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.
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. The Everett side is deepwater piers and fuel tanks. 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 all grim industrial zone, anchored by the mammoth New England Produce Center and clustered food warehouses.
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 very high tides. 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 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 via 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, salt mountains, the huge scrap metal yard that stretches up 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 too strongly of petroleum, probably from the giant tank farm across the river, to want 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 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 then 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 total annual budget is around $180 million and it doesn’t control most of the 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 such as Green Roots, a community-based 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 actually 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, watching the bulk carrier Navios Southern Star unload salt in Chelsea Creek.
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. 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.”