American Historic Towns
Historic Towns of New England

Edited by Lyman P. Powell
G. P. Putnam's Sons
New York and London
The Knickerbocker Press


THE summer traveller who approaches Boston from the landward side is apt to notice a tall and abundant wayside plant, having a rather stiff and ungainly stem, surmounted by a flower with soft and delicate petals and of a lovely shade of blue. This is the succory (Cichorium Intybus of the botanists), described by Emerson as "succor to match the sky." But it is not commonly known in rural New England by this brief name, being oftener called "Boston weed," simply because it grows more and more abundant as one comes nearer to that city. When the experienced Boston traveller, returning to his home in late summer, sees this fair blossom on an ungainly stem assembled profusely by the roadside, he begins to collect his parcels and hand bags, knowing that he approaches his journey's end.

The original Boston, as founded by Governor John Winthrop in 1639, was established on a rocky, three hilled peninsula, in whose thickets wolves and bears were yet harbored, and which was known variously as Shawmut and Trimountain. The settlement itself was a sort of afterthought, being taken as a substitute for Charlestown, where a temporary abode had been founded by Winthrop's party. There had been much illness there, and so Mr. Blackstone, or Blaxtone, who had for seven years been settled on the peninsula, urged the transfer of the little colony. The whole tongue of land then comprised but 783 acres, an area a little less than that originally allotted to Central Park in New York. Boston now includes 23,661 acres, about thirty times the original extent of the peninsula. It has a population of about 500,000 the State Census of 1895 showing 496,920 inhabitants. By the United States Census of 1890 it had 448,477, and was then the sixth in population among American cities, being surpassed by New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and St. Louis; and the union of New York and Brooklyn probably making it now the fifth. In 188o it ranked fifth, St. Louis having since outstripped it. In 1870 it was only seventh, both St. Louis and Baltimore then preceding it. As with most American cities, this growth has been partly due to the annexing of suburbs; but during the last fifteen years there has been no such annexation, showing the increase to be genuine and intrinsic. The transformation in other ways has, however, been more astonishing than the growth. Of the original three hills, one only is now noticeable by the stranger. I myself can remember Boston, in my college days, as a pear shaped peninsula, two miles by one, attached to the mainland by a neck a mile long and only a few yards wide, sometimes actually covered by the meeting of the tide waters from both sides. Them water also almost touched Charles Street, where the Public Garden now is, and it rolled over the flats and inlets called the Back Bay, where the costliest houses of the city now stand.

The changes of population and occupation have been almost as great as of surface. The blue jacketed sailor was then a figure as familiar in the streets as is now the Italian or the Chinese; and the long wharves, then lined with great vessels, two or three deep, and fragrant with spicy Oriental odors, are now shortened, reduced, and given over to tugs and coasters. Boston is still the second commercial port in the country; but its commerce is mainly coastwise or European only, and the picturesque fascination of the India trade has passed away. Even on our Northwest Pacific coast the early white traders, no matter whence they came, were known by the natives as "Boston men." The wealth of the city, now vastly greater than in those days, flows into other channels, railways, factories, and vast land investments in the far West, enterprises as useful, perhaps more lucrative, but less picturesque. It is a proof of the vigor and vitality of Boston, and partly, also, of its favorable situation, that it has held its own through such transformations. Smaller cities, once powerful, such as Salem, Newburyport, and Portsmouth, have been ruined as to business by the withdrawal of foreign trade.

