Throwback Thursday: When Spectacle Island Was a Heaping Pile of Trash

Now you can hike, sunbathe, and swim there.

spectacle island trash

Photo via Wikimedia/Creative Commons

This weekend marks the opening of the Boston Harbor Islands for the season. While Bostonians will be eager to take advantage of Free Ferry Day on Saturday, no one would have been excited about a free ride to Spectacle Island thirty years ago.

It’s unlikely that city dwellers would’ve voluntarily hopped on a boat to Spectacle at all. Why? Because it smelled bad. Really bad. In the not-so-distant past, the island used to be one large heaping pile of trash.

Before Spectacle boasted grassy paths and panoramic views, the island leaked toxins into the harbor. The floating landfill’s garbage mass measured 80 feet high, and legend says a bulldozer sank into the heap in the 1950s, never to be seen again. In Christopher Klein’s Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands, he notes that spontaneous methane combustions from the trash would often light up the night sky.

The island became home to the city’s waste in the early 1900s, following a streak of other unpleasant uses for the land. From housing a smallpox quarantine hospital to a horse-rendering plant, Spectacle had already seen its fair share of death and disease. Garbage continued to be sent out to the island until the dump officially closed in 1959. The trash, however, remained there for years after, and people put up with the stench and other trash-induced troubles all the way up until 1992.

The other harbor islands became part of a state park in the 1970s, but Spectacle wasn’t saved until Boston’s Big Dig reared its head. It was decided that all of the land dug up from creating the city’s various new tunnels would be shipped out to Spectacle. There, it would be packed down to seal the landfill.

As residents huffed and puffed about the Central Artery Tunnel Project, Spectacle Island was capped and resurfaced. Topsoil was added and thousands of trees were planted. After a few years of rapid transformations, the island opened to the public in 2006.

“This lump of coal has been transformed into a beautiful diamond,” said former mayor Tom Menino on its opening day.

Ten years later, it’s easy to forget you’re standing on top of a huge pile of trash while visiting Spectacle Island. Soembrace a newfound appreciation for stench-free hiking, sunbathing, and swimming in the harbor this season.

Free Ferry Day takes place on May 7, 2016. See for more information and read our handy guide to the Boston Harbor Islands here.