The Floating Hospital

A boat. A mission. A history of hope.

Organized by the St. John's Guild of the Trinity Church in 1866, The Floating Hospital has been guided by two main principles: “To afford relief to the sick children of the poor of the City of New York without regard to creed, color or nationality” and that “the ministries of the Guild shall be absolutely free.”

Donate Today! The Ships

1872 – 1877

Newsboys and the birth of the floating hospital

On July 3, 1872, The New York Times asked wealthy New Yorkers for support. They sought to provide poor children, including the New York Times' own newsboys, a temporary, restorative escape from the crushing heat, filth and diseased conditions of a New York City summer.

In 1916, The New York Times published this account of how the idea for a floating hospital came to be. "It all started one blazing hot summer day in 1872," he said, "when Mr. Williams (George F. Williams, managing editor of The New York Times) was crossing City Hall Park. He saw a number of barefoot newsboys and other little fellows playing on the grass and stopped to watch them. Just then, a policeman came along and drove them off the grass onto the hot pavement. The little fellows limped and jumped on the asphalt, and one very little chap sat down and began to cry with the pain of the burns. Mr. Williams spoke to them, and found that they were suffering from the lack of the country, and right then he resolved that those boys should have a chance to run barefoot on the cool grass. "Mr. Williams went to The Times office and next day the paper made an appeal for funds to provide excursions for the newsboys."

In the first year alone, 18,600 impoverished children and caretakers enjoyed free chartered ferry rides and countryside picnic outings. For most, it was the first day of many excursions offering healthy food and drink as well as fresh sea air. Following this success, the St. John's Guild began bringing physicians on board to administer medical aid, and with that, the Floatng Hospital was born.

Encouraged by the endorsement of the city's leading physicians and with the enthusiastic support from the public, St. John's Guild commissioned the construction of a barge that could accommodate 2,500 sick children and mothers. The medical staff included nurses practiced in the care of infants who also educated mothers on well baby care, nurtition and disease prevention. According to a New York Times article, the need for nurses on board was first realized when, on one of the early sea excursions, the head nurse of the New York Hospital discovered a mother feed a large green pickle to her baby and gave the woman an impromptu lesson on the care of children.

Incorporated on May 19, 1875, the ship was named after Emma Abbott, an opera star who was an early benefactor. During this summer, the ship made 22 excursions, serving 22,830 children and their caretakers. Two years after St. John's Guild was incorporated, following it's decision to break ties with Trinity Church. The guild announced plans to build the Seaside Nursery, a land based facility for infants and children.

1881 – 1891

The Seaside Nursery and Hospital

Built on Staten Island, the Seaside Nursery was set up in 1881 by the Children's Aid Society for the purpose of giving a little country air and country fare to the miserable children of tenement houses. Mothers and children often spent days at Seaside, along with caring physicians in a controlled environment. Advances in scientific knowledge, public health and disease prevention and treatment led to important changes in public and professional opinion and practices. The growing knowledge that children had different medical needs than adults became the basis for establishment of pediatrics as a separate specialty.

The Floating Hospital was used to transport Seaside Nursery patients to and from Manhattan and became an extension of it's programs. Built alongside the Seaside Nursery, the Seaside Hospital's mission was to provide a richly supportive medical environment where parents could tend to their sick children in the healthy atmosphere of the ocean. While it's mission was similar to that of the Seaside Nursery, the hospital had 200 beds for children and offered acute medical care. It eventually became part of The Floating Hospital until it's closure in the mid-1900s.

1892 – 2001 | The ships

During it's first 20 years of operation, The Floating Hospital was used solely as a quarantine hospital vessel. On September 1, 1892, after a few cases of Cholera has been identified, the New York City Health Department asked St. John's Guild to "deliver the Floating Hospital at the foot of the east 16th street at 9 o'clock, A.M., tomorrow, Friday" to quarantine those patients. Started as a small project by a growing charitable group, The Floating Hospital has developed into a mission with citywide importance, impacting the lives of thousands of needy families each year. The ship was featured in an 1892 newspaper on a day in the life of The Floating Hospital, taking readers back to life at The Floating Hospital in the 1800s.

