Spectacle Island | An Island Retreat Minutes from Boston

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Boston’s Spectacle Island is the ultimate story of urban revitalization. A former smallpox quarantine and garbage dump turned into a bucolic retreat for city dwellers…with the help of truckloads of dirt excavated from the Big Dig. And it’s just a 20-minue boat ride from Boston.

Meadows, trails, ocean

Meadows, trails, ocean

Amy Traverso


The human tale of Spectacle Island goes back centuries. Native Americans fished from its shores as early as 600 AD. Europeans began using the 100-acre island in the mid-1600s as a source of firewood and, later, a smallpox quarantine. In the mid-1800s, two hotels operated there, only to be shut down by the city for running gambling operations and other illicit trades. Thus began a dark time, as the island became the site of a horse rendering plant in 1857 and a garbage incinerator soon after. When the incinerator stopped working, the garbage kept coming, and methane gas from the trash ultimately sparked a fire that burned underground for ten years. The dump closed in 1959, but remained uncapped, leaking toxic waste into Boston Harbor. No one was allowed to land there.

The island’s fate took a turn in the 1990s, when a new plan emerged. The Big Dig project was underway, tunneling down beneath Boston to replace the congested Central Artery with an underground tunnel. All the dirt being dug up had to go somewhere. Through a series of public-private partnerships, a plan was hatched: Cap off the garbage dump with the dirt from the Big Dig, then cap that with “clean” dirt and turn it into a park. All in all, about a third of the total amount of dirt from the Big Dig was brought by barge to Spectacle Island. Trees were planted, paths were laid (5 miles of them). The two existing drumlins rose higher, to a peak height of 157 feet.

Climbing the highest hill

Climbing the highest hill

Amy Traverso

Visiting Spectacle Island today is like taking a mini-jaunt to the beach without the trouble and traffic. The fun begins with the short ferry ride, which costs just $15 round-trip per adult (children are $9). Sit out in the sun, or listen to a crew member narrate the history of Boston Harbor.

Looking back at Long Wharf, just after departure. The ferries are operated by Boston Harbor Cruises, a private company licensed by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority to run the line.

Looking back at Long Wharf just after departure. The ferries are operated by Boston Harbor Cruises, a private company licensed by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.

The South Boston Army Base

Those long buildings housed the South Boston Army Base from 1920 to 1974. During World War II, troops spent their last nights on American soil here before being shipped overseas. It is now part of the Boston Marine Industrial Park.


Spectacle Island is the boat’s first stop, easily distinguished by its trails and peaks.


When you arrive at the marina, you’re greeted by a park ranger who can answer any questions. Up ahead, you’ll find the visitors’ center, where you can view an exhibit on the island’s history.


Close by the visitors’ center is the island’s main beach. The water is chilly and the beach has an ample supply of rocks, shells, and sea glass, so water shoes are a good idea. Lifeguards are on duty.



From the beach, you can head up the trails that circle the island. Some visitors bring bikes along; we brought a kite–sea breezes make for lively flights.


Fresh water coolers are scattered thoughtfully around the island.

Fresh water coolers are scattered thoughtfully around the island.

You’ll find the best shade under one of the gazebos that dot the skyline.


Inside the Krystle M. Campbell Memorial Gazebo, we found a poignant reminder of the Boston Marathon Bombings and a touching tribute to a young woman’s life.


Water-view picnic tables invite al fresco dining. That’s Long Island across the water.


Loaded up on sun and salt air, it’s time to head back to Boston. Try to time your return to the dinner hour, when the sun is low and the light turns golden.


I have lived in Boston since 1997, and this view of the Customs House at sunset still makes me stop in my tracks.


Visit the Boston Harbor Islands Web site to find travel essentials and learn about the island’s educational and recreational programs (including Saturday yoga classes and weekly Thursday night sunset clambakes). Spectacle Island has a snack bar that is open seven days a week during the summer.


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