The Troubled Past and Future of the Boston Harbor Islands

For centuries, The Boston Harbor Islands have served the recreational and social needs of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The islands were quickly colonized by Europeans upon arrival and have since served as the sites of hospitals, hotels and prisons.

By the mid-20th century, the harbor was among the most polluted in the country following decades of neglect. Within the last three decades, however, a string of changes have rejuvenated the area.

One of the locations most drastically altered in the harbor is Deer Island, due in no small part to the construction of the Deer Island Waste Water Treatment Plant. The facility, which is managed by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), processes the sewage of 43 municipalities across the Commonwealth and is considered to be among the most advanced sewage facilities in the country.

The facility was constructed in 1991, but the area has since been expanded upon with a park spanning the perimeter.

Though the peninsula itself was radically transformed, its history of tragedies remain.

Thousands of Irish immigrants ventured to the City of Boston during the Great Famine between 1847 and 1852. They were quarantined on the island due to the potential of disease carried on the ships. The exact amount of deaths on the island is unknown but believed to be between 800 and 1,200 deaths. A memorial was erected in 2019.

Nearly two centuries before the Irish arrived, however, was yet another grim moment in Boston’s history.

Between 1650 and 1674, tribal communities across Massachusetts and Connecticut were converted to Christianity and established as praying towns. However, as tensions grew between the English and tribal communities during King Philips’ War in 1675, the English turned to harsher means.

On October 30, 1675, the Massachusetts Bay Colony interned residents of praying towns on Deer Island. They were forced to remain on the island without shelter through the winter and into the following year. Due to poor record-keeping, there is no consensus on the number of fatalities or interned. Historians have since described the island as a concentration camp.

The Muhheconneuk Intertribal Committee on Deer Island (MICDI) and Muhheconnew National Confederacy (MNC) spoke out against the wastewater treatment plant in 1991. The groups, both comprised of tribal governments in the United States and Canada, had initial success when working with the MWRA.

In 1994, the MWRA announced that the soil removed during the facility’s construction would be dumped in the Squiggles Quarry in the neighboring city of Quincy. Though the quarry was the site of numerous deaths due to perilous heights, Quincy opposed the move.

The MICDI also requested state archaeologists analyze the soil for remains.

“We went on to the MWRA, and they said, ‘you know, there’s no bones, there’s nothing out there,’” said Gary McCann, the policy consultant for the MICDI and policy advisor for the MNC and Chaubunagungamaug Nipmuck tribe.

A bone was soon discovered on the surface. Though the tribes attempted to have the manager contact the archaeologist, the manager indicated it was too late in the day and declined.

The request never came to fruition. The soil from Deer Island, alongside debris recovered from the Big Dig, has since filled portions of the quarry.

In 1996, Congress designated 34 islands in Boston Harbor as the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area. The move created a partnership between state and private organizations to maintain the park.

Though there were several conditions listed in the legislation, it required the partnership to submit a plan within three years that included:

Policies and programs for… protecting and preserving Native American burial grounds connected with the King Philip’s War internment period and other periods.

Deer Island was not the only island used as a concentration camp, however.

Long Island was the second location used to intern tribal members in the region. Though there is uncertainty regarding the number interned on the island, the National Park Service has acknowledged its use as a relocation site. A state archaeologist previously told McCann that 1,000 had perished and were buried on the island, however, the location of the graves is unknown.

The island has since served a variety of functions in the centuries that followed, including farmland, a Civil War-era fort and the location of a Nike anti-aircraft missile site during the Cold War. It was most recently a Boston City Hospital satellite campus, which closed in 1996.

The island’s only bridge was deemed unsafe in 2014 and subsequently demolished the following year. Both Long Island and its facilities have largely been restricted from the public since.

Amid the region’s growing opioid crisis, however, the Walsh Administration announced the island will be the site of a new treatment center. The City of Boston has since said it intends to rebuild the bridge and have been cleared by both the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) office and the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) to proceed.

Though the Chaubunagungamaug Nipmuck tribe doesn’t oppose the bridge’s construction, they’ve fought for an Environmental Impact Report to assess the potential presence of archaeological findings. Through a series of discussions, public hearings and court decisions, the tribe has spent the last two years trying to get the report.

In a court filing dated May 12, 2020, the City of Boston’s Public Works Department revealed they have prepared an Unanticipated Discoveries Plan for “artifacts, human remains, or unmarked burial grounds.” However, the tribe argues the study should be completed before construction.

“We’re operating at a disadvantage of not knowing what the facts are, other than hundreds of Indians were out there,” said McCann. “There was a site. They were there — that’s a fact. Now, did people die out there? Were they buried out there? How many? That’s unknown.”

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