A Sight to Behold:  Boston Harbor’s  Spectacle Island

By Nicole Wise

view of boston from spectacle island

If history is your cup of tea, and you enjoy beaches and beautiful glass, you can pack a lot of pleasure into a few days in Boston. The same harbor in which rebellious American colonists dumped 342 chests of fine English tea to protest “taxation without representation” is also home to the 114-acre Spectacle Island Park, where you’ll find a rich trove of sea glass and pottery shards, some 100 years older or more. 

One of 34 different sites that, together, comprise the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, Spectacle Island is accessible to visitors via a 30-minute ferry ride from Boston’s Long Wharf. Even people who don’t love sea glass will find plenty to enjoy on Spectacle Island, with its views of the Boston skyline, five miles of hiking trails, marina, café, picnic facilities, and even, on occasion, jazz concerts. 

But if, like me, you are there for the glass, you’ll want to take a sharp right immediately upon disembarking from the ferry. Though the beach you will find there is not particularly pretty, and the view is just so-so, you won’t care. You’ll be looking down and you will see the sparkle of sea glass everywhere you look.

beach glass from spectacle island

Spectacle Island’s rich offerings make sense when you consider its colorful history. According to local reports, Native Americans considered it a raw bar, of sorts, where they’d dine on fresh fish and clams, tossing the shells and bones right onto the sand. Early American settlers used the island as a quarantine site for people with smallpox, and it also housed a glue factory for a while.

At the turn of the 20th century, Spectacle Island became the kind of resort where people went to behave badly, with reports of gambling and prostitution so rampant it eventually had to be shut down. In the early 1920s, the City of Boston repurposed the island as a dump, a purpose it served for the next 40 years, before being transformed, once again.

When my sister and I spent an afternoon there in early October, we didn’t stumble upon any unsavory remnants suggestive of disease or vice; we did, however, find plenty of period pieces, including pink and pale green Depression glass, chunky milk glass, pottery, and a surprising amount of willow ware china—not just blue, but also green, brown, and even red.

But, as is true in an increasing number of public parks, there are rules against taking glass off the island. While I did see some people tuck pieces in their pockets, no big bags were being filled. I loved what was happening instead: growing collections are laid out on boards, large rocks and on driftwood along the beach. It’s like a collaborative art project, with people leaving their findings in giant hearts or stars right on the sand. And, of course, you are free to take all the photos you want.

boston historical sights

Because we were in town for an entire weekend, my sister and I were able to fill several days with exploration. A short walk from Boston Long Wharf, we took a stroll through downtown Boston’s historic King’s Chapel Burying Ground, which is the city’s oldest graveyard, founded in 1630. Though we were saddened to realize how many of the people buried there were victims of smallpox (in 1721 alone, 6,000 Boston residents were afflicted, more than 1,100 of whom succumbed), we were also intrigued by the funky, fanciful gravestone carvings we saw there.

The next day’s adventure was an exploration of Cambridge (a 20-minute drive from downtown Boston), where we spent the afternoon taking in the Glass Flowers: The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants at Harvard’s Natural History Museum. An artist and a gardener, my sister had long wanted to visit this exhibit, and I was pleased to tag along. Handblown in the Czech Republic by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka (father and son), the glass models are astonishingly beautiful. Not only will you marvel at the intricacy and realism of the blossoms, twigs and leaves, but there are also gorgeously detailed cross-sections of, say, the tip of a leaf, magnified 50 times. The soft pale and bright emerald greens will resonate with lovers of sea glass, as will the creamy, translucent whites. You may also enjoy, as we did, an additional exploration of the models of sea creatures, anemones, and other underwater life in the neighboring gallery.

With just a few hours left on Sunday, we found more of everything—light, history, colored glass—at the Mapparium at the Mary Baker Eddy Library. For a building that is also noteworthy for its distinctive architecture, elegant windows, and exquisite mosaic ceilings and floors, Eddy —founder of the Christian Science religion—commissioned a stained-glass globe, three stories high. You can literally walk into it and feel that you are, in a sense, standing at the center of the 1935 world, looking up to the Arctic Circle and down to the South Pole. Giant continents, tiny islands, oceans, seas, countries, lakes, and mountains are clearly marked as you look up, down, and around. For understandable reasons, the only way visitors can take in this immersive experience is to do so in the company of a guide, with each group limited to a short visit. It was interesting to see the changes the past 85 years have brought to the world—for example, different country names—and it will be interesting to see how politics and climate change will impact how our globe looks 85 years hence.

Learn about ferry routes, schedules, and purchase ferry tickets to Spectacle Island (May through October) and other Boston Harbor islands at bostonharborislands.org.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2020 issue.

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