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Boston Magazine: September, 2005

THE CASTAWAY: THE ONLY RESIDENT OF AN ISLAND IN BOSTON HARBOR

By Jake Halpern


ON A TYPICAL MONDAY MORNING, 63-year-old Judy McDevitt wakes up shortly after sunrise and walks across the creaking wooden floor of her small beach cottage to feed her dog and two cats and then get breakfast going for herself. If the sky has been cloudy and her solar-powered electrical system is low on juice, she avoids using the TV or microwave. On the other hand, if the sky is cloudless and there has been no rain to fill her water barrels, she may use her faucet sparingly. After breakfast, if she needs to use the bathroom, she either trudges across her backyard to her outhouse or uses an antique chamber pot.

On cold mornings she may throw a piece of driftwood or a few chunks of coal into her Elmira cooking stove, which is arguably her most important possession, for in the depths of winter it's the only thing that keeps her from freezing to death. In general, McDevitt has few, if any, complaints about her hermitlike existence, which is something of a cross between the lives of the Swiss Family Robinson and Henry David Thoreau.

At heart, McDevitt is a minimalist. She likes the simple pleasures of living on an island--gathering firewood, tinkering with her jury-rigged plumbing system, repairing her boat, composting, and, perhaps best of all, walking down to the beach, where she has a perfect view of the Boston skyline.

That's right. Hard as it may be to believe, one of the last real frontiers-women in all New England lives within a few miles of South Station on a rocky spit of land known as Peddock's Island. And she has been here, surviving winters and battling the challenges of isolation, for 44 years. When she first moved out to the island, in 1961, the Prudential Center was a blank spot on the horizon. Ever since then, McDevitt has been within a quick boat ride of Boston and yet a world away, eking out a hardscrabble life and watching the city grow.

 

AS IT TURNS OUT, Peddock's Island has been inhabited for a very long time. In fact, the oldest skeletal remains ever found in New England come from Peddock's Island and are roughly 4,100 years old. In more modern times, Peddock's has been home to a string of steely inhabitants, including an English planter named Leonard Peddock in the 1620s, a garrison of soldiers loyal to the rebel cause during the Revolutionary War, and a band of Portuguese fishermen who took up residence here in the 1880s. By far the largest settlement ever erected on the island was Fort Andrews, whose troops guarded Boston Harbor from 1904 to the end of World War II. In 1953 the entire island was sold to an entrepreneur named Isadore Bromfield, who did pretty much nothing with the place. By the time 19-year-old McDevitt arrived, it was a veritable ghost town: The Army was long gone, Fort Andrews was deserted, and the Portuguese fishing village had essentially become a summer colony. Basically it was just McDevitt and her husband, Eddie, who had been hired by Bromfield as caretakers.

I meet Judy McDevitt on a brisk afternoon after hitching a ride to the island on a small tugboat. McDevitt stands on the dock, leaning into a stiff headwind. A few days earlier, with a little finagling, I had convinced a park ranger to give me McDevitt's cell-phone number. "Yeah, I'll show you around," McDevitt had said over the crackly connection when I finally reached her. "Just let me know when you're coming."

McDevitt is a handsome woman with barley-colored hair, moss-green eyes, and a build so slight she seems to teeter in the wind. On her feet she wears sturdy hiking boots, and for extra support she leans on an old umbrella that she uses as a cane. "I would have got you with my own boat, but I haven't been feeling too well," she says apologetically. "I'm just getting over cancer, you see. Last fall they took out my esophagus and replaced it with part of my stomach." As if this weren't enough, McDevitt explains, she also had a hip replaced not long ago. "Aw, anyway," she says with a quick shrug, "let's get going." Moments later she is limping off at a brisk pace toward the ruins of Fort Andrews.

Together we walk down a crumbling asphalt road, speckled with pebbles and weeds, which leads into the fort's old parade grounds. All said, the ruins of the fort include some 26 buildings, almost all in complete disrepair. Windows are smashed, doors missing, roofs caved in. Everywhere nature is reclaiming its ground with a steady encroachment of vines, bushes, and trees.

Eventually, McDevitt and I make our way into the heart of the fort and pause for a moment at the center of an old intersection. "That building over there was the bakery, and that was the old gymnasium, which had its own bowling alley, and this here was the firehouse," explains McDevitt, flourishing her umbrella about while gesturing toward various crumbling facades. "Back when we were the caretakers here, there was still a fire engine here--it was a '37 Ford with two spark plugs for each cylinder--and we used to drive it around. We also had a jeep to plow the snow. Of course, the whole place was in a lot better shape back then."

Did she ever get spooked, being on the island by herself?

"Oh, there were times when it was a little scary," replies McDevitt with a wry smile. "Sometimes you had vandals coming out here to strip the place of copper, and then, other times . . . well, it just felt like there were ghosts here. Always has."

She leads the way down a tree-covered street, past a number of abandoned, red-brick homes with gaping black windows--the sort that invite the imagination to flicker for an instant with the image of a face that once belonged. Suddenly McDevitt stops in front of one of these houses, which still bears an address: #15A. "This used to be my home back when my husband was the caretaker for the island," she explains. "We lived here with our four children."

As we continue farther into the fort, McDevitt talks about her family. Her husband, Eddie, who she divorced in 1978, has long since moved back to the mainland. Her children have all grown up and become tugboat captains. This has left McDevitt pretty much on her own. In the summers, a handful of residents who own cottages in the old Portuguese fishing village still come out to spend a few months on Peddock's. But even they are thinning out. Ever since 1970, when the state took the island by eminent domain, officials have been hoping to turn it into a sprawling state park--devoid of private residences. Finally, in 1993, a compromise was reached in which all current residents, including McDevitt, are allowed to keep their homes for the rest of their lives. After each dies, however, the state will assume ownership of that property. "This place is a living history," McDevitt says. "And I hate to see it disappear, which seems to be the agenda of the state. But what can we do?"

 

EVENTUALLY THE TWO OF US wander away from Fort Andrews and down to the beach, where we come upon a small, gray-shingled cottage surrounded by hills of gravel and clusters of daisies. "This is where I live now," explains McDevitt. "I did the whole water system myself, which is good because I can fix it myself. If I spring a leak, I'll go find a piece of pipe or whatever I need and put it together like Rube Goldberg." McDevitt stares admiringly at her handiwork for minute or so. "That's really the beauty of this place: building up your self-reliance. It makes you feel more confident and gives you satisfaction, so when you do have a chance to relax, you feel like you accomplished something, sort of like the pioneers, I guess.

"I wouldn't want to live on an island in Maine," she continues.

"Why not?" I ask.

"Too far from Wal-Mart," replies McDevitt with a sheepish smile. "Yeah, sometimes it's nice to go into town."

Our conversation is interrupted by the distant wail of a police siren. "Sounds like it's coming from Wollaston Beach," McDevitt mumbles. For a moment we both strain our necks and look toward Quincy, Boston, and the world at large over the hill that blocks our view. From where we're standing, it's impossible to see.