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Deer Island (Massachusetts)

Coordinates: 42°21′06″N 70°57′31″W / 42.35167°N 70.95861°W / 42.35167; -70.95861
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Deer Island, Boston Harbor, 2008

Deer Island is a peninsula in Boston, Massachusetts. Since 1996, it has been part of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area. Although still an island by name, Deer Island has been connected to the mainland since the former Shirley Gut channel, which once separated the island from the town of Winthrop, was filled in by the 1938 New England hurricane.[1] Today, Deer Island is the location of the Deer Island Waste Water Treatment Plant, whose 150-foot-tall (46 m) egg-like sludge digesters are major harbor landmarks.[2][3]

Wastewater treatment plant, water tower, Deer Island

The island's permanent size is 185 acres (0.75 km2), plus an intertidal zone of a further 80 acres (320,000 m2). Two-thirds of the island's area is taken up with the wastewater plant, which treats sewage from 43 nearby cities and towns, and is the second-largest such plant in the United States.[4] The remainder of the island is park land surrounding the treatment plant. The area offers walking, jogging, sightseeing, picnicking and fishing activities.[2][3]


Deer Island, far right center, from Meyers Konversations-Lexikon 1888 map of Boston Harbor


It was once leased to Sir Thomas Temple (1614–1674),[5] a British proprietor and governor of Nova Scotia[6][7] although this descent was debunked by E. A. Freeman in the 19th century.[8] Sir Thomas Temple was also the uncle of John Nelson (1654–1734), a New England trader and statesman, who owned neighboring Long Island in Boston Harbor, which at one time was also known as "Nelson's Island".

Over the years, Deer Island has had several different uses. During King Philip's War (also known as Metacomet's War) in the 1670s, it was used as a place of internment. Christian "Praying Indians" were moved from Concord, Marlborough, Grafton, Massachusetts, and Natick in spite of the efforts of John Eliot,[9] the minister of Roxbury, to prevent it. Most went to Deer Island, but at least one colony was sent to Long Island.[10] Additionally, a group of nine Praying Indian women and their six children were sent to Great Brewster Island because they did not wish to join their husbands on Deer Island. [11]

During the winter of 1675–76, between 500 and 1,100 American Indians were held on the island, and without adequate food or shelter and because of exposure to harsh winter weather, many died. Some, such as the medicine man, Tantamous, escaped Deer Island only to be recaptured later.

19th-20th century[edit]

Almshouse, Deer Island, 1851

In the middle of the 19th century, the island was the landing point for thousands of refugees from the Great Famine of Ireland, many sick and poverty-stricken.[12] In 1847, a hospital was established to treat incoming immigrants, and during the following two years, about 4,800 men, women, and children were admitted. Many recovered and went on to new lives, but more than 800 died.[13] In 1850, an almshouse was built to house paupers. Opened in 1853, it was administered by the City of Boston.[14] Today, a Celtic Cross is erected not far from the old site of the Almshouse, honoring the 850 who died during the Famine Era.[15]

The likely site of the old Almshouse on Dear Island (42.353294, -70.964300)
The Deer Island wastewater plant and surrounding park area, 2008

In 1896, the almshouse facility became one of the short-term prisons for Suffolk County. The Deer Island House of Correction existed until 1991, when the prisoners were permanently transferred to the South Bay House of Correction.[16][17] The Deer Island prison is mentioned in Sylvia Plath's poem "Point Shirley" and her novel The Bell Jar.[citation needed]

In his book A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson mentions an experiment done at the naval prison on Deer Island. Following the August 1918 flu pandemic, in an attempt to develop a vaccine, 62 volunteers were selected from 300 prisoners. These men were promised pardons if they survived a set of tests. None of the volunteers fell sick, but the ward doctor contracted the disease and died. The prisoners possibly became immunized due to exposure to the virus during the weeks preceding the trial, experiencing few symptoms or none at all.[18] The doctor in charge of the experiment, Joseph Goldberger, published a report on the experiment in 1921. His report mentions the volunteers coming from a naval facility on Deer Island, but nothing regarding prisoners or pardoning of sentences. Two separate entities existed on Deer Island for naval facilities and correctional facilities: Fort Dawes and the House of Correction. Goldberger's final report mentions two experiments on Deer Island at different times (November to December 1918 and February to March 1919), as well as a third in San Francisco (November to December 1918).[19]

The first sewage-treatment plant was constructed on Deer Island in the late 19th century and expanded in the 1960s. The current plant dates from the 1990s.[3] Deer Island has been connected to the mainland since the New England Hurricane of 1938.[1]

A lighthouse was erected just offshore from the island in 1890; it was replaced by a modern tower in 1984.[20][21]

Modern recreational uses[edit]

Walkers next to sewage digester tanks

Deer Island is a popular recreation destination. A hiking/biking trail encircles the island, which is reachable by car, bus, or sea. A public boat dock is at the southwest corner of the island. Trails also climb escarpments on the island, including the highest one near the water tower. This vantage point offers views of the city, ocean, and Logan International Airport and is a popular spot for planespotting. The southern tip of the island offers some of the best views from land of the Boston harbor islands.

