Roosevelt Island: NYC’s Most Impressive Water Views

Tramway to Roosevelt Island, New York City.
Tramway to Roosevelt Island, New York City.

Take the Famous Roosevelt Island Aerial Tramway

By Tab Hauser
GoNOMAD Senior Writer

Roosevelt Island is in the middle of the East River between Queens and Manhattan. It is a perfect half-day destination when visiting the Big Apple and you have seen the major sites. Here you will get the maximum water views and get away from the crowds and noise of the city.

Roosevelt Island Information Center (Tab Hauser)
Start your visit at Roosevelt Island Information Center

It is a place I pass on the water many times during the summer when I run my private chartered boat tours to the Statue of Liberty  on Glen Cove Cruises. I would tell my guests all about Roosevelt Island as I motored by at 15 mph. Yet, living in New York for 64 years I had never stepped foot on it. This changed one late winter day.

A Brief History of Roosevelt Island

Roosevelt Island has gone under four names in 400 years. Growing up in New York, it was called Welfare Island because of the history of hospitals on it. In 1973 its name was changed to honor President Franklin Roosevelt.

In the 1800s to early 1900s, the island was known for having several hospitals, a penitentiary, and a “Lunatic Asylum”. It also housed just one of four nursing schools in the country. In the 1960s long-term plans started coming out regarding building of apartments and making a community on Roosevelt.

For the 21st century, Roosevelt Island added a technical campus called Cornell Tech. It is a collaboration between Cornell University and the Technion Institute. In the past 20 years, the island has also seen historical restorations, art, and parks added as well as a memorial to President Franklin Roosevelt.

The Roosevelt View

Roosevelt Island View to United Nations
Roosevelt Island View to United Nations

Roosevelt Island is two miles long and 800 feet wide in the middle. It makes the perfect waterside stroll. Its paths and sidewalks that circle the island are flat and always have a water view. A pleasant stroll will take 90 minutes without stopping.

During your walk, you will see the Manhattan skyline to the west. This is a blend of old-style skyscrapers like the Empire State Building mixed with modern glass structures and the new “match stick” towers. You will also see up close the United Nations and the Carl Shultz Park where Gracie Mansion and the mayor live.

On the Queens, side look for the landmark Pepsi sign built in 1940. You can also view the old and new buildings of Long Island City and Brooklyn. Most of the tall buildings were built in the last 15 years. To the south just under 2 miles away is the Williamsburg Bridge, built in 1903.

Fast Water

If you are on the northern tip of the island around full tide you will see the East River charge by. Here it merges with the Harlem River and you can see waves, whirlpools, and eddies in the turbulent waters. From this location, it flows fast in or out of what has been known since the Dutch Days as Hell’s Gate. This is because it could be pure hell if a sailing vessel times the tides wrong. To this day sailing and underpowered boats must show respect when boating here.

Roosevelt Island Sights

Renwick Smallpox Hospital Roosvelt Island TabHauser
The Ruins of the 1856 Renwick Smallpox Hospital

I recommend visiting the island in two halves. Start your self-tour at the Roosevelt Island Visitor center. This cute historical structure is where you can get a free map, buy a souvenir and ask questions. Take the island in two loops starting here and stopping for lunch halfway.

Start by walking south passing under the double-decker, Ed Koch Bridge opened in 1909. (New Yorkers still call it the Queensboro Bridge).

From 1919 to 1953 a ten-story elevator lowered people and cars to support the hospitals where the visitor center now stands. This bridge quickly transformed the farmlands in western Queens into apartments and commerce.

Continuing south you will pass the Graduate Hotel where you can circle back as a lunch option. A little further along the river you will see the modern designed building of Cornel Tech. Five minutes further south you will see the ruins of the smallpox hospital.

The Renwick Smallpox Hospital opened in 1856 and had 100 beds. In 1972 it became a member of the National Register of Historic Places. Its architecture is Gothic Revival which gives the ruins an eerie look. There are historic plaques with details on the place in front. The view on its east side is better.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park
Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park

The next stop is the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park. The park is located on four acres at the southern tip of the island. It is named after the president’s eighth state of the union address. There is an excerpt of the speech on one of the walls with a large bust of him in between two small walls.

The tall bare walls on the east and west sides focus your view south on the East River. An architect I know told me the excellent craftsmanship of the memorial is something you don’t see too often these days. Personally, I did not care for the closed-in feeling and did not linger.

Making your way up to the east side you will pass 1892 landmarked Strecker Labs. This stone building was the first institution in the county to do bacteriological and pathological research. Continuing north will have you pass back under the Koch Bridge, the ferry dock, and up to Grannie Annie’s as a possible lunch stop.

To get a feel of the community on Roosevelt Island, consider walking down Main Street instead of the east side of the island. Here you will see a gallery and the stores that serve the community.

