Fort Independence (Castle Island)

Castle Island, South Boston

Fort Independence, Castle Island, South Boston, 1884. Source: Boston Public Library, Digital Commonwealth, Creative Commons.

A huge explosion rocked South Boston in the early afternoon of December 6, 1898, shaking homes and breaking windows in the City Point area. In April of that year, the federal government had re-taken control of Castle Island (much of which is occupied by Fort Independence) from the Boston Park Department due to the Spanish-American War. This involved the U.S. military’s using of the island as a mine depot.

The imperial war had a geographically extensive and long-term impact—it was through the war that the United States colonized the Philippines, for example, Puerto Rico became a U.S. semi-colony, and Guantánamo a U.S. military base. However, the war as a whole was fairly brief: with the important exception of hostilities in the Philippines, which endured for over a decade, it only lasted three and a half months. So soon after deploying 256 mines to Castle Island, the Army began to decommission them. In the process of doing so, one of the mines exploded, killing four men.

The history of Castle Island and the series of forts (eight in number, the first one built in 1634) that have dominated it over time is a complicated one. One of the oldest fortified sites in what was Britain’s empire in North America, the 22-acre island is today a venue for recreation and relaxation. For much of its history, however, it played a significant role in militarily maintaining relationships of domination and subordination at home and abroad—from its use by British forces to control a rebellious population in colonial-era Boston to the deployment of troops from Fort Independence to enforce the return of at least one fugitive slave and the putting down of anti-draft riots during the Civil War in the North End. Perhaps the most famous solider ever stationed at Fort Independence was an 18-year-old named Edgar Allan Poe; in 1827, he spent five months on Castle Island.

Since 1892, Castle Island has been linked to South Boston proper—first by a wooden bridge and today a landfill. During the summer months, free tours of the fort take place on a regular basis during the day.

Fort Independence, on Castle Island, in the harbor approaches to Boston. Copyright (c) 2006 Chris Wood, Creative Commons.

Getting there:

Red Line to Andrew Station or Broadway Station. MBTA buses to Marine Park in the City Point neighborhood are available. Walk across Marine Park and around the lagoon to the fort.

To learn more:

Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.

William J. Reid, Castle Island and Fort Independence, Boston: Trustees of the Public Library of the City of Boston, 1995.

Serena Zabin, The Boston Massacre: A Family History, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020.

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