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Looking Out: From Asylums And Dumps To Island Parklands

BOSTON — At one time in Boston’s history, the harbor was the city’s commercial and cultural center — crowded with shippers, fishermen and people doing business with them. But what is Boston Harbor today? This is the second report of a summer-long series that takes a fresh look at the waterfront and islands, “Looking Out: A New View Of Boston Harbor.”

Cross the narrow neck of land where Winthrop sticks out past Logan Airport and you come to Deer Island, which juts well out into Boston Harbor. As you climb up the drumlin you’ll see tall grass and parkland of the sort where Indians and Pilgrims hunted deer. Look behind you and you’ll see Boston’s skyline through the wildflowers. Then turn back to the east and you see the sweep of the outer islands and the ocean beyond.

“That’s Little Brewster where Boston Light is. You can see light shining,” says local historian Jim Vrabel. “It’s the first lighthouse, originally built in 1716.”

A low rocky outcrop three miles to the east, Little Brewster lies next to Great Brewster, which is over 100 feet high.

The harbor has 34 islands in all, with a lot of history and a lot of uses, many of them tragic or unfortunate. Deer Island — where Vrabel and I are standing — at different times held suspected subversives, quarantined Irish immigrants from famine ships and Native American who were interned here after the outbreak of the King Philip’s War in 1675.

The unwanted, the unclean, the infected, the incorrigible; immigrants, indigents and Indians — since the beginning of Boston, city fathers have assigned them all to the islands or into the harbor.

John Eliot, who converted them to Christianity, said the Praying Indians, as they were called, “said ‘their usage was worse than death’” according to Vrabel. “Half died during the course of the winter.”

The unwanted, the unclean, the infected, the incorrigible; immigrants, indigents and Indians — since the beginning of Boston, city fathers have assigned them all to the islands or into the harbor.

Here to Deer Island another group of “undesirables” was brought after the Palmer Raid conducted by the young J. Edgar Hoover.

“Deer Island was the site, was the place where the radicals and supposed communists in the 1920s who were rounded up in Boston and other parts of New England were kept for a year or so,” Vrabel says.

They were housed at the Deer Island House of Correction, whose remains are no more than a small wall dubbed the “Great Wall of China” by local workers.

The Harbor Islands were big on jails, prisons and reform schools. German sailors were held on Gallup’s Island during World War I. And Confederates were held in the massive granite fort at Georges Island. The Deer Island jail was once dubbed “The Alcatraz of the Atlantic,” which makes Vrabel laugh.

“If someone got out they could stroll over to Winthrop and get a slice of pizza,” he says.

In fact, you could roll up your pants and cross over at low tide to Winthrop before one big storm closed the Gut that once separated it from Deer Island.

John Vetere, who’s joined us at the “Great Wall of China” turns Vrabel and me south toward the smallest island — no more than a rock.

“Right over here is Nixes Mate,” Vetere says. “That’s where they used to hang pirates.”

From Nixes, the rotting corpse of buccaneer William Fly hung for days. He’d refused the urging of fire and brimstone preacher Cotton Mather to acknowledge his sins.

Spectacle Island started in the 19th century as a rendering plant to turn horses into glue. And then it got worse.

But the stench most memorable to modern neighbors was the harbor itself, the notorious Harbor of Shame. Its cleanup involved taking the jail at Deer Island offline and putting a state of the art sewage treatment plant online.

Vetere runs the Deer Island Waste Water Treatment Plant. He takes us to see water cascading over a series of descending ladders.

That job of taking raw sewage in and sending clean water out takes 120 acres of those signature giant egg-shaped digesters, sludge compactors and secondary treatment equipment that remove 90 percent of pollutants. This south side of Deer Island looks like an industrial version of the City of Oz. (And Vetere told us that the wife of federal Judge David Mazzone, who ordered the harbor cleanup, had once suggested the giant eggs be painted like Faberge eggs.)

For the first time in decades — maybe more than a century — Boston Harbor has become healthy, swimmable and popular, as we could see when we took a boat out to Spectacle Island, which is just off South Boston and Castle Island.

Spectacle started up in the 19th century as a rendering plant to turn horses into glue. And then it got worse. It became Boston’s dump until the 1950s. The island always seemed to be on fire. And the trash leaked into the harbor. But now the island has been capped with clay and sediment excavated during the Big Dig and greened with vegetation. There’s even a visitor center with rangers and a snack shack run by famed chef Jasper White, who initially called Spectacle Island “Skeptical Island.”

On its sandy beach the only major complaint now is about the temperature of the water.

“You’re shivering,” I remark to a teenage girl. “Is the water cold?”

“Yeah,” she shivers.

“How long did you go in for?”

“About two minutes.”

The beach is also littered with artifacts, the garbage that was deposited here years and years ago, says Ellen Berkland, the archeologist for the city who knows her trash — both ancient and modern.

Underneath us as we walk and intermixed with the flotsam and jetsam of shells, seaweed and sand are small heaps and sprinkles of sea glass — pieces of ceramics, containers and whatnot.

“This is really sweet,” Berkland chirps, as she comes up with a “salter,” a small dish for the table that she determines is made of iron stone and thus was made sometime after 1840.

As we continue to walk, she picks up a metal ox-shoe, clay marbles and dice used by gamblers who used to come out here (gambling and “casinos” aren’t new to Boston Harbor).

A startling quantity of artifacts are all here for the picking, though you can’t take any of them off the island. As we approach the spot where a heap of clamshells from a 1,000-year-old Native American clambake was discovered, I notice beautiful blue pieces of glass. “What are these?”

“Bromo Seltzer bottles,” Berkland says. “Definitely, Bromo Seltzer.”

“The tides come in, the times go out and with it bring many gifts.”
– Ellen Berkland, city archeologist

I laugh at the thought of Bromo Seltzer, the bottled Tums of the Sixties, as objects of found art.

As instructive as the Native American trash are the remains of 20th-century trash, its edges smoothed by tides, storms and erosion that bring it in and up from the harbor.

Bruce Berman of Save The Harbor/Save The Bay has joined our hunt.

“You see little specs of red beach glass and ask, ‘Where does it come from?’ ” he says. “And then you say, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s brake lights,’ And the you see green glass the same size and say, ‘Maybe it’s a ship’s light.’ ”

Berman calls the beach at Spectacle a classroom. And in the summer he brings 1,000 city school kids out here on a program called “Treasures of Spectacle Island.”

Just the day before, an 11-year-old on another nearby harbor beach in Hull found a stone that he brought to Berkland. She identified it as a stone tool 9,000 years old.

“The tides come in, the times go out and with it bring many gifts,” she says.

Think of it. We are standing on a beach that used to be the city dump, where people are now swimming in a clean harbor that’s become a park.

What the harbor and its islands now mean to the city is as clear as the water.

To learn more about the Harbor Islands:

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