Christopher Klein is the author of the new book, ‘‘Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands.’’ The islands today are primarily recreational destinations, but they were once used for boxing matches, gambling, opium parties, hospitals, asylums, poorhouses, prisons, immigration stations, and garbage dumps. Klein, who lives in Andover, will be at the Old South Meeting House Wednesday, March 28, at 5:30 p.m.
Q. I’m a lifelong Bostonian but felt like a newcomer when I read that there are 34 Boston Harbor Islands. In your book you write that they are relatively unknown to us. Why?
A. A lot of it has to do with the history of the islands and the way Bostonians used them for many centuries. They weren’t really parklands to enjoy. They were home to city landfills, fortifications, industrial operations, and places to sequester prisoners and juvenile delinquents. And Boston Harbor was not a pleasant place for the senses when Bostonians dumped trash and sewage in it. This has changed over the last 20 years with the cleanup of Boston Harbor, which went a long way to make the islands a more desirable place.
Q. How many are open to the public?
A. Some of the islands are no more than a pile of rocks. Some are off limits to the general public due to environmental hazards. Eight are served by ferries, and you can drive to four of them.
Q. What were some surprising and interesting tidbits you learned when doing research for the book?
A. One thing that surprised me was the role the islands played in the American Revolution. We all learn about the battles at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, but we don’t learn about other skirmishes in the Boston area. The islands were important to the Patriots and British who were holed up in Boston. They were used as farmland, which made them important strategic targets, and there were a number of skirmishes on the islands between the British and Patriots.
‘The islands were important. . . . They were used as farmland, which made them strategic targets, and there were a number of skirmishes on the islands between the British and Patriots.’
Q. Is it true that the islands were considered as a site for the Statue of Liberty?
A. Boston has a strong connection to the immigrant experience, so when French sculptor [Frédéric Auguste] Bartholdi came to America, Boston was one of the sites he was thinking about as a possible location for the statue.
Q. You say in the book that “Boston would not be the city it is today without its harbor islands.’’ Why?
A. If you go back to Boston in 1630, the islands looked quite different. They were heavily wooded and the Puritans used the timber to build houses and wharfs. Then they converted some to farmland, so in a literal sense they were used to build John Winthrop’s city upon a hill. In a figurative sense, the islands afforded protection from storms and enemy attacks, which allowed Boston to become a thriving Colonial power.
Q. You write that each island “has its own distinctive personality and its own story to tell.’’ Tell me about a few of the personalities and stories.
A. It’s an August day in 1910 when Rose Pitonof and seven men jump into Boston Harbor near the Charlestown Bridge. Their goal is to swim out to Boston Light, a distance upward of 10 miles. One by one the men get too tired and have to give up the race, and the only person who sets foot on Little Brewster Island that day is 15-year-old Rose Pitonof. For many years the islands were home to a fair share of hermits, outcasts, and colorful personalities. Clifford H. Jenks bought Raccoon Island in 1923 and was known as “the Human Fly’’ because he would scale the outside of buildings. The Peddocks Island cottages date to the 1800s, when a group of Portuguese lobstermen lived on Long Island. When it was taken over by eminent domain and the lobstermen were kicked out, they floated their cottages across Boston Harbor to Peddocks Island. There are about 30 cottages there now.
Q. Name a few activities from the book’s “Top Ten’’ list.
A. Take a tour of Boston Light. You climb 76 steps and get a fantastic view of the harbor and islands. Go to Georges Island and wander around the interior of Fort Warren and learn how it housed Confederate prisoners during the Civil War. Spectacle Island has the most amazing view of the city skyline.
Q. What’s your favorite island?
A. Peddocks. There’s a fort on one side, an undeveloped nature preserve on the far side, and in between there’s this summer cottage colony with a rich history. You spend a day on Peddocks and visit three very different landscapes. In a way, you set foot on one island and get the experience of visiting three.Interview was edited and condensed. June Wulff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.