Boston built itself up from the ocean, which is coming back. Here’s a scrapbook from poking around the waterfront on foot and kayak.
Good ferries. New York City’s latest comprehensive waterfront plan pays a lot of attention to ferries, not just the classic Staten Island ferries (above right) and the busy New Jersey commuter boats but the NYC ferry initiative, launched in 2017 and slowly expanding. Are there clues for Boston, where Boston Harbor Now and many allies steadily push for expanded ferry service?
We now have an East Boston to Fan Pier pilot service (left below) along with the quick hauls from Long Wharf to Charlestown plus the Seaport-employers-backed service from North Station to Fan Pier. There also are longer trips to Winthrop, Hull, Quincy and (during the summer) Salem. But the shuttle from Logan Airport to downtown has been shut down, replaced by water taxis, which understandably enough are not cheap.
Expense is key for commuters. The East Boston ride is $5 each way, too high for most East Boston residents, who spend far more time commuting than residents of other Boston neighborhoods. And other hoped-for-routes, like Dorchester to downtown, are seen as too costly to be practical.
In New York, ferry services within the city “currently require a higher per-rider subsidy than other forms of public transit,” the waterfront plan tells us. “This situation is due to several reasons: First, significant up-front capital costs were needed to build the infrastructure to launch the ferry system. Second, the City’s policy is to keep fares low. A ride on NYC Ferry costs $2.75 – the equivalent of a single-ride fare on a Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) subway or bus…. Third, the NYC Ferry network includes long routes to relatively low-density areas, such as the Rockaways in Queens.”
Perhaps advances in technology such as electric ferries will cut costs. New York plans to launch an e-ferry to connect Hart Island, and e-ferries are popping up around the globe, particularly for short routes carrying moderate numbers of passengers. Some groups hope to deliver autonomous ferries.
But the core challenge for ferries is budget support for public transportation. That concept seems to be on the upswing in Boston as Mayor Wu advances her free-bus initiative. Maybe in a few years we’ll get funding for ferries to serve a few more neighborhoods here.
On an average weekday, 70,000 passengers ride the Staten Island ferries. For free. 12/29/21
Time or tide wades. At low tide you can easily walk from the Squantum shore to Thompson Island (and, more importantly, back). On Friday I could have done it in sneakers although low tide was about a foot higher than average. Thompson is closed to visitors but you can amble along its beaches. All was quiet between the fusillades from the police range on Moon Island. On the way over I checked out a Pearson 26 sloop doing long-term materials testing. On the way back I was puzzled by a set of deep tracks running along the axis of the sandbar: horses or more likely deer? But the tracks of this tiny herd didn’t lead away to the island, the mainland or the sea, so where did they go? Were they aliens with hooves that beamed down and up? 12/13/21
Tugs on the heart. Okay, hunks of steel, even ship-shaped hunks of steel, are nothing to get too sentimental about. But this year’s slow parade of tugs to the chopping cove leaves a less colorful waterfront. Left, Eileen McAllister with Jake, one of the small-but-mighty truckable tugs that have taken over most harbor work. Right, Fournier Girls, just retired and next in line, another gal with a saga. 12/7/21
Going to the mats. How do we guard a low shoreline like East Boston’s Border Street, where king tides already creep up the parking lot of the neighborhood’s only supermarket? Clearly we need a shoreline barrier, which will take years to be designed, approved by community and agencies, funded and built.
In the meantime, and afterwards, other measures might offer some protection–including the Emerald Tutu, an offbeat floating-wetlands project presented by Northeastern prof Julia Hopkins at this year’s MIT Water Summit.
Tutus are floating mats that grow marsh grass above water and seaweed below. A network of these mats along the shore could knock down waves and maybe slow down storm surge, as well as improving water quality and providing homes for marine life, Hopkins said. The mats would be cheap, made of natural materials, modular, quick and easy to deploy. They also might offer very attractive waterfront parks.
Gabriel Cira, then an MIT architecture student, came up with the concept for an MIT climate competition in 2018. “He wanted to do something to beautify the spaces around the shorelines, and to maybe have some impact on water quality, maybe have some impact on coastal resilience,” Hopkins said. The name was a play on Boston’s Emerald Necklace parks. Cira dreamed up the Tutu as a landscape architecture project and then recruited experts such as Hopkins.
