Boston built itself up from the ocean, which is coming back. Here’s a scrapbook from poking around the waterfront on foot and kayak.
Following the Leaders. Car carriers such as the Hermes Leader, waiting last week to offload at the Boston Autoport near the Tobin Bridge, are ungainly beasts. Run by Japan’s NYK Lines and painted blue with a white stripe on top, more than 100 Leaders deliver over three million cars annually. Registered in the Bahamas, the ship will arrive in the Dominican Republic tomorrow.
We’re near the height of a busy Atlantic hurricane season, with most hurricanes sweeping through the Caribbean not that far from the Dominican Republic. How do those storms affect ships like the Hermes, which are no speed demons? Fortunately, meteorologists not only watch storms closely from birth but are reasonably good at predicting their tracks, so that ships can dodge the big ones.
If they are capably operated and running well. But there are surprising failures at sea, with the LNG tanker Catalunya Spirit offering one example.
LNG tankers could be gigantic weapons of mass destruction, which is why the Coast Guard closes the port whenever the Catalunya makes its way toward its pier on the Mystic River. But back in 2008, in normal weather off Cape Cod, the Catalunya lost power and had to be towed in.
Nantucket in. On a perfect August day, I watch the Harold Reinauer nudge one of Bill Golden’s two retired Nantucket lightships into the ways at Fitzgerald Shipyard. Getting the Nantucket aligned took some fiddling by tug and yard workboat. Fitzgerald is located at the mouth of Chelsea Creek, right where a Boston ferry began in 1631.
Tiny fleets of sloops, with masked crews, were pirouetting off the sailing clubs. And a handful of superyachts had ensconced themselves around the harbor. Superyachts seem to be all about ownership rather than fun—okay, with the likely exception of sailboats.
Park drives. One hopeful note in these ugly times is the pursuit of new or revamped parks on the Boston waterfront. One leading example: East Boston’s Piers Park 3. The Trustees (formerly known as Trustees of Reservations) and its One Waterfront partners hope soon to ink a deal with Massport to convert this forest of rotten pilings into a striking expansion of the two other Piers Parks. This project will capitalize on many years of effort to create public open space on land donated by Massport.
Unlike Piers Park, Vision Chelsea Creek, led by Harborkeepers and Cargo Ventures, starts its quest for public space from scratch, with a mile of abandoned railway along the East Boston shore of the Creek.
Kicking off Zoom community workshops for Vision Chelsea Creek planning on July 29, Nans Voron of Scape Solutions gave an excellent presentation on the history of East Boston’s waterfront, the neighborhood’s long unhappy struggle for environmental justice and the challenges of climate resiliency. East Boston already is vulnerable to flooding through Chelsea Creek (among many routes) so perhaps a park could piggyback on the measures needed to keep out the rising sea.
Scape is a superstar landscape architecture firm, and its work for Vision Chelsea Creek can draw on many plans for public waterfronts. Here are salt marsh and Gowanus Canal proposals in Brooklyn and designs in San Francisco’s China Basin Park that let parkgoers do more than just gaze at salt water.
Chelsea Creek is famously polluted. But today’s tankers, like the Iver Prosperity just off the proposed park site, generally behave themselves. And there’s plenty of marine life in the Creek—most visibly, of course, birds. In the photo of the Iver Prosperity, the gray box you can barely see near the wind turbine is a tie-up mooring dolphin that acts as summer home for a tern colony. Drift by too close, and the terns will get surprisingly up close and personal. Keep a safe distance, and you can watch squadrons of them zipping around while singleton gulls or ospreys soar high above.
Wikimedia Commons photos of tern and osprey by Melissa McMasters and Tony Hisgett.
Breezes for babies. Boston’s Floating Hospital for Children began with an actual boat, a barge towed into the harbor in July 1894 with a cargo of sick poor children. It was Reverend Rufus Babcock Tobey’s idea to offer a day of fresh air and care to these children, who were all too prone to die of intestinal disease in summer. The barge offered good food, good milk, nursing, health lessons for the mothers, and a kind welcome for everyone regardless of race or ethnicity. In 1906 it was replaced by the purpose-built Boston Floating Hospital (above), which delivered both excellent care and a platform for advances in baby formula and other aspects of pediatric health. The ship burned in 1927. Today we’ve got vaccines and better nutrition and a century of medical progress. But on days of heat warnings (like today) we could wish for a modern ship built for Boston kids, sailing out into a blue summer morning. Kudos to Boston Harbor Now’s free access program, which in normal years does exactly that.
Paddling, pondering. Each morning on the harbor brings minor puzzles. How can terns make a living by snatching fish from the sea when they can’t swim? Is the beautiful catamaran Biotrek out from the Charlestown Marina for a daysail or a voyage? Why doesn’t the white barquentine that ties up at a different pier every few months show her name? Why are so many aging tugs quietly rusting away? (Okay, maybe they are mostly replaced by those square-bowed little pusher tugs.) Why this habit of plopping the wheelhouses of retired tugs onto piers? Why is Boston Pilot, a former yes pilot boat turned workboat, painted all black? Why is an old Sub Sea Research submersible hanging out next to barges and tugs? And why do the Sea Machines small autonomous test boats need dual 225-horsepower motors? (So when they hit you, it will be quick?)
