Boston Harbor Islands

The Boston Harbor Islands have been used for everything from summer resorts to shipping ports to Civil War forts in their 16,000-year history. And the eclectic mix continues even now that the islands have become part of the National Park Service.

Sure, the islands have their share of hiking trails and campsites. But what other national park also hosts a sewage treatment plant for a major metropolitan area (Deer Island) and the dumping of fill from a multi-billion-dollar urban highway project (Big Dig dirt on Spectacle Island)?

Currently only six of the 30 islands are open to the public, offering day trips or weekend camping excursions just a 45-minute ferry ride away from Boston’s Long Wharf (though several others, including Deer Island, can be visited by special arrangement).

Venture out to the islands on a bright day and the sun sparkles off the city’s sky-scrapers and the water equally, but walk to the far side of most of the islands and the urban sprawl disappears from view, leaving only sea and island beauty.

The islands were formed at the end of the Ice Age, when the glaciers melted and left massive mounds of rock, gravel, and soil in their wake. Today they range in size from 214 acres to less than one acre. While many are visible from the mainland, some are far out at sea; the farthest, The Graves, is about 10 miles from the city.

For those who want to delve into local history, all except the smallest and most rugged of the outer islands bear the imprints of human hands. The British and then American revolutionaries used the islands for defense, building four forts and what is now the oldest active lighthouse in the nation (Boston Light on Little Brewster Island). Boston later used the islands to hide society’s outcasts and quarantine the sick.

“It’s taken a while for all of us to collectively realize what basic natural beauty and significance these islands have and to appreciate them,” says Department of Environmental Management Commissioner Peter Webber, who chairs the Boston Harbor Islands Partnership, a group of national, state, and local representatives that governs the islands. “For a long time the islands were sites for things that people didn’t want in their community – things they wanted out of sight and out of the way.”

During World War II, the islands were used for military defense, but then were largely ignored until the state realized the need to protect them and made them a state park in the early 1970s.

In 1996, Congress passed legislation pushed by former Congressman Gerry Studds and other local leaders to make the islands part of the National Park Service. That was no simple process. Congress was reluctant to create a national park where it owned no land, but after two years of lobbying agreed to form the “Boston Harbor National Recreation Area.”

(The new designation did not please everyone. Calling the islands a “recreation area” prompted passionate outcries from Native Americans, who noted the existence of ancient burial grounds and the islands’ use in the 18th century as Indian internment camps. Local officials now call the islands a “national park area,” though the name has not been officially changed.)

Joining the national park system has enhanced the stature of the islands, says Webber, by giving them national recognition for both their historical significance and their natural beauty. It also has brought in the management expertise of the National Park Service, without requiring transfer of the property to the federal government.

Webber acknowledges that little has changed so far in the day-to-day management of the islands, since his agency and the Metropolitan District Commission remain the primary land owners. But the governing partnership is working on a management plan that could bring changes after its scheduled release this fall.

This summer the partnership has been holding a series of public forums on the three options–one to preserve the status quo, one calling for extensive modifications to expand recreational opportunities, and a third seeking limited changes, mostly to improve access. Webber says the partnership and members of its advisory council agree that the third option makes the most sense, but they want to hear public comments before making an official decision.

In developing a vision for the future, Webber says, the partnership is trying to achieve a balance between recreation and conservation.

“For a time we in the city and state collectively turned our backs on the harbor,” he says. “Now that there has been a huge investment in cleaning up the harbor and opening up the land on the water, our connection to the harbor is only going to increase and the interest in the harbor islands is only going to increase.”

Both Webber’s agency, which manages the more scenic islands, and the MDC, which manages the more historically significant islands, currently run summer programs offering numerous day activities.

George’s Island serves as the hub. Water taxis take visitors from there to Gallop’s, Peddock’s, Lovell’s, Bumpkin, and Grape. All offer guided tours. While most have picnic areas, only George’s has fresh water and food for sale. For the more adventurous, camping is available on Peddock’s, Lovell’s, Bumpkin, and Grape islands.

George’s Island is also a must-stop for any bonafide Boston history buff. Massive Fort Warren and its Quincy-granite walls occupy most of the land. Though the fort never saw combat, its interconnecting rooms and manicured lawns, designed by the “Father of West Point” Sylvanus Thayer, make it a memorable visit.

Grape Island–which some say was the site of the Revolutionary War’s second skirmish, when colonists drove off British soldiers seeking to gather hay for their horses–is one of DEM’s most under-used islands, according to Al Houghton, a DEM research vessel operator. The campground is set in an apple grove and meandering hiking trails offer day-trippers and overnight visitors an ideal setting just minutes from Hingham’s Hewitt’s Cove.

Boston Harbor Cruises, which holds the current ferry contract to the islands, shuttled 118,000 people there last summer, a slight decrease from 1997 due primarily to a rainy June, according to a company spokeswoman. Officials expect those numbers to increase over the next few years.

Next spring a restructured contract is expected to expand upon the three current access points, Hewitt’s Cove, Long Wharf, and Lynn Heritage State Park. In the meantime, many communities surrounding Boston Harbor are positioning themselves to become one of the new points of departure.

Meet the Author
The South Shore town of Hull, for example, has secured $3 million of federal, state, and town money to fix up parking areas and install new docks at Pemberton Pier at the tip of the peninsula, says Town Manager Philip Lemnios. “I’ve been involved in this thing six years now,” Lemnios says, “and I am still convinced [the islands are] going to become the primary tourist attraction and destination in this area.”

Andrew Nelson is a free-lance writer who lives in Hingham.