After the Tutu won the competition, Hopkins won a National Science Foundation grant to build and test prototypes. Last summer, her team tested a half-scale model of a Tutu network in a large wave basin at Oregon State University that is more typically used to study tsunamis. Early findings were encouraging and helped to tune the numerical model of Tutu behaviors.
Additionally, Hopkins and colleagues floated mats along the coast here to see how well they grew vegetation and how long they lasted. “The shocking thing from the East Boston prototype was that the amount of vegetation growth under the mat was spectacular,” she said.
She hopes to run another round of tests at the Oregon basin next summer to see the effects of this extra seaweed.
Her team also plans to “start putting in little Tutu configurations and networks all around places like Boston and figure out what types of hurricane wave energy they are likely to attenuate and get at the very interesting question of whether or not this actually can do anything about storm surge,” she said. The engineers are working with a few Cape Cod towns to put in pilot networks of 60 to 100 mats. And just as importantly, to practice listening and responding to those communities.
Nature-based solutions such as the Tutus bring plenty of design challenges. “Plants need certain environmental conditions to thrive, they’re not quite as easy to design as a couple blocks of concrete, there’s uncertainty in the design process, and there’s uncertainty in the conditions the nature-based solutions will have to guard against,” she commented.
In the case of the Tutus, “we also don’t have a very clear handle on what they’re going to do to benefit the local community,” she added. “So it’s very difficult to have a regulatory framework around this just yet.”
Hopkins joined Cira and two other experts to launch the Emerald Tutu startup, aimed at communities rather than profits. Tutus aren’t difficult to fabricate and the prototypes cost somewhere around $200, Hopkins said.
The pilot installations will answer questions about how the mat networks will perform in the real world, while her team continues studying them in the lab. “After that, we start looking to the city of Boston, saying, Hey, do you want this?”
Below, two projections of Border Street, one (facing southwest) of the East Boston shore plus Tutus, one (facing north) of flooding in the neighborhood if hit today at high tide by a storm like Sandy.
** Excellent 2022 WBUR story on the Tutus by @hannahchanatry.
Last voyages. Seventy degrees, blue skies, an 11-foot high tide, a seal popping up nearby: It’s a perfect day as a pushboat tug nudges the Michigan (above left) into the East Boston shore. Atlantic Coast Dismantling does a brisk business breaking up old vessels in this cove next to the Umana Academy. Often these ships are in fairly good shape but no longer needed, a friendly Atlantic guy tells me. Built in 1974 as a trawler, the 104-foot Michigan was dredging up scallops until a few years ago. (Here’s a 2015 oral history session with Eva Liput, a New Bedford fishing captain, who found work on the Michigan when she arrived from Poland in 1986.) Below, the anonymous tug that preceded the Michigan. 11/11/21
Testbed island. Dramatically eroded on its northern tip, Rainsford Island is a test case for Stone Living Lab (SLL) studies of nature-based solutions to protect Boston Harbor and similar coasts.
The SLL wants to build a rocky reef and a cobble berm along the northern shore, although getting permissions to do so is tricky, UMass Boston’s Jarrett Byrnes noted at the SLL’s first annual conference.
In the meantime, last summer his group began surveying the shores and subtidal areas off Rainsford and three nearby islands: Gallops, George’s and Peddocks.
One early surprise was encountering rich populations of blue mussels, although those formerly ubiquitous bivalves have been disappearing in the outer harbor islands and many other sites around the Gulf of Maine. Why the exception at Rainsford? Maybe because the strong currents thereabouts bring a flood of food, Byrnes speculated. But it’s not at all clear, because there’s a lack of historical data for comparison.
When people ask what research equipment he covets most, Byrnes added, “it would be a time machine.”
Speaking of which, Rainsford from the south in the 1890s below, courtesy Digital Commonwealth. 10/30/21
Channeling nature on the Little Mystic. Like the rest of the inner harbor, Charlestown’s Little Mystic Channel must raise its shores to meet the higher and angrier seas brought by climate change. As Boston begins planning the resilience measures, the Mystic River Watershed Association (MWRA) is leading a parallel effort that aims to improve public access along the channel. Some items on this wishlist are substantial (bigger and better playing fields and playgrounds, more pleasant walkways, a dedicated kayak launching area, a fishing pier…). Some are small (trees, better lighting, restrooms, drinking fountains…).
