At the end of this past summer I made a trip to Peddocks Island in the Boston Harbor. The island is one of 24 that make up the Boston Harbor Islands National Park. The Metropolitan District Commission (now DCR), a state agency, acquired Peddocks Island in 1970. It’s one of the largest in the harbor and the only one that still has cottages used by summer residents. It’s an amazing place, unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. The following is an excerpt from an article I wrote a couple years ago for the Boston Preservation Alliance describing the history of the island.
Fort Andrews is located on the East Head of Peddocks Island, which lies two hundred yards west off of the coast of Hull. The military history of the island extends back to the Revolutionary War, when it served as an outlook for invading British ships. Its prime historical significance, however, dates from the Spanish-American War. At that time, technological advances led to new types of weapons that rendered the existing forts on Georges and Castle Islands obsolete. The U.S. government chose Peddocks Island as the location for a new state of the art military fort that would follow the latest guidelines for fort design. These new forts, called Endicott Era forts, spread buildings out over a large area, focused on a central parade ground, and included recreational facilities that were believed to enhance soldiers’ abilities by fostering well-being and competition. They also arranged structures to indicate the strict hierarchical system of authority that defined the military at this time. Soon after its construction, however, the fort was out of date. It served largely administrative purposes during WWI and WWII, during which time temporary buildings were added, some of which remain.
The article was written in 2009, when the Alliance was in the midst of advocating for a plan to preserve as many of the fort buildings as possible. Since it was written several of the buildings have been stabilized, some demolished, and some are on track to serve as venues for corporate outings and other events. The remaining buildings are mysterious and eerie. They’re made even more intriguing by the lack of typical museum programming, like explanatory signs or guide brochures. Visitors arrive there and need to figure out what they’re seeing.
On the other side of the island are summer cottages that originally belonged to Portuguese fishing families. The cottages were floated over from Long Island in 1887 to make room for an almshouse. They’re small, sometimes rambling wooden homes often painted bright colors. Many of the houses have outhouses in their backyards since there’s no running water or electricity on the island.
It was interesting to talk to the people that spend time in this unique place. A few of the ten or so families that still use the cottages were sitting outside on the grass in lawn chairs, gathered around a radio broadcasting the Patriots game. They showed me how they’ve dealt with the ghost-like remains of their neighboring houses: On the side of one house, they’d hung hundreds of buoys that they’d found on the island; on another house the residents had nailed up shoes that had shown up on shore.
The purpose of this post is to show how people make community by altering the space they inhabit together. I suspect that the impulses the summer residents at Peddocks have to beautify their environment in a way that is uniquely relevant to their setting is consistent with people all over the world. It’s like the Greenway in Boston on a micro, more organic scale. People want to improve dirty, unused walls to make a more cheerful setting that invites gathering and activity. I liked seeing it in action in this very small setting using buoys and flip flops. (All photos belong to the author).