By Charlotte Lellman
In 2018, Boston residents take it for granted that we have access to clean water, functional sewers, and other effective municipal systems funded by our taxes. But before the 1870s, Boston was a very different place, with a different idea of public works. As immigration kept pace with industrialization, Boston’s residents suffered from overcrowding and disease. The city grew, annexing the outlying suburbs and establishing a sewer system. Maps can offer insight into some of these changes.
Chan Krieger & Associates. “Boston Over Time: filling in the land, 1630-present.” 2008. Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.
When Europeans settled on the Shawmut Peninsula in the early seventeenth century, it was much smaller than it is today. However, little by little, land was added to expand the promontory. The nineteenth century was a particularly significant period of growth for Boston, both by landmaking and annexation. In the map above, titled “Boston Over Time,” the red shading shows the Shawmut Peninsula in 1630 when Boston was established. The tan-grey land, including the Back Bay area, was added between 1630 and 1880. The land in blue, including parts of South and East Boston, was added after 1880.
Before the Back Bay became the chic neighborhood of brownstones it is today, it was an accumulation area for sewage and garbage. In 1852, a Massachusetts Commission on Boston Harbor and Back Bay report described the area as “nothing less than a great cesspool.” The report elaborated on this unpleasant scene: “A greenish scum, many yards wide, stretches along the shores of the basin, as far as the western avenue, whilst the surface of the water below is seen bubbling, like a cauldron, with the noxious gases that are exploding from the corrupting mass below.” These vivid, gross descriptions suggest a developing awareness of the dangerous health impacts that the urban swamp could cause. Filling in the Back Bay with soil from hills in and around Boston was one way that the city both expanded and sanitized itself in the late nineteenth century. Together, urban growth and urban public health necessitated expanded sewage lines as a next step.
Annexation also played a major role in the growth of Boston during the late nineteenth century, as Roxbury and Dorchester joined Boston in 1868 and 1870, respectively.[i] The neighborhoods of Brighton, Charlestown, and West Roxbury were their own municipalities until 1874. The map below shows Boston with its newly incorporated neighborhoods. Why did these independent towns choose to join Boston, and why did the city decide to take them in?
Let’s look at Brighton, which has been studied thoroughly by Allston-Brighton historian William Marchione. Back in the nineteenth century, Brighton was a thriving town, known worldwide for its Cattle Market, stockyards, and slaughterhouses (more than forty!), and located conveniently along the railroad line.[ii] The industrial profits allowed Brighton to build good schools and firehouses, but paved roads and sewage management were neglected, because the cattle trade might interfere with those public improvements.[iii] Despite its successes, Brighton was not a desirable suburban retreat from Boston.
Marchione highlights two key developments in the early 1870s that led Brighton to change, and eventually to rely on joining Boston. First, he mentions the development of refrigerated freight, which reduced Brighton’s primacy as a railroad-friendly cattle town. Second, growing concern and regulation around public health limited Brighton’s slaughterhouses. Brighton spent a great deal of money cleaning itself up by installing paved roads, sewers, and other niceties, but this led the town into heavy debt. [iv]
On October 7, 1873, residents of Brighton voted for annexation into the City of Boston, which would bear responsibility for their debt and public works. On the same day, Charlestown and West Roxbury also voted to join Boston. (The elite town of Brookline preferred to remain separate from Boston, but even there a question of public works influenced the annexation debate.[v] The town elected to donate a strip of land so Boston could connect to Brighton). [vi]
Along with the public health movement and Boston’s growth through annexation, there was a shift away from privately funded sewers (and other urban necessities) towards public works. Lemuel Shattuck, a public health advocate, reported to the Massachusetts legislature in 1850, urging them to provide water and sewers to the public.[vii] Sewers were also critical to the annexation movement, so much so that anti-annexers made an 1874 proposal for a “metropolitan sewerage authority,” which could appease additional suburbs by providing them with sewers without actually annexing them.[viii] The expansion of the city, continuing immigration and disease, and increased awareness and organizing around public health, led to the creation of the Boston Main Drainage System between 1877 and 1884, shortly following the annexation of Roxbury, Dorchester, Brighton, Charlestown, and West Roxbury.[ix] The map below shows the sewers in Boston in 1875. Existing sewers are marked by red dots, and proposed sewer lines are shown as red lines. In this map, the sewer plans have not yet addressed the needs of Brighton, Charlestown, or West Roxbury.
Boston has continued to expand and change. Today, the Boston Water and Sewer Commission operates 1,455 linear miles of sewers in the city of Boston, and operates a massive waste management facility on Deer Island.[x] The former “High Service Pumping Station” building next to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir in Brighton houses the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum, sharing the story of water in the history of public works and public health in Boston in the late nineteenth century. Our city is clean and free from disease, and all Bostonians have access to clean water, sewage management, and other public services, regardless of income level. The expansion of the city, both through landfill and through the annexation of suburban towns, contributed to the expanded services distributed in 2018.
[i] Kennedy, Lawrence W. Planning the City Upon a Hill: Boston Since 1630. (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1992), 69.
[ii] Marchione, William P. “Annexation Embraced: Brighton’s 1873 Acceptance of Boston.” Brighton-Allston Historical Society. http://www.bahistory.org/HistoryAnnexBrighton.html.
Note: This article first appeared in the Allston-Brighton Tab or Boston Tab from 1998-2001.
[v] Marchione. “Annexation Spurned Brookline’s 1873 Rejection of Boston.” Brighton-Allston Historical Society.http://www.bahistory.org/HistoryAnnexBrookline.html.
[vi] Kennedy, 70.
[vii] MacDonald, Douglas B. “Back to the Future: Water Supply and Public Health – A Mission To Share.” (Keynote Address, New England Waterworks Association 118th Conference, Burlington, VT, Septmeber 20, 1999; published in the Journal of New England Water Works Association), http://www.mwra.com/04water/html/backtofuture.htm.
[viii] Kennedy, 96.
[ix] “Sewer History.” Boston Water and Sewer Commission. 2018. http://www.bwsc.org/ABOUT_BWSC/systems/sewer/Sewer_history.asp
Marchione, “Annexation Embraced.”
[x] “Present Day Sewer System.” Boston Water and Sewer Commission. 2018. http://www.bwsc.org/ABOUT_BWSC/systems/sewer/PresentDay_sewer.asp.