Most strikingly, as the MWRA noticed early on, Little Mystic could host a “natural shoreline” that might not only improve the marine environment and the views along the channel, but offer an educational resource unmatched elsewhere in the city.
New York’s Pier 26, for example, grew a new salt marsh in the Hudson River. Another natural option is floating wetlands, as seen in Seattle and Washington, D.C., and planned for Baltimore (below). Here in Boston, Northeastern University is studying freshwater wetlands on the Charles River just east of the Longfellow Bridge.
Does Boston have the bandwidth to go natural on the coast? Can the city’s climate resilience measures help to foster natural shores? Let’s hope. 10/20/21
Also see the Emerald Tutu concept, born at MIT.
Back out to the sea. Chelsea Creek is too narrow between the McArdle and Chelsea Street drawbridges to turn around a 600-foot ship, so tankers go out stern-first. Here three tugs are nudging the 105-foot-wide STI Milwaukee down toward the 175-foot-wide opening of the McArdle bridge. 10/16/21
Light duty. The Graves, a jumble of rock ledges seven miles east of East Boston, hold Graves Light, the farthest human outpost in Boston Harbor. The ledges were named not for their deadly toll but for Thomas Graves, a British captain and early Charlestown settler killed in 1653 during naval combat off the Netherlands. Built in 1905, Graves Light joined Boston Light as one of the two big sentries of the outer harbor, which remain cornerstones of safe navigation even in the days of GPS. Although the Coast Guard operates the lighthouse, the station is owned and patiently restored by Dave Waller.
Miss Cuddy III, here tied up in East Boston, is the light tender, no easy job. In April her predecessor Miss Cuddy II was ripped off her mooring at the light, pounded onto a reef off Scituate and thoroughly wrecked. But her amazingly tough hull, originally built as a Coast Guard rescue vessel, survived and is now embodied in Miss Cuddy III. It takes serious stubbornness to be a lighthouse owner. Ditto, a lighthouse tender. 10/13/21
North shore, Chelsea Creek, on a calm morning. Luna, built in 1930 as the first diesel-electric tug hereabouts, and bulldozers at Eastern Salt. Below, a bollard with attitude near the Chelsea Street Bridge, and a view toward the Global oil depot. Not shown but not far, the first coyote I’ve seen in the inner harbor. 10/7/21
Public kayak launch sites don’t rank high among East Boston’s unmet community needs, but some developers do claim credit for providing them. Here is Boston East’s kayak launch, which consists of a sign and a gap in the Harborwalk fence above a shoreline crammed with rocks and debris. “Yes, it’s not ideal but we’ve launched kayaks and have been able to provide free kayaking to the community,” @Harborkeepers commented. “We make do with what we have. This is Eastie.” 10/2/21
Chop shop. Atlantic Coast Dismantling breaks up old workboats in a tiny cove next to the Umana Academy K-8 school. This week, an excavator with a cutting claw was ripping away at the Sea Hunter.
Back in 2012, Sea Hunter was the mother ship for one strange treasure hunt claiming to target billions of dollars of platinum in a British freighter sunk off Cape Cod by a German submarine. This didn’t end well. You can follow the saga as told by the company, Inc., the Boston Globe, Reuters, the BBC, ABC, NBC, the Associated Press, the AP again, the Portland Press Herald, the Cape Cod Times and NBC again. And yes, there was a series of promotional videos, showing Sea Hunter working well, her remotely operated vehicles not so much. The ship went up for auction four years ago, still said to be in good shape. 9/23/21
Stopping the sea in Eastie. Boston is planning for 40 inches of sea level rise by 2070, when much of East Boston will spend some time underwater unless steps are taken. The first round of planning targeted the most immediate threats, such as the East Boston Greenway, which now has a deployable flood barrier. This month a public Zoom meeting laid out early concepts to address for vulnerabilities along Constitution Beach, Belle Isle Marsh and Chelsea Creek.
We saw two scenarios for Constitution Beach: a reinforced dune (above) and a raised pathway and a flood wall. Both would reach 16 feet above sea level, Boston’s current goal. Eastie residents seemed to prefer the dune, which would cut down a bit of sandy beach but could bring ecological benefits and amenities such as an amphitheater. Overall room to spread out was a big concern, especially as the gigantic Suffolk Downs development adds thousands of people within walking distance. One attendee applauded a fishing pier: “Here in East Boston I see a lot of people trying to fish, even though we don’t have a lot of space.”