City of bridges. The North Washington Street bridge (above) and the Northern Avenue bridge are both swing structures held up by rusty frames, placed at the entrances to the two waterways that bracket downtown Boston (Charles River and Fort Point Channel respectively), and built in the early 20th century (decades after the explosion of railroad bridges that remapped the Boston waterfront). Both are being replaced.
Unlike the debacle of the Northern Avenue bridge, the redo of the North Washington Street bridge appears fairly sensible. The city has put up a temporary bridge (on the left in the top right photo) in the stone’s-throw gap between the old bridge and the dam.
Paddling this way in May, I was surprised by a strong current heading down from the dam into the Charlestown Navy Yard piers—particularly striking because elsewhere in the harbor, the tide was rising. Turns out that the dam was testing its six 2,700-horsepower pumps. Seemed to work fine.
Back by the bridges this Sunday, large schools of pollack swirled by, ignoring all attempts to catch them. I set myself the task of photographing a lion’s mane jellyfish in the still waters of the nearby marina. Checking out its sailboats, I was startled by an impressively large explosion, as the Constitution fired a cannon to welcome 8 o’clock.
Up the Creek. Once you’re past the last tanker farm, Chelsea Creek hooks west around a cluster of abandoned industrial buildings and becomes Mill Creek, all in green on a June morning. At high tide, a kayak can slip just under the low railroad bridge, still used by thundering commuter trains. Then you can slip just over the remnants of the dam that fueled the mill for the mill-turned-office-building. There’s a park on the northern bank, comfortable houses on the southern bank. Once under the Broadway bridge, you’re in the salt marsh above.
Lower down on Chelsea Creek, PORT Park on the Chelsea bank (right next to the Eastern Mineral salt mountains) hosts outdoor theater in normal summers. Across in East Boston, Condor Street Urban Wild successfully reimagined not only the landscape but its accompanying seagrass. Neither seems to get much foot traffic, though.
The Creek has been brutally industrialized since forever but I was surprised by the greenery scattered all along it, often fronting areas with little or no business. Some of these green pockets are on beaches, that rare commodity in the heavily armored Boston inner harbor. This shore is famously polluted, and pollution is not a thing of the past. But maybe, maybe you could build a few little parks here…
Vision Chelsea Creek goes beyond maybes with a goal of a new public space here. Announced last month by Harborkeepers and allies, the project is “a six-month-long visioning, planning, and stakeholder engagement process to re-imagine the abandoned MBTA/MassDOT-owned railway site along the industrial shoreline of lower Chelsea Creek.”
As elsewhere in Boston harbor, sea-level rise is a huge worry along the Creek. Here’s yesterday’s not-very-high high tide almost reaching the roadway of the Chelsea Street bridge, completed in 2012.
Welcome to the Seaport! Or not. “The city had a rare opportunity to build a new neighborhood for all Bostonians,” as the Globe remarked in a scathing 2017 report. “Instead it built the Seaport.”
The vast redevelopment of the Seaport, on 1,000 acres in South Boston that were once tidal flats, is told as a great success story. But it’s been a fiasco not just in the lack of suitable public transportation or foresight to deal with climate change. The biggest failure has been in fairness, despite the billions of public dollars pouring in.
“In the Seaport, the city greenlit the construction of one of the most expensive downtown neighborhoods in the nation,” eight members of the Boston City Council wrote on June 4. “Our newest neighborhood is nearly 90 percent white. The median income in the Seaport is $150,678 compared with $27,721 in Roxbury. Minority-owned businesses are hard to find. There are no schools, district police or fire stations, senior or health care centers. What a squandered opportunity to plan toward equity.”
On the same day, speakers at Boston Harbor Now’s Boston Harbor for All event took insightful looks at one component of equity—access to parks and other public spaces. Unsurprisingly, the Seaport came up.
Many Boston residents believe the Seaport is entirely private, said Stephen Gray, professor of urban design at Harvard and founder of Grayscale Collaborative.
In a 2019 Nature Conservancy survey, 24% of Black and 20% of Hispanic residents said they didn’t feel welcome on the Boston waterfront, compared with 6% of whites.
Public parks “are the spaces that are supposed to be safe and welcoming for everybody,” Gray said. “How is it that in 2020 we are still designing, funding, building, maintaining and programming racially exclusive, unwelcoming and unapproachable public spaces?”
“Our cities are producing large-scale developments, like the Seaport, transforming downtowns into urban playgrounds,” Gray said. “And they share a common metric for success, which is economic development. But this success has left many Black people feeling unwelcome, excluded them altogether, or worse driven them out.
“Designers, planners, policy makers, civil servants, developers have failed,” he said. “We have all failed. So Black people stay out, knowing that these developments are not for them. And that entering them invites suspicion and confrontation.”
These injustices made no appearance in an upbeat canned video tour of the Seaport led by Rich McGuinness of the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) at the Boston Harbor for All event.
With a few striking exceptions, most dramatically the Fan Pier walkway (above), the BPDA has focused heavily on Seaport economic development. There’s a long history of developer commitments to specific public resources that vanish during projects with no response from the agency, documented by @FortPointer. This spring’s sudden redesign of the Northern Avenue Bridge to favor private shuttle buses over pedestrians and cyclists, analyzed by Walk Boston, is one example of public money turned to private ends.
The BPDA Seaport video tour did highlight some efforts for better access. Christine Araujo of the American City Coalition (ACC) described last September’s Un Dia de Kayak, which brought Roxbury and Dorchester residents into Fort Point Channel for free kayaking and other waterfront activities.
