History of Boston's Harbor Islands

Long Island
(closed to the public)
Total land area: 214 acres. 1.75 miles long.

Long Island is the largest and longest Boston Harbor Island. The Long Island Bridge connects Long to Moon Island; a two-lane causeway connects Moon Island to Squantum, City of Quincy.

Prehistoric habitation sites may exist on Long Island, according to archaeologists. In 1634, tenant farming on Long Island began with 40 families. Long Island Light was built in 1819. In 1863, Fort Wightman, later renamed Fort Strong, was built, near which are buried the remains of 79 Civil War soldiers. During World War I, 500 soldiers were stationed at Fort Strong. The Fort, long abandoned, stands in disrepair. In the 1950s, a Nike missile base was established. After the missiles were removed, the base stored books from the Boston Public Library.

For much of the 19th century, Long Island was a resort. By 1882, the City of Boston acquired the largest hotel and in 1891 converted it into a poor house for 650 people. In 1921, the City converted the almshouse into a home and hospital for unwed mothers; in 1928, it built an addition to house homeless men; and in 1941, it enlarged this facility to provide treatment for alcoholics. The 60-acre Long Island Chronic Care Hospital later closed.

Today, on this campus, the City of Boston Public Health Commission houses the Long Island Shelter and a number of human-service agencies helping an average daily population of 1000. The Shelter operates a garden. The Friends of Boston Harbor Islands operates an island re-vegetation garden.

The first lighthouse on Long Island was constructed around 1794 on Long Island Head. The second lighthouse, built as a replacement in 1819, still stands today, although it has been moved twice to make room for military structures.

Moon Island
(closed to the public)
Total land area: 44 acres.
Moon Head (100-foot-high drumlin)

Known as "Manning's Moone" during colonial times, the grass-covered Moon Island was used for grazing and farming. Massive granite settling tanks and tunnels built in the 1880s when Moon Island became the world's most modern sewage facility cover more than half of Moon Island. In 1959, on the island's northern end, the Boston Fire Department built a training facility that recreated rooftops. In 1960, on Moon's southern end, the Boston Police Department set up a firing range.

Rainsford Island
Total land area: 11 acres

Rainsford Island is a 50-foot drumlin, natural coves facing south and southwest, separated by rock outcropping Pebbles and rock beach, shell deposits. In about 1636, Edward Rainsford was granted the island for farm use. In 1737, a quarantine hospital was moved to Rainsford Island from Spectacle Island and operated there until 1852. During this time, Rainsford Island was a popular summer resort.

In 1832 a small-pox hospital was built (a stone Greek-temple design), and many victims of infectious diseases were buried on the island in. In about 1852, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts took possession of the island and established an almshouse. The state abandoned the site in about 1866, and the City converted the island into a poorhouse. Civil War Veterans lived there until 1882, when they were transferred to a Soldiers Home on the mainland. Beginning in 1882, female paupers were sent to Rainsford. Later it was a facility for boys: the Suffolk School for Boys. In 1920, the school was closed. Now only foundation holes remain visible.

Spectacle Island
Total land area: 85 acres

Jointly owned by the City of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' Department of Environmental Management. Spectacle occupies a commanding position on the main shipping channel of the Boston Harbor. It is located west of Long Island and southeast of Castle Island. Its original shape, two drumlins joined by a narrow sidebar, resembled a pair of spectacles and gave the island its name. Native American tribes used the island to fish, harvest clams, and gather other food. After 1660, colonists used the island for pastureland and timber. Between 1717 and 1737, the island housed a quarantine hospital for patients with infectious diseases. In 1847, two resort hotels with casinos were built. In 1857, after a brothel was discovered, police closed the hotels. Later uses included horse rendering and reclaiming grease from garbage. The City dumped garbage on the island until 1959. Leaching trash from the landfill contributed to harbor pollution.

In 1978, DEM acquired a privately owned portion of Spectacle. Throughout the 1980s, extensive planning and permitting resulted in an agreement to deposit 3.6 million cubic yards of filling and excavated materials from the Central Artery/Tunnel project.

Today, Spectacle Island serves as both the water-transportation hub and information orientation center for the Boston Harbor Island National Park Area. Spectacle Island Park includes a visitor's center, two sandy beaches, a marina, and spectacular 360-degree views of Boston Harbor. It is  managed by a partnership including the City, DEM, New England Aquarium, Modern Continental, and the University of Massachusetts Urban Harbors Institute.