Boston has certainly, in the history of the country, represented from an early time a certain quality of combined thrift and ardor which has made it to some extent an individual city. Its very cows, during its rural period, shared this attribute, from the time when they laid out its streets by their devious wanderings, to the time when "Lady Hancock" as she was called, helped herself to milk from the herd of her fellow citizens in order to meet a sudden descent of official visitors upon her husband, the Governor. From the time when Boston was a busy little colonial mart - the epoch best described in Hawthorne's Province House Legends and My Kinsman Major Molineux - through the period when, as described in Mrs. Quincy's reminiscences, the gentlemen went to King's Chapel in scarlet cloaks, down to the modern period of transcontinental railways and great manufacturing enterprises, the city has at least aroused a peculiar loyalty on the part of its citizens. Behind all the thunders of Wendell Phillips's eloquence there lay always this strong local pride. "I love inexpressibly," he said, "these streets of Boston, over which my mother held up my baby footsteps; and if God grants me time enough, I will make them too pure to be trodden by the footsteps of a slave." He survived to see his dream fulfilled. Instead of the surrendered slave, Anthony Burns, marching in a hollow square, formed by the files of the militia, Phillips lived to see the fair haired boy, Robert Shaw, riding at the head of his black regiment, to aid in securing the freedom of a race.

During the Revolution, Boston was the centre of those early struggles on which it is now needless to dwell. Faneuil Hall still stands the place from which, in 1774, a letter as to grievances was ordered to be sent to the other towns in the State; the old State House is standing, where the plans suggested by the Virginia House of Burgesses were adopted; the old South Church remains, whence the disguised Indians of the Boston Tea Party went forth, and where Dr. Warren, on March 5, 1775, defied the British officers, and when one of them held up warningly some pistol bullets, dropped his handkerchief over them and went on. The Old North or Christ Church also remains, where the two lights were hung out as the signal for Paul Revere's famous ride, on the eve of the battle of Lexington.

So prominent was Boston during this period that it even awakened the jealousy of other colonies; and Mr. Thomas Shirley, of Charleston, South Carolina, said to Josiah Quincy, Jr., in March, 1773: "Boston aims at nothing less than the sovereignty of this whole continent. . . . Take away the power and superintendence of Britain, and the colonies must submit to the next power. Boston would soon have that."

One of the attractions of Boston has long been, that in this city, as in Edinburgh, might be found a circle of literary men, better organized and more concentrated than if lost in the confusion of a larger metropolis. From the point of view of New York, this circle might be held provincial, as Edinburgh no doubt seemed from London; and the resident of the larger community might scornfully use about the Bostonian the saying attributed to Dr. Johnson about the Scotchman, that "much might be made of him if caught young." Indeed, much of New York's best literary material came always from New England; just as Scotland still holds its own in London literature. No doubt each place has its advantages, but there was a time when one might easily meet in a day, in one Boston bookstore - as, for instance, in the "Old Corner Bookstore," built in 1712, and still used for the same trade - such men as Emerson, Parker, Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes, Whittier, Sumner, Agassiz, Parkman, Whipple, Hale, Aldrich, and Howells; such women as Lydia Maria Child and Julia Ward Howe. Now, if we consider how much of American literature is represented by these few names, it is evident that if Boston was never metropolitan, it at least had a combination of literary ability such as no larger American city has yet rivalled.

I remember vividly an occasion when I was required to select a high school assistant for the city where I then lived (Newport, Rhode Island), and I had appointed meetings with several candidates at the bookstore of Fields & Osgood at Boston. While I was talking with the most promising of these the daughter of a clergyman in northern Vermont, I saw Dr. O. W. Holmes pass through the shop, and pointed him out to her. She gazed eagerly after him until he was out of sight, and then said, drawing a long breath, "I must write to my father and sister about this! Up in Peacham we think a great deal of authors!"

Certainly a procession of foreign princes or American millionaires would have impressed her and her correspondents far less. It was like the feeling that Americans are apt to have when they first visit London or Paris and see - in Willis's phrase -" whole shelves of their library walking about in coats and gowns "; and, strange as it may seem, every winter brings to Boston a multitude of young people whose expressed sensations are very much like those felt by Americans when they first cross the ocean

The very irregularity of the city adds to its attraction, since most of our newer cities are apt to look too regular and too monotonous. Foreign dialects have greatly increased within a few years; for although the German element has never been large, the Italian population is constantly increasing, and makes itself very apparent to the ear, as does also latterly the Russian. Books and newspapers in this last tongue are always in demand. Statues of eminent Bostonians - Winthrop, Franklin, Samuel Adams, Webster, Garrison, Everett, Horace Mann, and others are distributed about the city, and though not always beautiful as examples of art, are suggestive of dignified memories. Institutions of importance are on all sides, and though these are not different in kind from those now numerous in all vigorous American cities, yet in Boston they often claim a longer date or more historic associations.

