Spectacular Spectacle Island

This year Labor Day was a glorious early September day. Warm and sunny, a perfect day to enjoy the outdoors. It had been a couple of years since I last visited any of the Boston Harbor Islands (map), so I decided it was a good day to visit Spectacle Island for the day, an island I hadn’t been on before.

I checked the ferry schedule and it looked like I could also visit Georges Island on the same day. When you buy a ticket, you have to specify the return ferry too, so I had to make sure I had enough time to walk around Georges, then take the ferry to Spectacle and explore the island. A round-trip ticket costs $14. I took the ferry from Long Wharf and after a smooth 25-minute ferry ride we arrived at Georges Island. I had been on this island before, but I always find it pleasant to walk around Fort Warren (photos here & here), a pentagonal fort built in 1850. It was built to defend Boston and you can still see some of the cannons remnants of the black powder era. Walking inside the stone and granite structure I could feel immediate cooling. I wondered if  I was sensing the  presence of the Lady in Black, the fort ghost.  Perhaps. I also walked on top of the walls and enjoyed a pretty view of the harbor and the Boston skyline. After an hour or so I went down the pier again to wait for the small ferry (it’s more like a 70-passenger water taxi) that runs between Georges and Spectacle Island for free. I like how they have these Adirondack chairs at the pier, where you can just sit there and enjoy the view.

The ferry ride to Spectacle was about 30 minutes, but I wouldn’t complain if it was longer. It was a beautiful day to be on a boat, and quite nice to go by other harbor islands, like Moon Island and Long Island. Many people were out sailing that day; they couldn’t have asked for better weather.

Spectacle Island is closer to Boston than Georges and offers a more dramatic view of the Boston skyline. Approaching by the boat it looked very green and very… new. The marina is newly constructed, and the park and visitors’ center opened just about four years ago. There is also a life-guarded sandy beach and quite few people were enjoying it, although I didn’t see anybody swimming that day.  The “green” visitors center is powered by solar panels, and has composting, no flow toilets (pretty interesting experience for me, to say the least.) The center has plenty information about the history and present of the island. But the best way to get to know the island is to take the tours that DCR park rangers give. I took the tour, which took us along the trail around the south drumlin, and learnt a lot about the history and evolution of the island from a very enthusiastic park ranger.

Spectacle Island is comprised of the south and north drumlins, that is hills of glacial drift. The drumlins looks like spectacles, hence the name British settlers gave to the island. Archaeologists believe that Native Americans fishermen were using the island since 8,000 back. Spectacle Island used to be farmland and later a quarantine hospital was there. In the 1800s they used to bring the dead horses on the island and use their tail hair to make brushes and bows for string instruments, the horsehide leather and horsehooves to make glue (actually there was a glue factory on the island.) Later in the 1910s they started using it as a landfill, and one can only imagine the stench that would emanate from a landfill / dead horse disposal facility combination.

The landfill closed in the 1960s and the island was abandoned. The most spectacular thing that would happen for the next 30 years would be fires due to the high methane levels. Toxic material would leach into the harbor. During the 1990s when much effort was devoted to cleanup the Boston Harbor, it was decided that something had to be done about the island. And the answer was: transformation. The landfill was capped, meaning they built barriers around it, so that no toxic pollutants would leach into the sea. During the same time excavated dirt, gravel and clay from the Central Artery/Tunnel project (the Big Dig) was deposited above the capped landfill, at points 30 feet deep, in essence enlarging and reshaping the island. A two-foot deep clay cap was laid on top of that: this impervious layer keeps water from entering the landfill and carrying toxins in the sea. On top of that they placed topsoil containing biosolids compost 2 to 4 feet deep.

Finally they were able to plant trees with shallow root system, as well as shrubs and meadow grasses. During our tour around the south drumlin, the park ranger was pointing out different kinds of flowers and trees. It was interesting to see how amazing some of them smelled when you would rub them between your hands, that some of them are edible and that some of them you can use them to make a tea-like drink. DCR is also conducting monitoring of the different species and record the different changes in foliage, to see how global warming has impacted the plants’ cycle. They have also planted beach grass in the sand dunes. And then there’s interesting fauna. The ranger pointed out species of birds and we saw monarch butterflies. During the tour he would also point out other interesting facts, like the seawall that was built around the island to prevent erosion, the monitoring wells for the landfill, as well as the poles with a spinning hood top that are vents for the trapped methane gas in the landfill. I also noticed swayles and catch basins indicative of a stormwater management system, yet another eco-friendly approach.

When the one-hour guided walk was over, I felt excited with all the new-found knowledge. I had no idea that this island had such an interesting history and such an interesting transformation. Everything is very green and very peaceful. You are only 20 minutes away from Boston, yet you feel that you are further removed from the city. I walked around the north drumlin and reached the top, that is the highest point in the Boston Harbor. It offers spectacular panoramic views of the harbor and the Boston skyline. When I stood there at the top I thought how cool it was that I was standing on top of a capped landfill, 30 feet of Big Dig dirt and topsoil containing biosolids compost! (I should note that the biosolids come from a local source, courtesy of the Deer Island sewage treatment plant.)

In the case of Spectacle Island the state has done a pretty good job. They have incorporated many environmentally sustainable practices when they developed and built the park. They have also completed an amazing habitat restoration. The DCR-run park offers many educational opportunities and the enthusiasm of the staff is contagious. I was pretty happy I discovered this gem and plan on going back again.

You see some of the photos I took that day here.

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