September 22, 2010

Rainsford Island: Quarantine Hospital, Unmarked Graves ... and a Viking?

A couple weeks ago we took a trip to Rainsford Island in Boston Harbor. Even though it's part of the Harbor Islands park system, it's not included on the official ferry route. It's a place most people don't see, so we were lucky to get there on an excursion sponsored by the Friends of the Boston Harbor Islands.

The eastern half of Rainsford Island.

There is a brief legend associated with Rainsford Island. According to Edward Rowe Snow, a prominent local maritime historian, a skeleton carrying an iron sword was unearthed on the island in the 1820s. Snow thought the skeleton belonged to a Viking named Torvald.

That's really not much of a legend, and it probably came from the same Norseman fever that gave rise to wild stories about the Newport Tower. The island's real history is actually a lot more interesting than the legend.

Tony ready to explore!

The island was first used by local Indians for fishing, and was later deeded in 1632 to one Edward Rainsford, who used it as a farm.

I guess farming on a small rocky island didn't work out, and in the 1700s Rainsford Island was used to quarantine sick sailors arriving from other ports. The authorities didn't want them carrying disease into Boston, so they were put in a hospital on the island until they either recovered or died.

Rainsford's cemetery.

And apparently a lot of them died. The island has a large graveyard that may contain thousands of bodies. If there were any headstones they're long gone except for these four stone posts, which probably supported a chain around an important person's monument. We don't know who that important person was.

Rainsford was also used to quarantine Boston citizens who were ill with diseases like yellow fever. Citizens and sailors alike were housed in a large hospital nicknamed the Greek Temple because of its large columns.

The Greek Temple (from this site).

Today, nothing remains of the hospital except a few foundation stones and possibly a stairwell.

The hospital's foundation today.

However, the rocks near the shore below the hospital site are carved with several centuries of graffiti. The oldest seems to be from 1647! It was amazing to see the names and dates of people who were quarantined or worked here over the years.

Rocky shore.

Historic graffiti on the rocks.

After the quarantine hospital was shut down, the island was used as a reform school and a poorhouse. Today, there's nothing on the island except a few foundations, an old well and graffiti.

The well on the eastern part of the island. Anybody down there?

It was definitely a great trip, even if we didn't see any Vikings.


Anonymous said...

Great pics and fascinating narrative. I just learned some neat stuff. Thank you, Peter! -Sean

Anne M. said...

That was very interesting - great job on the narrative and the pics. It's nice to learn something new about your state.

Anonymous said...

Was there today what a treasure.

Anonymous said...

My grandfather, James Francis Costello, was the caretaker on Rainsford Island from shortly after the Boston Police strike to about the late 20's.
Mother [born 1909] said that in the Summers, children from the city came out for day trips. She worked as a lifeguard when she was a teen-ager.
They lived in 3-4 rooms of a large house. They could only afford to heat this part of the home since they depended on the city to get them wood to heat.
there was a headstone that read "under these grey rocks
in a box lies Hattie Cox
who died of smallpox"
Elizabeth pesci

Peter Muise said...

Thanks for your comment Elizabeth! It's very cool that your grandfather and mother actually lived there. We didn't see any headstones - I think they've all been destroyed or are hidden in the weeds.