From Lectern to Laboratory: The Early Days of Boston

Boston may not be the largest natural port on the east coast of the North American continent, but it is one of the most prosperous. Known more for the central role early European settlers played in breaking away from English tyranny, Boston’s economic role in the antebellum period is not to be underestimated. Not only was it a bustling seafaring city, engaged in transoceanic trade from its earliest days, but by the middle of the nineteenth century it had also become a center of industrial innovation. And it all emanated from a compact, box-shaped landmass called the Shawmut Peninsula, a reference to the Algonquin term “Mashaumuk” meaning land of sweet or living waters.8

By the time Edward Pickering entered Boston Latin in the fall of 1856, the size and shape of the Shawmut Peninsula no longer resembled what English settlers experienced when they first set foot on the peninsula in the early 1600s. Walter Whitehill said it best when he wrote: “To visualize the limits of Boston in 1630, one must imagine away considerably more than half the land that appears on a modern map.”9The “modern map” to which he refers appears as the frontispiece in Justin Winsor’s Memorial History of Bostonpublished in the late 1880s.10The map shows the outline of the original peninsula superimposed upon Winsor’s outline of the same landmass. And, yes, it is quite telling for the entire original landmass is completely contained within the outline of Winsor’s map. How did the Shawmut Peninsula change so drastically? To answer this question, let’s look at how residents of Boston extended the shoreline, filled the peninsula’s coves, and leveled its several prominent hills.

The first English settlers to arrive on the Shawmut Peninsula were not only a learned lot; they were industrious and ambitious. Although clergymen seeking greater religious freedom led them, merchants made up the greater amount of settlers looking to start from scratch in a new and uncertain world. As devout as they were, still they had to make a living, and so they did: as artisans, shopkeepers, servants, and seamen. The Shawmut Peninsula was a perfect place to begin anew, a place to create a “New England” and, in the words of the first colonial governor John Winthrop, a place to build a “city upon a hill.”11Since ships arrived regularly from the Old World carrying colonists and their goods trade was a natural activity, and the East or Great Cove on the harbor side of the peninsula an ideal location for their new settlement.

The early colonists’ first trading center was an informal outdoor marketplace north of King Street called Dock Square. The centrally located marketplace was a natural gathering place for ship captains, dockworkers, shopkeepers, clerks, and street vendors. In 1641, several merchants petitioned the town for the right to clean up and expand a small cove adjacent to Dock Square. After several months of work they turned the cove into a sheltered waterway to help facilitate the unloading and exchange of goods. Over the next few decades both sides of the cove were filled and the entrance narrowed. Town Cove (or Town Dock, as it was also called) and nearby Dock Square not only served as the city’s trading center, but as a harbinger of things to come.

As colonial Boston’s lifeblood was trade—maritime trade in particular—the arrival of ships laden with goods was both expected and necessary. But ships need docks and wharves and warehouses. If anything changed the profile of the Shawmut Peninsula in the early days of English colonization, it was the building of these instruments of trade. Although waterfront property owners often built wharves directly over salt marshes and mud flats at the water’s edge, facilitated by a generous riparian law passed in 1641, just as often they filled the soggy, unstable land in order to build further into the harbor. As they repeated this wharfing-out process, backfilling the old dock areas, Boston’s topographic profile not only changed, but also began to grow in size. A military map drafted in 1775 by Lieut. Thomas Page of His Majesty’s Corps of Engineers shows this early building activity. Town Cove, though still centrally located in the city center, is now dwarfed by dozens of wharves jutting from the shoreline between Gibbon’s Wharf at the bottom of Boston Neck, a wafer-thin stretch of land that connects the peninsula to the mainland, to Rucks Wharf at the tip of the North End.12

The wharfing-out process is on no better display than in the city’s central waterfront area in the vicinity of Long Wharf. Constructed in the early 1700s, Long Wharf marked a turning point in Boston’s capacity as a seaport. Extending directly from King Street into the shipping channel, between the North and South Batteries, Long Wharf permitted the loading and unloading of large ships without the need for small cargo ships or “lighters” that ran back and forth from the wharves to ships anchored in the harbor. The broad and lengthy wharf, lined with a succession of shops and warehouses, cut the unloading process of merchant ships arriving from overseas in half. It is no surprise, then, that other massive wharves joined Long Wharf in the inner harbor to handle the increased shipping activity.

