The quarantine archipelago

This invisible, insular infrastructure

Color aerial view of Rainsford Island, Boston Harbor, 42°18'N 70°57'W , showing two small vegetated land masses connected by a spit of sand, surrounded by digitally-rendered sea. Google Earth screenshot.

The location of plentiful wildflowers and various foundations, Rainsford Island is a destination with a diverse history.

Grassy meadows and sumac groves extend along the island while a rocky shoreline meets the water. Rainsford Island served a diverse purpose beginning during the colonial period when it was used for farming and grazing. For nearly a 200 year period, it held a quarantine hospital, almshouse, veterans hospital, and boys reform school.

Rainsford Island offers views of the surrounding islands and unimproved walking trails.
—Boston Harbor Islands National & State Park


Two low drumlins yoked by a tombolo of sand, Rainsford Island is not accessible via the dayboats and public ferries that run among Boston’s harbor islands. It offers an inviting prospect with its grassy meadows and plentiful flowers, its views of surrounding islands, its unimproved walking trails. And yet so much hides within that “unimproved”—as though nature has simply been allowed to take its course.

Color aerial view of western end of Rainsford Island 42°18'40.80"N 70°57'25.50"W, showing water, sandy beaches, vegetation, and ruins. Google Earth screenshot.

Archaeologists have examined Rainsford. They know that before the colonial era, the island was in “seasonal use” by the ancestors of Massachusett and Wampanoag peoples who made worlds of the harbor and bay. (The term “seasonal use” seems to spring from the same rhetoric of invisibility as the term “unimproved.”) Sources attribute the island’s modern name to one Edward Rainsford, who secured rights to graze cattle there in 1636. In subsequent times, the island hosted farms, almshouses, infirmaries, and reformatories, along with the quarantine hospital for Boston Harbor. We know that beneath the flowers and sumac groves lie nearly two thousand unmarked graves.


The fever hospital is a long, one story building, with wide jutting eves, four feet in width, projecting over the doors…. Each room is furnished with two, low, single beds, suitable crockery, linen, &c., so that it does away the necessity of carrying articles from one apartment to another. This building faces the west, the windows of which have green blinds. In front, is a fence ten feet high, two hundred feet in length, to prevent the inmates of the hospital from seeing the burying yard, at the west. Bowen’s Boston News-Letter, and City Record, January 1827.


There are 34 islands in Boston Harbor’s National Recreation Area. About a half dozen of these, accessible by public boat service, are frequented today by picnickers, school groups, and tourists; some of them offer campgrounds, vending, and tours of historic structures. Like Rainsford, however, most of them are accessible only to private boaters. Today, they’re feral places, dots of meadow and brush littered with flotsam, the bones of enigmatic masonry jutting up through rank grass. But this is a novel condition. Before Boston’s dirty-water decades, before the transitions from sail to steam and steam to internal combustion, before plastics and petroleum, the harbor islands spent centuries as an infrastructure of invisibility.


From the 20th May to the 16th of October, 1822, two hundred and twenty two vessels were at Quarantine. In 1823, from May 20th, to Oct. 20th two hundred and nine were in Quarantine. From June 8th, to Oct. 17th, 1824, two hundred and fifty nine were at Quarantine at Rainsford Island; and after that period, the law was changed; the quarantine months being reduced from six to three.Bowen’s Boston News-Letter, and City Record, January 1827.


Joseph York, a colored man, was on Thursday last removed from the west part of this city to Rainsford Island, in consequence of having the smallpox. He came directly from Troy, N.Y. Vaccination is promptly going on in the street and neighborhood. Boston Medical Intelligencer, 12 June 1827.


(I)t is provided that a Resident Physician shall be chosen, whose duty it shall be to reside at. Rainsford Island, from the first day of June, to the first day of October, in each year, and at such other times, as the Mayor and Aldermen may direct ; to visit every vessel arriving liable to Quarantine, to direct in what manner she shall be cleansed, what articles from her shall be landed, washed, buried, or destroyed ; to direct the care and attendance of the sick, for whom he shall prescribe, according to his best skill. —City Document No. 16, Quarantine, Boston City Council, May 13, 1841.


Oil painting of Rainsford Island showing rocky shore, dock, sailboats, and, hospital building with columns. Painting by Robert Salmon (1775-ca.1848), ca. 1840. Harvard Fine Arts Library, Digital Images & Slides Collection 1995.21793

The institution at Rainsford is for male paupers. The chief building is fairly good, but the hospital is outrageously bad. It is one of the familiar landmarks of the outer harbor, a caricature of a Grecian temple. I do not know how long it has been used as a hospital, but, unless I am greatly mistaken, for upwards of thirty years. It is old, unventilated, dirty, crowded, and absolutely repulsive. I do not think I am using too strong language in calling it a disgrace to the city. I have not been inside the building for some two years, but I am credibly informed that it has not improved during that time. —Thomas Dwight, MD, in the New England Journal of Medicine, February 23, 1888.


The terms Contagion and Infection have been employed above as synonymous, in conformity with common usage. Their meaning, in a strict medical sense, is however essentially different…. A contagious disease, in the sense we use it, is one propagated by contact of the skin of one person with that of another. An infectious disease is one transmitted through the air from the person of one individual to the respiratory organs of another. —City Document No. 16, Quarantine, Boston City Council, May 13, 1841.


Google Earth screenshot of Rainsford Island in ground-level view, showing shoreline and computer-rendered vegetation. 42°18'43.44"N 70°57'12.03"W

Recently, a boating party, on the Boston Harbor, was passing Rainsford Island, upon which there is a Farm School for Wayward Boys; it being a holiday, these young farmers had the freedom of the island and were apparently having a very jolly time on the shore. A lad of seven, who had been intently watching their sport from the deck of the boat, turned to his mother, and said eagerly, “How bad do you have to be to get there, mamma?Life, August 20, 1903.


Like many maritime cities, Boston’s islands offered an array of hiding places for the jetsam of urban life—an aqueous catacomb, hidden within morning’s clement horizon. Rainsford was not the only island in Boston Harbor given over to the unwanted: garbage was dumped on Spectacle; hospitals and reformatories existed on Long Island; elsewhere, there were slaughterhouses and tanneries, rabbit colonies and poultry operations, all manner of activities deemed too hazardous or noxious for city main. By degrees, a maritime city turned its back on the sea, and the harbor became something more than mere dumping ground, but an infrastructure of invisibility.

Today, grassy meadows and sumac groves; plentiful wildflowers, various foundations; and beneath these the graves.

Our own islands of quarantine lie elsewhere, interlaced with bright networks, answering to different forms of mapping. And yet doesn’t this archipelago also have its invisibilities and its shadows, its seasonal uses, its unimproved paths?


Google Earth screenshot of Rainsford Island in ground-level view, showing artifacts in computer-rendered vegetation. 42°18'43.10"N 70°57'09.23"W