Today, the Massachusetts State Quarter Coin remembers the loss of the wooden edifice on Castle Island guarding Boston harbor on March 21, 1673.
After the fire and through the years, Castle Island supported many other forts, some British, some American.
From The History and Antiquities of Boston, by Samuel Gardner Drake, published in 1856:
The Fort on Castle Island, built chiefly of wood, was accidentally consumed by fire. The circumstances attending the conflagration are not mentioned.
When Mr. John Josselyn was here, in 1671, he thus remarked upon it: —
“There is an island on the south side of the passage, containing eight acres of ground. Upon a rising hill within this island, is mounted a castle commanding the entrance; no stately edifice, nor strong; built with brick and stone; kept by a captain, under whom is a master-gunner, and others.”
Another history source explains the origin of the installations on Castle Island.
From A History of Boston by Caleb Hopkins Snow, published in 1825:
The North-end people seem to have undertaken at their own expense the construction of the north battery.
The affair with Captain Stagg had made the Bostonians a little jealous of the armed vessels which visited their port, and they had been at great cost to put the castle and Fort hill in a state of defense.
Another difficulty of a similar nature occurred in 1644 with one Capt. Richardson, who undertook to make seizure of a Dartmouth ship that lay in the harbor, but which the authorities here had determined to seize themselves, by way of reprisal for a Boston ship that had been taken in Wales by the king’s party.
Officers were put on board the vessel, and Capt. R. was warned to desist; this he either could not or would not do; his men boarded the vessel and the captain of her was made prisoner.
The Governor hereupon ordered Capt. R. to come on shore to account for his conduct. His men were so unruly that he feared to leave them, and he declined obeying the command.
Upon this a warning piece was fired at him from the battery, which cut a rope in the head of his ship: one of his men was about to return the fire but was providentially prevented.
A stranger who was in the battery fired another gun, without orders, which however did no damage, except a slight injury to the prize ship in question.
Forty men were then sent aboard and took possession of her, and Capt. Richardson came ashore and acknowledged his error and his sorrow for what he had done.
‘So we ordered him to pay a barrel of powder, and to satisfy the officers and soldiers we had employed and other expenses, and dismissed him.’
The reason of their being so easy with him was that ‘there was no hurt done, nor had he made one shot; for if he had, we were resolved to have taken or sunk him, which we might easily have done, lying close under our battery so as we could have played upon him, with whole culverin or demi-culverin, six hours together.’
It is not improbable that such occurrences as these led the north-end people to think it prudent to have a suitable work of defense, for the protection of their part of the town from insolent aggressions.
Accordingly, preparations were made for fortifying somewhere about Walter Merry’s point. It was the point now known by the name of Battery or North Battery wharf.
The position was well selected, commanding the entrance of the harbor, and the river also, as high up as vessels of large size would have been likely to venture.
The work was completed in the course of the year 1646, when we have the following record concerning it:
‘Proposicions presented to the townsmen, on the behalfe of the, inhabitants of the north end of the towne of Boston, the ratification whereof is desired, and the registeringe of them in the towne records,
‘ 1. That we of this end of the towne, whose harts the Lord hath made willing to set about erecting and maintenance of a fortification att Walter Merry’s point, may for the future bee freed from all rates and assessments to what other fortifications bee in the towne, until such time as the other part of the towne, not joyning with us herein, shall have disbursed, and layd out in equall proporcion of their estates with ours, as by trew account may appeare.
‘2. That the land gained at the towne’s charge, and stacked out to the towne’s service by those deputed for that end, to the raysinge of a work upon, may not by any to their private occations, be imployed or made use of; as that the ground nor flatts, before the sayd worke may not be disposed of by the towne unto any particular man’s imployment, to the prejudice of the said worke.’
It is easy to imagine what must have been the spirit of the times, when so great a work was undertaken in such a way: it evinced a growing readiness in the people to maintain their rights with their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor.
Johnson’s account of the castle affords us a pleasant view of this subject.
‘To say right,’some particular persons may be penurious in laying out their estates upon ammunition, but the general of Officers and souldiers are very generous that way: the reverend Doctor Wilson gave bouniifully for the furthering this Wilderness-work, the which was expended upon great Artillery, his gift being a thousand pound; beside many persons that came over, the Lord was pleased to indow with a large portion of the things of this life, who were not backward liberally to dispose of it, to procure means of defence.
‘And to that end there was a castle built on an Island, upon the passage into the Mattachu-Bay, wholly built at first by the country in general, but by reason the country affords no Lime, but what is burnt of Oyster-shels, it fell to decay in a few years after, which made many of the Towns that lay out of the defence thereof to desert it, although their safety (under God) was much involved in the constant repair and well-mannaging thereof; hereupon the next six Towns take upon them to rebuild it at their proper cost and charges, the rest of the country upon the finishing thereof gave them a small matter toward it; upon this there was a Captain ordained, and put in possession thereof by the country, having a yearly Stipend allowed him for himself and his souldiers, which he is to keep in a constant readiness upon the Island, being about eight acres of ground.
‘The Castle is built on the North-East of the Island, upon a rising hill, very advantageous to make many shot at such ships as shall offer to enter the Harbor without their good leave and liking; the Commander of it is one Captain Davenport, a man approved for his faithfulness, courage and skill, the Master Canoneer is an active lngineer; also this Castle hath cost about four thousand pounds, yet are not this poor pilgrim people weary of maintaining it in good repair; it is of very good use to awe any insolent persons, that putting confidence in their ship and sails, shall offer any injury to the people, or contemn their Government, and they have certain signals of alarums, which suddenly spread through the whole country.’
The Massachusetts State Quarter Coin shows with an artist’s image of the European view of Castle Island, circa 1780s.