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BU Bridge Logo

11 Dec. 1998 - 7 Jan. 1999

Vol. II, No. 17

Feature Article


Jill Lepore

Jill Lepore at Deer Island
Photo by Fred Sway

Edgar Allen Poe slept here

BU prof's course anchored in Boston Harbor

By Brian Fitzgerald

"There are islands in Boston Harbor?" asks a student on the first day of Jill Lepore's fall history course, Boston's Public Past (HI 457).

"Yes indeed," Lepore answers. "There are 30 of them." And the islands are a historian's dream, filled with legends and intrigue. They have been the sites of naval battles, prisons, illegal gambling dens, luxury hotels and inns, boxing matches, shipwrecks, old military forts (including one where Edgar Allen Poe was stationed), the oldest functioning lighthouse in the country, and a 17th-century prison for Native Americans. There are stories of ghosts and buried pirate treasures. One island's sole population is wild rabbits. Another had a field on which professional baseball games were played.

Professional baseball games? "In the early 1900s crowds of up to 5,000 people used to watch Boston Braves games on Peddock's Island," says Ryan Kane (CAS'99). "The team was unable to play home games on Sundays because of the state's Blue Laws." The arrangement was reportedly facilitated by former baseball player John Irwin, proprietor of the Island Inn. Another gathering on the 134-acre island, however, landed Irwin in a jail cell. On July 29, 1909, he hosted a Chinese Picnic, which every participant &emdash; along with the Hull Police &emdash; knew was no picnic. The occasion was an opium party, which resulted in his arrest.

Kane's research is available on the Web at www.bu.edu/history/courses/hi457/, a site he and John Nettler (CAS'99) recently designed and displayed to classmates in a presentation on the history of recreational use of the islands.

"Most of the students didn't know there were islands out there until they took the class," says Lepore. Now, in the midst of preparing museum exhibits, walking tours, and middle school teaching units, they are developing a profound appreciation for these historic and geologic wonders. And so will more Boston residents and tourists, if Lepore has her way &emdash; some of the students' projects might be used in an educational outreach project by a 13-group partnership that manages the islands. Officials from the Metropolitan District Commission and the state Department of Environmental Management have taken an interest in Lepore's class and are assisting students in their research.

"There is an aching need to have the islands interpreted," says Lepore. Ignored and barely accessible until recent years, Boston Harbor's hidden natural treasures are making a comeback. They became a national park in 1996. In the summer, hourly boats run from Long Wharf to George's Island; six of the islands are staffed by rangers, who provide programs for the public. Beaches have reopened, and are now reachable with frequent ferry and water taxi service.

Filling the information gap
Lepore began the course with an outing to George's and Gallops Islands. "The MDC's office on George's Island contains fairly substantive archives," she says. However, the students found that aside from reading a couple of books, including The Islands of Boston Harbor, by Edward Rowe Snow (GRS'39), compiling information on the islands required some real detective work. "We looked up travel guides from the 19th-century at the Boston Athenaeum and the Massachusetts Historical Society," says Nettler.

Because the islands were once a recreational mecca for Boston citizens, why did they drop off the mental map of must-visits? "Advances in transportation over the years enabled Bostonians to travel to Cape Cod, other states' shores, and further inland," says Kane. And, as the harbor became more polluted, the islands were basically abandoned. Out of sight and out of mind, they became ideal places to put landfills, a quarantine hospital, a homeless shelter, a home for unwed mothers, and a poorhouse. Moon Island, which is a police gun range, is now contaminated with lead pellets. Sewage treatment plants have been built on Nut and Deer Islands.

However, the recent replacement of antiquated sewage treatment facilities on Deer Island, no matter how unappealing the gargantuan white egg-like tanks are, has been key to the Harbor Islands' resurgence. The harbor is now much less contaminated -- sightings of seals are not uncommon.

Deer Island came to the attention of Lepore when she was writing her 1997 book The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity, which was recently chosen as the winner of the 1998 Ralph Waldo Emerson book award, given by the Phi Beta Kappa Society for the best book in the social sciences. During King Philip's War (1675-1677), hostilities between English settlers and the Algonquian tribes of New England reached a fever pitch when Native Americans were imprisoned there during the winter of 1675&endash;76. Many of them froze and starved to death.

Prisons for men of war
Other islands were used as prisons -- for both civilians and military personnel. In the Civil War, Confederate prisoners were detained on George's Island in Fort Warren, which still stands. After the U.S. entered World War I, German merchant sailors were interned on Gallops Island. On Peddock's Island, Fort Andrews, dedicated in 1900, housed Italian prisoners taken in World War II. "The forts were all eventually decommissioned because they were no longer a key to the area's maritime defense," says Ann Marie Gleeson (SED, CAS'99), whose December presentation is on military fortification of the harbor.

"During the Revolutionary War, there were 400 British POWs at Fort Independence," says Dan Seidman (CAS'00) during a recent private walking tour of Castle Island with this reporter. The giant granite pentagon-shaped fort was used as a temporary prison for Yankee deserters in the Civil War. There were also reports of a sea serpent sighting there in 1818, and a resident ghost scaring sailors during World War II, "although the ghost was supposedly a shadow created by truck headlights," Seidman laughs.

Nettler says that 100,000 to 150,000 people now visit the Harbor Islands a year, and notes that one of the Partnership's issues is how to provide better transportation and facilities without compromising the islands' natural beauty. As 19th century Jamaica Plain theologian and author James Freeman Clarke once said about the treasure of the islands: "Why go see the Bay of Naples when you have seen the Boston Harbor?"