ACC has worked with the BPDA, Boston Harbor Now and other groups to gather feedback about the Boston waterfront from these residents. “Many residents do not know the waterfront,” Araujo said bluntly. If they visit, they see a lack of public bathrooms, water fountains, grills, inexpensive shops, affordable food, shade and easy paths between destinations.
However, ACC’s surveys find “an incredible amount of interest, not only in enjoying the culture and the opportunities on the waterfront but also having a voice in the future development and the future vision of the waterfront,” she said.
Hats off to Araujo and her allies for Un Dia de Kayak, a one-time event brought off with vision, hard work, private funding and many volunteers. But why doesn’t the city design in such opportunities from the start, and support them all the way?
Everything right on the Seaport waterfront is developed or will be very soon. But this is also the site of massive public/private partnerships to boost climate change resiliency; Seaport Boulevard and Fort Point Channel top the list of South Boston’s deep vulnerabilities to sea level rise and storm surges. These resiliency projects raise more chances to open public spaces for engagement and design. And overall, Gray emphasized, half of the Seaport remains to be built.
Ramping up kayaks. Paddling past East Boston’s deservedly famous Clippership development, I was puzzled by the kayak ramp. Was this built from scratch? If so, the designer was unfamiliar with how kayaks launch: parallel to the shore, rather than perpendicular as with larger boats on trailers. At two-thirds tide, this ramp’s walls would be way too close to fit my 12-foot kayak. Simpler and safer for Clippership to instead hang a low kayak float off its existing powerboat float. Example: the well-hidden gem just south of Summer Street in Fort Point Channel.
Lagniappe. In these ugly, infuriating, scary and deeply tragic times, often my best escape is to paddle around the inner harbor. Sometimes I luck out and get good photos with my low-end Android phone. Here is a water taxi, still in its winter wrap, trundling up to the Little Mystic Channel ramp.
Essentials. The lower Mystic River (below the Amelia Earhart dam) and Chelsea Creek waterfronts are all business, little beauty. But they provide services at the core of daily life in New England: food, fuel, electricity, cars (still). Most important are the people who provide these services, often for little pay and less security. Chelsea, where Mystic River and Chelsea Creek meet, is a small city with a large poverty problem that is the local epicenter for the covid-19 pandemic. Local institutions and organizations, supported by the state and charities such as the One Chelsea Fund, are fully mobilized for the crisis.
Like covid-19, the climate change pandemic is not an equal opportunity provider. Sea-level rise and fiercer storms will attack many neighborhoods around Boston harbor, but responses vary by neighborhood, especially given a general lack of federal leadership The Mystic River Watershed Association, which brings together 20 communities, is responding with the Resilient Mystic Collaborative. One working group is studying, among other questions, how to upgrade the Earhart dam and its surrounding defenses.
Another working group is looking at how to strengthen crucial facilities in the lower Mystic River, such as the petroleum farms and the New England Produce Center, against the deadlier storms on the horizon. Unlike all too many analyses of climate change resilience, this assessment will also consider health and financial risks to vulnerable residents.
On a more hopeful note, the MRWA has gathered feedback from Charlestown residents on ways to liven up the barren Mystic River waterfront, and partnerships are moving ahead with some projects.
A bridge too fat. What the community wants in a replacement for the Northern Avenue bridge over Fort Point Channel, whose Homeric epithet is “much-beloved”, is a bridge for pedestrians and bikers. What the city suddenly is planning, as presented in a Zoom sorta-public meeting on April 6, is a huge $110-million-plus structure with two wide ramps, rising above a central waterfront promenade that is topped by a decorative steel truss meant to give half-baked homage to the original bridge. One of these ramps will carry private shuttle buses and public buses, although the traffic studies that the city commissioned show little need for vehicles to use this route. The working plan offers little apparent thought about how the buses will live safely with pedestrians and bikers, or how the vehicles might impinge on the pleasures of the promenade, assuming that actually gets built. For more, see this North End Waterfront story, @FortPointer and www.northernavebridgebos.com.
Justice at work. Here’s one of the newest tugs in the Boston fleet yesterday, on the bow of a large oil barge being driven by a push tug. Justice is going astern at five knots, because that’s the way they’ll take the barge through the narrow drawbridge into Chelsea Creek. Them cowboys!
Spring. This year, April won’t be the cruelest month. There’s a crust of snow on the kayak but the day warms quickly. On the harbor, what you notice are absences. No crowds churning around the Aquarium, no cruising sailboats moored just offshore. The superyachts have vanished to the Treasure Islands where the superrich shake their heads about the rest of us. Under the Moakley bridge over Fort Point Channel, the Boston Rowing Center’s wooden pilot gigs shelter in place. But a few sailboats are out and sailing. The sea is filled with a spring crop of moon jellyfish, not much bigger than a quarter. At the Coast Guard base, neatly lined green and red buoys glow in the sun.
Personal flotation device? Check. Personal protection equipment? Also check. Boston’s mayor has asked us to wear masks when we’re out of the house, so I do just that while launching the kayak at the Little Mystic Channel ramp. Then I’m off to the site of the proposed electrical substation on East Boston’s Compound Street, above. The neighborhood understandably is unhappy about the substation, which would sit in a flood zone near a busy playground and millions of gallons of jet fuel.