The great Public Library still leads American institutions of its class; and the Art Museum had a similar leadership until the rapid expansion of the Metropolitan Museum of New York City. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the New England Conservatory of Music educate large numbers of pupils from all parts of the Union; while Boston University and Boston College hold an honored place among their respective constituencies. Harvard University, Tufts College, and Wellesley College are not far distant. The Boston Athenaeum an admirable model of a society library. The public school system of Boston has in times past had a great reputation, and still retains it; though it is claimed that the newer systems of the Western States are in some degree surpassing it. The Normal Art School of the State is in Boston; and the city has its own Normal School for common school teachers. The free lectures of the Lowell Institute are a source of instruction to large numbers every season; and there are schools and classes in various directions, maintained from the same foundation. The great collections of the Boston Society of Natural History are open to the public; and the Bostonian Society has been unwearied in its efforts to preserve and exhibit all memorials of local history. The Massachusetts Historical Society includes among its possessions the remarkable private library of Thomas Dowse, which was regarded as one of the wonders of Cambridge fifty years ago, and it possesses also the invaluable manuscript collections brought together by Francis Parkman when preparing his great series of histories. The New England Historic Genealogical Society has a vast and varied store of materials in the way of local and genealogical annals; and the Loyal Legion has a library and museum of war memorials.

For many years there has been in Boston a strong interest in physical education, an interest which has passed through various phases, but is now manifested in such strong institutions as the Athletic Club and the Country Club, the latter for rural recreation. There is at Charlesbank, beside the Charles River, a public open air gymnasium which attracts a large constituency; and there is, what is especially desirable, a class for women and children, with private grounds and buildings. It is under most efficient supervision, and is accomplishing great good. There are some ten playgrounds kept open at unused schoolhouses during the summer vacations, these being fitted up with swings, sand pens, and sometimes flower beds, and properly superintended. A great system of parks has now been planned, and partly established, around Boston, the largest of these being Franklin Park, near Egleston Square; while the system includes also the Arnold Arboretum, the grounds around Chestnut Hill Reservoir and Jamaica Pond, with a Marine Park at South Boston. Most of these are easily accessible by steam or electric cars, which are now reached from the heart of the city, in many cases through subways, and will soon be supplemented or superseded, on the more important routes, by elevated roads. The steam railways of the city are also to have their stations combined into a Northern and a Southern Union Station, of which the former is already in use and the latter in process of construction.

This paper is not designed to be a catalogue of the public institutions and philanthropies of Boston, but aims merely to suggest a few of the characteristic forms which such activities have taken. Nor is it written with the desire to praise Boston above her sisters among American cities; for it is a characteristic of American society that, in spite of the outward uniformity attributed to the nation, each city has never theless its own characteristics; and each may often learn from the others. This is simply one of a series of papers, each with a specific subject and each confined to its own theme. The inns, the theatres, the club houses of a city, strangers are likely to discover for themselves; but there are further objects of interest not always so accessible. For want of a friendly guide, they may miss what would most interest them. It is now nearly two hundred years since an English traveller named Edward Ward thus described the Boston of 1699:

"On the southwest side of Massachusetts Bay is Boston, whose name is taken from a town in Lincolnshire, and is the metropolis of all New England. The houses in some parts joyn, as in London. The buildings, like their women, being neat and handsome. And their streets, like the hearts of the male inhabitants, being paved with pebble."

The leadership of Boston in a thousand works of charity and kindness, during these two centuries, has completely refuted the hasty censure of this roving Englishman; and it is to be hoped that the Boston of the future, like the Boston of the past, will do its fair share in the development of that ampler American civilization of which all present achievements suggest only the promise and the dawn.

Historic towns of New England

Return to History at Rays Place