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Venture Out: Spectacle Island

What was once a Big Dig dumping ground has transformed into a swimmer's destination spot with lush vegetation, abundant wildlife and stunning city views... it's definitely worth the trip.

Boston's fourth largest Harbor Island has gone from what the New York Times once called "a 100-acre hell hole, three miles from Boston," into the most idyllic refuge for birds, trees, plants and people. 

The former dumping ground for 4,000,000 cubic yards of material dug up during the Big Dig, a $165 million long-standing mandate from a federal judge to clean up Boston Harbor has transformed it into today's go-to spot for swimming, bird-watching and hiking in a lush setting with stunning city views. 

5 Reasons Why Spectacle Island is Awesome:

1. This is the highest spot in Boston Harbor and offers a 360-degree view of the harbor and the city. Spectacle Island consists of 105 acres, with a marina, visitor’s center, snack bar, two sandy beaches and five miles of walking trails that lead to the crest of a 157 foot hill. 

2. Not that you feel like counting, but on the island are 28,000 trees, shrubs and plants. In the summer there can be as many as 62 different species of birds.

3. Starting in July there is usually a lifeguard at the beach. The area is roped off just for swimming, and it's fantastic. Picnic tables are near the beach and on the hillsides.

4. Adirondack chairs and rocking chairs overlook the marina on a shady porch at the visitor's center. It’s fun to sit and watch the boats dock, and on the horizon, beyond the marina, the boat traffic is fast and wonderful.

5. The island is open seven days a week, accessible via a 10-minute ferry ride from Long Wharf. 

Round-trip tickets for adults are $14 (which also includes an optional stop to Georges Island). Seniors are $10, children between the ages of 4 and 11 are $8. There are also family package trips available.  

For fares and schedules click here

And while we're at it, here's a quick history lesson on how it was created: 

  • Native Americans once inhabited Spectacle Island -- on Spectacle’s South Beach shell middens, ancient trash heaps, have been found indicating tribes may have lived there as early as 535 A.D. 
  • Colonists, who used the island for cattle grazing and tree harvesting, gave it the name Spectacle. To them the island resembled a pair of eyeglasses. In the 1700s, the island was used for small-pox quarantine: people entering the harbor had to first stop at the island before continuing to the mainland. The quarantine was later relocated to Rainsford Island.
  • In the 1800s, mainlanders used Spectacle as a picnic spot and built two resorts there. The hotels were closed down in the 1850s when a police raid revealed illegal gambling.
  • In 1857 Boston business man Nahum Ward bought Spectacle Island and built a horse-rendering factory. Horses were the most popular form of transportation and, before Ward built his factory, which rendered about 2,000 horse carcasses each year, dead horses were thrown into the harbor.
  • After the factory closed in 1910 the city of Boston set up a sanitation and disposal facility on Spectacle. Between 1916 and 1933 the garbage dump shared the island with homes and a little red schoolhouse.  In 1921 a grease extraction plant was built for the manufacture of soap. 
  • For the next 40 years garbage continued to be dumped on the island, which grew, because of the trash, to a girth of 36 acres and heights of 100 feet. And by the 1960s, it was so toxic that spontaneous fires broke out on the island from methane gases created during decomposition of the trash. Their continual burning is what made Boston Harbor infamous for its rancid smell.  Sludge was released into the harbor and fires seemed to go unnoticed.
  • Until 1985, when Judge A. David Mazzone found Boston in violation of the Federal Clean Water Act and the city was ordered to clean up its harbor. Ten years later the Deer Island Sewage Treatment Plant began operation. 
  • Spectacle Island’s rebirth truly began in 1992, when clay and sediment excavated from the Big Dig project -- approximately 4,000 barge loads -- were brought to the island and were used, over the next decade, to cap the landfill. It was a grueling, arduous process and took more than ten years to be completed. The island opened for its first visitors in 2006.

Check out more Charlestown Patch Passport features

Nancy Hannan August 03, 2011 at 12:29 PM
The history of this little island is stunning. Thanks once again for all your research Helen - i cannot wait to spend a day there.
Helen O'Neil August 03, 2011 at 06:41 PM
Thanks for reading Nancy. Spectacle Island is one of the greatest places near by. You can take the commuter boat from the Navy Yard and change at Long Wharf for the island ferry. Total actual travel time -- about 30 minutes.
Renie August 04, 2011 at 01:18 AM
Happy to hear you enjoyed the Boston Harbor Islands--it is adventure in our own backyard. I enjoyed it.
Mary Brock August 04, 2011 at 03:49 PM
I was glad to know this place has been cleaned up and is well cared for now. Good job!

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