Not far away, the waterfront next to the McArdle drawbridge is being cleaned up. (Sort of—floating debris is all over the mouth of Chelsea Creek.) As usual, I take some shots of the Eastern Minerals salt mountains on the Chelsea side of the drawbridge. On this gorgeous day the cliffs of salt being reloaded are flashing many hues barely hinted at in this photo. And yes, there’s a guy driving that bulldozer up on top. What does he see?
Flying Cloud. Launched in 1851 from Donald McKay’s shipyard in East Boston, Flying Cloud was “the fastest vessel on long voyages that ever sailed under the American flag,” historian Samuel Eliot Morison declared. But McKay’s first extreme clipper ship, which reached San Francisco on August 31 less than 90 days after leaving New York, was born obsolete.
Bostonians already knew that well, as they demonstrated in many speeches in the Grand Railroad Jubilee just two weeks after the Cloud’s famous trip. The Jubilee was indeed about railroads (with more than 1,000 miles of track already built in Massachusetts). Also steamships (like the brand-new S.S. Lewis, which hosted President Millard Fillmore and other notables on a holiday jaunt down the harbor).
The business community hoped that Boston would become the premiere port not just for New England but for eastern Canada. A surprising number of railroads extended their tracks to loading docks on the harbor. Those rail depots changed the waterfront all around the harbor, especially as companies soon began filling the tidelands between the tracks. That’s mostly what turned the neighborhood now known as the Seaport, for example, from mudflats into dry land (well, usually dry).
The Lewis, a pioneering propeller-driven ocean steamer, was the flagship of a Boston company formed to provide regular service to Liverpool. This venture did not go well. On her first voyage, the Lewis lost a propeller on the way over and ran out of coal on the way back. Her corporation promptly collapsed. She was bought by Cornelius Vanderbilt and sent to the Pacific to run between Nicaragua and San Francisco. After careless navigation, she was wrecked on a beach north of San Francisco in 1853. Luckily, all 385 passengers—including a former Army captain, William Tecumseh Sherman—were rescued before the Lewis broke up that night.
The grandest wooden sailing ship ever built, which never sailed. Donald McKay’s tragic masterpiece launched in 1853 from what is now the Boston Towboat site. The Great Republic was about twice as big as Flying Cloud, 334 feet long and meant to carry an acre and a half of sail. Towed to New York by the early steam tug R. B. Forbes (yes, Ben Forbes, see below), the giantess caught fire while loading for her maiden voyage and burned to the waterline. Rebuilt on a merely huge scale, the Republic had an active career before she was abandoned in a hurricane off Bermuda in 1872. Above, her original profile compared to one of today’s medium-endurance Coast Guard cutters.
Shutdown. This sunny Wednesday looks like a Sunday on the Harborwalk, with runners and families on bicycles. Schools are closed, construction stopped, restaurants limited to takeout and delivery, large gatherings prohibited. Unsurprisingly, the working harbor isn’t working. At the entrance to Little Mystic Channel, the fleet is tied up. Up the Mystic River, there is no huge shoebox ship unloading cars, no bulk carrier loading scrap. As I turn south and head for the Coast Guard base, where many cutters big and small are resting, no ferries are visible. The pygmy pushtug Jake, with its cargo of portapotty, is the only workboat underway.
The legends of Captain Ben Forbes. In 1847 as the horrific Irish famine dragged on, the citizens of Boston gathered 800 tons of food and persuaded Congress to let them borrow a Navy ship for this desperately needed cargo. Skippered by Robert Bennet Forbes, the Jamestown (photo above) arrived in Cork in 15 days, a “remarkably quick” passage, as he noted.
Covered in Stephen Puleo’s newly published Voyage of Mercy, this incident was just one episode in Forbes’s long colorful career as captain, merchant and philanthropist.
At 12, he sailed to China in the Canton Packet (painting above). By 20, he was captain of his own ship and heading out to China again. In his Personal Reminiscences, one of the most readable of 19th-century autobiographies, he recalled his return: “I remember, very vividly, the approach to Cape Cod, and the splendid sunset, when we were becalmed off Chatham. I had been absent over three years and had sailed about 75,000 miles. During this period I was 22 months from home, without a letter from my family or my owners.”
After 10 years at sea, Forbes became a highly successful merchant in the China trade, a job with no lack of danger and drama. One whimsical example from the Reminiscences:
In 1841, the fast schooner Ariel he had ordered looked a bit tippy—and during an early test one windy day in Boston Harbor, she capsized. “As we went over, I got from the lee rail upon the mainboom now in the water, and walking out got into the boat and felt for my knife. In the meantime she began to sink stern first, and the anxious passengers were retreating forward, crying out to me to bear ahead with the boat. My knife was a small pocket-knife, and it required some coolness to cut off a three-inch rope without breaking the blade. This done, I sculled up and took off my companions.” Back home, “I gave my wife all the details. She considered this a sailor’s yarn and never realized that it was true, until she saw the account in the papers the next morning!”
Forbes shortened Ariel’s rig, added a false keel and sent her to China for the opium (yep) trade.
His Boston townhouse is long gone but his family’s Milton mansion, on a hill above the Neponset River, is now the Forbes House Museum.
Late in life, Forbes would send down food from the mansion down the hill to people picnicking on the river. That vignette has always sounded charming, and it seemed worth checking by kayak this last Sunday. (Kayaks are great for social distancing.)
It turns out that you can’t see the mansion from the nearby riverbank. But the mansion does sit across the street from Governor Hutchinson’s field, which rolls down to the river, with views of Boston and Boston Harbor far lovelier than the snapshot below suggests.
