Anchors Away! Boston Harbor Islands Series: Spectacle Island

Spectacle 1As its name suggests, Spectacle Island is quite the sight to behold. This Boston Harbor highlight is home to the tallest point on the chain—yes, even higher than Boston Light!—from which viewers can observe, panoramically, the whole of the Hub as well as the remaining thirty-three tiny jewels in the city’s so-called “Sapphire Necklace.” While you’ll have to wait for a clear day to see for miles and miles (and, let’s be honest, that could require a small miracle), the vista is well worth the trip for tourists and natives alike. Spectacle Island hasn’t always been such a treasure, though: like most other things that are charming in a Boston kind of way, this noteworthy landmass harbors some seriously sordid history.

Prior to the fairly modern notions of respectable hygiene and environmental safety, the people of Boston hauled much of their garbage to the islands in the harbor in order to avoid unsavory pileup in the city proper. In light of this, Spectacle Island quickly became a receptacle for all sorts of unwanted items: grease, a ream of rubbish, and, revoltingly enough, horse carcasses. (We’re not kidding.) In the 1820s, Spectacle Island accommodated a factory that processed dead horses and in turn generated a variety of items, including glue, shoes, upholstery, fertilizers, rather unappetizing dog biscuits, and, naturally, baseballs. What else were Bostonians to do with stallions that had reached their expiration dates? In hindsight, the disposal of these horses likely prevented the equivalent of a plague in the city.

In later years, Spectacle Island became a heaping landfill and general harbor pollutant, and no, we’re not proud of it. In a matter of decades, the island’s mound of waste grew to about 85 feet—that’s about an eighth of the way up to the top of the Prudential Center, which is an eighth too high. Although the horse rendering plant and landfill combination is vaguely disturbing, Spectacle Island’s trash has unquestionably transformed into treasure. Trust us: the garbage from Spectacle Island was capped in the 1990s using tons of clay, dirt, and gravel from Boston’s Big Dig; the island was revitalized with thousands of native and nonnative plants; and workers erected a seawall in order to deter toxins from reaching the harbor and coast. All in all—and against all odds—Spectacle Island is now one of the safest places in the harbor for frolicking of all kinds, especially swimming and soaking up some long-overdue sunshine, and the view doesn’t hurt its appeal, either.

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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