Contenders for Bennington Street, along Belle Isle Marsh, were a raised berm (above) versus a raised road and pathway plus flood wall. Residents liked the berm, and asked to cut the street’s width and blacktop. There’s a cluster of buildings on the marsh side of the Suffolk Downs T stop that may be a candidate for that rare beast, managed retreat.
The starkly different options for Chelsea Creek, between Chelsea Street Bridge and the Revere line, were a raised berm with ecological restoration (above), along the lines of the Vision Chelsea Creek proposal, or a raised Route 1A plus a flood wall. Residents liked the berm but there was much doubt that it will prove practical, partly because such restoration is so unusual. The berm couldn’t be built today because of “regulations that are there for a lot of good reasons,” said Trevor Johnson, the Arcadis program manager who presented the scenarios. Below, themes emerging from Boston’s latest coastal planning. 8/21/21
Feel that sea breeze, right off the air conditioner! Why do so many large powerboats give passengers so little space to enjoy fresh air and sunshine? And why do so many smaller powerboats stock up so heavily on outboard power–even the beautiful craft from Boston Boatworks? 8/7/21
Bridge over troubled water, or maybe not over. Here are piers of the new Charlestown bridge, soon after the top of this morning’s not-very-high tide. Spring tides will be four or five feet higher, and Boston expects the sea to rise two or three feet during the bridge’s lifetime. Add the surge and waves from a big storm, and things might get wet.* 8/1/21
* Actually, construction over the next few months has shown that the main bridge girders will be reasonably high.
** Bridge construction apparently halted in fall 2021 after the discovery of faulty welds in the foundation.
Return to Snake Island. On a sweet July day when the Basin in Winthrop is out of the Logan Airport landing pattern, the harbor feels like Cape Cod. You have the friendly beach for launching kayaks on any tide, the vast stretches of shallow water, the uninhabited island with its well-protected seabirds, the mixed fleet of powerboats and sailboats, and the flock of young sailors cheerfully single-handing their Optimist prams. 7/29/21
Reading the crazy history of Rainsford Island, you keep wondering, why did this all happen here? About five miles southeast of Long Wharf, the island is partly protected by the Boston archipelago but lacks a real harbor and takes up half as many acres as the Public Garden. But Rainsford has hosted summer camps of native people, a cattle farm, a quarantine station, a hotel, various flavors of hospital, an almshouse, a veterans home and a reform school for boys as young as eight. (Yes, much of this crazy history is deeply unhappy.) The latest role is a testbed for the Stone Living Lab, which is studying how to safeguard the coast against our rising seas.
Rainsford’s east end is a glacial drumlin, connected across a cobblestoned gravel bar to the west end, which is made instead of slate. Field biologists must go nuts here. The gravel bar holds a motherlode of shells, with scallops as big as your hand. Alone on the island yesterday morning, I was big news for various bird groups, starting with a red-billed whimbrel-like flock I can’t identify.
This is such a beautiful island. 7/23/21
Looking at early charts of Boston Harbor you’re amazed anyone ever made it into port alive. Seamen, mapmakers and printers put astonishing efforts into the charts, as Joseph Garver describes in his enjoyable Surveying the Shore. But this is one tough coast, with unpredictable storms, ice, fog, low shores, generously sprinkled grim rock reefs and ever-wandering sandy shoals that pop up out of the ten-foot tides. Sailing New England waters in fog was tough enough in my youth when we lacked GPS or other electronics. Running singlehanded into Casco Bay one windy day I abruptly saw waves breaking on black rocks a hundred feet ahead and dodged back out to sea. This was on a short daytime jaunt with an excellent chart, a good compass and a wristwatch to guesstimate where I was. Imagine instead night in the 1700s with a winter nor’easter, days since you last grabbed a rough position via sextant. 7/18/21
Cloudy morning, Peddocks Island. Fisherpeople are nudging their boats close to shore, avoiding the boulders sprinkled just under the surface surprisingly far out. I paddle northeast past Portuguese and Perry Coves until I can make out Boston Light’s double flashes. Maybe next time I’ll go up the southwest shore to Fort Andrews, famous for its friendly POW camp in World War II (with more than 1000 Italian prisoners, fifty of whom ended up marrying Boston women.)