Good Shepherd Roosevelt Island (tab hauser)
Good Shepherd Roosevelt Island

The Blackwell House off Main Street was built in 1796. The Blackwell family owned the island in 1686 and was one of the original namesakes for the island. The house is of modest size. Visitors entering it will see mostly photos as there is nothing original inside. Further up the street is the Chapel of the Good Shepherd dating back to 1889 where services are held every Sunday. Visitors are welcome to view the interior.

From the church continue on Main Street about 500 feet until you see the Roosevelt Island Bridge and make a right to the river. Then make a left going north on the path about 1500 feet to the Octagon.

Octagon an Upscale Condo

The Girl Puzzle Monument honoring Nelly Bly Cathy Krellenstein
The Girl Puzzle Monument honoring Nelly Bly and Blackwell Lighthouse

The Octagon is now an upscale condo. It started as the entrance to the City Municipal Lunatic Asylum in 1839. The place was made infamous in a story by Nellie Bly (more on her below) who faked her way into the asylum for 10 days. She reported the most deplorable conditions.

Visitors can enter the Octagon and view the old photos including those of the restoration.

Continuing 500 feet north, stop and linger at large facial sculptures at The Girl Puzzle Monument honoring Nelly Bly. Nelly Bly lived from 1864 to 1922. She was a reporter that tired of female-oriented or lifestyle stories as women did back then.

On a challenge from Joseph Pulitzer, she broke the story about the lunatic asylum taking days to get into character as someone with mental issues. Her six-part expose story made her one of the best journalists in the country. It was also the start of what we call investigative journalism. Another of her accomplishments was challenging Jules Verne’s book Around the World in 80 Days by doing it in 72.

The Blackwell Lighthouse is on Roosevelt Island’s north end. This stone lighthouse built in 1872 is 50 feet tall. Its style is gothic revival and was designed by the same architect, James Renwick Jr, who did the smallpox hospital. (He also designed the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.) The light in Blackwell’s Lighthouse was turned off in 1940. Extensive renovations took place in 1970.

Nellie Bly Roosevelt Island
Plaque honoring Nellie Bly

Continue your walk back on the west side taking in the Manhattan skyline. In about 1500 feet look for three pieces of art in the water. These three small copper sculptures are called The Marriage of Money and Real Estate. Your loop around Roosevelt Island will end back at the visitor’s center in 15 minutes

Getting to Roosevelt Island 

Scenic strolling with views on Roosevelt Island (Tab Hauser)
Scenic strolling with views of Roosevelt Island

Roosevelt Island can be accessed in different four ways. This includes the scenic seven-minute tram from 59th street in Manhattan, driving across the Roosevelt Bridge from Queens, taking the subway that stops under the middle of the island, or hop on the NYC Ferry.

While you’re on the island, there is a free shuttle on the red bus that stops all over the island.

Information on Roosevelt Island can be found at this link

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9 thoughts on “Roosevelt Island: NYC’s Most Impressive Water Views

  1. Like you, I have lived my entire life in the NY/NJ area and have never visited the Island. Passed it, saw it, thought about it, just never visited it. Thanks to your review, that will now change. So much history, so close to home. I look forward to the tram ride and a visit to Roosevelt Island in the not so distant future.

  2. Thanks Tab for the great article.
    The narrative and photography are outstanding as always!
    Many years ago I went to the island before the tram and the subway stop and all the development.
    I can’t recognize it now.
    It is indeed a hidden gem in the East River and you did it proud.
    Best Wishes ………………………..Jim.

  3. Lived in New York all my life and didn’t know any of this!
    Will look at the Island now with new appreciation and definitely
    plan a visit, which I’ve never done before – or even thought of doing!
    Thanks so much Tab!

  4. Thanks for the article. I also have lived in NY a long time and have looked at the island and tram so many times but have never stepped foot on it. It sounds like a perfect place for a morning or afternoon excursion with lots of nice water views and points of interest. I am already planning a visit as soon as the weather warms up a bit

  5. Thanks Tab for the great article showcasing the nuances & splendors of Roosevelt Island. I lived on the Island 40+ years ago. Beautiful duplex apartment with an amazing Manhattan view! But wow, the Island sure has grown up since those early days. Many sights have been restored and some new ones created. It will be interesting and fun to revisit the Island to enjoy the new features and historical sights. The subway was under construction in those days, and there was no ferry service. In fact, the tramway was down for preventive maintenance for a couple of weeks and this caused a major “shtuss” for those of us who worked in Manhattan; the buses provided got hung up in early morning inbound traffic on the Queensborough Bridge. I remember the helicopters swooping in low over the Roosevelt Island tram station; almost reminded one of the helicopters in the film Apocalypse Now. I am glad the helicopters didn’t have speakers playing The Ride of the Valkyries. That would have caused a stampede. Thanks Tab for the trip down memory lane and i am certain that all NYC-bound travelers will enjoy a day exploring Roosevelt Island using your terrific review as their guide for the day!

  6. This is a very cool place to spend a few hours. The Manhattan views are wonderful and the tram is a super deal and fun to do. Well worth the trip. Enjoy!!

    1. thank you for taking the time to comment. I read more about Nelly when I got home. She was an incredible woman

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