Spectacle Island: The heart of the Boston Harbor Islands National Park

Just a short ferry ride away from downtown Boston, this accessible and tourist friendly island offers spectacular views of the City of Boston and virtually all of the Boston Harbor Islands from its high drumlins.

Boston Harbor View

 Spectacle is an island named for its original shape: It appeared like pair of spectacles- two drumlins separated by a tidal pool, which was later filled in. Today, Spectacle Island’s towering drumlins are the tallest point in the harbor islands. However, they were man made- (Great Brewster’s slightly shorter bluffs are the highest natural point in the harbor). From atop Spectacle Island’s North drumlin, perception may be somewhat distorted by the flat harbor waters that surround below- one feels much higher than 120 feet. A view of the lighthouse on Long Island Head in the foreground, with Calf Island in the distance:

boston harbor

While there is no lighthouse on the island today, two beacons once sat on the Northern end of the island. As ships approached Boston Harbor in the President Roads channel, the lights would line up. The last of the two lights was closed in the early 1950s. The Boston Public Library has a phenomenal Photo of Spectacle Island, taken from Long Island in 1937. Visible are both range lights at the North side of the island as well as the rendering plant in the center of the island. In the distance, the South Boston Power Plant and the Customs House Tower are visible.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Spectacle Island was a source of ire for inhabitants of South Boston right across the bay due to the foul odors emanating from the garbage disposal and rendering plants island located on the island. It was in this factory that dead horses would ground up dead horses to make tallow for soaps, oils and packaging materials. The remains of the pier which served the plant still stand today on the island’s west side. The original rendering plant was expanded in 1912 to be a full garbage disposal facility. The facility was referred to as a “menace to humanity” by nearby residents who would undoubtedly smell the odors any time the wind blew from the East.  Today, waterfront residents of South Boston look across the bay at the green, rolling hills and trails of a national park. A close up view of the South Boston waterfront and Castle Island as seen from Spectacle Island:


One of the most interesting features of Spectacle is that virtually all of the other Boston Harbor Island are visible from its high North Drumlin. In this photo, Long Island’s facilities and water tower are visible in the foreground, with Hull’s Telegraph Hill visible in the rear right:

boston harbor

Dawn breaks over Spectacle Island in the dead of winter:


A large container ship leaving Boston Harbor, as seen from the top of Spectacle’s North Drumlin (looking Northeast). In the background, across the Governor’s Island Flats lies Deer Island on the right and the town of Winthrop on the left:


A view of the city skyline behind Spectacle’s rolling hills:


Looking toward the city from Spectacle Island’s dock:

Boston harbor islands

* “South Boston  Spectacle Island Odors” Boston Daily Globe, August 1, 1923
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Distant view of Provincetown across Cape Cod Bay

A view of Provincetown from all the way across Cape Cod Bay, as seen from the bluffs at Manomet, Plymouth:

Manomet Point

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Fort Sewall: The Colonial-era outpost at Gale’s Head

Built in 1742, Fort Sewall in Marblehead, MA is one of the oldest fortifications on the east coast. The fort was originally built in English Colonial times for defense against the French, but the current structure has remained active in military operations for centuries thereafter. Located at Gales Head at the northern end of Marblehead, the location was used as a defensive outpost as early as 1644.The fort is perhaps most well known for an incident in the war of 1812 in which Boston’s favorite ship, the USS Constitution, took cover underneath Fort Sewall’s cannons after being pursued by three British warships.


Fort Sewall is located on the western bank of Marblehead Harbor, knowns as Gale’s Head. This rock outcrop lies across the harbor from the lighthouse at Marblehead Neck. In this location the fort was positioned within view of open ocean and well outside the main streets of downtown Marblehead. The fort provided for defense of both the town of Marblehead and the adjacent larger city of Salem, which was also guarded by Fort Pickering further inside the sound. Both Forts Sewall and Pickering offer a broad and strategic view of Salem sound. Marblehead neck as seen from Fort Sewall:

Marblehead from Fort Sewall

The old door to Fort Sewall. Behind those doors are cave like corridors that housed old soldiers quarters, galleys, magazines and prison cells:


At the entrance to the fort on the most northeastern side of Marblehead is a noticeable sign outlining some of the history of the area, including the mention of Chief Justice Samuel Sewall, for whom the fort was named:


Some of the relics of the original Fort Sewall:


The arched entranceways of the fort’s main wall:


Inside Fort Sewall:


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Boston Harbor in the fog

Last week was a particularly foggy one around Boston Harbor, as one can see from the following photos:

Boston Light, as seen up close on a very foggy and overcast morning:

boston harbor

At the end of the remains of a wharf jutting out from Northern Avenue Bridge lies this old house which is falling into the water. The buildings on fan pier are only faintly visible.

boston harbor

The quarantine rocks, south of Rainsford Island. This is a fairly calm area of the harbor due to its protection from both open ocean and a western wind fetch. Note the long island bridge in the back right:


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Picture of the week: Graves Light up close on a bright June day

boston harbor

Graves Light, as seen up close from the south side, this past Saturday, June 7th.

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Old Minot Light

The first Minot Light: No photographs of the original structure exist that I am aware of, but there are some depictions, and it looked something like this:

cohasset ma

Realizing the danger that the great number of rocks surround Cohasset Harbor and the southerly approaches to Boston, the government build a lighthouse on Minot’s Ledge in the late 1840s. Unfortunately, it did not last long, as the skeleton of the structure collapsed during a heavy storm in April 1851, and two keepers tragically lost their lives. A more complete history can be seen here, but this historical marker (below) and the granite template used to build the new light can be seen today near the harbor master’s office in Cohasset Harbor:


The modern Minot Light of today is made of heavy granite blocks bolted to the ledge with large rivets. The lighthouse is made from granite from the Quincy Quarries. In fact, a photo of it during its construction in the mid 1850s is on file at the Thomas Crane Library and can be seen here. The lighthouse is able to withstand tremendous force, such as the force of a Nor’Easter, such as the one seen below:


Here is a photo of Minot Light up close.