Second in size in the outer harbor only to Long Island, Peddocks has an appropriately idiosyncratic history. A skeleton dug up on West Head was dated at 4,100 years old, we learn from Christopher Klein’s excellent book on the islands. During the Revolution, Peddocks was the site of a turf war (actually, hay-and-cattle war) between British and Congressional forces, no actual shooting involved. The island has hosted inns of various repute, Portuguese fishing shacks, bootleggers and summer cottages. A few cottages survive, to be reclaimed by the Park Service when the owners are gone. Today, father and son are happily birdwatching from the deck of one cottage. Stretching my legs on the tombolo (gravel bar) behind Perry’s Cove, I catch glimpses of what might be a yellow warbler and what looks like a bluejay clothed in black and white.
Back at the boat ramp on Hough’s Neck (behind the yacht club below), I land beside two paddlers readying spiffy, well-equipped and well-prepared kayaks. These guys are headed for Calf Island, out to sea north of Boston Light. “You might be the last person to see us,” one jokes. 7/6/21
Cassin Young again. My daughter and the sister-ship to her grandfather’s World War 2 destroyer. 5/11/21
The camera man. Skimming through digital archives, I was struck by hundreds of images of Boston Harbor taken by a single Boston Herald-Traveler photographer between World War 1 and the 1950s. I kept asking myself, just exactly how did Leslie Jones take that shot?
This astonishing and beloved character captured just about everything in the city for the Herald-Traveler. Check out his site, featuring many images from the 30,000-plus glass plates his family donated to the Boston Public Library. (See, for instance, the 491 shots of “maritime accidents“.)
The Jones BPL photos are understandably copyrighted, but here from the USS Constitution Museum are his photos of the frigate in the late 1920s in the Charlestown Navy Yard (still her home) and setting out in 1931 for a 22,000-mile national tour. 5/10/21
Eastie, in a nor’easter. Why Boston is starting a second round of climate-change adaptation. 5/1/21
Quick on the drawbridge. Chelsea Creek is a narrow channel for a 600-foot tanker like the Canadian East Coast. Here she’s coming in at high tide, escorted by Freedom, Liberty and Justice. On the tanker’s bow, Freedom is running astern the whole way.
Spring, warm enough for lazy paddling. An old tug I don’t recognize is beached on the unlovely high-tide shore between the Umana Academy and East Boston’s one supermarket.* The breeze smells of supermarket trash and cut grass on the school fields. On Chelsea Creek, I hear and then spot two common loons. 4/10/21
* Two weeks later, the forward half of the tug is gone. One week after that, the vessel has vanished.
A tale of two city piers. Here’s an update on East Boston’s Piers Park 3 rebirth led by the One Waterfront project, and the gentrification of Charlestown’s Pier 5 on which three developers are competing.
Piers Park 3: Landscape designers at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates have come up with a striking concept for the public to engage with the harbor and not just look at it (two drawings above). The sketches include a tidal pool, a salt marsh, a kayak launch and artfully modeled hills for open-air movies and other events with a backdrop of downtown Boston. Yes, nothing like any other park on the inner harbor, and backed by the lawns, playgrounds and other amenities of the other two Piers Parks. What’s not to like? One Waterfront has raised about $20 million and will need about another $15 million to complete the project in 2024. (Below, PP3 in blue, Pier 5 in orange.)
Charlestown’s Pier 5: Generally ignored for more than 40 years since the Navy Yard closed, this pier is in even worse shape than Piers Park 3 but perfectly located to house the 1%, with a ferry to the financial district only a pier away. Two of the proposals are built on glorified houseboats, and the drawings make you want to move in.
What will happen though with public access to this now publicly owned waterfront? A certain amount of public space is planned but much of it is awkwardly sited (quick, can you spot the public space in the image on the left above?). Owners of waterfront property tend to close off deeded public access unless repeatedly beaten about the head and shoulders. And I wonder a little about houseboats. Boston Harbor can get rougher than an Amsterdam canal.
The more conventional pier redo below also is plenty appealing and might do much better by the community.* # 4/2/21
# Faced with strong community opposition led by Save Pier 5, in November 2021 the BPDA turned down all three housing proposals. The agency now supports a public park, if philanthropic funds can be raised.
