Saved By Pollution: The Unique Nature of the Boston Harbor Islands

In 1861, a young woman journeyed from Georgia to Massachusetts with the hope of freeing her imprisoned husband, a Confederate soldier, from his cell in Fort Warren, on Georges Island in the Boston Harbor. Cutting her hair and dressing like a man, she managed to sneak into the fort, only to be discovered, and sentenced to death for treason. To accommodate her final request of dying in woman’s clothing, she was given a black robe, which she wore as she was hanged. Today, that woman is known as “The Lady in Black,” and her ghost has been seen, or heard, by hundreds of visitors exploring the remains of the old military fort.

Or so the story goes.

There are 34 islands in the Boson Harbor, including 35 miles of coastline and more than 1500 acres of hills, trails and relics from ages gone by. Each contains a unique geography and a history all its own. They are all minutes from downtown Boston. And they all await exploration.

A Boston Harbor Revival

A National Park Area since 1996, the Boston Harbor used to be synonymous with environmental degradation. This allowed them to remain relatively unnoticed for years, despite their close proximity to one of the northeast’s largest cities.

“In some ways, the harbor being polluted saved the islands,” suggest Susan Kane, Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Islands District Manager. “People forgot about them, so they weren’t developed.”

But the implementation of top-of-the-line facilities have rescued the harbor from its underused past, as well as pointed the way to its future. This rescued legacy is made extremely visible by the futuristic-looking wastewater treatment plant on Deer Island.

Now connected to Winthrop due to the extreme erosion endured during the Hurricane of 1938, Deer Island boasts 60 acres of hiking, biking, and jogging trails, in addition to the tourable, seemingly Star Wars-inspired water treatment facility, one of the most notable features on any of the islands.

Across the harbor in Hull sits another technological emblem of environmental stewardship: the wind turbine at Pemberton Point. Known as Hull Wind 1, the 660-kilowatt modern windmill provides 10% of Hull’s energy, and could lead to a wind farm in the near future.

Boston Illuminated

Though less visible than Deer Island’s technological egg shells and Hull’s spinning turbine, no sight is more symbolic of the Harbor Islands than the Boston Light.

Built in 1716, and still active as a navigational aid facility of the Coast Guard, Boston Light is “the oldest continuously used light station in the U.S.” For nearly 300 years, its light has beamed out over 25 miles into the Atlantic Ocean from its post on Little Brewster Island.

Today Boston Light is accessible only by special guided tours, of which two are offered. The Boston Light Tower Climbing Tour heads straight to Little Brewster Island and includes the opportunity to climb up the lighthouse’s famed 76 steps. The Three-Lighthouse Tour includes a briefer visit to Boston Light, as well as trips to Long Island Head Light, on Long Island, and Graves Light, located on The Graves, the outermost of all the Harbor Islands.

The lighthouses, as is the case with all of the islands, are most easily accessed by ferry.

Heading out to sea

The most efficient way to voyage to the Boston Harbor Islands is to board the shuttle from Long Wharf, which is located just next to the Boston Aquarium, across the street from Quincy Market. Ferries run daily, from 10 am to 6 pm, from May to October. The ferry ride to the aforementioned Georges Island takes 30 minutes. Inter-island shuttles from Georges can take you to wherever your desired destination may be.

Once amongst the islands, the outdoor opportunities are extensive. Beaches for swimming can be found at Bumpkin, Grape, Lovells, Peddocks and Spectacle Islands. Excellent hiking trails crisscross Peddocks Island and World’s End, the large peninsula jutting into the harbor from Cohasset. Sport fishing can be had year-round, with equipment rented on Spectacle Island. Guided kayak sessions are available from Grape Island. And camping permits, for up to two consecutive weeks, are available from Memorial Day through Labor Day on Bumpkin, Grape and Lovells Islands.

With so much to do, and so many islands to see, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Fortunately, each island provides its own unique attractions that blend history and geography to form the perfect urban wilderness.

Peddocks Island

This dual nature is well exemplified by Peddocks Island. Blessed with miles of hiking trails, excellent beach access and a salt marsh, Peddocks is also home to dozens of primitive (in terms of twenty-first century amenities) private residences, and 26 other buildings which, not having been used for years, are in various states of disrepair.

