Battle in Boston Harbor looms over bid to evict tiny island's longtime residents State plans park at old Army fort

November 17, 1991|By New York Times News Service

PEDDOCKS ISLAND, MASS — PEDDOCKS ISLAND, Mass. -- For decades, descendants of Portuguese fishermen and American soldiers have lived without

electricity or a clean water supply upon the rocky shores of this densely wooded patch of beach in the middle of Boston Harbor.

Transporting everyday necessities by boat, islanders have survived on what they could carry and relied on oil lanterns, wood-burning stoves and bottled water to sustain them.

Only a tugboat captain, the former caretaker and a retired couple brave the cold, stormy winters on the island; most, who consider themselves "islanders," live and work in Boston suburbs and seek refuge on the island during the summer and on weekends.

Though just eight miles from Boston's financial district, Peddocks Island and its inhabitants are largely unknown to those on the mainland.

Few city dwellers know of the former fishing village and Army post built on Peddocks Island during the Spanish-American War. (The Army post was closed in 1947.)

Nor do they know of the driftwood cottages that sprouted on the grassy hills of the 188-acre salt marsh.

Now plans call for further development of the island's fort as a public park. After years of living in obscurity, owners of the 47 cottages have been ordered to leave the island by Oct. 1, 1992. The Metropolitan District Commission, the state agency that oversees public parks and beaches, ordered the eviction as part of a campaign to "reclaim public lands from private users."

After they evict cottagers, commission officials hope to restore and redevelop the 27 buildings that are part of Fort Andrews, the Army post, and make room for a wildlife sanctuary.

But cottagers are refusing to give up their homes or their rustic traditions. "None of us are going to go willingly," said Matilda Silvia, a 74-year-old native. "This island is part of us; our feet are tied to the ground."

Richard Murphy, who lives on the island year-round, promises a fight. "Over my dead body," he said, vowing not to leave his home. "They're going to find us all here next October."

The possibility of eviction is nothing new. In 1970, the Metropolitan District Commission claimed the island under the state's right of eminent domain. Since then, the state has threatened to evict cottagers, who pay $400 a year to the state to live there.

The first eviction deadline was set for 1980. A number of commissioners have come and gone since that order, and until last year, the commission extended residency permits annually.

Commissioner Ilyas Bhatti said he sympathized with islanders and was fascinated by their folklore. But, he said: "I object to private use of public lands. I can't condone people living under these circumstances."

Peddocks Island is just one of the many islands in Boston Harbor that have been reclaimed by the state for redevelopment. Other harbor islands have been reclaimed as sites for hospitals, prisons and, most recently, a multibillion-dollar sewage treatment plant.

In September, the commission transferred the island's caretaker, Michael McDevitt, to a maintenance crew on another island, leaving islanders to fend for themselves.

Since then, vandalism and fire have destroyed the barracks and administration building at Fort Andrews, and islanders fear that the island will be "ravaged by vandals" when there are no cottagers there to protect it.

Mr. Bhatti acknowledged that for many years the commission has been an absentee landlord, failing to enforce permit conditions or implement plans for the island.

"Peddocks Island was not a high priority before I was appointed commissioner in 1989," he said.

But islanders question the agency's newfound interest.

"This island means a lot to natives," said Donald Chalmers, whose cottage has been in his family since 1920. "Why kick us off for no reason?"

Mrs. Silvia, who was born on an Army boat just offshore, maintains that she and her fellow cottagers are part of the island's history.

"We're the only ones that had guts enough to stay here all these years," she said. "Why should we leave now?"

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