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Secret of the Lighthouse: Boston Harbor Islands Lit by a Mouse That Roars

September 27, 1987|DIANE NOTTLE | Nottle is a Boston free-lance writer

BOSTON — Since 1716 Boston Light has marked the spot where Massachusetts Bay gives way to Boston Harbor. Both to welcome and warn travelers, the lighthouse flashes its beacon not only out to sea but in toward land, a reminder of how much the city owes to its maritime heritage.

To those who have never been inside the nation's oldest lighthouse and the last one still not automated, the beacon gives an unmistakable impression of power. But the few who visit this National Historic Landmark, who climb the 76 steps to the top and enter the beacon, know the secret of Boston Light: it's a mouse that roars.

That mighty beacon, 2 million candlepower visible 27 miles out to sea, is really just a pair of 1,000-watt light bulbs magnified by the cage of thick glass lenses that almost everyone thinks is Boston Light.

Little Brewster, the island where Boston Light sits, is one of 30 in Boston Harbor covering about 1,200 acres.

Seven of the islands--Georges, Gallops, Lovells, Peddocks, Bumpkin, Grape and Great Brewster--make up Boston Harbor Islands State Park. Some have full facilities for day trips and overnight camping. Others are accessible only by private boat and have nothing to offer but long sand spits, rocky beaches and flocks of gulls and cormorants eager to share a picnic lunch.

On a Clear Day

There can be few more beautiful sights along America's coastlines than Boston Harbor as viewed on a clear summer day from a plane on its way to or from Logan International Airport. The coast arches gracefully away from the city to the beaches and marshland of the north and south shores. Suburbs occupy finger-like peninsulas jutting into the harbor.

But most beautiful of all are the green spots in the blue harbor. Formed by glacial action more than 20,000 years ago, the Harbor Islands have served as a seaside retreat for more than 7,000 years, archeologists believe. Originally part of the mainland, they became islands only when the melting of the glaciers raised the Atlantic Ocean's level more than 300 feet.

Although there is no evidence that Indians ever settled permanently on the islands, archeological digs have indicated that they had been visited for thousands of years before the English settlers moved north from Plymouth Colony to establish Boston about 1630.

From the Colonial period through World War II, the islands were valued primarily for their strategic importance.

Since that war, however, they have reverted to their apparent original use, recreation. In the 1950s the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management and the Boston-area Metropolitan District Commission have operated the state park jointly. It attracts more than 200,000 visitors a year for such activities as nature and historic tours, swimming, hiking, bird watching and even camping--and all within sight of Boston.

The gateway to the state park is 28-acre Georges Island, visited by more than 2,600 people a day on summer weekends. Georges Island stands out from the others thanks to the ramparts of Ft. Warren. Built in the mid-19th Century of granite quarried in the nearby suburb of Quincy, Ft. Warren is most known as a prison for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.

Ft. Warren's most notorious inmate was no soldier, however. It was the legendary "Lady in Black," the resident ghost. According to the story, the bride of a Confederate prisoner came to Georges Island disguised as a man. In an attempt to rescue her husband, she accidentally shot him instead of the fort commander.

Sentenced to hang as a spy, she chose a black dress as her costume. For years afterward, guards on night duty claimed to be frightened by her ghostly presence.

Perhaps she's the reason that Georges Island is open only for day trips while five other islands in the park (Lovells, Peddocks, Bumpkin, Grape and Great Brewster) allow overnight camping. For free permits, call the Department of Environmental Management at (617) 740-1605 or the Metropolitan District Commission at (617) 727-5250.

Visitors may tour Ft. Warren and happily climb over its ruins. The fort, a National Historic Landmark, is scheduled for restoration in the next few years.

Training for Soldiers

Peddocks Island, off the tip of Hull Peninsula, has a fort of its own. Ft. Andrews, a red-brick post that originally served as a training ground for soldiers headed overseas, was converted into a camp for nearly 1,800 Italian prisoners of war in 1943.

Ft. Andrews is crumbling and open only for guided tours. Access to other parts of the island is also restricted because the island still has about 40 summer residents in a small colony of private cottages.

Grape Island was named for the abundance of vines found there during Colonial times; it still supports an array of plant life. A leisurely walk along a nature trail with fine views of the Boston waterfront takes just half an hour.

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