Chelsea Creek morning. The East Boston shore of Chelsea Creek stretching from the Chelsea Street bridge up to a petroleum terminal in Revere is none too inspiring, mostly an abandoned railroad bed fronting various auto businesses. Vision Chelsea Creek, kicked off last spring by the Harborkeepers and partners, wants to change that.
The challenge along the Creek is nicely presented in this video introduction and this PDF workshop presentation. In November, lead designer SCAPE Landscape Architecture quietly wrapped up a draft proposal.
This framework centers on a walkway/bike path along the railroad bed, built high enough to act as a flood barrier as the seas rise. The path would connect to other greenways around East Boston and Chelsea, with easier access across today’s intimidating Route 1A. The historic Pump Station next to the bridge would become a community hub, with a dock, offices and maybe a maritime museum. At the Revere end of the path, a floodable landscape could turn into a park with access to the water. “Through living shorelines, floating wetlands, and restorative landscapes, a soft edge will aim to adapt to future climate conditions while reducing the climate risks the community faces.”
Will any of this be built? The city’s Climate Ready Boston program will have to build flood barriers along the Creek to protect East Boston, which is like a sponge for storms in vast stretches of filled land. So the path, which would front what was once Crooked Creek, seems likely. But would the city fund a community hub in the Pump Station, given its awkward industrial location? And building a park along the heavily polluted shore wouldn’t come cheap—although there’s a successful example just downstream at Condor Street Urban Wild.
You can imagine other project twists in the not-too-distant future, such as landings for electric ferries zipping up to the gigantic Suffolk Downs apartment complex.
Why was the final Vision Chelsea Creek report issued with no visible publicity? Let’s hope this work is fodder for the city’s next round of climate resilience planning for East Boston. SCAPE was lead designer for the Climate Ready Boston Dorchester initiative.
Goodbye, J. W. Powell? The Boston waterfront is generously sprinkled with old workboats, some being kept up and some not. I first spotted the research vessel J.W. Powell among four idle vessels tied up on the eastern side of Chelsea Creek’s McArdle bridge; she’s the big blue one on the right. Last year she was moved to the Bang marina on the other side of the bridge (probably the least glossy marina on Boston harbor) along with her little buddy Success (a true floating incarnation of “rustbucket”).
Yesterday I found both vessels back east of the bridge, with the Powell apparently being readied for breakup.
Built in 1965 in New Orleans, the Powell had her moments in the spotlight. In 1980, then named Polaris, she “was seized by the US Coast Guard under machine gun fire on a night time high seas chase that resulted in the largest (as of that date) drug bust in US history,” says a 2003 note by TDI-Brooks, a firm that later chartered the vessel all around the Atlantic. More details from a Washington Post story: “The Coast Guard cutter Spencer forced the cargo ship Polaris off Grand Isle, La., to stop by firing into a pile of rags on her stern, setting it afire.” And in 1989 the Powell appeared in the James Bond movie “License to Kill” as the villain’s hi-tech drug-smuggling WaveKrest. 1/16/21
Piering ahead. East Boston’s upcoming Piers Park 3 (PP3) will be the capstone for a 15-acre park that will be by far the largest along Boston’s inner harbor and probably by far the most imaginative. Like the adjoining Piers Parks 1 and 2, the new park will be built on Massport land—in this case, a field of badly decayed pilings.
PP3 is being driven by The Trustees and its One Waterfront initiative, with lots of input from local communities. Design will be by Michael Van Valkenburg Associates (MVVA), famed for its work on the Brooklyn Bridge Park and other waterfronts.
MVVA has completed engineering surveys of all those decayed pilings and is beginning design; it’s not yet even clear whether the park will sit on a pier or be landscaped into the harbor or what the mix might be. One Waterfront has $20 million in commitments for the project and will raise whatever else is needed, perhaps up to around $40 million. The plan/hope is for construction to begin in 2022 and the park to open a year or two later.
In a quick poll during a public Zoom presentation by One Waterfront last night, around 100 attendees were asked to pick among several goals, all of them worthy, for the new park. The winner by far was access to the harbor.
“We’re seeing just tremendous opportunities to engage the water’s edge in ways that are safe and welcoming, ways that might be complementary to the existing services and programs available at Piers Park Sailing Center,” Chris Donohue, MVVA’s lead for the project, said in the presentation. “We’re also excited about opportunities to create immersive moments that are sort of escapes within the city… informal gathering places, places to settle in that feel a little bit nestled and tucked in but also offer elevated and dramatic views out over the harbor.”
