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ESSAY

On ghost towns and their siren call

In the first half of the 20th century, Hull’s beaches, hotels, and amusement park drew the rich and famous -- and regular folks as well -- to the peninsula south of Boston. Those memories linger today, especially at sunset.

Paragon Park at Nantasket Beach in Hull.
Paragon Park at Nantasket Beach in Hull.Globe file photo Igor Grayham

My parents fell in love with the house before they fell in love with each other. The house rests on the tip of the six-mile peninsula known as Hull, Massachusetts, which curves toward Boston like an arm flexing one jagged bicep. The house — ours — is on the edge of Hull’s first knuckle, built in 1842 as an inn for night-docked sailors. The columns that support the back porch are carved into five singing women, faces warped by weather: symbols of the lovely and dangerous sirens that call sailors in to shore.

My parents fell in love with the house for those sirens. They grew up five houses apart on Hull’s four-mile beach, Nantasket. I like to imagine they’d sit at nearby Sally’s Rock as teenagers, pitching empty clamshells and watching the sirens play to sunset. Thirty years later, my mother knocked on the door to tell the inn’s owners how much she and my father had always loved their home. They stared at her, spectral, having decided to sell the house over that morning’s coffee. My parents moved us into the inn on Highland Avenue when I was still young enough to think it haunted by the ghosts of drowned sailors or the Native American communities who lived on the peninsula before the Pilgrims, who haunted our house, too, arrived in 1622. “Nantasket” comes from the Wampanoag term “where tides meet”: in the peripheral vision of the sirens' gaze, bay meets ocean in twisted knots of currents facing Boston’s toothy, smiling skyscrapers.

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Paragon Park's roller coaster with the Boston skyline in the distance.
Paragon Park's roller coaster with the Boston skyline in the distance.Ted Dully

Hull has been called a ghost town, a phantom of its former self. In the early 20th century, the arm flourished. Calvin Coolidge smoked on the pine porch that fanned from his summer house on Allerton Hill. Rita Hayworth once paused for a cocktail at The Schlitz Palm Gardens, a restaurant with wine decanters and a patio poised at the edge of Paragon Amusement Park’s man-made lagoon. Paragon Park was featured for “one of the top ten roller coasters in America” according to a 1915 New York Times article. City folk fled from sticky summer afternoons to Hull’s flat gray sand and popular rides like “The Rocket Swing.” They flung up their hands on a ride called “The Whip,” and licked cool soft-serve cones, and teetered in wooden baskets as the Ferris wheel hung them like ornaments over the beach. The ghost of Paragon Park rests in a brown-bleached field near the ocean, sold for now-defunct condominium development in 1984. “The Giant’s Roller Coaster” was uprooted and sent to a beach in Maryland. The lavish Rockland House Hotel burnt down, as did the 175-room Atlantic House during a January blizzard. In the late 1950s, the Pemberton Hotel was demolished for the construction of Hull High School. Only the carousel remains, its grinning pink and blue mares jingling by the shoreline as Paragon’s sole survivors. By the end of the 20th century, Hull was left on a little peninsula flexing its muscle toward Boston Harbor.

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Paragon Park
Paragon ParkGlobe file photo Ly Y.

My grandparents remember Paragon’s coaster, careening along the shoreline like a hulking Poseidon. Still the carousel chimes to small riders, pastel horses on twisted gold posts. Someone painted a mural at Hull’s entrance, and cleaned up the fossilized, chlorine-stained mini golf course near Fantasy Casino, which recently reopened after decades of abandonment. There’s a new beer garden by Dream Machine, where my siblings used to climb up Skee-ball tables, dunking balls into the jackpot until we had enough money to buy Warheads sour candy. Our house sits on its hill as a reminder of my parents' first love, an old inn for sailors, a place they bought the morning it went on the market instead of living forever folded into Boston’s skyline. The back porch looks out over islands, which wink back at five sirens. Sirens watch lobster boats bleat their horns, scattering seagulls into the carnival colors of a Hull sunset. At this hour, the sirens' ghosts are singing.

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