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Two views of the Long Island Bridge

Two views of the Long Island Bridge…. Driving over:

boston harbor

And passing under:

Boston Harbor

The top photo was taken on the way out to Long Island, which I had the privilege of doing thanks to the Friends of the Boston Harbor Islands. The organization held its annual meeting out on this normally-closed-to-the-public island last weekend. The lower picture was taken this week passing under the bridge on a foggy morning.

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Fort Banks: Winthrop’s abandoned relic of the Spanish-American War era

The little know abandoned ruins of Fort Banks lies in the Northern section of the town of Winthrop. This fort was built as one of earlier coastal defense outposts around Boston Harbor.  Designed in response to the new threat of powerfully armed battleships that were created around the time of the Spanish American War, the fort was made to be able to repel a foreign naval attack. Its defenses included massive cannons with great capabilities. Fort Banks was constructed around the time that many other Boston Fortifications were built or re-armed, but only a fraction of the Fort’s original grounds remain today:


The view above shows the remains of one of the excavated mortar pits- clearly in rough shape following years of neglect. The other pits were demolished and built over, as the fort was previously much larger. Here is a photo of the fort in the early part of WWII.

While the fort was first built in 1891, the first of the giant cannons arrived in 1907. Described as a “steel monster” by the Boston Daily Globe* upon its arrival in October of that year, the gun was 40 feet long and weighed 60 tons. It required 48 horses to draw, and citizens were reportedly concerned that the move would damage the town’s streets.

Below is a photo of the sign giving an overview of the fort:

boston harbor

Below is a photo of battery Sanford Kellogg, named after a veteran of the Civil War. It is the last remaining battery at the remains of the fort. Nearby, a memorial post outlines a tragic accident that occurred at the fort on October 15, 1904: During a firing practice with live ammunition, a mortar backfired resulting in the deaths of four men and the severe injury of nine others.


A strange structure which exists on the top of the fort, not clearly visible in the WWI era aerial photo in the link above:


A view of the top of the fort looking down from a different angle. Note the circular outline of the mortar platforms, now filled in with weeds.

boston harbor

Fort Bank is just another example of a fort defending Boston’s waterfront from foreign aggression. It is clear from the great degree of military capability surrounding the Eastern perimeter of the city of Boston that there was a great fear of naval invasion at the beginning of the 20th century.

A modern view of Winthrop from the air, on final approach to Logan Airport:


* “Huge Gun Arrives in East Boston on Way to Fort Banks, Winthrop” Boston Daily Globe, October 20, 1907.
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Picture of the Week: Graves Light and Boston Light

The two lighthouses sitting at the mouth of the Boston Harbor on a nice spring day. They look quite close together in this photo, but are actually almost three miles apart:

Boston Harbor Lighthouse

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Historic Newburyport and The Mouth of the Merrimack

There are few places along the coast of New England where a river with the size and force of the Merrimack flows into the ocean. This great discharge, said to be over 7,000 cubic feet per second, often creates huge breakers at the river’s mouth as it smashes into oncoming swells. During a storms, this effect creates mega waves- some of the largest on the East Coast, which are used by the Coast Guard for heavy surf training.

Newburyport’s rear range light: The lighthouse is located in the center of town on the banks of the Merrimack River, not far from the river’s mouth. While the lighthouse is no longer active (it has actually been turned into a restaurant).


The mouth of the Merrimack: Its significant discharge slams into the oncoming waves of open ocean, creating large breaking swells. On this particular day, there are some small swells in the river, but nothing quite the size of the waves in that Coast Guard video!


The source of the Merrimack: Like many of the large rivers of Northern New England, the Merrimack originates largely from streams high up in the Appalachians. As its major tributary, the Pemigwasset, carves its way through the White mountains, it gains great volume- particularly in springtime as the the snow and ice capping the mountains begins to melt. The Pemigwasset flows South to meet the Merrimack at Franklin NH, at which point it has just begun to flow down from Lake Winnisquam. However, the Merrimack’s tributaries flow from the West and Southwest of the Boston area as well: The Assabet and Sudbury Rivers flow into the Concord, which meets the Merrimack at Lowell, MA.

A chart of Newburyport and the mouth of the Merrimack, showing the entrance to the river from the ocean on the right, and the downtown area on the South Bank to the left. In the middle lies the Joppa Flats, a great area that drains out at low tide. Aside from the possibility of heavy surf at the entrance to the Merrimack, boats approaching need to be aware of constantly shifting sand bars in the area:

noaa chart

Source: NOAA Nautical Chart. See NOAA.Gov for disclaimer.

Caleb Cushing House: The Merrimack’s great width and location close to the ocean made it an ideal port city. Just as the United States was entering the age of global seaborne commerce, the city of Newburyport became a major shipbuilding center and trading port. One notable resident of Newburyport was Caleb Cushing, who was a US Congressman and foreign diplomat to the far East as our countries need for relations with this region was growing. Cushings fine looking house still stands among the many other Federal and Colonial structures in downtown Newburyport.


Caleb Cushing

Ice flowing down the Merrimack near its mouth on a bright, late winter day. Watching the ice gives a great perspective of the rapid, swift and powerful flow of this river. In the distance, the large span of the Route 1 Bridge crossing the river is visible:


The Old Custom House: Newburyport’s old granite custom house, which has now been converted to a maritime museum. A relic of Newburyport’s seafaring past, this custom house was built in 1835 on the banks of the Merrimack near the Rear Range Lighthouse to facilitate the increase in international trade at the time:


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