The ferry to Georges Island, one of the thirty-plus Boston Harbor islands, only takes about 45 minutes from Long Wharf, but it could easily be a world away. The ferry itself is a treat- as you watch the skyline of Boston recede, the sea breeze will give you respite from the summer’s heat. As you look out across the harbor, you’ll see the other harbor islands dotting the horizon, and each of them has their own unique and interesting story. You’ll pass Castle Island, which has been the site of a fortification since 1634, and Logan Airport on the opposite side of the harbor. You’ll also pass Spectacle Island, which has been used for a variety of purposes over the years, and currently boasts beautiful walking trails (with spectacular views of the city), picnicking areas, swimming facilities and a weekly clambake on Thursday evenings during the summer. Georges Island hosts Wednesday evening barbecues during the summer months.
Georges Island is just over 7 miles from downtown Boston, and has a permanent size of 39 acres, rising to a height of 50 feet above sea level. Those who are familiar with Charles Fort in Kinsale, Co. Cork, or any of the other star-shaped forts in Ireland, will recognize the shape of Fort Warren on Georges Island almost immediately, as it follows a very similar plan. The pentagonal star fort, made with granite from nearby Quincy and Cape Ann, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1970. After the war of 1812, the Federal government decided to build a series of defensive forts along the Atlantic coast. Due to the limitations of the early American budget, however, funding was minimal, and the initial optimistic plan of an extensive line of forts along the coast had to be revised over several years. Construction on Fort Warren commenced in 1833, but the sense of urgency following the War of 1812 had been lost, and construction of the fort was slow. So slow, in fact, that the fort was largely unfinished when the first troops of the Massachusetts Regiment arrived for training in April 1861; part of their “training” would be to finish construction and provisioning of the fort. Part of the problem that slowed construction of the fort in the 1850s, of course, was the quandary: Boston needed the fort for its defenses (though by the time it was completed its design was largely obsolete), but at the same time they didn’t want to encourage the Southern secessionist states in thinking that the North was gearing up for war. The fort is named for Dr. Joseph Warren of Roxbury, who played a leading role in the patriotic organizations in Boston and was a general in the Revolutionary War, dying in the fight for American independence at the battle of Bunker Hill.
It is believed that the Union marching song “John Brown’s Body” was created by the 12th Massachusetts Regiment at Fort Warren in 1861 as they worked and trained around the fort. The story goes that there was a soldier stationed at Fort Warren named John Brown, and some casual teasing led to the creation of the song, which refers to the famous abolitionist who believed armed insurrection was the only way to overthrow the institution of slavery in the United States and led the raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859.
During the Civil War, the fort served mainly as a training ground and as a prison for Confederate soldiers, beginning in October 1861 with the arrival of 155 political prisoners, and over the years prisoners included Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, who was at the fort for five months, and Confederate Postmaster General John Henninger.
Today Fort Warren is a popular place for a day’s adventure away from the city, with a top-notch visitor center managed by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, plenty of picnicking facilities (and a very good food concession), and events are hosted on the island throughout the summer including concerts by students from the Berklee College of Music. Check http://www.bostonharborislands.org/ for more information.