_Pleasures of the harbor

Boston built itself up from the ocean, which is coming back. Here’s a scrapbook from poking around the waterfront on foot and small boats.


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 inner Boston Harbor 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.


Barriers. A few years ago Boston took a new look at building a harbor barrier against storms , and decided against it. But not everyone was convinced.


Atlantic Coast and split hopper (2)

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:

tug top



Beaurain 1776 siege

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. 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:



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 full 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.”

kid Spectacle