Although Long Wharf changed the profile of the inner harbor unlike any other wharf-building project of its time, it was not a land-making endeavor. That would come later under the leadership of Uriah Cotting, a prominent Boston land speculator, with the formation of the Broad Street Corporation. With the financial backing of several successful area businessmen, including Harrison Gray Otis, Francis Lowell, James Lloyd, Jr., and Rufus Amory, Cotting proposed to broaden the streets bordering the inner harbor in order to make way for more docks, more wharves, more warehouses, and, of course, more ships with wider berths. Working with Boston-born architect Charles Bulfinch, Cotting’s group demolished an area of small, dilapidated buildings and wharves south of Long Wharf on the east side of Broad Street, created new land with broader streets that reached further into the harbor, and then built a new wharf area—India Wharf—lined with warehouses. Like Long Wharf before it, India Wharf could accommodate the largest ships entering the harbor, many of them arriving from the Far East. Bulfinch’s five-story, Federal-style, brick warehouse adjacent to India Wharf was home to over thirty companies, each involved in the lucrative overseas trade.13

Seeing the need for additional shipping capacity after the War of 1812, Ebenezer Francis proposed a second wave of expansion of the inner harbor’s wharf area. Backed by many of the same men who formed the Broad Street Corporation in 1803, Francis oversaw the construction of Central Wharf between 1815-1817, which extended more than a quarter of a mile into the harbor between Long Wharf and India Wharf. Lined by a succession of four-story, Federal-style, brick warehouses, Central Wharf soon rivaled nearby wharves for trade volume, serving as the center of Boston’s large Mediterranean trade for decades to come.

Less than a decade later, Josiah Quincy, Boston’s second elected mayor, proposed another massive waterfront project that would permanently change the harbor’s profile. This project involved Faneuil Hall, Boston’s central marketplace. Completed in 1742, the two-story marketplace was built to replace Dock Square, the outdoor marketplace near the city center’s wharf area. Gifted to the city by merchant Peter Faneuil, the massive two-story structure with adjacent warehouse readily became the hub of the city’s trading center. When fire destroyed most of the interior of the hall in 1761, Faneuil rebuilt the hall. Forty years later, Charles Bulfinch enlarged the hall, doubling its width and adding a third story.

By 1825, however, the area around Faneuil Hall, including Dock Square and Town Cove, had fallen into disrepair since most of the sea-going trade had shifted to Central and India Wharves. At the time, however, Boston was still the most prosperous trading port along the Eastern Seaboard constantly in need of additional space for wharves, warehouses, and trading places. Sensing this need, Mayor Quincy, a former member of Congress and past president of Boston Athenaeum, embarked on a construction plan along the city center’s waterfront of seismic proportions. The plan, as visionary as it was controversial, involved building an enclosed marketplace flanked by a pair of two-story granite warehouses on top of Town Cove, which would be filled dirt, debris, and gravel. The project would also create six new city blocks for additional commercial development. Although Faneuil Hall would remain at the head of this massive complex, known henceforth as Quincy Market, the majority of trading activity would shift to the adjacent buildings and to North and South Market Streets, which they fronted.

A comparison of Carleton’s map of 1805 with John Colton’s map of 1856 shows this development. In Carleton’s map Faneuil Hall is shown as the most prominent building in Dock Square, adjacent to Codman, Spear, and Green’s wharves, with Faneuil Hall no more than a block or two from the waterfront. In Colton’s map the wharves have disappeared replaced by a solid block of land upon which North and South Market Streets run, with Faneuil Hall at their head but now inland by several blocks or more. Something else appears on the Colton map that does not appear on the earlier Carleton map—the new customhouse. Built to replace the five-story brick customhouse on Custom House Street, the new customhouse, begun in 1837, sat on newly made land at the head of Long and Central Wharves. The impressive neoclassical design, a cross between a Greek temple and a Roman forum, rose above the harbor as impressively as Quincy Market’s granite warehouses to the north. By 1849, when the new customhouse opened its doors, Boston’s thriving city center had built and rebuilt its waterfront area several times, extending the city center’s land holdings further and further into the busy harbor. More projects would continue to change the profile of the harbor—most notably Atlantic Avenue that connected Commercial Street in the North End to Broad Street through the middle of Long Wharf—but none would change the basic character of the harbor: it would remain, at least until the end of the nineteenth century, a bustling seaport distinguished by the dozens of sailing ships arriving daily from around the world to unload their cargo.

