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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Boston Harbor Islands Free Ferry Day / George's Island Fort Warren

After being rained out last weekend, Boston Harbor Islands had their Free Ferry Day this past Saturday, 5/26. Free Ferry Day is the day the ferries start going back out to the harbor islands just off the coast of Boston. There is another Free Ferry Day on the last day of the season around Columbus Day in October and another on one day over the summer.

To get the free tickets to the islands, you have to line up at the ticket booth EARLY on Saturday with hopes of getting on the 10, 12, or 2 o'clock ferry to George's Island or the 11 or 1 o'clock ferry to Spectacle Island. The ticket booth opened at 7:30 am. Each ferry can hold around 500 people if I remember seeing the capacity sign correctly. We got off to a little late start from home and got there at 7:45 am. The ticket booth is to the left of the Long Wharf Marriott if you're looking towards the water. The line wrapped from the ticket booth out to the street and back along the side of the Marriott to the point where people were lined up behind the Marriott. We didn't get to the front of the line until 9:15 am. By then, the 10, 11, and 12 o'clock ferries were all full. Since our goal was to get to George's Island, we got two tickets on the 2 o'clock ferry.


If you're not familiar with George's Island, it is the home to a Civil War-era fort named Fort Warren. According to the Boston Harbor Islands web site:
For Warren is an historic fort on Georges Island at the entrance to Boston Harbor. Constructed between 1833-1860, Fort Warren was completed shortly after the beginning of the American Civil War. The fort is an impressive Third System pentagonal star-shaped fort, made with stone and granite. During the Civil War, Fort Warren served as a prison for Confederate officers and government officials. James M. Mason and John Slidell, the Confederate diplomats seized in the Trent Affair, were among those held at the fort. High ranking civilians held at Fort Warren include Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens and Confederate Postmaster General John Reagan. 
Still active through the Spanish-American War and World War I, Fort Warren was modified in the late 1890s through the beginning of the twentieth century to accommodate the newer rifled ordnance then being developed for coastal defense. During World War II, the fort served as a control center for Boston Harbor's south mine field, a precaution taken in anticipation of potential attacks by German U-boats.
Fort Warren also has a bit of a legend/folklore... the Lady In Black Ghost. She is supposedly Mrs. Andrew Lanier, the wife of a Confederate soldier that was imprisoned there in 1861. Edward Rowe Snow, a 20th century historian, popularized the story. You can listen to the 2009 video above where author Christopher Rondina recounts the story of The Lady on Black.

The other place the ferries went to on Free Ferry Day was Spectacle Island. I've never been to that one before, but it's biggest draw is sandy beaches with lifeguards. Given the time of year, that didn't seem like the best place to go. Both islands offer great views of the city from a side most people don't see.
The boat ride over takes 45-50 minutes to George's Island. The ferry we were on had three levels with two snack bars on the lower two levels. Sitting up top, be forewarned that they have to blow an air horn REALLY LOUD when they leave the harbor. You get some nice views of the planes taking off from Logan and lots of boats cruising around.
For us, the ride over was fairly smooth. On the other hand, the ride back was a bit rougher where it seemed like we crossed over the wake of a boat a couple times. It is important to know that the island has a policy of what you carry onto the island, you must carry off the island, so be ready to carry trash back. There is a small snack bar on the island, but it closes an hour before the final ferry leaves. The workers have to leave, too, on the last ferry, so need time to clean up.
The fort is an impressive structure. You can take a forest ranger guided tour or go off on your own. Many people go there just for a picnic. When touring around the fort, you can go into the barracks of where the soldiers would have stayed and see the physical kitchen and living quarters. The rooms are barren though. One of the more interesting aspects of the tour are some tunnels in one corner of the courtyard. It is best if you have a flashlight (or you can use the one on your phone). The tunnels are not lighted. If you're brave enough, you'll find a door that leads to the outside of the far side of the fort which looks out towards the lighthouse.

If you're still playing Pokemon Go, there are some PokeStops and gyms on the islands. I forget how many as I haven't played in a while, but they're not visited that frequently, compared to most others that aren't surrounded by water and a ferry ride.

If you've never been out to the harbor islands of Boston, it is a fun day outdoors, weather permitting. Normally, round trick tickets run $19.95 for adults and $12.95 for kids 3-12 (under 3 free). You can buy a family four pack for $49 though (2 adults / 2 kids). Seniors, active military, and college students are $14.95. No pets are allowed on most islands.

Would I do Free Ferry Day again? I think I'd be more inclined to pay for the tickets next time. While I enjoyed spending the day in Boston with my son, it was a REALLY LONG day. While we got our tickets at 9:15 am, the ferry didn't leave until 2 pm. We could have left the city and come back, but I didn't want to double pay for parking. More importantly, I value my time. Tickets were gone by 10 am probably. I would have rather spent the morning sleeping late :), still do some activities with my son, and then gone into the city for the ferry, showing up a little early, but still not needing to go into city until the afternoon. By the time the 2 o'clock ferry rolled around, we were exhausted from all the walking we did already. I don't know if all the tickets are gone early on a non-free day, but showing up later would have allowed us to get more stuff done in and around home. Either way, it is an enjoyable day on the water and on the island.
*Read my Disclosure

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