1899 – 1916

The Helen C. Julliard, I

Following the success of the first Floating Hospital's ship, our second ship was commissioned (and later named after) by Helen C. Julliard, a prominent New York City patron who initiated construction. Launched May 4, 1899, the capacity of the ship was 1,900 passengers and was considered a marvel of convenience and usefulness. "From stem to stern, everything is the picture of neatness and comfort," quoted one newspaper article." Babies of all kinds enjoyed the sea breeze and began to freshen up as the day passed on.", the article declared, "all partook of the benefits of the hospital equally, without regard to color, creed or nationality.

1916 – 1933

The Helen C. Julliard, II

Seventeen years later, the Helen C. Julliard, II, launched on June 7, 1916, shortly after it's namsake's death. It was reported that Julliard's last interest before her death was the ship and learning that it was almost ready for duty. The New York Times called it "a model of it's kind" and "superior in every respect" when compared to the first Helen. It was built at the noteworthy cost of $125,000 and contained modern marvels like heated crib pads, hot and cold water that could be temperature regulated and water, steam heat and electrical plants.

1935 – 1973

The Lloyd I Seaman

Launched in the summer of 1935, the Lloyd I. Seaman was a hardworking ship that would go on to sail in the New York harbor for the next fifty years. In 1950, it sailed the entire season without missing a scheduled day, and carried a record total of 57,912 passengers. Dr. S. S. Goldwater, Commissioner of Hospitals in New York City, presided over the dedication of the $175,000 vessel. "Nobody has any idea," said Dr. Goldwater, "what it means to poor children to have a full day on the water when they are doomed to spend their entire vacation surrounded by tenement houses." He added that New York City Mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, and Governor of New York, Alfred E. Smith, were "firm allies in the cause of social service" and that the welfare of the underprivileged of the city was the Mayor's principle interest.

1973 – 2001

The Lila Acheson Wallace

Built by Blount Manufacturing, the firm that also constructed Manhattan's famed Circle Line boats, and launched in the summer of 1973, the fifth and final Floating Hospital was launched. Named the Lila Acheson Wallace, it continued to be a respite from the heat of summer for New York City families. 180 feet long, 5 decks tall and with 36,000 square feet of usable space, the ship offered a commercial kitchen, a dumbwaiter, two fully functional generators and pounds of crayons for creative little patients. Ultimately considered an outpatient center, it served 15,000 poor and homeless people annually on the boat and at it's outreach centers.

From the early 1980s through the 1990s, the Lila was docked on Pier 84 at 44th Street on the west side of Manhattan, next to the Intrepid Museum pier. Over it's long sail, the Lila welcomed the poor, the sick and the famous. New York City mayor, Rudy Giuliani, Elizabeth Taylor and David Rockefeller were among it's notable passengers.


The Floating Hospital Broadens It's Sights

Beginning in 1980, free tickets for recreational Summer Sails were distributed at all New York City family shelters, and to hundreds of community organizations that provided services to underserved populations. Sails were daily Monday through Friday during July and August, and offered medical and dental screenings, health education workshops, free lunches, entertainment and fitness classes. A Fourth of July fireworks celebration punctuated the summer and provided entertainment for the children of fallen police officers and city dignitaries as well as young patients. This program lasted a decade before being discontinued.


The move to Pier 11 and the rise of community programming

In 1992, the Lila Acheson Wallace was moved downtown from Manhattan's pier 84 to pier 11, as the on-board services increased and were offered year-round. The Floating Hospital was now a health center offering primary medical, dental and psychosocial health services. A full time health education department was created and transformed patients' waiting time into learning time with innovative workshops and classes. One unique workshop taught health meal preparation in a fully equipped onboard kitchen. At the end of each class, the "apprentice cooks" served the meals they prepared to other waiting patients. Outdoor meditation, dance classes and aerobics on the ship's decks were among the most popular non-clinical activities.

In addition to this programming, The Floating Hospital also began offering services to teens at three of the most at-risk high schools in New York City. Titled the Pier 11 Program, it was organized to keep kids in school at a performance level that would lead to a productive adult life. On board and during classes at their schools, kids would paticipate in workshops and receive individual counseling. Appreciation breakfasts rewarded parents of kids who made significant progress, while the kids got pizza parties for their efforts. Once a month weekend outings exposed to kids to places and experiences new to them.