More than any other building activity in Boston, land-making projects have left their mark on the Shawmut Peninsula. Although many of them commenced at the beginning of the nineteenth century, some of them had precedents dating back to the early colonial days. North Cove in the northern end of the peninsula is one of them. Although the actual filling of North Cove didn’t begin until the early 1800s, colonists turned their attention to the sluggish body of water almost immediately. In the summer of 1643, a little more than a decade after the first colonial governor John Winthrop and his followers settled on the peninsula, residents approved a proposal to dam North Cove in order to convert the nascent waters of the cove into a useable millpond. To do this, a group of developers led by merchant Henry Symons used a long narrow slip of solid ground as the foundation for a dam across the cove, converting it into a tidal pool that provided waterpower to several mills, including a gristmill, a sawmill, and the colony’s first chocolate mill. Several years later Symons and his associates enlarged the creek that ran from Mill Pond (North Cove’s new name) to the harbor just north of Town Cove, thus creating Mill Creek whose tidal waters were also used to provide waterpower to local mills.

Although the conversion of North Cove to Mill Pond didn’t change the amount of land available for development, the next project did. It was prompted by the completion of the Charles River Bridge in 1786 that connected Boston’s sparsely inhabited West End to Charlestown across the Charles River and by the West Boston Bridge in 1793 that connected Boston to Cambridge. As traffic increased in the West End due to the construction of these bridges, so did the desire to live in this less populated area. In 1804, with the proposal for an additional bridge—Canal or Craigie’s Bridge—on the table, a group of investors, successors to the first Mill Pond developers, undertook a massive land development project that would again change the size and shape of the peninsula. Approved in 1807, backers of the Mill Pond Corporation proposed filling Mill Pond with dirt and debris from nearby Beacon Hill, extending Mill Creek west to the Charles River, and creating a distinctive triangular pattern of streets and avenues for residential development.

Although it was a reasonable proposal, it was no small task. The first hurdle was to get the public to support a project that involved shaving down one of the most prominent peaks on the peninsula. The task was made easier by the fact that Mount Vernon, the westernmost peak in the Trimountain ridge spanning the middle of the peninsula, had already been shaved down as a result of an earlier land speculation deal.14Other than the legal and political challenges that delayed the start of the project, the physical challenge of carting tons of debris from Beacon Hill to Mill Pond by horse-drawn tipcarts was the real stumbling block, and took more than a dozen years to complete. In the end, fifty acres of land were filled and an impressive triangular street pattern was created to facilitate the construction of new homes, including the first estate of Harrison Gray Otis, the wealthy financier, future mayor, and backer of several area development projects.

The triangular street pattern was the genius of Charles Bulfinch, son of Dr. Thomas Bulfinch, Jr., a prominent physician who resided in the West End near Bowdoin Square. A graduate of Harvard (Class of 1781), Charles Bulfinch studied architecture in Europe during an extended stay abroad. After returning to America, the young self-taught architect began his career in the West End, primarily because it was the home of his childhood, but also because the West End was changing rapidly. Bulfinch’s triangular plan was based on the principle of an isosceles triangle with its base at the top, Causeway Street, and its two equilateral sides—Merrimac and Charlestown Streets—converging at Haymarket Square at the bottom. Canal Street bisects the triangle from north to south, while Traverse Street bisects it from east to west. These are not the only two streets in the triangle, but they are the most significant, with Canal Street originally planned to parallel a shallow canal to the Charles River. Although Bulfinch didn’t design any of the area’s subsequent structures, he did envision a mix of commercial and residential buildings, especially housing for the working class. However, the area became primarily a commercial district of hotels, taverns, stables, blacksmiths, and the carriage trades as the railroad industry established itself north of the triangle.



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