The East River island you’re not allowed to visit

That would be U Thant Island (officially known as Belmont Island), a rocky spit of land just south of Roosevelt Island in the East River. It ranks as the tiniest of New York City’s dozens of little islets.

Doesn’t look like a bad place to catch some sun, right? Unfortunately, people aren’t allowed there. This half-acre is maintained by the parks department as a bird sanctuary.

So what’s with the odd and unofficial name? Originally called Man ‘O War reef, it was created with landfill from trolley tunnels dug under the East River. Augustus Belmont Jr., of Belmont Park and subway financier fame, completed the job and got naming rights.

In the 1970s, mostly forgotten, it was unofficially renamed U Thant Island (after the former U.N. Secretary General from Burma) by a group of U.N. employees who followed a mystic in Queens.

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17 Responses to “The East River island you’re not allowed to visit”

  1. Rick Says:

    I seem to recall that there was also a fountain that shot water straight up on that island, but that it didn’t operate for long. Not sure why.

    • Rose Marie Says:

      The geyser was on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island (aka Welfare island, aka Blackwell’s Island). Apartment dwellers on Sutton Place complained about salt water spray on their windows. Money talks.

  2. Ivan Says:

    That island has always fascinated me (as a kid I knew it was the perfect place to sit out a zombie holocaust), although as soon as it is out of sight, I tend to forget about it.

    I seem to remember that water-spout, too, but from a LONG time ago.


  3. petey Says:

    i also remember the water spout, but i also think i remember that the group that got it named U Thant Island has the right once a year to visit for a ceremony.

  4. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    I recall the water from a long time, in the 60s and 70s, used the shoot up at noon time. What a wonderful sight to see.

  5. MT Says:

    Did I completely imagine it, or when I was growing up did there used to be a fountain somewhere in the vicinity of this island?

  6. wildnewyork Says:

    I don’t know anything about a fountain. But I did find this clip of an artist/filmmaker who took a boat out to U Thant Island during the Republican National Convention in 2004 and declared it a sovereign nation:

  7. Nabe News: March 10 - Bowery Boogie | A Lower East Side Chronicle Says:

    […] half-acre spit of land in the East River known as Belmont Island is a bird sanctuary.  Humans are not allowed there [Ephemeral […]

  8. bowsprite Says:

    thank you!
    how did you get this very good photo?

  9. wildnewyork Says:

    It’s public domain, taken in 2007.

  10. allen Says:

    There was a fountain, more like a man made geyser, but it was not on the island. It was just off the south west end of Roosevelt Island, near the old hospital ruins. I believe it aligned with 53rd st, so if you were standing in Midtown, you could actually see the plume of water. I did a lot of exploring there in the mid 70’s.

  11. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    Around noon time in the 70s I would sit on the rocks around 17th, 18th Streets and watch the geyser. At that angle was hard to tell which island it was coming from but it was a very nice sight to see. I wonder why they shut it down, fiscal, I suppose.

  12. Janko Says:

    Following this article, the curious structure on U Thant Island is “a thirty-foot ‘oneness arch’ preserving personal items of the island’s namesake.” As old sailor dog I’d rather stick to the name Belmont Island. The Village Voice has a funny story about Duke Riley proclaiming a sovereign nation.

  13. Sharon Seitz Says:

    I’d like to use the public domain photo is a new edition of The Other Islands of NYC. I am co-author. Where did you get it?

  14. PATRICK Says:

    I remember the water geyser from trips on the circle line in the 60″s. At that time we were told that a man financed it to pay tribute to his deceased wife. I think it went off on the hour but cannot find the name of the guy that financed it

  15. BrianW Says:

    I was under the impression that the geyser was called Belmont Fountain.

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