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A Rainsford isle rarity: Just barge in Saturday

A view of the rarely visited Rainsford Island in Quincy Bay, looking from the island’s south drumlin toward its northern one. A guided tour is set for Saturday. A view of the rarely visited Rainsford Island in Quincy Bay, looking from the island’s south drumlin toward its northern one. A guided tour is set for Saturday. (Photos Volunteers And Friends of The Boston Harbor Islands)
By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / September 17, 2009

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On Saturday, the Volunteers and Friends of the Boston Harbor Islands will escort a group out to Rainsford Island, one of the less-visited islands of the harbor national park.

“It’s magical out there,’’ said Suzanne Gall Marsh, who founded the Volunteers and Friends of the Boston Harbor Islands 30 years ago. The Hingham-based nonprofit offers guided tours of the Harbor Islands several times a year.

She describes Rainsford as “the last frontier’’ because the 11-acre island isn’t accessible by public ferry, has no staff, and is home to illegal camps.

Located in Quincy Bay, Rainsford has had an interesting history. Over the years, it was the site of a quarantine station, a boys’ reform school, and a veterans’ hospital for those who fought in the Civil War. Part of the island was also used as a burying ground. At one time 1,100 bodies were buried here; no one knows how many remain.

“Campers are camping on hallowed ground, and they don’t even know it,’’ Gall Marsh said. “There are no signs to tell them.’’

Some historical records suggest remains were removed in the 1920s and interred elsewhere. But so far, researchers have found only documentation for three bodies being moved, said Allen Gontz, a professor of coastal geology and geophysics at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

“We’re trying to determine where the graves were actually dug, and if they were interred somewhere else. We don’t have any real documentation,’’ he said.

Gontz has been studying and conducting research on the island, collecting data that will help map the exact boundaries of the cemetery and identify the locations of burial sites. “The only remnants of the cemetery are four sandstone posts in the middle of an open field,’’ he said.

Gontz, along with island historian Elizabeth Carella, will lead the tour Saturday. Carella will discuss the island’s history sharing stories of the sea captains, patients, and physicians who once stayed there. Gontz will talk about how the island has physically changed over time, and what that means for its future.

The trip is open to the public. Tickets are $28 for adults, $25 for senior citizens and members of Friends of the Boston Harbor Islands, and $20 for children and students with ID. They can be purchased online at www.fbhi.org (there’s a $2 transaction fee per ticket).

Passengers will board a 73-foot barge-like vessel called the Knotts Island and depart from the pier by the John Joseph Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston. The trip is not wheelchair-accessible; because Rainsford Island does not have a dock, passengers will have to disembark on the island by ladder.

The Volunteers and Friends of the Boston Harbor Islands will hold two more trips - a lighthouse tour on Oct. 3 and a cruise to Peddocks Island on Oct. 18 - before the close of the 2009 season.

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com.