The Hub’s Archipelago: The Connected Histories of Boston and Its Harbor Islands

by Pavla Šimková
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Arcadia, Spring 2020, no. 7

The Boston Harbor Islands are “minutes away, worlds apart” from Boston, according to the motto of the National Recreation Area that includes all 34 of them. They do look like another world when regarded from Boston’s waterfront: tranquil green elevations rising gently above the waters of Boston’s oceanic threshold, several kilometers from the city’s shores. The reverse is also true: standing on Spectacle Island, one of the larger islands closest to the city, the Boston skyline in the distance seems like the shore of a strange continent. The water expanse between the island and the mainland seems to mark a boundary between two completely independent environments. The national park, established in 1996, seems to have solidified this division: the parched concrete of the city on one side and the pristine nature of the harbor islands on the other.

The Boston skyline seen from Spectacle Island, 2016.

Spectacle is one of the most popular and most often visited islands in the park: its green meadows, rolling slopes, and grand vistas of the harbor make it appear like a perfect antidote to the city bustle. Yet this natural appearance is precisely that: an appearance. If one digs a little deeper into Spectacle’s history, it quickly becomes clear that the island’s present shape is the result of centuries of interactions with the city at the head of the bay. Spectacle Island would not look the way it does today if it were not for Boston.

Spectacle Island on a naval chart from 1909, showing the island’s characteristic shape.

When Boston was founded in 1630, Spectacle was a 17-hectare, conspicuously shaped island, its two drumlins connected by a narrow spit that made it look like a pair of eyeglasses. The small rural town of the colonial days soon appropriated Spectacle and the other islands as sources of wood and safe cattle pastures, and dug for gravel on their shores. These uses left the island treeless and prone to erosion. With its sanitary concerns, the rapidly growing metropolis of the nineteenth century put the island to a new use. Starting in the 1850s, Spectacle became Boston’s primary dumping ground and hosted a succession of waste-processing businesses, the first of them a factory rendering dead horses and cows. This plant was followed by a glue factory, a garbage reduction plant, and finally a landfill that buried the northern portion of the island under 20 meters of trash. In the 1990s, the island received more than 2.3 million cubic meters of earth excavated from the mammoth Boston construction project colloquially known as the Big Dig. In the process, its area has swollen to 42 hectares, more than twice its original size. During its subsequent makeover as an island park to quench the crowded city’s thirst for recreation, Spectacle was landscaped, planted with thousands of trees and shrubs, and built up to become the highest point in the harbor. All of these changes are attributable to the transforming influence of Boston. The town appropriated the island early on and over the next four hundred years put it to various uses that reflected its current needs—and in the process altered the small piece of land in the harbor quite beyond recognition.

In the early 2000s, Spectacle Island was remade into a green, park-like environment, obscuring the historical layers underneath.

This relationship, although admittedly asymmetric, has not been a one-way street: if it were not for Spectacle Island, Boston would not look the way it does today, either. Pushing its trash onto the island enabled nineteenth-century Boston to pursue the vision of a sanitary city within its mainland boundaries. The option to deposit a mountain of clay and sediment from the Big Dig on Spectacle has allowed Boston to reshape its waterfront district into a pedestrian-friendly, livable part of town. As Boston transformed the island, so did, in a way, Spectacle Island transform the city.

An 1899 bird’s-eye view of Boston Harbor. Notice the smokestacks suggesting the industrial uses of many of the harbor islands.

Boston has made Spectacle and the other harbor islands its own. It transformed them into what I call urban islands: small islands close to coastal cities that have been integrated into their cities’ urban networks. The “islandness” of the Boston Harbor Islands has over time mostly been interpreted as a quality that set them apart and made them suitable for very specific uses that were either not wanted or not available in the city: they became both the dumping grounds and the recreation spots of the metropolis. These uses capitalized on the islands’ ambivalent position vis-à-vis the city: they were separate yet within sight; remote yet accessible; attached and detached at the same time. The water between them and the city has mostly been interpreted as a boundary, separating different land uses and different spatial units from one another. It was the surrounding water expanse that made the islands special.

The Boston Harbor Islands are a unique part of Boston’s environment. A broadening of the geographical perspective, however, reveals dozens of similar islands along the coasts of North America. Urban islands dot the harbors of New York and Seattle, they line the shores of San Francisco and Baltimore. They have all over time become attached through their uses to the adjacent urban centers. They all share the specific status within the urban infrastructure that goes back to their “islandness”. These urban islands may be minutes away from their cities, but they have never been worlds apart.

How to cite

Šimková, Pavla. “The Hub’s Archipelago: The Connected Histories of Boston and Its Harbor Islands.” Environment & Society Portal, Arcadia (Spring 2020), no. 7. Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society. http://www.environmentandsociety.org/node/8980.

ISSN 2199-3408
Environment & Society Portal, Arcadia

Further readings: 
  • Gillis, John R. Islands of the Mind: How the Human Imagination Created the Atlantic World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
  • Judd, Richard William. Second Nature: An Environmental History of New England. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014.
  • Penna, Anthony N., and Conrad Edick Wright, eds. Remaking Boston: An Environmental History of the City and Its Surroundings. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009.
  • Rawson, Michael. Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.
  • Rawson, Michael. “What Lies Beneath: Science, Nature, and the Making of Boston Harbor.” Journal of Urban History 35, no. 5 (2009): 675–97.
  • Snow, Edward Rowe. The Islands of Boston Harbor. 3rd ed. Carlisle, MA: Applewood Books, 2002.
  • Whitehill, Walter Muir, and Lawrence W. Kennedy. Boston: A Topographical History. 3rd ed. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2000.