Anchors Away! Boston Harbor Islands Blog: Bumpkin Island

Bumpkin_DOCKThe setting for our story is a small Boston harbor island that goes by the name of Bumpkin. The landmass, in reality, ought to be known as Ward’s Island based on a mid-1600s-era stipulation, but Bumpkin clearly was too amusing a nickname to ward off, if you will. (The island also in truth ought to be owned and operated by none other than Harvard College, but in a sense, that never really came to fruition, either.) At the turn of the century, Bumpkin Island’s fate became inextricably intertwined with that of one Albert Cameron Burrage, the protagonist in our island tale. The story of Bumpkin and Burrage is one that is marked by somewhat happy coincidence, which all in all reveals the strange beauty in things turning out differently than planned.

In the 1890s, Burrage was widely known throughout the Boston area as a wealthy, if a bit eccentric, philanthropist and businessman who had made his money in law and copper. (His mansion, a stone behemoth complete with gargoyles and stone foliage, can still be seen in Back Bay at 314 Commonwealth Avenue, a short walk from Newbury Street.) Around 1900, Burrage decided to make Bumpkin Island the headquarters for his charitable endeavors: our generous protagonist arranged to lease Bumpkin from Harvard, its rightful owner, for five hundred years in order to construct an enduring children’s hospital on the island. Burrage’s son had been severely injured years before in a football accident, which made Burrage acutely aware of the fact that Boston was lacking an institution of this sort for children.

At the outset of World War I, Burrage put his children’s hospital on the backburner in order to lend a hand in the war efforts. The wealthy philanthropist transferred his Bumpkin Island lease to the federal government for—can you imagine?—one dollar per year, which serves as hard proof of the man’s generosity. Bumpkin Island in turn became a naval training station, and with no small benefit: by the end of the war, nearly 15,000 men had graduated successfully from military training on the island. Although most of the military structures that the island had possessed in wartime have either been purposely destroyed or have collapsed into ruins of their own accord, the island still sports the WWI-era asphalt roads that bisect it, and even now it features the fairly intact remnants of the navy’s old mess hall.

Unfortunately, Burrage’s children’s hospital met a fate similar to the island’s military structures. In 1940, after a brief stint as a clinic for children with polio, the hospital caught fire and was deemed unsalvageable. Traces of the structure still scatter the Bumpkin Island ground, although vegetation now envelops the fortification. Although many of its buildings and structures have deteriorated, Bumpkin Island still bears a history that remains bright. Now particularly popular for its beautiful picnicking and camping grounds and for its breathtaking view, Bumpkin continues to connote a combination of happiness and goodwill for those who seek it.

Boston Harbor Islands_thumbFor more on the stories behind the city’s sanctuaries, pick up a copy of Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands by Christopher Klein, or check out last week’s blog. To help you explore the islands on the go, download our free smartphone app. Anchors away!

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