Anchors Away! Boston Harbor Islands Series: Gallops Island

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© The Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives.

It’s hard to imagine New York City without almost immediately conjuring up images of the Statue of Liberty inside your head. This iconic landmark has been standing guard over the city’s shores and welcoming its newcomers from the late 1880s, and since then, Lady Liberty has been rendered inseparable from the idea of New York and the meaning of America. It’s therefore even harder to imagine that the statue wasn’t always definitely destined for the Big Apple. Believe it or not, when New York was struggling in 1885 to generate the necessary cash for the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty now stands, authorities were considering the harbor of another great city as an alternative site for the colossal creation. (Here’s a hint: we keep blathering on about it because it’s one of our favorite spots.)

Naturally, as we now know and can accept, the fate of the Statue of Liberty did not prove to be intertwined with the fate of the Boston Harbor. Not many people realize, however, that the Boston Harbor, like the New York waterfront, had formerly served as the entryway for tens of thousands of immigrants into America, which explains the deliberation over Lady Liberty’s location. Between 1840 and 1860 alone, immigrants arrived in Boston in such droves that the city’s population more than doubled in number. The honor (read: the difficult, questionably executed task) of receiving these “huddled masses” belonged to an island that doesn’t go by the name of Ellis. Boston Harbor’s Gallops Island, rather, served as the crucial go-between for those who had made the trip, although the reality of arrival at Gallops unfortunately wasn’t always as romantic as one might imagine.

Upon arrival on Gallops, immigrants were prompted to strip immediately and scrub themselves with disinfectants; this procedure was consistent with Boston’s newfound disease-induced paranoia. Following the Civil War, the city of Boston moved its quarantine station from its previous location to a new-and-improved facility on Gallops Island, which remained the place of influx for slews of immigrants. Officials detained those travelers who seemed ill and quarantined them in the station along with any sick native Bostonians. (Featured diseases included yellow fever, smallpox, cholera, and leprosy. No, thanks.) Needless to say, this sight probably didn’t constitute the America that immigrants had envisioned.

Granted, Gallops Island is in a way responsible for making Boston the city that it is today, in spite of its well-intended misguidance. While the island has been, in recent years, pushed into the recesses of Bostonian memory (in light of the fact that Gallops has been closed since 2000 owing to the discovery of asbestos in the ruins of the quarantine station), this Boston Harbor highlight marks a key part of the city’s not-so-distant past that also represents how far it’s come.

Boston Harbor Islands_thumbFor more on the stories behind the city’s sanctuaries, pick up a copy of Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands by Christopher Klein, or check out last week’s blog. To help you explore the islands on the go, download our free smartphone app. Anchors away!

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