Notes from William Brewster: A Day on a Boston Harbor Garbage Scow

On a bitter January morning in 1893, amateur ornithologist William Brewster took an excursion out past the Boston Harbor Islands, intending to take notes on marine birds and to collect a few if any caught his interest.

What better way to find Gulls and other seabirds than to hop onto a maritime garbage truck? The day’s bird notes are detailed and definitely an intriguing read for birders, but it’s his description of the city’s garbage disposal that make this entry particularly memorable.

(The passage is abridged and broken into shorter paragraphs for readability.)

January 19, 1893. Boston Harbor.

Met E. A. [Edward A. Bangs] & Outram Bangs by appointment at Fort Hill Wharf, Boston, at 10.30 A.M. Half an hour later we started down the Harbor (Dr. Sidney Holditch accompanying us) in a large scow loaded with city garbage consisting chief of decayed fruit, vegetables[,] scraps of meat etc. from the market and such from private houses, besides a great quantity of coal ashes and a miscellaneous assortment of waste paper, paper boxes battered tin cans etc. -in all some four hundred cart loads gathered during the preceeding twenty-four hours by the city scavengers.

This scow alternates with another of similar build in making daily trips, in tow of a tug, to the dumping grounds well outside the outer islands.

Despite the ice which, in cakes of varying size and thickness, covered the water for the first half of the way, we made such good progress that by 1 P.M. we reached the Graves and got rid of our redolent cargo.

This was accomplished quickly & easily by two men for the scow is so constructed that by the aid of a simple piece of mechanism the hull can be split in two longitudinally allowing a broad stream of water to flow directly through the hold from stem to stern and sweep everything out. The halves are hinged together of course & are prevented from sinking by capacious air chambers.

The tug steams steadily ahead during the operation so that the contents of the scow are not deposited in one spot but trail out behind forming a broad belt on the water for a distance of several hundred yards the ashes sinking quickly of course but much of the vegetable matter and all the paper floating, at least for a short time.

The great quantity of garbage thus spread out over the water usually attracts immense numbers of Gulls. Indeed we had been assured by several passengers who had made the trip that most of the birds in the harbor followed the scow to the dumping ground where others joined them from the open ocean until the assembled birds numbered thousands. The scow men confirmed this and added that the birds, having never been molested, ordinarily behave in the most fearless manner flapping past within a yard or two of the boat and were attempting to snatch choice morsels from her deck load.

It was to see all this and perhaps shoot a few specimens if anything rare was found among the birds that we undertook this expedition but we were utterly disappointed for the Gulls showed scarce any interest in the movements of the scow to-day.”  

Disappointingly, he did not see many birds he’d been hoping to encounter: no Guillemots, Auks, Puffins, Loons or Grebes, which he’d seen on a similar Boston Harbor trip in 1879.

He did note a large mixed flock of Herring Gulls and Black-backed Gulls (Great or Lesser), as well as a Kittiwake, large groups of Goldeneye Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers, a ‘Gooseander’ (Common Merganser), a Black Duck, a ‘Velvet Scoter’ (today, the common name of a Eurasian species; it may have been one of our three New England species, a White-winged, Black, or Surf Scoter), and at least 25 seals, which he thought might be Harbor Seals

You can peruse his full journal entry here on the Biodiversity Heritage Library website.

-Elizabeth Meyer

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