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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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If DeerIsland houses a high-tech complex, ThompsonIsland, with its oak and birch forests and salt marshes, is a beckoning retreat. In private hands almost continuously since 1626, when Scotsman David Thompson built a trading post that was likely Boston’s first permanent structure, the island is now owned by the Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center, a foundation that operates a school for boys on it and hosts Outward Bound courses for all ages. The island is open for public tours on Saturdays.

Thompson has been home to institutions of learning since 1833, when a school for indigent boys was founded “for the reformation of boys who . . . are in danger of becoming vicious or useless members of society.” The reform-school taint is gone, but the emphasis on urban youth remains. Willauer is the island’s academically challenging school for 50 adolescent boys, most of whom ride the ferry back and forth every day to its hilltop clearing campus.

Some of the Willauer boys had never visited a national park before—or even ridden in a boat. “The cool thing about this island is there’s so many birds,” says eighth grader Anthony Estremera, 14, inspecting the birdhouses he and his classmates placed in a meadow the day before. Now he shouts, “That’s my box! There’s a bird in it!” Not just any bird, it turns out, but an Eastern bluebird, its numbers slowly recovering from Maine to Mexico. “I can’t believe a bird is already living there.” At home in Dorchester, his inner-city Boston neighborhood, threatened species are hardly an everyday sight.

At extreme low tide, a gravel spit connects Thompson to the mainland at Quincy. The depth of BostonHarbor is rarely more than 50 feet; many areas are shallower than the deep end of a swimming pool. Not long ago (geologically speaking) most of it was dry land. Many of the islands and much of the Massachusetts coast are mounds of glacial till, or drumlins, deposited by ice age glaciers during the past 100,000 years. As recently as 6,000 years ago, the islands were hills set amid grassy and forested lowlands. As glaciers worldwide melted over the next thousand years, sea levels rose dramatically. The lowlands flooded, leaving one of the world’s few drowned drumlin fields.

In the rich estuaries around the harbor, Indians caught fish and gathered shellfish. In the uplands, they hunted deer and grew corn, beans and squash. Archaeologists have turned up everything from drill bits and stone weights, used to anchor fishing nets, to beads made of bone, cunningly hammered and wrapped in copper loops. In the 1600s, however, English settlers displaced the native inhabitants by treaty and by force. After a bitter conflict known as King Philip’s War broke out between colonists and Indians in the 1670s, settlers turned on all Native Americans, including peaceful Christianized Indians.

“They were rounded up under chain and musket, deported to DeerIsland with nothing but blankets, and left there to die,” says Mildred McCowan, 61, a national park adviser who traces her lineage to internment survivors. As many as 3,000 Indians may have succumbed to starvation, exposure and disease. “It was a death camp,” McCowan says. Memorials are planned to commemorate these Native Americans, as well as the more than 700 Irish immigrants who died of smallpox and yellow fever when the island was a quarantine station in the mid-1800s.

Indeed, much of the harbor islands’ past bears a grim undercurrent. For centuries, their shores have been graveyards for foundering ships and drowned sailors. Hostilities have shaped the islands’ history since the Revolution, as evidenced by the remains of many old forts. FortAndrews, on Peddock’s Island, was built in 1900, after the Spanish-American War, to guard the port of Boston. Today it lies in ruins.

FortWarren, which dominates George’s Island and is reachable by ferry departing from Boston’s LongWharf, is the national park’s crown jewel. In the 1830s, when former West Point superintendent Sylvanus Thayer designed the bastion, it was considered state of the art. Today, with its ten-foot-thick stone walls, hand-cut granite spiral staircases and ghostly Corridor of Dungeons, it has the air of a medieval relic.

In a moist-walled granite room that once housed Confederate prisoners, volunteer tour guide Charlie Boyer, 78, a whitehaired former deputy sheriff with a heavy Boston accent, recounts the legend of the Lady in Black, the wife of a Southern prisoner. As the story goes, she stole ashore here with a gun in 1862 and was hanged as a spy at what is now the picnic grounds. “She’s been seen here 28 times since,” Boyer says solemnly.

Two miles to the east, the harbor’s most recognizable landmark, Boston Light, rises on the four-acre rock known as Little Brewster. In operation since 1716, the light is the oldest and the last fully manned Coast Guard lighthouse in the country. After only a year on the job, the first light keeper and his two daughters drowned in 1718, rowing to land in a gale. An enterprising young Boston resident, Benjamin Franklin, quickly wrote a poem about the tragedy and peddled it around town, although, he would confess in his autobiography, the verse was “wretched stuff.” During the War of 1812, a keeper and his wife had a firsthand view of the battle of the American warship Chesapeakeand the British frigate Shannon, but they were beyond earshot of the American commander, Capt. James Lawrence, who implored his men: “Don’t give up the ship!” (or words to that effect).

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