Elizabeth Island is a unique, nearly two-acre property located in Spy Pond, Arlington, approximately six miles northwest of downtown Boston. The island offers a quiet location for nature study and reflection, with diverse plant communities, birds, and other wildlife.
ABOUT ELIZABETH ISLAND
Ownership and Conservation
Elizabeth Island is owned by the nonprofit Arlington Land Trust (ALT), which purchased the land from a private owner in late 2010. More than 500 individuals and families, local businesses, and foundations contributed to the successful Campaign to Protect Elizabeth Island. ALT was awarded a grant of $85,000 through the state’s Conservation Partnership Grant Program to help with the purchase. The Arlington Conservation Commission was another key funder through its own land conservation fund. On behalf of the Town, it will co-hold the permanent conservation restriction with Mass Audubon, a statewide land conservation and education organization.
Geology and Soils
The soils at Elizabeth Island and in the vicinity are related to glacial processes, specifically the retreat of the Laurentian Glacier, which once covered all of New England, and extended as far south as Block Island, Rhode Island, and Long Island, New York. As the glacier melted back some 15,000 years ago, stranded ice blocks backed up natural drainages and created lakes throughout the Boston basin. Sediment carried off the glacier by meltwater settled to the bottom of these lakes in deep sand and gravel deposits. Some ice blocks persisted during this depositional phase and then melted later, leaving behind kettle ponds such as Spy Pond, the Mystic Lakes, and Fresh Pond. The configuration of melting ice in what is now southeast Arlington allowed for deposition in the middle of the pond, forming Elizabeth Island.
Elizabeth Island is lens-shaped, with a central plateau standing ten to twenty feet above the pond surface surrounded by a ring of lower ground one to two feet above the water. The ground between the central plateau and the low shelf is gently sloped to the northeast and southwest, with moderately steeper slopes to the northwest and southeast. The highest ground is located in the middle of the island. The flat shelf that encircles the island is dry on the eastern and northern rims but extremely wet on the western and southern rims.
Vegetative Cover Types
Elizabeth Island is dominated by four vegetative cover types that occur roughly along an elevation gradient from the low-lying deep marsh, to the shrub layer and tree canopy, and culminating on an upland grassy opening.
The deep marsh occurs on the southwestern and western side of the island and is dominated by alien, invasive Phragmites (although recent applications of herbicide will likely alter plant community composition). Other plants observed in the deep marsh include Sensitive Fern, Cinnamon Fern, Skunk Cabbage, Nettles, and Purple Loosestrife (another alien, invasive plant).
The eastern and northern margins of the island are dominated by shrubs and a few scattered saplings including Sweet Pepperbush; Buttonbush; Staghorn Sumac; Shadbush; Red Maple; Gray Birch; Black Cherry; and nonnative Glossy Buckthorn and False Indigo Bush.
Trees consist of Black Oak, Gray Birch, Red Maple, White Ash, and Black Cherry. The understory in these forested areas is sparse with little herbaceous vegetation, giving the area an inviting, open, park-like atmosphere. Two notable trees are a large, old Gray Birch at the eastern edge of the deep marsh and an impressive, wide-branching Black Oak along the northern rim.
A knoll in the center of Elizabeth Island is dominated by grasses and herbaceous plants such as Goldenrods and Canada Rock Rose, with a patch of Raspberry, Sumac, Black Cherry, and Gray Birch to the east. The structure of the vegetation here is markedly changed from that of the surrounding margins, and the opening provides a welcome respite and view of the sky.
Important Wildlife Habitat
Elizabeth Island has been designated as Priority Habitat for Rare Wildlife by the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP), a prime indicator of the ecological importance of the property. Another measure of the property’s ecological significance is its inclusion in the BioMap 2, a joint effort by the NHESP and The Nature Conservancy to identify critical areas to ensure long-term persistence of rare species, exemplary natural communities, and a diversity of ecosystems throughout the Commonwealth. Elizabeth Island is delineated as Core Habitat, Critical Natural Landscape, and Species of Conservation Concern habitat. Furthermore, the waters surrounding Elizabeth Island have been identified as Core Aquatic Habitat. These designations are important, and indicate that Elizabeth Island and Spy Pond are significant natural features in the landscape with resources worthy of protection.
The following birds associated with woodlands and wetlands have been noted recently: Warbling Vireo, Yellow Warbler, American Goldfinch, American Robin, Northern Cardinal, Common Grackle, Eastern Kingbird, Gray Catbird, Great Blue Heron, Green Heron, and Canada Goose. Though they are fairly common species, their presence is an indicator of the function of the habitat, and gives further reason to protect the natural features of the site.
A bird list compiled by members of the Menotomy Bird Club and other regular visitors to Spy Pond lists more than 120 species that have been seen and/or heard in and around the pond and the island. Other wildlife likely to occur at Elizabeth Island are Raccoon, Coyote, Squirrels, Eastern Painted Turtle, Milk Snakes, Bullfrog, and Green Frog, as well as a wealth of insect life.