Snake Island. Landing at Logan Airport from the east, just before your plane touches down you often can spot Snake Island, a tiny island with a truly tiny lagoon. In early March with an energetic northwest breeze whipping up whitecaps, the island was a thankfully short paddle from the Winthrop town landing. The lagoon, apparently made by excavating gravel, was mostly dry even though the tide had just turned.
This was not a day for more kayaking. Instead I walked around nearby Deer Island, with its huge sewage plant that keeps Boston Harbor clean, and its open views both of the harbor and Massachusetts Bay. The two 190-foot wind turbines that generate about a quarter of the power for the facility were whooshing around pleasantly enough. (The latest generation of turbines, soon rising off the east coast, may stand three times as high.) The giant digesting eggs were contentedly doing their job. The immense sea wall on Deer Island’s bay side is topped at strategic locations by fields of boulders. But looking north at Winthrop, it was easy to see how the town is open to saltwater flooding from all sides. Fortunately, Winthrop has a resilience plan for that.
Steel in the water. This is the year giant multi-billion-dollar wind farms begin to rise in deep water off the east coast. But not off Massachusetts.
Imagine you’re building a house that costs, well, $3.5 billion, Jason Folson of turbine maker MHI Vestas Offshore Wind suggested at an Environmental Business Council (EBC) of New England meeting on February 14. Then imagine that the final permitting for the house is suddenly postponed, twice, for at least 16 months. “Now you are paying a mortgage of $3.5 billion on a house that isn’t built,” he said. “That’s a big deal. It does cost real money.”
And so it will for the Vineyard Wind project 35 miles south of Cape Cod. Vineyard Wind and its many allies expected federal approval of its environmental impact statement (EIS) last August, at which point it could start to put steel in the water, as they say in this industry. Unexpectedly, the EIS was pushed out, now to December. The Interior Department says this is part of a general shift to look at environmental issues up and down the east coast, an explanation politely observed but apparently not believed by those at the Boston conference.
Offshore wind projects are readying to launch at sites off the east coast from Massachusetts south to Virginia, with contractors, energy companies and state and local governments signed up for gigawatts of power this decade. Three days before the EBC conference, Mayflower Wind signed up for a contract with a strikingly low average energy price of 7.8 cents per kilowatt hour.
As offshore wind farms rapidly bulk up in Europe and on the march in other areas around the globe, “there’s a huge amount of investment in the U.S.,” said Laura Smith Morton of the American Wind Energy Association. Once projects are approved, the wind farms generally will spin up to speed within two years.
There’s no lack of resource, with relatively shallow waters on the continental shelf and relatively high wind speeds (averaging more than 20 mph at the turbine centers, developers noted). “The fundamentals of this industry are very sound,” said Patrick Woodcock, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources. “With thousands of turbines spinning off the European shore, there’s not a lot of mystery there,” remarked Nathaniel Mayo of Vineyard Wind. “This is a well-established industry, just not here.”
On Point. Looking across the Fort Point Channel from the downtown side, first you see the Boston Tea Party ships and the Hood milk bottle. Four centuries ago, you would have looked out on tidal flats, with a few “guzzles” (navigable mud creeks) meandering through them. No surprise that the built-up Seaport/South Boston landscape on that side is seriously vulnerable to the sea, ever more so with climate change.
Fort Point Channel is one of those logical Boston names, although there is no fort and no point and today the channel is not for ships and leads only to saltwater’s favorite route into South Boston. When British settlers came, the hill on Boston’s original peninsula that was closest to the harbor was a logical site for a fort against Britain’s imperial rivals, thus Fort Hill. (No such battle ever was fought, but it’s no coincidence that the beautiful 1778 map on the left above was made by a French cartographer.) Thus Fort Hill Point, just below the hill. And a channel that led to a fair-sized cove southwest on the peninsula (called South Cove, logically enough) and a bay to the south (named, yes, South Bay).
The Harborwalk along Fort Point Channel is great but the only parks of any size are at either end. The Infra-Space park near the end of the channel, buried under a spiderweb of highway ramps, demonstrates the city’s rather sweet fondness for cheering up public spaces that you won’t feel comfortable in unless accompanied by friends or a large aggressive dog. Plans are afoot to protect Seaport and the other low-lying parts of South Boston against the rising tides. We can hope that as part of those plans the Boston Planning and Development Agency, sometimes aka Boston Patronage for Developers Agency, requires full-blown open public spaces near the zillion-dollar towers that soon will rise along the channel. For inspiration, developers can check out One Waterfront.
Chelsea morning. Island End River is a stubby saltwater cove off the Mystic River between Chelsea and Everett. On the Chelsea side, the wide lawns of the O’Malley state park roll down to the water and there’s a marina with boats wrapped in white plastic. On the Everett side, it’s all deepwater piers and fuel tanks. In between, the top of the cove holds a discouraging collection of flotsam and a tiny scrap of salt marsh—the only hint of wilderness I see walking the waterfront one January morning. Above the cove is a grim industrial zone, anchored by the mammoth New England Produce Center.
The first dike across Island End was built in 1789. Today the low land behind the cove floods with fresh water in heavy rain and occasionally but dramatically with salt water in spring tides and storms. The two cities are fixing the culvert that replaced the river. They’re also planning to guard against the rising sea by expanding the salt marsh and especially by bulking up sea walls and berms.
