HAWTHORNE caught the essence of this urban archipelago while visiting Thompson Island in 1837. Each island has its own natural environment, evokes a distinct mood, and tells its story of the past. Yet each shares the unusual quality of being both a place apart and a facet of the city's maritime character. Together these 34 islands and peninsulas encompass a broad swath of the Boston area's cultural and natural history.
American Indians sought out the islands for food, ritual, and recreation long before Europeans arrived. Since the 1600s newcomers have used them for everything from fishing settlements to harbor defense sites. Today, after a determined partnership effort to restore the health of the harbor and reclaim the islands from exploitation, they abound with things to do, ways to learn, and places to explore.
These Boston Harbor Islands, scattered across the expansive, bustling harbor they help to define, offer historical landscapes where structures from the 1800s can pull you back to an earlier time. They offer refuge where you can turn from the clock and immerse yourself in natural settings ranging from the dramatic to the intimateeach special, each "a little world by itself."
THE BOSTON HARBOR ISLANDS PARTNERSHIP, a group of federal, state, city, and non-profit organizations, manages Boston Harbor Islands. The members have a long record of protection of natural and cultural resources. The Boston Harbor Islands Advisory Council advises the Partnership on park planning and operations. The Partnership also works with educational and for-profit groups to promote citizen stewardship of the islands.
On a Drowned Drumlin Field They Built Lighthouses, Forts, and Harbor Homes...
When you look over Boston Harbor, you're seeing a drowned drumlin field, hills built during the last ice age and later covered by rising seas. Those whose tops remained above water are the Boston Harbor Islands. The harbor's great tidal swings and moderate salinity create environments hosting an array of land and marine wildlife: rabbits, raccoons, and other small mammals on the islands, harbor seals resting on the rocks of the outer islands, dozens of bird species perched on pilings, wheeling in the air, or feeding in the salt marshes.
For millennia Northeast coastal Indians fished, farmed, and hunted on the islands, and European settlers used them for much the same purposes. The large natural harbor and New England's transportation network have made Boston a thriving seaport since the 1600s. The port has its share of sea tales, as ships plying the harbor's sealanes attracted pirates. Boston has also been a port of entry for early settlers and later immigrants seeking a better life in a new world.
These islands have historically been places where society has set apart unwelcome institutions and people on the margins. American Indians were interned on Deer Island during King Philip's War in 1675. Other islands were used to isolate quarantined immigrants, prisoners of war, and mental patients. They provided refuge in places like the Boston Asylum and Farm School for Indigent Boys on Thompson Island, visited by Hawthorne on the trip that prompted his hymn to island life.
Because the harbor was strategically important during conflicts from the Revolution to World War II, you will find remains of forts, gun batteries, and other military installations on the islands. Notoriously tricky shipping channels bristle with hazards, and buoys, range lights, and lighthouses still dot the harbormost famously Boston Light on Little Brewster. Today Boston Harbor is a vibrant place alive with gliding gulls, sunning cormorants, and vessels ranging from ponderous container ships to tiny sailboats slipping out to see the islands.
We Come Now for Renewal
For over 300 years human activities have reshaped island terrain, degraded ecosystems, and polluted the harboronce called the dirtiest in the nation. In 1995 the Commonwealth of Massachusetts took on the job of cleaning it up with the help of Deer Island's Wastewater Treatment Plant The opening of parkland on Spectacle Island is another symbol of the harbor's renewal.
Local American Indian tribes, who have always seen the islands' ancient burial grounds and other sacred sites as vital links to their past, played an important role in their preservation. Commemorative events and park educational programs on American Indian culture help sustain the bond.
The revitalization of the harbor and continuing efforts to restore and preserve island habitats through biological research, green technologies, and public stewardship have again made them destinations for those seeking recreation, another perspective on the world, or solitude.
Stepping Ashore ...
Six islands (Bumpkin, Georges, Grape, Lovells, Peddocks, and Spectacle) are open to the public seasonally for free, but commercial ferry fees apply. State park staff or volunteers welcome you and give information and guided tours. Late June to Labor Day the islands are open daily 9:00 am to sunset. Spring and fall hours are shortened. Groups of 25 or more require a day-use permit. Boston Light on Little Brewster Island, managed by the U.S. Coast Guard, is open for ranger-led tours from late June to October. Contact www.BostonHarborIslands.org for information on tours and recreation activities. Thompson Island, managed by the Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center, is open to the public via park boats on Sundays from Memorial Day to Labor Day. For more information on Thompson Island programs and private functions visit www.thompsonisland.org.
