After several cholera pandemics in the nineteenth century, the federal government built Swinburne and Hoffman islands to serve as areas of quarantine for immigrants arriving by ship and carrying contagious diseases. Along with Hoffman Island, which was constructed in 1873, Swinburne was used through the early 20th century to quarantine immigrants to the United States who were found to be suffering dangerous contagious diseases upon arrival at the Port of New York. Immigrants suspected of having such diseases were taken to the quarantine hospital and were not allowed to go to Ellis Island for entry until they were shown to be well or were cured of the disease. The island was used to quarantine patients during the last cholera outbreak in the United States in 1910-1911, which started with a passenger from Naples on the Moltke, a ship of the Hamburg-American line. Swinburne was the second built, about a mile south of the earlier island, and it has a crematorium. The island was originally called Dix Island, but was renamed in honor of Dr. John Swinburne (1820–1899), a military surgeon during the American Civil War.
During World War I, immigration was reduced. Later, the United States passed the Immigration Act of 1923, which sharply lessened immigration from southern and eastern Europe. By this time, the city and state had learned other means of controlling infectious diseases, so the quarantine facilities were little used. By the start of World War II, the United States Merchant Marine had adapted both islands as a training station, which had opened in 1938. It built additional quonset huts, which still stand. Both islands (Hoffman, 11 acres, and Swinburne, 4 acres) are now managed by the National Park Service as part of the Staten Island Unit of the Gateway National Recreation Area.
April 23, 1863, what is now known as the General Quarantine Act was passed, defining the quarantine establishment, authorizing its construction, creating the permanent office of Quarantine Commissioner, defining the duties and powers of the Commissioners and Health Officer, and establishing a general system of quarantine for the port. Additional powers were conferred by amendments made to this general act in 1864, 1865, 1866, and 1867, under which two small steamers were purchased; the property at Tompkinsville, Staten Island, known as the Marine Hospital Grounds, was sold; and the artificial islands in the lower bay were undertaken and afterward completed — Swinburne Island in 1870, and Hoffman Island in 1873.
A case of cholera developed today in the steerage of the Hamburg-American liner 'Moltke,' which has been detained at quarantine as a possible cholera carrier since Monday last. Dr. A.H. Doty, health officer of the port, reported the case tonight with the additional information that another cholera patient from the 'Moltke' is under treatment at Swinburne Island.
The sixth death from cholera since the arrival in this port from Naples of the steamship Moltke, thirteen days ago, occurred yesterday at Swinburne Island. The victim was Francesco Farando, 14 years old.
When the Federal Government recently offered to give Hoffman and Swinburne Islands to the City of New York not a few people asked where these islets might be found and for what purposes they had been used. Hoffman and Swinburne are man-made islands and they lie at the entrance of the Narrows, west of the main ship channel, a mile off the Staten Island shore. Hoffman Island, nine and three-tenths ... This was afterward changed to Swinburne in honor Of Dr. John Swinburne, ...