“We’re also actively working to protect the East Boston community from sea level rise and storm surge flooding,” Donohue said. “We think we can address some of that need by reintroducing native ecologies… A resilient edge can be an incredibly beautiful one…. that can be made of living materials and provide a unique opportunity to reintroduce habitat along the city’s edge.”
MVVA’s design of Martin’s Park, a one-acre park opened last year on Fort Point channel (below), gives a striking example of the firm’s gifts for innovative public spaces. In turn, the park introduced the MVVA to Boston Harbor’s distinctive challenges. “On a daily basis, the difference between high and low tide is greater than 10 feet, which is really significant when you’re talking about a landscape,” Donohue remarked. 1/13/21
My big escape in this heartbreaking and infuriating year has been knocking around Boston Harbor. 12/20
East Boston wins the trifecta. Happy news, Massport has officially blessed The Trustees and its One Waterfront initiative to remake Piers Park 3 in East Boston. The approval sets the stage for what will easily be the grandest park on the inner harbor. 11/20
Facing the floods. In calm weather, you can come to the heart of Boston’s downtown waterfront to watch king tides gently and predictably swamp Long Wharf. In storms, you can watch videos of floods shutting down the Aquarium MBTA stop at the head of the wharf.
As sea levels rise and storms grow more powerful, Long Wharf becomes a major flood pathway “leading all the way up to the steps of City Hall,” as Boston climate resilience program coordinator Peyton Siler Jones commented during a public Zoom meeting on October 29.
Closing this pathway is a top priority for Boston’s coastal climate resilience program, which has completed a full set of neighborhood roadmaps, with Downtown/North End and Dorchester now joining Charlestown, East Boston and South Boston.
Unlike the case for vulnerable locations in Dorchester, and generally elsewhere around the waterfront, Long Wharf and the other Downtown/North End weak points pose tough design problems with no immediately apparent solutions.
Among the challenges, most of the waterfront is privately owned and there’s a nightmarish mix of poorly understood and often poorly maintained construction and infrastructure at the water’s edge. Moreover, there’s relatively little open space on this stretch of waterfront. And the city needs to maintain easy access to the water for recreation and ferries.
So the Downtown/North End roadmap points to four core waterfront strategies:
- Remodel existing parks for flood protection. Case in point, the Langone and Puopolo parks near the Charlestown bridge, whose back edge is being elevated to protect against the 21 inches of sea level rise expected in 2050.
- Raise Boston’s Harborwalk and integrate it with existing bulkheads.
- Add protective structures and/or natural defenses in the water. (Curiously, by federal law the entire waterfront between Fort Point Channel and the Coast Guard base is exempt from Army Corps of Engineers control as a “non-navigable area”.)
- Raise Atlantic and Commercial Streets to act as a protective spine for the rest of the downtown. This option seems an inevitability not many decades down the road.
“There are a lot of choices that need to be made and a lot of ways that these resilience strategies could be combined to protect the neighborhood,” as Jones noted.
As sea levels rise over the years, so must the defenses. Prime example again is the Langone/Puopolo rebuild (below), designed to be upgraded for the 40-inch increase projected for 2070.
So how do we pay for all this resilience, especially in pandemic times?
Some short-term steps are no-brainers. A $1.7-million retrofit is underway for the Aquarium T stop, where saltwater inflicted $3 million of damage. Thus the cost of prevention “is less than the damage from one storm,” commented Richard McGuinness, deputy director for climate change and environmental planning at the Boston Planning and Development Agency.
The neighborhood resilience roadmaps give reasonable first estimates for project costs, said Chris Cook, the city’s chief of environment, energy and open spaces.
In the Downtown/North End, a down payment in the range of $189 to $315 million would produce no less than $1.8 to $6.3 billion worth of direct benefits through 2070. “That’s not surprising giving how many financial resources are located downtown; it’s really the hub of our financial district,” he noted.
The numbers aren’t as dramatic for Dorchester, where the estimated investments range from $111 to $215 million with an overall cost-benefit ratio between 1.4 and 4.2. However, “in Dorchester it’s about protecting the people directly,” Cook emphasized. “This is home to some of our most socially vulnerable populations.” One major initiative underway in the district, the Moakley Park redo, will offer not just flood protection but a vastly friendlier park.
