Secret Harbor

By CHRISTOPHER KLEIN  |  February 17, 2010

Weather, time, and neglect have taken a toll on the island’s handful of abandoned buildings. A former FBI safe house, a morgue, and the nurses’ building are pocked with shattered windows and are slowly being devoured by vegetation. The “o” in the word HOPE is missing from above the doorway to the vacant chapel. Architectural details on the old Curley building — the stage of which once hosted such Hollywood legends as Bing Crosby — give hints of faded glory that lie behind the boarded façade.

But amid haunting reminders of the past are sprouts of hopeful futures. The Serving Ourselves Farm, which began in 1996, grows fresh produce on two and a half acres, while providing full-time vocational training for shelter residents, who work alongside BPHC staff and volunteers. “The personal transformations are just as amazing as the seasonal transformation of the fields,” says Erica LaFountain, the farm manager.

The farm produces large quantities of tomatoes, potatoes, onions, and squash for the island’s residents, as well as herbs, wild blackberries, and some flowers. “About 6o percent goes straight to the shelter kitchen,” says LaFountain, “and the rest we sell at farmers’ markets in Dorchester and downtown.” The only thing as bounteous on Long Island as its harvest is its rich history, but like rotting crops, it’s a history that’s going to waste.

Hidden history
The current residents are not the first to have tilled the island’s soil. “Long Island has the longest land use of all the harbor islands,” says Ellen Berkland, Boston’s city archaeologist. She says archaeological digs on the island have unearthed Native American stone tools and pottery that date back 9000 years.

It’s hard to wander the island without stumbling upon some remnant connected to its storied history, particularly its military past. Like ruins of a lost civilization, the crumbling concrete bunkers, batteries, and gun emplacements of Fort Strong suddenly emerge from a thick blanket of vegetation at the end of a rutted dirt road that climbs the isle’s northern tip. Just above the fort is Long Island Head Light, a picture-perfect beacon that barely peeks over the tree line.

Nearby is an unmarked military cemetery, one of several thought to exist on the island. “With such a long land-use history,” says Berkland, “the possibility for unmarked human remains is quite high.”

On the island’s south side, a stark white cross savaged by the elements towers over a cemetery that could hold as many as 3500 of the sick, outcast, and unwanted who passed away many decades ago in the island’s institutions. On an adjacent Civil War monument, the names of 79 Union veterans buried nearby flank a haunting angelic image.

In a city so reverential of its past, it can be confounding that these historical treasures are beyond public view, particularly when they are part of the Boston Harbor Islands National Park area. The restricted access is partly due to privacy concerns for those enrolled in the social-services program, but transportation and safety deficiencies are impediments, as well.

Currently, the rusted hulk of the Long Island Bridge, which dates to 1951, provides the only island access by land, but its condition is so fragile that weight limits have been imposed and the posted speed limit is 10 miles per hour. City officials insist the bridge is still safe given the present precautions, but full repairs could cost $60 million or more. Many Quincy residents who live near the bridge would prefer it to be dismantled and the money spent on a ferry dock.

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