About 36% of Chelsea is in a flood risk area. That portion will broaden to 42% in 2030 (yes, only a decade) and the most rapidly growing area of risk is through Island End. “With approximately 60% of its municipal boundary bordering tidally influenced waterways, Chelsea is especially vulnerable to coastal flooding,” says a 2017 city climate change report. “Once a network of waterways and tidelands, the low-lying areas of the City are, on average, less than 10 feet above sea level.”
Island End is about halfway along my four-mile walk along the public waterfront from the Chelsea Creek bridge (which connects East Boston with Chelsea) to the Alford Street bridge (which links Everett with Charlestown). The day is beautiful but the trip is dispiriting, with endless trucks rumbling along outside the tank farms, the food warehouses, the scrap metal yard that stretches up from Island End to the Alford bridge. Early in the walk along Marginal Street, PORT Park has been imaginatively reclaimed from an oil facility with a grassy amphitheater, a tug wheelhouse and other nice touches. But it smells way too strongly of petroleum, probably from the giant tank farm across the river in East Boston, to linger.
Back in May 1775, the PORT Park location looked out on the Battle of Chelsea Creek, a dramatic early win for provincial militia. A month after the shooting war started in Lexington and Concord, the British army occupying Boston was struggling to feed itself and its animals, drawing on cattle, salt hay and other supplies from the harbor islands. Soldiers from several colonies crossed into Hog Island and Noddle’s Island (the cornerstones of what would become East Boston) to grab cattle and burn supplies. The British navy sent marines in longboats plus an armed schooner to stop them. A running battle with hundreds of combatants ended when the schooner drifted onto the Chelsea shore and was abandoned. It was stripped of cannon and burned by the provincials.
Today Chelsea is a tiny city, only about two square miles, with a population of around 40,000, almost half born outside the U.S., a fifth living in poverty. While some pockets gentrify, others are awash in drugs and other urban ills. The city’s annual budget is around $180 million and it doesn’t control most of its critical infrastructure at risk from climate change. Maybe even more than most other communities in Boston Harbor, Chelsea’s attempts to improve its environment and adapt to climate change will require active partnerships with the state, industry and other groups. One grassroots leader is Green Roots, an environmental justice organization a short stroll from PORT Park.
Border lines. Walking up East Boston’s Border Street on a cold morning, I check out the Boston Towing & Transportation tug powwow and freeze my fingers shooting one as it passes through the McArdle drawbridge into Chelsea Creek. Then warm up with coffee and an outstanding cheese croissant at La Casa del Pan Debono on Meridian Street.
Destroyers. In the Charlestown Navy Yard, the USS Cassin Young is closed for the season but a retired park ranger comes over to chat. I remember a performance of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific staged on the destroyer, and it turns out the ranger was one of the players. He also tells me about a presentation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore given on the Constitution with cannons firing (blanks, very carefully).
The Young is a Fletcher-class destroyer, as was the USS Sproston. My father-in-law was an engineering officer on the Sproston, which like the Young fought in the Pacific during World War II. He didn’t like to talk about the war. Years later, he became close friends with a Japanese businessman who had trained as a kamikaze pilot. Below right, the Sproston’s crew after the war ended as the ship readied for decommission. My father-in-law is fourth from right among the officers. He had just turned 22.
Salted. Sixty degrees on January 11! I paddle up Chelsea Creek to supervise the bulk carrier Navios Southern Star unloading salt.
Islands of inequity. Four centuries ago, East Boston was purely islands. In this century, it will often become a string of islands once again as the sea rises, and only its richer sites will be fully defended.
The water appears to be coming a bit quicker than expected; the flood map above left is actually optimistic. The East Boston waterfront routinely floods on king tides. In 2018, not-terribly-impressive northeast storms poured impressively deep salt water into the neighborhood. The greenway “became the blueway,” as John Walkey of GreenRoots put it.
Speaking at a Boston Harbor Ecosystem Network meeting on December 12, Walkey described how climate resilience along the East Boston waterfront generally will be built on private development projects, if at all.
Massport has a reasonable blueprint to protect Logan Airport, a job that can’t fail. And the city’s Climate-Ready Boston program is doing a commendable job planning for resilience across all its neighborhoods, with East Boston a leader on the list.
But the city lacks the funds to take on many big projects by itself. In East Boston, the one near-term measure in place is a temporary seven-foot flood barrier across the greenway—a good first step, although Walkey noted that the team trained to install the barrier isn’t based in the neighborhood.
Most efforts at resilience, near-term and otherwise, are tied to real estate development projects, of which there is no lack. Especially along the rapidly gentrifying waterfront, where people from outside Boston are snapping up the new luxury condos with the water views, not realizing that some of the water will end up in their elevators. Or that when the water ebbs, they will lack working plumbing and power.
These big projects increasingly are taking measures to deal with sea-level rise and storms, some with first floors that can flood up to ten feet with no significant damage, or with berms that shunt off the sea into the surrounding locale. Some are reinstalling natural landscapes in front of themselves, although “having a small salt marsh in front of your building doesn’t do much for you,” Walkey said.
Most dramatic is the enormous Suffolk Downs development, which promises to put up more than 50 buildings with 10,000 housing units (!) on an abandoned horse-racing track sandwiched between a giant tank farm on Chelsea Creek and the Belle Isle salt marsh. “A river runs through it, literally,” he commented.
