Boston Harbor Islands

Boston in the Background
Heading to the Harbor Islands

First, a disclaimer:  If you’re like me TV advertisements are the bane of your couch existence.  Words like obnoxious, boring, poorly done and most importantly, in between you and your favorite programs come straight to mind.  And yet, there are some ads that are pure genius.  CulturePub is a great French TV show that showcases the best in worldwide advertising and looks at the themes and trends in marketing through the ages.  While it’s a bit scary to admit that I enjoy watching a TV program about advertising, I assure you it is excellent.  You can even check out their YouTube channel in either English (highlights with English subtitles) or French (the entire program in French with French subtitles for non-French advertisements) if you’re curious for more.  And now, back to Boston with my apologies to MasterCard.

2 Round Trip Ferry Tickets — $30.00, Loosing My Water Bottle — $9.95, Spending a Day Within Sight of Boston but Feeling a World Away — Priceless!

After four days of exploring downtown Boston and neighboring Cambridge last week, we decided it was time for a change of pace.  Boston Harbor Islands National Park seemed to be the change of pace we were looking for at a very reasonable price.  For $30, we bought two roundtrip ferry tickets from Boston’s Long Wharf (Aquarium T stop) to the islands.  While six islands are open seasonally to visitors, if you’re going for a day trip, I recommend sticking to Spectacle and Georges islands.  Our ferry ticket let us sail from Boston to Spectacle and then take an inter-island ferry to Georges before returning directly to Boston from there.

Boston Light in the Distance

In order to become a National Park, every park must have some unique or defining characteristic setting it apart and worth conserving/highlighting.  The Boston Harbor Islands are North America’s only drumlin field.  For those of you who were not geology majors in college (neither was I), a drumlin field is made up of hills carved out by receding glaciers during the last ice age.  The Harbor Islands are a drowned drumlin field.  Visually, a drumlin resembles an inverted spoon.  In terms of park management, the Islands are also unique in that federal, state, city and non-profit actors all help run and manage the park.  This partnership is immediately evident when you arrive–National Park Service and local Rangers both run programs and volunteers are on-site and ready to help.

Civil War Era Bakery, Fort Warren

When we arrived on Spectacle Island, we were greeted by volunteers and headed to the Visitor’s Center.  Bathroom facilities, a Ranger Desk with activities, and a snack bar are available here.  Follow hiking’s golden rule, pack out what you pack in!  The islands are working towards being completely eco-friendly thanks to solar panels and composting toilets for example.  We took a guided ‘hike,’ walk would be a more appropriate word, with a Ranger from the Visitor’s Center up to the Shade Shelter on the top of the North Drumlin.  If you’re out-of-shape, looking for an easy walk to start your children out with or even bringing a stroller or wheel-chair bound friend, this is your island.  The trail is wide, gently graded and stroller friendly.  I was particularly impressed with the picnic tables on the way up which are designed for a wheelchair to pull up to and use.  I’m for anything that makes parks accessible to the widest audience possible.  Our Ranger gave us a running talk on local and invasive plants (her specialty) mixed with the islands history on the way up.  If you were wondering where all the dirt from Boston’s Big Dig went, you’re walking on it–3.7 million cubic yards of it to be exact capping the old landfill and turning a landfill into today’s park.  From the top, you can enjoy a gorgeous view of the Boston skyline.  To give you an idea of other things to do, the day we were visiting, Rangers were also offering free kayaking and any number of children were getting their feet wet on the small beach.  After the walk and a quick snack, we filled, and then forgot our water bottle, before heading off to Georges Island.  Ferries run from Spectacle to Georges hourly at 45 minutes past.

Fort Warren

Georges Islands’s claim to fame is Fort Warren, a national historic landmark best known for its role as a Civil War POW camp.  Work started on the fort in 1833 and was finished in 1850.  Fort Warren is a star-fort like Fort McHenry but much, much bigger–the next generation of star-forts if you will.  While you can take a self-guided tour (aprox. 50 minutes), the Park Rangers do an excellent job of breathing like back into the fort’s stone walls.  We walked around exploring a little on our own and while I did enjoy the views (Boston Light lighthouse in the distance), I was having trouble bringing the place to life in my head.  Our Ranger took care of that problem.  He talked about the fort’s history, it’s role in the Civil War and WWII, the reasons’ why it became obsolete and even ended with a ghost story.  The Lady in Black’s story makes for a nice way to wrap things up.  The island also boasts a small one-room museum which presents artifacts and displays on the island’s past–special note goes to the table representing typical meals of the fort’s occupants.  We ended up spending almost an hour here thanks to the weather.  My advice, even if the weather looks gorgeous when you leave Boston, bring a raincoat.  Our tour ended within seconds of a downpour starting.  We ran all the way back to the Visitor’s Center and still ended up soaked to the bone.  Georges also boasts a playground, snack stand, and small souvenir store.  The island’s bathrooms are also located in the Visitor’s Center.  When the weather is nice, chairs facing Boston let you sit back, relax and soak in the view–so close, but so far away!

Enjoy your summer and all its priceless opportunities!

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4 Responses to Boston Harbor Islands

  1. PostMuse says:

    This is a fantastic narrative, Erin! I lived in the Boston area for nearly 50 years but never got out to the Harbor Islands. I did take the ferry from the South Shore to Boston most every week, sometimes more than once a week if I was feeling rich, and enjoyed a passing view of some of the islands. I always meant to visit them, and someday I will … maybe with my grandchildren in tow.

    When I was a teen, I wanted to live in Boston Light. I still sometimes daydream about living out there.

    • lapoussine35 says:

      You should definitely try and go there with your grandchildren. If you go on a weekend and plan ahead a little, the Park Rangers organize tours of Boston Light. I can’t remember if they leave from Georges Island or Spectacle (I think it’s Georges) but it sounds like a great opportunity. Did you know that Boston Light is the only remaining US lighthouse to have a guardien? The only reason it’s still manned (by a woman no less) is due to an Act of Congress.

  2. N High says:

    Thanks for the postcard from here as well. I didn’t know about this park and your information is great. Were the POWs Confederate soldiers? I’ve been to Andersonville (Camp Sumter) which I believe I sent you a card of and seen where the Union soldiers were held. The National POW museum at Andersonville NHP is a very well-done museum and worth a trip.

    • lapoussine35 says:

      The POWs were indeed Confederate soldiers and the Fort had a humane reputation concerning its prisoner treatment. It also housed political prisoners (for example, pro-Confederacy members of the MD legislature) and Union deserters. Following the Confederacy’s collapse, even higher level prisoners showed up including Alexander Hamilton Stephens, the former Confederate Vice-President. You did send me a postcard from Andersonville and I’d like to visit there one day. Hopefully we’ll be able to explore the South at some point.

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