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Finding the real ‘Shutter Island’ in Boston Harbor

The opening scene of the movie Shutter Island, a 2010 psychological thriller directed by Martin Scorsese, depicts actor Leonardo DeCaprio and a companion arriving at an insane asylum located on a forlorn island in Boston Harbor in a raging storm to investigate the escape of a dangerous inmate.

Intrigued by this film, one of my favorites, I set off one day this summer from Long Warf in Boston on a small ferry that took me and a companion to Peddocks Island lying on the outer reaches of Boston Harbor. It was a brilliant sunny day with only a few patches of clouds in the sky. As we approached the same dock that appeared in the film, we looked up and saw the towering row of red brick buildings that served as the image of the asylum in the film.

Cruising Boston Harbor
There was in fact never an asylum on Peddocks Island. The buildings were army barracks built a century ago to house soldiers and sailors stationed at Fort Andrews, one of many military structures built to protect Boston Harbor from enemy attack from the days of the Revolution through World War II. There were once up to two dozen forts guarding Boston Harbor from feared enemy intrusions. The island contains the ruins of the fort, deeply wooded hiking trails, a beautiful rocky coast line, unique rock formations and spectacular views of the distant Boston skyline. And yet one can walk totally alone on the eastern side of the island for several miles looking out into the Atlantic or even go for a swim in the warm waters of the harbor while imaging that one is hundreds of miles away from any human habitation. The feeling of utter remoteness and quiet calm are exhilarating.

Visitors to Boston tramp along the very popular Freedom Trail that starts at Park Street and the Common all the way through the North End to Charlestown and Bunker Hill. They visit some of the most historic sites of the colonial era and the American Revolution including the Old State House and Old North Church. But very few people get out to Boston Harbor Islands National Park where an equally interesting and wild adventure awaits them.
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The National Park consists of twelve very diverse islands along with 22 more that form an awesome island wilderness at the very gateway to the city. There are 1600 acres and 35 miles of ocean shoreline, historic forts, diverse wildlife, and camping facilities less than an hour from one of the busiest urban areas in the US. The islands have a long history as a home to American Indians, American colonial settlements and farms, and many forts, most of which stand as ruined reminders of earlier wars.

While Peddocks Island offers a beautiful shoreline and deep dense woods, the more frequently visited Georges Island offers an immense Civil War-era fortress, Fort Warren. The fort, originally built in the 1840s, is pentagonal in shape and had such facilities as barracks, ammunition magazines, kitchens, mess halls, jail cells, a hospital and a battery of very heavy guns that faced east out to sea.
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The fort was the keystone for the defense of the Harbor during the Civil War and the two World Wars. Huge gun emplacements scattered around the perimeter of the fort remind one how lethal these weapons were even in the nineteenth century. Hundreds of dark and clammy rooms, delightfully cool on a hot summer day, but depressingly cold and damp in winter, tell one how depressing it might have been to be stationed here. There are superb views of Boston Harbor and other islands and beautiful shoreline walks—an even an ancient orchard with very edible apples. There is an immense parade ground in the center of the fort.

The fort housed many hundreds of Confederate prisoners and is said to remain the home of the phantom of the “Lady in Black.” According to legend, the wife of an imprisoned Confederate, Mrs. Andrew Lanier, traveled to Boston in January 1862 determined to free her husband. She snuck to the island in a small boat with a pistol and pick-axe, but was captured by Union guards. She was quickly executed and buried on the island. Other Confederate notables including Vice-President Alexander Stephens were also imprisoned here.

Visitors seeking a truly unspoiled natural environment should make their way to Lovells Island. The island is a nature sanctuary wonderful for those seeking diverse flowers and trees. There are beautiful dunes and dense woods as the bare traces of what was once Fort Standish. Low tide exposes an additional 71 acres of rocky damp land
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Another place well-worth visiting is Spectacle Island. The place was quite literally once a dump, a massive eye-sore near Long Warf. For decades it served as the city garbage dump and today two steep hills remind one what is buried inside. During the recent “Big Dig” the hills were covered with earth and rocks from the Dig. Thousands of trees and shrubs were planted and several miles of hiking paths were constructed. There is a small beach where many children swim in the now clear and clean waters of Boston Harbor.

Although I have visited the islands on dozens of excursions over the years, I have only scratched the surface of what there is to see and explore in this immense national park. Any visitor to Boston would miss so much by just walking the Freedom Trail.

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