“The Walsh administration has set aside 10% of our total capital budget for implementation of adaptation,” Cook said. “That’s anywhere from $20 to $30 million on an annual basis… We’ll also have to leverage private resources. And hopefully we also have a federal partner soon that will prioritize saving coastal cities, which are really the drivers of GDP for our country.”
“It’s going to cost a lot of money, but what it protects is so much more valuable than the investment that we have to make,” he added. “This is good money to spend.” 11/20
Remembering the Wild. Two decades ago, an inspired collaboration turned an industrial dump on East Boston’s Chelsea Creek into the Condor Street Urban Wild. A grassy irregular mound above a pocketsize salt marsh, the Wild is Boston’s only park on the Creek. It lacks the appealing landscaping and architectural touches of PORT Park on the opposite Chelsea shore (and any shade) but unlike PORT it never seems to be deserted in good weather. The Wild’s easy-to-miss memory rock garden honors East Boston’s first inhabitants and its ugly environmental history—including Massport’s illegal 1969 grab of Wood Island Park, a beloved public beach originally designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. The inscriptions on the rocks are hard to read and then to ignore. “We used to swim here.” “The tides was our playground.” 10/20
Teddygram. “Just missing a big one today,” said WBZ meteorologist Eric Fisher. Hurricane Teddy is far out to sea, with gusts over 100 miles per hour and waves above 50 feet. We hope for the best for everyone in eastern Nova Scotia and western Newfoundland. We’re glad Teddy is skipping Boston, especially because we’re just completing a few days of king (astronomical) high tides with the usual waterfront flooding. Boston is making a serious laudable effort to protect itself against today’s storms and tomorrow’s sea-level rise. But very few of those measures will be in place for years, and there’s nothing that protects entire neighborhoods. Water always finds the weak link in the chain. Today we don’t even have chains. 9/20
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. 8/20
Nantucket in. On a perfect August day, I watch the Harold Reinauer nudge the U.S. Lightship Museum’s Nantucket 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. 8/20
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. 7/20
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. Actually, kudos to Save the Harbor/Save the Bay, Boston Harbor Now and other groups that offer versions of that experience. 7/20
Understandably but sadly, the Floating Hospital got a new name in September 2020.
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?) 7/20
* Apparently it was Caledonia but now is Tall Ship, as in Eastie Landing Tall Ship Restaurant.
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 pollock 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. 6/20
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. It doesn’t get much foot traffic, though. Across in East Boston, Condor Street Urban Wild successfully reimagined not only the landscape but its accompanying salt marsh.
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. 6/20
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 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. 6/20
Ramping up kayaks. East Boston’s Clippership development is famed for its floodable first floor and its tiny “salt marsh” (actually a stone wharf that floods at high tide). But I’m puzzled by its kayak ramp. Kayaks launch most easily parallel to the shore, rather than perpendicular as with larger boats on trailers. This ramp’s walls are too close to easily fit my kayaks. 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.) You’d still have the problem that these launch sites are several blocks from the closest place you could drop off a kayak. 6/20
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. 5/20
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. 5/20
A bridge too fat. The Homeric epithet for the Northern Avenue bridge over Fort Point Channel is “much-beloved”. What the community wants in a replacement 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. 5/20
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! 5/20
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. 4/20
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 Condor Street. 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? 4/20
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. In 1853, she hit a reef north of San Francisco. Luckily, all 385 passengers—including Army captain William Tecumseh Sherman—were rescued before the Lewis broke up the following night. “Had there been an average sea during the night of our shipwreck, none of us probably would have escaped,” Sherman recalled. 4/20
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. 4/20
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. 3/20
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. 3/20
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. 3/20
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.” 2/20
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. 2/20
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. 1/20
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. 1/20
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. 1/20
Salted. Sixty degrees on January 11! I paddle up Chelsea Creek to supervise the bulk carrier Navios Southern Star unloading salt. 1/20
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. 12/19
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 recently 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 last month at the Downtown Boathouse Pier 26 location, one of many options. 11/19
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. 10/20
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: 10/19
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. 10/19
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.” 10/19
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. 10/19
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. 10/19
* 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.” 10/19
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.” 10/19