View of Boston from Deer Island


In June 2015, the body of an unknown toddler girl, later identified as Bella Bond, was found on the island. Due to the state of decomposition, investigators were not immediately able to determine the age, sex, or ethnicity of the body.[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Island Facts: Deer Island". Boston Harbor Island. National Park Service. Retrieved August 11, 2014.
  2. ^ a b "Islands You Can Visit - Deer Island". Boston Harbor Islands Partnership. Archived from the original on August 26, 2006. Retrieved August 21, 2006.
  3. ^ a b c "Deer Island Factsheet". Boston Harbor Islands Partnership. Archived from the original on June 29, 2006. Retrieved August 21, 2006.
  4. ^ Association, Charles River Watershed. "Deer Island | Charles River Watershed Association". www.crwa.org. Archived from the original on 2017-02-02. Retrieved 2017-01-27.
  5. ^ Temple, Thomas, 1614-1674. Correspondence concerning Nova Scotia: Guide. Archived 2006-09-01 at the Wayback Machine Houghton Library, Harvard College Library
  6. ^ cf. "The Islands of Boston Harbor", in "Some Events of Boston and Its Neighbors", Chapter 4, printed for the State Street Trust Company, Boston, Massachusetts, 1917.

    "Deer Island was so called because deer often swam over from the mainland when chased by the wolves from Boston Neck. It was granted to Boston in 1634, and its use is too well known to require any description. It was leased at one time to Sir Thomas Temple, who was a descendant of Lady Godiva of Coventry fame, a rather curious relation to history for one of our islands to bear. During King Philip's War, Massachusetts confined many Christian Indians in this bleak spot, and John Eliot often visited and comforted them. It is owned by Boston, the State of Massachusetts, and the United States Government."

  7. ^ Sir Thomas Temple and early New England coinage, from "First New England Coinage", in "Some Events of Boston and Its Neighbors", Chapter 7, printed for the State Street Trust Company, Boston, Massachusetts, 1917.

    "It is related that not long after the starting of the mint Charles II in great wrath questioned Sir Thomas Temple, the first agent officially despatched by the General Court to London, as to why this Colony presumed to invade His Majesty's rights by coining money."

  8. ^ Discussed by N W Alcock in Warwickshire Grazier and London Skinner (OUP, 1981, page 7)
  9. ^ Biglow, William. History of the Town of Natick from 1650 to 1830. Page 25. [1] Archived 2006-10-15 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ cf. Winsor and Jewett, The Memorial History of Boston Archived November 13, 2006, at the Wayback Machine, 1880, pp.320-1.

    "And by another vote, Eliot's colony of Praying Indians at Natick were removed to Deer Island in Boston harbor, with the consent of Mr. Shrimpton who owned it. ... Another colony of friendly Indians and prisoners were afterwards sent to Long Island, in the harbor."

  11. ^ "General Court Order". Massachusetts Archives Collection Database (1629–1799) (Catalog record). November 1, 1675. Volume 30: Indian, 1603–1705; p. 184A.
  12. ^ Stevens, Peter (March 2013). "For many famine Irish, Deer Island proved their only glimpse of America". Boston Irish Reporter. Boston Neighborhood News.
  13. ^ Stevens, Peter (March 2013). "For many famine Irish, Deer Island proved their only glimpse of America". Boston Irish Reporter. Boston Neighborhood News.
  14. ^ City of Boston Archives and Records Management Division, Patrick T. Collins. Guide to the House of Industry records Archived June 10, 2010, at the Wayback Machine. Accessed 16 January 2010.
  15. ^ "Great Hunger Memorial unveiled on Deer Island". 26 May 2019.
  16. ^ City of Boston Archives and Records Management Division, Patrick T. Collins. Guide to the House of Correction records Archived June 10, 2010, at the Wayback Machine. Accessed 16 January 2010.
  17. ^ "SCSD: Facts About the Suffolk County House of Correction". Archived from the original on 2009-02-12. Retrieved 2010-01-18.
  18. ^ American Heritage, "The Great Swine Flu Epidemic of 1918", June 1976, p. 82 (n.b. article has no verifiable sources)
  19. ^ United States Public Health Service, Joseph Goldberger. Experiments Upon Volunteers to Determine the Cause and Mode of Spread of Influenza. Accessed 7 July 2015.
  20. ^ "Historic Light Station Information and Photography: Massachusetts". United States Coast Guard Historian's Office. Archived from the original on 2017-05-01.
  21. ^ Rowlett, Russ (2009-09-08). "Lighthouses of the United States: Northern Massachusetts". The Lighthouse Directory. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  22. ^ "Decomposing body found in Boston Harbor near Deer Island". wcvb.com. 8 June 2017. Retrieved 22 April 2018.


External links[edit]

42°21′06″N 70°57′31″W / 42.35167°N 70.95861°W / 42.35167; -70.95861