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Out in Boston Harbor, one voter is an island

Laurel Wills, logistics and operations manager of the Thompson Island Outward Bound Educational Center Island in Boston Harbor, is the city's sole registered voter on the harbor islands.
Laurel Wills, logistics and operations manager of the Thompson Island Outward Bound Educational Center Island in Boston Harbor, is the city's sole registered voter on the harbor islands.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Out here, with the biting wind and changing tides, Laurel Wills is a statistical anomaly.

Most of Boston’s 255 voting precincts have hundreds of registered voters; at least one precinct boasts more than 7,000 voters on the city rolls. But on the beautifully isolated harbor islands, Wills is the single, solitary registered voter in Boston’s Precinct 15 of Ward 1.

Win her vote and you win the precinct.

Wills lives on Thompson Island, where she is an operations and logistics manager for the island’s Outward Bound Education Center, which offers an array of youth science lessons, backpacking and kayaking excursions, and a multi-week summer program for students. There, Wills is in charge of moving and organizing supplies and equipment — everything has to be ferried over from the mainland — for the center’s various activities. She also is among those who respond to after-hours emergencies, serves as the island’s photographer, and, during the winter months, she is one of the island’s caretakers.

Laurel Wills, logistics and operations manager of the Thompson Island Outward Bound Educational Center, outside her living quarters.
Laurel Wills, logistics and operations manager of the Thompson Island Outward Bound Educational Center, outside her living quarters.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

“Kids are always flabbergasted when you tell them you live here: ‘But what do you do?’ ” says Wills, a 25-year-old who grew up in Acton, the daughter of a children’s librarian and a computer science professor.

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Wills finds ways to keep herself busy in her downtime. She jogs, although not as much as she’d like; her route is typically between two and four miles. She likes sewing, knitting, and woodworking; she has gotten into making her own outdoor gear lately. She also has been on a nonfiction kick, recently finishing “Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean.” She is a fan of podcasts; among her favorites is Crooked Media’s “What A Day.”

The island is a unique and often overlooked corner of the city. The vistas are sweeping. The sun rises over the harbor and sets over the city skyline. There are views of Dorchester’s Columbia Point and the stanchions that used to hold up the bridge to Long Island. Every corner of Thompson’s 200 or so acres seems like a great place for a cup of coffee — Wills takes hers black — and a book. There, you can see the heart of the city, but you are a world away from the daily grind often associated with everyday Boston life.

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There used to be more voters in this precinct, when nearby Long Island still housed programs for the homeless and those battling drug addiction. But in 2014, officials ordered that the island be evacuated and its bridge destroyed because of structural concerns, and the precinct’s numbers subsequently dwindled, according to the city’s elections department.

She may be the lone registered voter to call this spit of land home, but Wills is not the sole resident of Thompson Island. She says there are a handful of people who live on the island, along with a dog named Hank, during the winter, a number that increases to about 30 during the in-season warmer months.

With the exception of last summer, the island has been Wills’s primary residency for the past three years. Last year, amid the pandemic, she worked as a Cambridge bicycle mechanic. While many of her friends felt more isolated amid the COVID-19 restrictions, Wills says she felt the opposite: She was seeing more of her friends than she would have if she was working on Thompson, which is a 25-minute boat ride from the city’s Seaport.

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Wills acknowledges that living on Thompson Island is not for everyone; people usually take to it or they don’t. Wills is firmly in the take-to-it camp. She worked in an office after she graduated from Wellesley College and disliked it, preferring instead to work outside. On Thompson, she is eager to talk about the island’s flora and fauna. There have been deer on the island, although she hasn’t seen any recently, and in the past there were a family of foxes living under a gazebo, she says.

The sun is shining, but on the swaths of the island where there is no cover, the wind nips. Wills, dressed for outdoor manual labor, points out a pool of brackish water that sometimes freezes over in the wintertime. A rugged-looking dock, where a boat drops off workers and supplies, stands on the side of the island that faces the city. There are brick dormitories that would look at home on a college campus. A stand of trees on one end of the isle includes a ropes obstacle course.

There was one storm where wind gusts reached 80 miles per hour, Wills says. There wasn’t much to do except hunker down and walk around and look at the trees that were toppled when it was all over.

A reporter observes that winters must be harsh on the island. Wills counters that she finds the cold months out in the harbor to be beautiful in their own way.

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“It’s really, truly gorgeous,” says Wills of Thompson, her feet up on a table outside the two-story red building she calls home.

A national park covers 34 islands and peninsulas in the harbor. Many of the islands, including Thompson, have interesting histories. Nearby Peddocks Island, for instance, has a fort that was built in 1900 and once held prisoners of war. It also was featured as a backdrop to the Martin Scorsese film “Shutter Island,” a thriller based on a Dennis Lehane novel. Spectacle Island was once home to farmland, a quarantine hospital, a glue factory, resort hotels, and, perhaps most famously, a garbage dump. It was the receiving site for excavated material from the Big Dig. The landfill is now capped, the island a park with five miles of walking trails. Moon Island is home to Boston police’s shooting range.

Wills walked on the dock as Captain Alec Heilmann (right) departed Thompson Island in Boston Harbor.
Wills walked on the dock as Captain Alec Heilmann (right) departed Thompson Island in Boston Harbor.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

There is archeological evidence that the harbor islands, including Thompson, were inhabited by local indigenous peoples before the Colonial era. Thompson Island served as a trading post for early European settlers, and, for two centuries, the land was used as a sheep-grazing spot.

In the 1830s, a farm school was established on the island for orphaned boys. Thompson has been home to some form of educational programming ever since.

The pandemic forced Outward Bound Education Center to cease its in-person activities last year and offer online programming, but the organization plans on having students back on the island this summer. The island space can also be rented out for corporate events or weddings, but that aspect of the island’s operations has also been suspended because of the coronavirus.

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Wills is effusive about her work and the programs offered at the island, less so about her politics. She demurs when it comes to saying who she voted for in last November’s presidential election.

“I might let you go digging for that one,” she says.

City records show that the precinct’s one voter, which would be Wills, cast a ballot for the Democratic ticket of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris last fall. Eventually, Wills concedes to describe her politics, saying she is “liberal, progressive.”

She declined, however, to say whether she preferred Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary held in Massachusetts, when a trio of votes were cast in the precinct: one for Warren and two for Sanders.

“I don’t know if I want to get into that,” she says.

Ward 1, Precinct 15 is apparently up for grabs in this year’s mayoral race, as Wills says she has yet to land on a candidate in this year’s crowded field, which includes multiple city councilors, the acting mayor, the former economic development chief for the city, and a state representative.

“I will say I’m following it,” she says.

On Thompson Island, you can see the heart of the city, but you are a world away from the daily grind often associated with everyday Boston life.
On Thompson Island, you can see the heart of the city, but you are a world away from the daily grind often associated with everyday Boston life.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.