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Shore Thing

In the new Boston Harbor Islands national park area, city dwellers can escape the madding crowds

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Sharing light-keeping duties today are Coast Guard petty officers Pedro Gonzalez, age 28, Ben O’Brien, 25, and Carlos august 2003 Smithsonian Colón, 27, who enjoy satellite TV, an Internet connection, and Sam and Cyrus, the two lighthouse dogs. Colón, a native of Puerto Rico, appreciates even the winter nights here. “When there’s a storm and you see the light rotating through the snow, it’s beautiful.” The park runs boat trips to the light four days a week in summer, weather permitting, at $30 a head.

Twelve months a year, anyone who doesn’t mind getting soaked to the skin and is willing to grip an oar can get to the islands courtesy of the HullLifesavingMuseum, located in the coastal town of Hull. Early one Saturday morning, a team of six rowers sets out in a 32-foot gig, hauling on splintered wooden oars. This was a treacherous place, says the museum’s Ed McCabe, 54, “if you were sailing a square-rigger into BostonHarbor.” He is describing Brewster Spit, a gravel shoal extending west from the island of Great Brewster for nearly a mile. At high tide, it’s invisible. Between tides, it looks like a foamy rupture in the harbor.

After an hour’s rowing, McCabe and crew fetch up on CalfIsland. Here actress Julia Arthur, known as the Sarah Bernhardt of America, summered during the 1890s. All that’s left of the ballroom in her mansion is a mosaic, made of beach stones, over the fireplace. Vandalism, even more than the elements, is the culprit: boaters have come ashore here for generations.

For now, Calf and at least a dozen other islands, including tiny 11-acre Rainsford, remain visit-at-your-own-risk destinations. Rainsford was a quarantine station for 18th-century immigrants; it housed a smallpox hospital in the 19th and a reform school in the 20th. “I’ve heard my great-uncle Jack was one of the bad boys out here between 1900 and 1910,” says Ellen Berkland, Boston’s city archaeologist, on hand with archaeologist Stefan Claesson and historian Elizabeth Carella for a fact-finding dig. “People are amazed how much of the past resides here,” says Carella.

Some of the unmarked graves of Rainsford’s cemetery, overgrown with lilacs and lilies gone wild, date to the early 1700s. Beyond the cemetery lie the ruins of the smallpox hospital, once a stately granite edifice. Abit farther on, a smooth slate outcrop jutting above a cove contains scores of names and dates from the early 1800s, some hastily scratched into the surface, others bordered and serifed as elegantly as script incised on a headstone.

Only a short distance away, on Peddock’s Island, a 4,100- year-old skeleton—the oldest human remains found in New England—was unearthed in the late 1960s by a woman digging in her garden. That Peddock’s has a residential community at all is one of the park’s peculiarities. Once a fishing village of Azorean immigrants, the settlement is now a dwindling summer colony. Lawns and flower gardens are well tended, but most of the 32 cottages are spartan. It’s undoubtedly the only Bostonarea neighborhood with functioning outhouses.

Claire Hale, 68, has summered here since she was a child. “In 1939, my father and mother bought a cottage for ten dollars,” she says, seated in a rocker on her front porch next to a car battery she uses to power her TV. She and her husband, Bill, pump their own well water and read by the light of kerosene lamps.

The Hales have life tenure; after they die, the park will probably take over their neat two-story cottage. “We’re trying to turn one of the cottages into a museum,” she says. “This island has real history, and people need to know about it.”

A short walk from the Hales’ cottage lies Prince’s Head, a sliver of promontory apparently never inhabited. In the 1940s, an armament works on nearby NutIsland used Prince’s Head for target practice, but pounding waves have done more damage than artillery shells. The tiny ridge is shrinking fast. “It’s going to be gone in our lifetimes, easily,” says Peter Rosen, a coastal geologist. In fact, he adds, all the harbor islands are eroding.

So if you’re considering a visit, don’t dally. “In a thousand years, there will be no harbor islands,” Rosen says. Then he corrects himself. “In a thousand years, Beacon Hill, Bunker Hill, the other hills of Boston—those will be the new harbor islands.”

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