Worlds End, Deer Island, and Webb Memorial State Park can be visited year round by car. A fee is charged at Worlds End, part of The Trustees of Reservations. To arrange a tour of the wastewater treatment plant on Deer Island, contact the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.
FERRY AND SHUTTLE INFORMATION Commercial ferries operate from May through October from Long Wharf in Boston, and from July through August from Hingham Shipyard in Hingham and Pemberton Point in Hull. Inter Island shuttles connect Georges and Spectacle to all islands open to the public. An additional fare may be charged. Visit www.BostonHarborIslands.org for schedules, fares, and other information.
HELPFUL HINTS Allow at least a half day to see one island and a day to see more. We don't recommend trying to see more than two islands in a day. Only Georges and Spectacle have food, fresh water, and restrooms. Other islands have composting toilets. For your comfort and safety bring sunscreen, a jacket, a hat, insect repellent, and plenty of water. There are no trash receptacles; pack out what you pack in.
CAMPING You can camp by reservation on Bumpkin, Grape, and Lovells islands daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day, with some weekend camping in spring and fall. Other islands require a backcountry permit. There are no flush toilets, showers, telephones, fresh water, electricity, or stores on the camping islands. There are fees for camping. To make reservations contact Reserve America at www.reserveamerica.com.
EDUCATION AND VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITIES Volunteers play a critical role as stewards of park resources. They help through citizen science activities, education programs, and visitor services. For information on class visits, lesson plans, and educational activities, www.BostonHarborIslands.org and follow the Learning Center link.
ACCESSIBILITY The islands are not fully accessible to visitors with disabilities, but special arrangements can be made.
REGULATIONS Visitors must comply with all posted park regulations and obey park rangers. Alcoholic beverages, weapons, fireworks, pets, and disorderly conduct are prohibited.
PARK PARTNERS The Boston Harbor Islands Partnership includes Boston Harbor Islands Advisory Council, Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, Boston Office of Environment and Energy Services, Boston Redevelopment Authority, Island Alliance, Massachusetts Port Authority, Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, National Park Service, Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center, The Trustees of Reservations, and the United States Coast Guard.
Source: NPS Brochure (2010)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
A Preliminary Checklist of Fungi at the Boston Harbor Islands (Danny Haelewaters, Alden C. Dirks, Lara A. Kappler, James K. Mitchell, Luis Quijada, Roo Vandegrift, Bart Buyck and Donald H. Pfister, extract from Northeastern Naturalist, Vol 25, Special Issue 9, 2018)
Boat Wake Impacts and their Role in Shore Erosion Processes, Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NERO/NRR-2011/403 (Duncan FitzGerald, Zoe Hughes and Peter Rosen, May 2011)
Comprehensive Plan, Boston Harbor Islands (Metropolitan Area Planning Council, October 1972)
Comprehensive Plan: Summary, Boston Harbor Islands (Metropolitan Area Planning Council, October 1972)
Cultural Landscape Report Volume 1: Historical Overview, Boston Harbor Islands National & State Park (Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation, 2000/2017)
Cultural Landscape Report Volume 2: Existing Conditions, Boston Harbor Islands National & State Park (Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation, 2000/2017)
Developing a pollinator program for Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area: A pilot study NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/BOHA/NRR-2015/950 (Jessica J. Rykken and Brian D. Farrell, April 2015)
Geologic Resources Inventory Report, Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/GRD/NRR-2017/1404 (T.L. Thornberry-Ehrlich, March 2017)
Inventory of Intertidal Habitats: Boston Harbor Islands, a national park idea Final Report (Richard Bell, Mark Chandler, Robert Buchsbaum and Charles Roman, December 2002)
Master Plan, Boston Harbor Islands State Park (Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management, 1986)
Newsletter (News Wave): May 2000
Water Resources Scoping Report: Boston Harbor Islands - A National Park Area, Massachusetts NPS Technical Report NPS/NRWRD/NRTR-2002/300 (Mark D. Flora, December 2002)
Wetlands of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area (Ralph W. Tiner, John Q. Swords and Herbert C. Bergquist, February 2003)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 30-Nov-2021