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Globe editorial

An island home

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August 26, 2006

PEDDOCKS ISLAND is not the easiest to reach of the 34 Boston Harbor islands, but it may have the most potential. With 210 acres crisscrossed by paved paths and wooded trails, it's an island to get lost in, to swim and read and wander. But it's also a draw for history buffs, with Fort Andrews's extensive buildings and batteries, some dating back to the Spanish-American War.

An ambitious plan by the nonprofit Island Alliance envisions an eco-retreat and family camp where the fort's brick buildings stand today. A first important step toward development has been taken: Electricity and water hookups to the fort should be coming on line by the end of the summer. But the short season and the unsound condition of some of the buildings have so far discouraged investors. For the time being, the island's recreation is more passive than programmed.

Peddocks is a stone's throw from Hull in Hingham Bay. Oddly, though, the only consistent public ferry service to Peddocks departs from Long Wharf in Boston more than 7 miles away. The trip costs $12 and requires a transfer to the small inter-island shuttle at Georges Island. Last week a special legislative Beaches Commission met at Hull High School and heard ideas for better ferry service from the South Shore. But the service from downtown should be improved as well.

Unfortunately, the water transport companies plying the route now are trapped in a vicious cycle: There aren't enough visitors to the outer islands to sustain frequent ferry service, but the demand will never rise to a profitable level while the service remains so erratic. The island's managers -- the National Park Service and the state Department of Conservation and Recreation -- ought to find a way to enhance public access, at least on weekends.

Peddocks is unique among the Harbor Islands for its collection of about 30 private seasonal homes -- a cluster of sagging wooden cabins in the Middle Hill section and others closer to shore. Most of the primitive houses -- with no electricity and no running water -- were built early in the 1900s by Portuguese fishermen and occupied by their descendants, or sometimes by military personnel stationed at Fort Andrews, which ceased operation in 1957.

In 1970, the state seized the island and turned over its operation to the Metropolitan District Commission, a forerunner of the DCR. In the 1980s, the MDC threatened to evict the residents, many of whom had camped on Peddocks for generations. Some of the island old-timers sold their cottages to the state, which sadly left them to decay. Others were torn down. The DCR even today owns a handful of vacant cabins it is not maintaining properly. An uneasy compromise allows the families to keep their cottages until they revert to the state upon the owner's death.

The effects of human habitation on Peddocks can be seen even away from the cabins themselves; blueberries, black raspberries, and cultivated rugosa roses flower in tangled profusion. Also Corona bottles, chunks of Styrofoam, discarded flip-flops, and storm jetsam.

The summer residents help stabilize and maintain the island when park resources are lacking. On a recent weekday one local was burning trash in a roaring bonfire on the water's edge. He probably was breaking numerous regulations, but he was keeping his end of the island clean. Until the island redevelopment plan is a reality, DCR ought to leave the summer residents be.

Even in the long run it would be a shame to see all the fishermen's cottages torn down. Some of them are built in what architects like to call a ``vernacular" style, representing a certain era in Boston's maritime history. Recommendations for them abound. Properly kept up and equipped with composting toilets, they might be rented out, like the huts maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club. Others have suggested they be made into an artists' colony, with the artwork produced auctioned off and some of the proceeds used to pay for routine maintenance.

History and natural beauty combine on Peddocks for a double scoop of adventure. With enough love and attention, it can become a rocky gem in the Harbor Islands' azure necklace.

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