Anchors Away! Boston Harbor Islands Series: Rainsford Island

Rainsford 1A peculiar inscription on a rock along the south coast of Rainsford Island simply offers its viewer a year: “1647.” If this shockingly offensive graffiti were actually created in the year it denotes, the intact and legible marking would have been made, remarkably, by one of the earliest European settlers in the Boston area. In fact, many rocks on the south coast of Rainsford Island serve as historical records of sorts in that they bear names, dates, and other information, and for this reason, they award us with a considerable glimpse into the island’s intriguing and varied past (and perhaps even offer an early indication of the American penchant for defacement-by-graffiti).

Rainsford 3Although Rainsford Island is officially named for the first colonist who settled on its shores in 1636, it has acquired, over the years, a variety of unsavory nicknames in connection with its unsavory past. (If you think we’re referring to some tame graffiti now, you’re mistaken.) When the city moved its quarantine station from Spectacle Island to Rainsford in 1737, Bostonians dubbed the previously pleasant place “Hospital Island” and, even more creatively, “Pest House Island.” The monikers weren’t ill-advised: Rainsford housed immigrants and Bostonians alike who were believed to be infected with such diseases as yellow fever, typhoid, and, worst of all, smallpox. (Sound familiar? Have a gold star.)

In 1775, a spate of smallpox in the Boston area was so suspicious that it led George Washington to cry foul. According to Washington, the Brits allegedly had sent infected individuals into the city during the Revolution in a purposeful act of bioterrorism. GW, whose many admirable attributes incidentally included smallpox immunity after surviving a bout at age 19, angrily accused his British foes of intentionally sending along disease-ridden sailors “with design of spreading the smallpox through this country and camp.” As objectionable as the quarantine station was, it provided vulnerable Bostonians with crucial—albeit guilt-inducing—protection from this smallpox epidemics. For more than a hundred years, the hospital on Rainsford Island acted as a buffer between the sick and the healthy and prevented large-scale loss of life.

Bizarrely, when the quarantine center required improvements in the 1830s, Boston opted to rebuild it in the shape of a massive, three-story Greek Revival structure known, appropriately, as the “Greek Temple,” which all in all seems a bit like putting lipstick on a pig, if you ask us. (By the way, you can see Robert Salmon’s version of the Greek Temple at Rainsford here in Boston at our very own MFA.) The hospital, complete with soaring stone columns and a Boston Harbor view, remained on the island until 1847, at which point the ever-moving quarantine center jumped ship yet again to plague the history of another island. Visit Rainsford Island, and you’ll be able to see the remnants of the Temple along with graffiti-covered rocks, if they haven’t been doubly defaced.

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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