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Bostonians and Tourists Rediscover Boston Harbor Islands

A natural and historic treasure grows in popularity

Although Grape Island is now known as a wildlife haven, in 1775 it was the site of a Revolutionary War battle over hay.

“Why go see the Bay of Naples when you have seen the Boston Harbor and its islands?” asked 19th-century theologian and author James Freeman Clarke, who lived in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood.

Clarke appreciated the beauty of the islands at a time when they were a recreational mecca. For many years, visits to the islands dropped off, but nowadays, with more than 150,000 visitors a year, the Boston Harbor Islands are once again becoming a “must visit” — especially after the area became a unit of the National Park System in 1996.

Reachable with frequent ferry and water taxi service, the islands are a haven for Bostonians and tourists, who can walk the wooded trails that lead to scenic vistas, picnic sites, and centuries-old foundations and forts. Beachgoers flock to the islands, as well as hikers and the occasional camper. Boats leave Boston’s Long Wharf to 39-acre Georges Island, the central point of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area — and the site of Fort Warren, where Confederate soldiers were imprisoned — every hour from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, and also on the half-hour until 5:30 p.m. on weekends. Tickets are $10 Monday to Wednesday and $12 Thursday to Sunday.

Free water taxi trips are available from Georges Island to Great Brewster and other islands. For more information, click here. The National Park Service offers daily tours, as well as programs about shipwrecks, the military history of the area, and lectures about the islands’ ghosts, including “The Lady in Black,” a Confederate prisoner’s wife who is said to have been hanged for trying to help her husband escape from Fort Warren.

“The 34 islands have been Boston’s best-kept secret for so many years,” says Bruce Berman, a Metropolitan College instructor, who has taught courses about the harbor and its islands. “But people have rediscovered a local and national treasure.” The trigger for the area’s resurgence was the $4.5 billion cleanup of Boston Harbor, which took place from 1986 to 2000 and sparked a return of not only people, but also wildlife, including seals, porpoises, and an occasional humpback whale. Berman, communications director for Save the Harbor/Save the Bay, teaches From Periwinkles to Pilot Whales: Investigation on Boston Harbor and Massachusetts Bay, as well as Politics, Public Relations and Public Policy: The Boston Harbor Cleanup. “The islands are historic, natural, and geologic wonders,” he says.

Islands open to the public include Bumpkin Island, where wildflower-lined trails lead visitors to the remains of a stone farmhouse and a children’s hospital; Grape Island, where a Revolutionary War battle was fought; and Little Brewster Island, which houses Boston Light, the nation’s first light station. Other visitor favorites are Worlds End, Deer Island, and Castle Island, which are actually peninsulas. The landscape of Worlds End, located in Hingham, was designed by famous 19th-century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Winthrop’s Deer Island, the site of the new Massachusetts Water Resources Authority wastewater treatment plant, is home to a 60-acre park and is a favorite spot to catch flounder and striped bass. Castle Island, in South Boston, is the site of Fort Independence. Edgar Allan Poe was stationed there as a solder in 1827, and an earlier fort on the site housed 400 Revolutionary War prisoners.

Overnight camping is allowed on several islands, including Grape, Bumpkin, Lovells, and Peddocks, from June until early September.

Summer 2005 marked the opening of Spectacle Island, along with its visitors center, marina, two beaches, and five miles of walking trails that lead to the crest of a 157-foot-high hill, which offers panoramic views of the harbor and Boston’s skyline.

This story originally appeared on BU Today on July 21, 2006.