The Suffolk Downs backers are readying their site for climate change, in part by dedicating 40 of its 161 acres to open space so that floods will do relatively little damage, they hope. However, the pressure to build on this undeveloped land will be tremendous, Walkey pointed out, even though water will be encroaching well before the development is completed in 20 years or so.
Overall in East Boston, equity is talked about but not at all assured, even in the mid-sized developments that are “still popping up like mad,” Walkey commented. “If there’s not a big project going in next to you, you’re not getting these kinds of protections.”
“No one is willing to talk about the R word, retreat,” he added.
Pier groups. Piers Park 3 might be the ugliest spot on the East Boston waterfront, no small distinction. But this field of disintegrating pilings a few piers north of Logan Airport may become one of the most welcoming spots on the inner harbor, via the One Waterfront project.
Open Waterfront aims to create parks in the harbor and is led by The Trustees (the conservancy group formerly known as the Trustees of Reservations, which owns or stewards more than 120 miles of Massachusetts coastline). The parks would meet four main criteria: creating a world-class destination, serving local community needs, aiding in climate resilience and achieving financial feasibility.
Managing director Nick Black gave a public update on the project during a forum held on November 20th at the Boston Harbor Motel. The project has narrowed in on four contenders, listed counter-clockwise around the inner harbor:
- Piers Park 3 is right on the main ocean flood route into East Boston, which is one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and probably the most vulnerable to ocean storms and sea-level rise. Owned by Massport, this dreary group of decaying pilings is just south of a rapidly gentrifying stretch of waterfront that faces downtown. (There may be a lesson to keep in mind from Manhattan’s famous High Line park on an old rail line above western Manhattan, Black commented: High Line is near public housing, but “people in the public housing weren’t coming to the park because they didn’t feel welcome there.”)
- Sargent’s Wharf, on Atlantic Avenue at the northern edge of the tourist zone, is a parking lot owned by the city. “It floods quite a lot and quite regularly,” Black said.
- Fort Point Channel is being rapidly developed, after parking lots on its southern edge recent sold for about half a billion dollars. These lots make up the major flood point into South Boston—not surprisingly since they once were at the entrance to the South Bay. As of September, Boston has guidelines for coastal flood resilience. Developers “have all seen the flood maps and the floating dumpsters,” Black said. It’s not clear how much developers might chip in for a park that takes advantage of the Channel itself, still an active waterway. The conceptual sketch on the left below “breaks every Army Corps of Engineers regulation in the book,” Black noted.
- South Boston Dry Dock Four, built in World War II for naval ships, is indeed a dry dock, about 700 feet long, sticking out from another wave of gentrification. “People have a lot of ideas about the dry dock; it would be a really big swimming pool,” Black said.
He suggested that individual costs for these parks might range from $20 to $40 million. With sufficient patience and collaborations between public, non-profit and private sponsors, one or more may well be doable.
I like the kayaks in One Waterfront’s conceptual sketches. Kayak rentals are absent on the inner harbor, although they would offer a great way to engage with the harbor as more than scenery. (Fort Point does host the Boston Rowing Center.) In contrast, New York delivers public kayaking bigtime, as I saw this fall at the Downtown Boathouse Pier 26 location, one of many options.
Hard swallow. The last salt marsh in Boston is at Belle Isle Reservation, tucked in an obscure corner between East Boston, Winthrop and Revere once known as Hogs Island. Visiting on a king tide in late October, the marsh was mostly open water. In one small corner, saltmarsh sparrows breed each summer, or try to breed. These birds build their nests just above mean high tide, a location where eggs and baby chicks get even more vulnerable as the tides come up, a problem beautifully described by James Gorman last year. This summer saw a few high tides with fatal results at Belle Isle, said reservation manager Sean Riley. The Atlantic Coast Joint Venture is among the groups trying to save the saltmarsh sparrow and other threatened native birds, mostly by saving coastal marshes. It’s no easy battle.
Tugs. Usually you can tell what they’re doing, if anything. Not always. One day paddling under the Tobin Bridge, I kept a safe distance from a barge with two tugs in the middle of the channel. The barge (above) was low in the water and I assumed it was carrying petroleum to one of the blighted industrial waterfronts on either shore. Suddenly it rose about ten feet in the water (?!??!!) and then split partway down the middle.
So it was a split hopper barge, carrying dredged material. Boston is carrying out a major dredging project to take the larger ships that can make it through the supersized Panama Canal. But why did this barge dump its load in the middle of the channel? I puzzled about this all the way home. Turns out that the dredging project pulled up material too nasty to dump at sea. So they dug a really deep hole in the channel here, filled it up with the bad stuff, and are capping it off with clean sandy fill.
More tugs, because why not:
Flat out. When Europeans arrived, every dock where the ships above are tied up was waaaaay out on mud flats or open water. Except for the Tibbetts, on the East Boston site where Daniel McKay built clippers in the 1850s. Map images from Leventhal Map Center at Boston Public Library.
Scrap. I launch the kayak from the Little Mystic Channel boat ramp, which is almost under the Tobin Bridge and the only kayak-friendly launch site in the inner harbor known to me. There’s one monarch butterfly at the top of the ramp. Back in grad school, I helped friends move a 60-foot sloop into this channel to wait out a hurricane warning. Teenagers threw stones at us for hours because our mate was Afro Caribbean.
Today I paddle up the Mystic River, no garden spot. On the Charlestown side, a tug has seen better millennia. On the Chelsea side, a bulk carrier is being loaded by crane at glacial speed. There are brief clouds of brown smoke—what’s the cargo, rust? Yes: scrap metal.