- Protect natural resources, including plants, wildlife habitat, and water quality
- Improve landing opportunities for small boats
- Create a loop trail around the eastern perimeter and through the grassy interior plateau
- Install rustic steps along steep slopes to minimize erosion, with water bars for drainage
- Enhance scenic views and maintain the grassy plateau with selective pruning and thinning
- Post minimal signage to welcome visitors and advise them of prohibited uses
- Mark the loop trail with a few blazes painted on tree trunks
- Manage invasive species, especially Phragmites and Purple Loosestrife in the deep marsh areas and Glossy Buckthorn on the lower shelf on the western and northern rims
- Minimize unwanted uses by careful stewardship and regular monitoring and maintenance
- Develop environmental education programs for all ages
A History of Elizabeth Island
By Richard A. Duffy
In the first several decades of English settlement of Cambridge (of which most of present-day Arlington was part until 1807), Elizabeth Island was owned in common by the proprietors of the town. On October 20, 1704 the register of the proprietors of common lands in Cambridge noted transfer to private ownership with this entry: “Sold to Moses Boardman, a Small Island in ye Middle of Spye pond Containing about three quarters of an Acre. for twenty Nine Shillings.” (Elizabeth Island comprises nearly two acres of land, so it is interesting to note the great disparity in its estimated size in the 1704 record.) Boardman was a tanner, an occupation that required access to abundant water. While a possible reason for his acquisition of the island, there is no proof that it ever was used as the site of a tannery. Moses Boardman’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, was born two months prior to his purchase of the island, which could have been named in her honor. Elizabeth Boardman married Col. Abraham Williams of Marlborough in 1730.
In 1730, Boardman sold the island to Col. Elijah Phipps (1727-1805) of Charlestown, for two pounds and eight shillings. By the end of the 18th century the island had passed into ownership of Thomas Russell. Through inheritance, title in 1868 was in the hands of 21 Russell heirs—a complicated matter to be untangled to enable sale that year to the Fitchburg Rail Road Company. It is in this conveyance that the first reference is found to the name “Elizabeth Island,” prior deeds referring to it simply as the “Island.” This supports an alternate theory that it is named after Elizabeth Winship Russell, widow of Jason Russell, a local hero of Revolutionary War fame.
When Arlington was the young independent town of West Cambridge, the island was the scene of great military excitement. In the early 1800s, each municipality in Massachusetts had its own trained militia, which would join with the militias of nearby communities to engage in what we might call “war games” today. In 1810, an elaborate Indian Muster was held, during which some members of the militia played the role of American Indians. There was no local danger of Indian hostilities in New England, as the native population had been decimated by disease, war, and displacement in the previous centuries. The idea of an Indian muster was to prepare for battles as the United States expanded westward. The purported Indians established their camp, complete with wigwam, on Elizabeth Island. It became the object of bombardment from the shore by the militia of then-contiguous Watertown, and invasion by water. The Indians fled their island by canoe to seek refuge on the Lake Street side of Spy Pond, but they were captured and marched into the center of town, where they were fed “the most succulent baked beans in New England.”
Although the railroad did not acquire Elizabeth Island until 1868, plans to make use of the island for railroad purposes appear as early as 1844. Numerous branch and spur routes were proposed, some involving the large-scale ice production industry that grew up around Spy Pond. A routing of the rail line via Elizabeth Island was considered but not pursued, presumably thanks to the engineering challenge of having to build earthen causeways or trestle bridges to link the island to the lakeshores. The main route that was chosen, on the northern side of the Pond, has become today’s Minuteman Commuter Bikeway. The 1868 railroad-expansion plan was formally protested to the Massachusetts Legislature by wealthy abutters on the western shore of Spy Pond.
No railroad use ever having been made of Elizabeth Island, in 1921 it was sold to Freeman Young, an officer of the Middlesex Sportsmen’s Association, a hunting and fishing club whose lodge on the shore of Spy Pond was the former Arlington Boat Club. Young willed the island to the Association, which struggled financially during the Great Depression and disbanded. Its club house ultimately was deeded to the Arlington Boys Club.
In 1940, another colorful chapter opened on Elizabeth Island with the shipment of loads of 70-pound concrete construction blocks by its new owner, Lake Street resident Henry Randolph DeForest (1902-2001). DeForest was the real estate sales manager for the Kelwyn Manor development that was underway on the eastern shore of Spy Pond. DeForest promptly set about assembling the concrete blocks for the foundation for what the Boston Herald described as a six-bedroom “honeymoon home.” Access to this year- round home was to be via suspension footbridge “high enough to let an ice-boat pass beneath” and across which DeForest would carry his intended bride, Louise C. Fifield of Grafton Street.
Electricity for the home would come from “the mainland,” but DeForest announced that drinking water would be filtered from the pond. He planned to garage his automobile on the shore, where he also would erect a rural free delivery mailbox to arrange postal communication with his island home. DeForest cited a two-dwelling deed restriction in his deed to Elizabeth Island, and announced that the second home on the island would be built when his five year old son by a previous marriage became an adult.
DeForest believed that the name Elizabeth Island had its origins in the fact that Elizabeth was the name of the wife of Elijah Phipps, but subsequent research casts doubts on his notion. Discounting “a hermit who was banished form the island after two years in 1918,” DeForest, described as having “a romantic nature,” boasted that he would become the first inhabitant of Elizabeth Island.
DeForest’s plan never advanced beyond his initial publicity splash. Elizabeth Island was sold to other private owners, most recently the Sacco family, where it has been offered for use as the fireworks-launching site for Arlington’s Town Day for many years. Access by the general public has been tolerated, so this haven for wildlife has become known to a few adventuresome boaters, ice skaters and picnickers in more recent times.
The residential real estate listing for the sale of Elizabeth Island in 2008 brought attention to the importance of perpetually preserving this spot of wilderness that had endured as such well into the era of the urban superhighway.