Reclaiming island's past
Plans eyed to give Rainsford a face lift, make it a public asset
By Brian MacQuarrie, Globe Staff, 5/26/2001
otting wharf pilings are a hazard off the stony shore. Lilacs bloom fragrant but untended over hundreds of unmarked graves. Jumbles of granite mark the overgrown cellar of a long-demolished hospital.
Such is the scene at deserted Rainsford Island, an 11-acre outpost of sprawling Boston Harbor that once served as a mini-Ellis Island for passengers, crew, and goods from around the globe.
Where sumac and scrub brush now spread unchecked, the sick were detained and treated, the poor were housed, and errant Boston boys were ''reformed'' with classical music and great books. Slaves and famine Irish alike, felled by smallpox and yellow fever, lie underneath the soil.
This history has long gone unnoticed or forgotten. But today, spurred by government and private interest, an unprecedented effort is under way to unearth and revitalize the past of one of Boston's most neglected islands.
''Rainsford is like an unsung hero,'' says historian Elizabeth Carella, savoring the 360-degree view from one of the island's two headlands. ''I see it as a place of great humanity and compassion.''
Carella and others, including city archeologist Ellen Berkland, also see a place for day trippers attracted by scenery and history.
To this end, the city-owned island is taking its first baby steps toward becoming a significant public asset. The National Park Service is mapping Rainsford's natural and man-made resources with satellite-aided precision; the Massachusetts Historical Commission has given Boston a $20,000 grant for additional planning and surveys; and city-sponsored cleanup outings have begun.
''We're making an attempt to reclaim the island as soon as possible,'' Berkland said.
Within five to 10 years, Berkland predicted, manicured trails, historically interpretive signs, and a new dock will introduce the public to the island.
Settled in 1636 by Edward Rainsford, who received Governor John Winthrop's permission to raise cattle there, the island became a quarantine site a century later for sick passengers and crew on Boston-bound ships. An almshouse, a Civil War veterans hospital, a home for female paupers, and a school for delinquent boys followed until 1920, when the city ended its official use of the island.
Today, little evidence remains of the human drama that unfolded here. The graveled walkways mentioned by author Richard Henry Dana in ''Two Years Before the Mast'' have vanished; the handsome hospital's building stones lie scattered on the beach; and the landscaped grounds of the superintendent's house are nearly unrecognizable.
''Can you imagine that this place had so much life in it,'' Carella asks.
Fragments of history, like long-hidden prizes from a centuries-old scavenger hunt, can be found with effort. A slate outcropping, for example, contains finely scripted graffiti dating from as early as 1647, touting the names of port physicians whose ranks included Boston mayors, Revolutionary War veterans, and even a daring balloonist who crossed the English Channel in 1774.
''To me, Rainsford Island is like a prism reflecting much of what we can be proud of in Boston - in architecture, medicine, and intelligent social experiments,'' says the Rev. Carney Gavin, a Catholic priest and archeologist. ''The tempest tossed from every continent turned up here.''
Carella has pioneered the recent research into Rainsford's history, led there in a circuitous way by the Boston Common headstone of one victim of the 1798 yellow fever epidemic. The unfortunate story of George Robbins introduced Carella to the Rainsford quarantine station, established in 1737.
The hospital, upgraded in 1832 by a two-story Greek Revival structure, had a mission that combined convalescence and heartbreak. Following ocean voyages lasting months, if not years, the sick were consigned to a hospital they might never leave, treated by courageous physicians who exposed themselves to illnesses they barely understood.
''For the most part, the people who ran the island - the physicians, keepers, and even the boatmen - did their best in a very tough situation,'' Carella says. ''They were dealing with extraordinarily difficult diseases.''
If smallpox was discovered, for example, even the unaffected cargo, both human and commercial, would be fumigated with brimstone smoke before proceeding to port.
Carella's discoveries about the hospital led to other historical gold mined from a wide range of sources. Such treasure includes a 1771 receipt for the island boatman, signed by Selectman John Hancock.
Bringing this past alive is driving the move to make Rainsford Island accessible again - and not just for the sick or wayward. ''This place is very important to the history of Boston, and the history of public health care here,'' Carella says.
The ongoing survey, which will seek spots for trails and other recreational amenities, is the first comprehensive mapping of Rainsford in modern times.
Special attention is being paid to the cemetery, which now lies under tangled growth within a border of untrimmed 19th-century lilac hedges. Berkland estimates that hundreds of bodies, if not thousands, are buried here.
Today, the stillness of the place reflects the rest of Rainsford Island. But if a growing band of public officials and private idealists realize their goal, a grand reawakening lies ahead.
This story ran on page 1 of the Boston Globe on 5/26/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.