fb-pixel Skip to main content

Winter weather helped uncover a dark past on Gallops Island

The island, above in 1940, was once used as a quarantine station and hospital for smallpox victimsBoston Globe Archive

Gallops Island is silent now, but traces of the tragedy that once cloaked this former quarantine station in Boston Harbor are resurfacing from its eroding soil.

Harsh winter weather has scoured an old cemetery on the island and exposed the remains and coffins of smallpox victims, state officials said. Forgotten by all but a few, the bodies are among an estimated 234 immigrants and others who succumbed to the disease and were buried here between the 1870s and early 1900s.

“This is part of the story of Boston,” said Robert Allison, an American history professor at Suffolk University. “It’s the story of people who aspired to come here but didn’t quite make it. There’s a great sadness about them.”


The state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which manages the 16-acre island, is making plans to halt further damage to the remains and protect the cemetery against future storms.

The agency plans to excavate and identify the remains, left exposed by a succession of powerful winter storms, and re-inter unclaimed sets of remains on the mainland. The federally funded, $525,000 project, which will include restoration of the site, is expected to be completed by the end of autumn, DCR officials said.

On Wednesday, an excavator was unloaded onto the teardrop-shape island, which rises from the harbor near the site of Colonial gallows on Nix’s Mate, about 6 miles from downtown Boston. On the northern shore of Gallops Island, near the cemetery, storm damage has dislodged much of an imposing granite seawall and scraped large chunks of soil from the steep bluffs.

The state plans to ensure that the smallpox victims are not forgotten again. Officials are hiring a professional genealogist to identify and notify descendants in hopes they would be willing to accept the remains for burial. If a veteran is identified, plans will be made for a formal burial with military honors.


Although more than a century has elapsed since the last smallpox epidemic in Boston, wary state officials consulted specialists to make sure that handling the bones of smallpox victims does not pose a risk. The state’s epidemiologist and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assured them it did not.

“The smallpox virus does not survive under the conditions of burial, and any remains uncovered on Gallops Island, buried over 100 years ago, pose no risk for human infection,” said Dr. Al DeMaria, infectious disease medical director and epidemiologist at the state Department of Public Health.

Still, all equipment used in the project — machinery, clothes, mats, screens, hand tools, personal protective gear, and trailers — will be decontaminated on the island, DCR officials said.

When a Globe reporter and photographer visited the island this week, they were ordered to leave by state workers who spotted them from nearby Georges Island and hurriedly arrived to evict them.

Asbestos-riddled Gallops Island has been closed to the public for nearly two decades, but its human history stretches back thousands of years to Native American habitation. After Europeans arrived, the island was bought in the mid-1600s by John Gallop, one of the first Boston Harbor pilots.

French allies mounted cannons on Gallops Island during the American Revolution, the Union Army used the island as a training camp during the Civil War, and World War II brought 5,000 men there for its maritime radio school.


But its use as a quarantine station and hospital from the end of the Civil War to World War I made the island a place of heartbreak and death for many European immigrants and others with smallpox and contagious diseases.

“These were the people just outside the door,” Allison said of dying immigrants who could see, but never reach, the hope of America. “It’s also the story of discovering ways to deal with these great tragedies that have afflicted the human race.”

Gallops Island was used by the military as long ago as the Revolutionary War, when the French placed cannons on the island.Google Earth

The island also served other purposes: an internment station for German merchant seamen during World War I, and as the site of a health experiment gone tragically awry in 1918.

In that year, an experiment used volunteer Navy sailors to study the spread of the deadly Spanish flu, which had infected nearly 2,000 of 21,000 sailors stationed in the Boston area. The test ended when the surgeon conducting the experiment died of the disease.

At the quarantine station’s peak in 1886, its medical staff examined nearly 50,000 people. Passengers from countries where smallpox and other deadly illnesses had been reported would be detained on the island until health officials cleared them to proceed.

Hundreds of them never made the short trip to the Boston docks.

“It was fairly routine to quarantine an entire ship when it was coming from a place where there was smallpox,” Allison said. The invention of the telegraph before the Civil War meant that these warnings could be transmitted widely and quickly.


Smallpox inoculation had been well-established in the United States by the late 19th century, but occasional outbreaks continued. And when they did, the effect was deadly: Often, smallpox killed three out of 10 people who contracted the disease, and many of those who survived were badly disfigured.

During the winter of 1872-73, the spread of smallpox in Boston sent more than 100 patients to Gallops Island. Boston’s last epidemic stretched from 1901 to 1903, with 270 deaths among 1,596 people infected, a fatality rate of 17 percent.

The last natural outbreak of smallpox in the United States occurred in 1949. Three decades later, in 1980, the World Health Organization declared that the disease had been eradicated around the globe.

That was a century too late for many of the smallpox victims buried on Gallops Island. Final disposition of their remains includes transfer to the city’s archeology laboratory before being released to any descendants.

Remains that are not claimed or identified as those of a veteran — immigrants, perhaps, interred far from home but within sight of a new life — will be reburied at Fairview Cemetery in Hyde Park.

This time, protected from the sea.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.