Which reminds me of a day with the harbor chaplain, decades ago as boy journalist :
“In the South Boston Naval shipyard, we walk up to an old gray tramp freighter, the Galicia. She’s registered in Switzerland, owned in Italy, with a Yugoslavian captain and mate, and a Spanish crew. She was loading scrap metal two months ago (at the Mystic docks) when it caught fire. After throwing away $70,000 worth of foam, they are unloading the scrap and dropping it in barges to be dumped 50 miles offshore. Holds number three and four are still burning. In places the heat has welded the scrap to the hull. A Boston firetruck is spraying down hold number three. The reverend and I go aboard. I’m his assistant, I carry magazines. The Galicia is rusty and garbage is loose on the decks. One hold is a third full of what appears to be blue smoking sawdust with shavings, coils and small stray pieces of metal. Near the galley, the crew eats enormous meals of meat, potatoes, good bread and sour olives. Red six-packs of Black Label beer line up beside their plates. Only one man speaks English. The reverend produces a small map of Boston and marks places they might like to see, like nightclubs. He circles Kenmore Square, draws an arrow and writes ‘Lucifer’s’ next to it. ‘This is a good place, the men like it, to dance,’ the reverend says. His contact nods seriously.”
Winding up. Top, a 100-meter-plus wind turbine blade at the Massachusetts Wind Technology Testing Center, around the corner from the Little Mystic Channel ramp. The blade’s just about as tall as the entire turbine that’s a short jaunt up the Mystic River near the Encore casino. Vineyard Wind plans to built a large next-generation wind farm 14 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard, when the federal government finally gives final approval.
Coasting. Left, the Stephen Taber, a schooner built in 1871 and still sailing, best of luck to her. Right, the probably quite similar Alice Wentworth, launched in 1863 and a legend along the southern New England coast. One winter day in my teens I saw the Wentworth, what was left of her, tied up near Anthony’s Pier Four restaurant. Her rudder was falling off and I think she was filled with styrofoam. She broke apart in a storm a few years later. Walking around the Seaport this spring, I tried in vain to find the spot where she’d tied up, now covered by skyscrapers all sheeted in blue glass and built with no concessions to climate change.*
To add to this slightly random set of workboat photos, here are two from Venice, which sort of/kind of do some of what the Wentworth and the Taber once did:
* The site of the restaurant itself is now a one-acre park.
1600s. There were wolves. (In fact, one of Boston’s advantages for its first European settlers was its horseshoe-crab shape, since the thin tail to the mainland could be fenced off against wolves.) Also bears, mountain lions, rattlesnakes. Uneasy relations with the natives. (In 1675 the settlers’ children would unleash near-genocide in King Phillip’s War.) New England winters, far more bitter than Europeans expected. Endless forests, gloomy or sometimes truly dangerous. And plenty of rocky fields, whose harvests were meager at best.
But the coast was a lifesaver, awash in food. And the settlers, mostly English, arriving mostly in summer, instantly knew it. As we can read in the early travelogues that often read like marketing brochures.
Cod and other finfish abounded. “I myself, at a turning of the tide, have seen such multitudes [of sea bass] pass out of a pound, that it seemed to me, that one might go over their backs dry-shod,” wrote Thomas Morton in 1637. Water birds and soft-shell clams were unimaginably plentiful. Native Americans launched their birchbark canoes into shallow bays at low tide to hook lobsters—many lobsters. “I have known 30 lobsters taken by an Indian lad in an hour and a half,” John Josselyn wrote in 1673.
During the warmer half of the year, native people would gather on harbor islands, starting when the rising sea first made the harbor 3,000 years ago. “They fished in harbor waters and cleared fields and parts of the forest to plant crops of corn, beans, and squash,” notes the National Park Service. “They also gathered wild berries and other plants for food and medicine, and hunted animals and fowl. According to the remains that have survived to modern times, the most common fauna were deer, cod, and softshell clam. Archeological evidence indicates that Indians used the islands for tool manufacturing and also for social and ceremonial activities. When English settlers arrived, Indians still regarded the islands as their home and remained until Euro-American settlers started encroaching on their land.”
Spectacle Island. Flash forward a few centuries and the grim news on the Boston harbor islands was environmental.
As a teenager, sailing up the harbor by myself one very hot summer day, I pulled up a bucket of saltwater and dumped it over my head. Then I glanced over at Spectacle Island and immediately wondered if I were doomed.
Because Spectacle was a literal dump heap, once a factory for turning horses into glue, with a huge pile still smoldering from the embers of a fire you didn’t want to think about. It was the saddest island in the dirtiest harbor in the country. People in the agency overseeing the harbor islands called them the garbage archipelago.
Oddly enough, this part of the story takes a happy twist. Beginning in the 1990s, Boston finally cleaned up the harbor, and made many of the islands part of a national and state park.
And Spectacle was reborn, terraformed with dredged material from Boston’s Big Dig highway project. “Nearly four million cubic yards of dredged soil was used to cover the landfill,” says this Regional Studies in Marine Science article. “It was capped with clay and an additional 1–2 meters of topsoil and planted with grass, trees, and shrubs…. Spectacle Island is only a 20-minute ferry ride from Boston and now has several kilometers of hiking trails, supervised swimming, a café, regular yoga classes and jazz concerts, and weekly clambakes.”