In September of 1997, however, the city declared the pier 11 site structurally unsound and henceforth demolished it. Additionally, the Lila ship was facing eviction from it's East River berth. Development plans for a new Pier 11 excluded The Floating Hospital, so the "Ship of Health" was temporarily docked at The South Street Seaport. After a long battle with city officials, and with the help of supporters like the New York Stock Exchange, The Floating Hospital was allowed to return to the newly rebuilt Pier 11 at the foot of Wal Street, where it stayed stationed until 2001.


An act of terrorism drives The Floating Hospital ashore

On September 11, 2001, a gorgeous blue sky was the backdrop to terror that most of the residents and workers of New York City had experienced before. While The Floating Hospital was perilously close to ground zero, she was not structurally damaged during the attacks. Said an observant New Yorker , "The ship's generators kept her lights on after the attacks when Manhattan went dark. She was a beacon of hope."

As the city declared a state of emergency, the ship was moved to dry dock in Brooklyn. For the first time in 129 years, The Floating Hospital was no longer floating. Shortly afterwards, the ship was sold and The Floating Hospital operated out of several land-based locations over the next 5 years before moving to Long Island City in the New York City borough of Queens.


The rise of The Floating Hospital's transportation network

Unique among healthcare charities in New York City, The Floating Hospital's complex transportation network has always served as a vital lifeline for the populations it services. Transportation to healthcare has always been a significant challenge for New York City's poor and disadvantaged populations. While the city has an excellent system of subways and buses, it can still be a financial and logistical burden for a homeless parent with several small children in tow. 2003 saw a rapid expansion of the patient shuttle service that The Floating Hospital put in service in the early 1900s. Always free of charge, today's Floating Hospital transportation network makes more than 100 trips every day, reaching patients at over 200 family shelters, domestic violence safe house and public housing complexes in all five boroughs of the city. It affords patients, regardless of circumstances, living conditions, neighborhood or funds, the ability to have a family doctor.


Dropping anchor in Long Island City

Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and New York State Assembly member Cathy Nolan joined the grand opening festivities as The Floating Hospital opened our new land-based main clinic in Long Island City in October of 2006. In an existing building tucked beneath a busy city subway hub and in view of one of New York's most picturesque bridges, the renovated 5,200 square foot facility provided over 10,000 patient visits to homeless families in it's first year of operation. Since 2006, The Floating Hospital has become the largest provider of healthcare to families living in homeless shelters in all of New York City.

As it settled into it's new home, The Floating Hospital began providing services to predominantly homeless and displaced families, and a great need for a health center in the LIC community was noted and created. On October 26, 2009, the first Floating Hospital Community Health Center opened it's doors. Serving mostly working but low-income patients both in the Northwest community and Queensbridge Houses, the largest public houses in North America, the Community Health Center provided the kind of compassionate and respectful healthcare The Floating Hospital stil is known for today.


The opening of the Queensbridge Community Health Center

Launched in 2012, The Floating Hospital Health Center at Queensbridge is located in the largest public housing development in North America. The surrounding neighborhoods are among the poorest in New York City with most of the residents living below or just at the poverty level. Smaller than our main community health center, the Queensbridge Health Center offers almost all of the same services within a short walk from home for nearly 7,000 residents of Queensbridge Houses; and for patients needing care only offered at our larger main location, The Floating Hospital's transportation service is offered free of charge. In the same year that The Floating Hospital's Queensbridge clinic opened, it also became the largest provider of healthcare to women and families living in domestic violence safe houses in New York City.

Many notable people and organizations were part of The Floating Hospital's legacy, as supporters and champions.

  • The Altman Foundation
  • Mrs. Andrew Carnegie
  • Dun & Bradstreet
  • Helen C. Julliard
  • Jackson Dykman
  • Frank Jay Gould
  • Mrs. A D Julliard
  • Miss Eleanor Mellon
  • J Pierport Morgan
  • Harold I Pratt
  • William A Read
  • Isaac Seligman
  • Singer Manufacturing Company
  • Herbert N Strauss
  • James A Trowbridge
  • Margaret Vanderbilt
  • Fiorella LaGuardia
  • Elizabeth Taylor