Here you can see the remains of Fort Andrews, which was active from 1904 through World War II, and whose buildings included a firehouse, a gymnasium, stables, and barracks for prisoners-of-war.

Largely ignored for decades, this part of the island now exudes a distinctive ghost town feel. Which was just fine for Martin Scorcese, who used Peddocks as one of the shooting locations for his recent thriller Shutter Island.

Thompson Island

Now home to a branch of the Outward Bound experiential education empire, Thompson Island has been used by various schools for centuries, and has a “devoted legacy of educating underserved kids since 1833,” notes Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center President Arthur Pearson.

And while access to the island is limited, the education center is busier than ever with school groups from the various neighborhoods and suburbs that make up greater Boston. School groups can tent out, work through team challenges in a low-ropes course, or explore a salt marsh. But the highlight for most of the kids is climbing the 65-foot-high Alpine Tower that looks back over the harbor to traffic on Route 93, and Boston’s skyline beyond.

“If you set out to design the perfect outdoor education spot,” suggest Pearson, “it would be Thompson Island. And then you’d say that it could never happen.”

Spectacle Island

Spectacle Island gets its name from its shape, which resembles a spectacle if viewed from above, as is done daily by airplane passengers as they fly over Spectacle en route to Boston’s Logan Airport. But the island’s most significant physical characteristic is its hilly nature, the largest of any of the Harbor Islands. Why is Spectacle Island blessed with a brilliant hilltop panoramic view? The hill was created from all of the dirt that was taken from under the city during The Big Dig, when Interstate 93 was re-routed into the underground tunnel the hides it today.

Now the garbage barges heading to Spectacle Island have been replaced by eager visitors, who are amazed to learn the history of the island they are standing on. There is a new “green” visitors center, which features exhibits on the evolution of the islands, a lifeguard-patrolled beach, and a full schedule of events, including Music In The Park and Summer Shacks Chowder Cook Off.

Perhaps no other island represents the legacy of the Boston Harbor Islands as effectively as Spectacle Island: from trash heap to environmentally-friendly welcome center, featuring an accessible beach with its own 15-minute ferry ride from downtown Boston.

Georges Island

But the pride of the Boston Harbor Islands is undoubtedly Georges Island. Long used as the central ferry point from which to explore all the other islands, Georges recently received a stunning upgrade: its own, larger, brand-new visitors center, complete with interactive exhibits designed for everyone from the toddler who likes to push buttons to the most fervent military historian. There is a comprehensive concessions area, and a conference center, too.

True to its military history roots, the visitors center is located in the old Mine Storage Building, which lies adjacent to the island’s main attraction, Fort Warren.

A National Historic Landmark and worthwhile reason to voyage to the Harbor Islands in its own right, Fort Warren was an active military post from the Civil War through World War II. It held upwards of 2,000 Civil War prisoners, including the husband soldier of “The Lady In Black,” and its most famous resident, Alexander H. Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy.

Through the recovery of old diaries and letters of soldiers and prisoners, the exhibits at the new visitors center attempt to illuminate the complicated narrative that is personal history. “There’s nothing like in Boston,” continues Kane. “We’re telling the human story of what it was like to be out there, and that’s a story that’s never been told before.”

Built with stone form the nearby Quincy Quarries centuries ago, today the old fort is literally history frozen solid, a monument for appreciating the seemingly slow but unmistakably unstoppable passage of time, and all of the people whose stories have been woven together over the ages by its particular piece of land.

The unique nature of the Boston Harbor Islands

It is impossible to truly know Boston without knowing the Boston Harbor Islands. Though largely underappreciated throughout history, the islands have always played fundamental roles for the city.

“The islands were an integral part of Boston for years,” Kane notes. “And not always in the best ways. There were brothels, gambling, insane asylums, and areas of quarantine.”

But their history has always been Boston’s history. And the use of their land has always been vital to the city.

The Boston Harbor Islands are blessed by a wide array amenities: from salt marshes to beaches, fishing to berry-picking, trails crossing hillsides to the remnants of old buildings that speak of stories told long ago. But perhaps the most unique feature of the islands is their unrivaled accessibility to an urban area as large as Boston. This distinctive characteristic can be matched by few cities, and fewer wilderness areas.

(Originally appeared in Preview Massachusetts, and then at Free Sport.)

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