, the City Council approved legislation transferring ownership of Hart Island from the city’s Department of Corrections to the Parks Department and the NYC Human Resources Association (HRA). The transfer of management took place in 2021, following years of advocacy from groups who wanted to ease the process of visiting the island to pay respects to loved ones buried there, improve its dilapidated conditions, and make it more publicly accessible.

Since the island’s transferral, the area has seen significant upgrades that improve the visitor experience for guests, including the demolition of deteriorating buildings, new plantings, and additional beautification efforts.

HRA, which manages the island’s burials and landscaping, cleared overgrowth that previously blocked graves for decades and created a landscaped area with seating near the ferry dock.

Future plans include the creation of a 3.5-mile shuttle bus from the 6 train to the ferry, or a new dedicated water route from the Bronx, according to the New York Times.

Additionally, the Department of Design and Construction (DDC) recently finished a $32 million project that removed 15 old structures from the island, which resulted in better views and a more open feel. DDC is continuing to work on stabilizing the island’s historic chapel.

More information on the tours can be found here.


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