U Thant Island: Manhattan’s smallest island that’s off limits to the public

September 3, 2020

Photo via Wiki Commons

Between the United Nations building and Long Island City sits a tiny 100-by-200 foot piece of land, known as U Thant Island. The East River man-made enclave is just south of Roosevelt Island and legally part of Manhattan. As Atlas Obscura discovered, the land did not exist until the 1800s when a trolley tunnel was dug beneath the River to connect Manhattan and Queens. While U Thant looks like a nice place to get some sun and relax, the island remains closed to the public as a bird sanctuary.

Photo by MatthewLloyd on Wikimedia

During the 1890s, William Steinway, credited with the development of Astoria, Queens, created two trolley tunnels under the East River to connect Manhattan and Astoria. Waste from the tunnels’ construction built-up on a reef beneath the surface, forcing the landmass to emerge above the water. Steinway died before his project was complete, leaving it to August Belmont Jr. to finish the work. The legal name of the island remains Belmont Island.

A group called the Peace Meditation at the United Nations, which included UN employees and followers of the Buddhist guru Sri Chinmoy, adopted the speck of land in 1977. Leasing the island from the state of New York, the group renamed it after the Burmese former UN Secretary-General U Thant, Chinmoy’s close friend.

The island features a skeletal metal arch of “oneness” to remember the leader. To maintain planted greenery, the group was allowed on the island just once or twice a year, but increased security ended visits to U Thant by the mid-1990s. Although not its official name, U Thant Island remains the land’s common moniker.

In 2004, local artist Duke Riley rowed to the island on a boat with a friend and proclaimed U Thant Island as a sovereign nation. Riley hoisted a 21-foot-long pennant that showed two electric eels. The U.S. Coast Guard later apprehended the duo but did not arrest them. Riley used the stunt as a piece in his video, Belmont Island.

While no one can step onto the island, as an effort to protect migrating birds, the reefs in the waters around the island make it a popular boating spot for fishermen seeking striped bass.

[Via Atlas Obscura]


Editor’s note 9/3/20: This post was originally published in August 2017.

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More: History
Location: Manhattan

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  1. D

    Hello, Sept,04. 2023
    Where is Thant Island and the many nests of the migrating cormorants ?