Boston Harbor: watery site that changed history

"One If By Land, Two If By Sea." The lantern signal that once warned Boston patriots how the British were attacking might serve as sound advice for present-day visitors to this historic city: While Boston's landmarks merit the first look, her seaside, or harbor, deserves the second.

Boston Harbor's 180 miles of shoreline embraces 50 square miles of water. The more than 30 islands within it total 1,200 acres of land. The harbor and its interconnecting bays have provided a highway between villages, colonies, and nations for centuries.

Trading, shipbuilding, and fishing -- the "sacred cod" was declared a symbol of Massachusetts as early as 1936 -- were the basis of Boston's maritime success for over 200 years. The signal light that gave Beacon Hill its name was established in 1635 to guide ships safely home. From the first simple town dock in 1630, the number of wharves in Boston grew to 78 by 1708. The great Long Wharf built in 1710 could handle the largest ships in the world even 100 years later.

In 1773, Boston Harbor was the site of a tea party, for which Parliament closed the port of Boston in retaliation.During the American Revolution, 365 vessels were commissioned in Boston, and the Massachusetts State and the Continental navies were active out of the port.

Following the war, Boston shipowners ran an almost private trade with China. With the discovery of gold in California in 1848 came the demand for speed at any cost: The chipper ship era was born. More than one-third of all American clippers were built in the Boston area. Boston-built clippers like the Flying Cloud of 1851 hold the records for west and eastbound passages.

The steamboat Massachusetts, operating between Boston and Salem, introduced steam service to the harbor in 1817. Steam cruises of Boston Harbor will be revived this year, with a replica of an 1980 harbor service steam launch being built at the Museum of Transportation.

In 1840, Cunard brought his 1,154-ton paddlewheel steamship Britannia to Boston, distinguishing the city as the first American port to have regularly scheduled transatlantic steamship service. So important did Bostonians view this service that when the Britannia became icebound in Boston Harbor in 1844, citizens used ice plows, horses, and steams of 50 men to cut a canal to the open sea. The ship sailed only two days behind schedule. A lithograph entitled "Committee of Bostonians Saves City's Reputation" commemorating the event was banned in Boston for many years as bad public relations for the port.

Other details of Boston Harbor history will be included in the "Gateway to the sea" exhibit covering 350 years of Boston as a port of trade. A gift of New England Mutual Life Insurance Company to the people of Boston, the exhibit will recreate the periods of important development of the port through maps, paintings, Nathaniel Stebbins marine photographs, and lithographs, and bring back the days when a trip to Boston meant a walk along the waterfront to see what ships and cargoes from around the world were in port. "Gateway to the sea" opens at Boston City Hall on May 30; on July 8 it will move to the Museum of Transportation as a permanent exhibit.

Already at that museum is an interesting display that shows 350 years -- by 30-year intervals -- of landfilling operations that have dramatically altered the shape and size of Boston Harbor. The land for Logan Airport, for instance, is the result of five islands being flattened and 2,000 acres of water area around them being filled.

Family farms were established on many of the Harbor Islands from the time colonists first settled Boston.

Since the 17th century, the islands have served as sites for public facilities: quarantine hospitals, pauper colonies, immigration stations, almshouses, and prisons.

Island fortifications, in various stages of ruin and repair, are today's most visible testimony to Boston Harbor's military history. Nine islands were used in the network of defense for Boston in World War II, but it was the Civil War that produced the Harbor's architectural gem, Fort Warren on Georges Island. New and fully garrisoned in 1861, its strength was 1,500 men.

Now, restored and a National Historic Landmark, Fort Warren is an explorer's delight: with drawbridge, dungeons, and cavernous vaulted-ceilinged common rooms. Still circulating since the days when it was the North's major Civil War prison are tales of attempted escapes, executions for treason, and a ghost.

One hundred fifty years ago, excursions to the Boston Harbor islands via inexpensive public steamboat transportation for picnics in the fresh sea air or fine meals in restaurants at flourishing resort hotels were a favorite summer pastime. So were illegal Sunday boxing matches.

These sorts of excitement may have changed, but Boston Harbor today is still the setting for a wide range of outings. Access to the harbor and its islands is easy. Daily, from May 1 to late September, Bay State/Provincetown on Long Wharf offers options from half-hour lunchtime cruises to 1 1/2-hour narrated cruises of the harbor with a stop at Georges Island -- you can catch a later boat back -- to evening cruises with the unique series of live jazz, big band, and classical concerts known as "Water Music."

In 1970, legislation was passed to create the Boston Harbor Island State Park. Georges Island is headquarters for this unusual public recreation area, and is reached by frequently scheduled ferries. Gallups, Lovell, and other islands are reached from Georges by free water "taxi" service.

The dramatic contrast between the city's skyscrapers visible in the distance and the semiwilderness of many of the islands, accentuated by the sounds, smells , and colors associated with an ocean shore, creates a delightful change-of-pace experience.

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