When the Puritans landed in 1630, Boston looked very different than it does now. At that time, the Shawmut peninsula was made up of three irregularly shaped lobes at the end of a long, narrow neck. All together, there were no more than 487 acres of habitable land on the peninsula and a fair amount of that was taken up by hills. There was the TriMountain—Beacon Hill, Pemberton Hill, and Mount Vernon—as well as Copp’s Hill and Fort Hill.
Something had to be done. Something was done. A typical American combination of public need and private enterprise resulted in the Tripartite Indenture, a settlement reached by the City of Boston, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Boston Water Power Company. Signed on December 11, 1856, it enabled the filling of the Back Bay to begin.
Common wisdom says that the Back Bay was filled in with the top of Beacon Hill but that’s not really the case. The TriMountain, including Beacon Hill, was indeed lowered by 60 feet and used as fill in other places but the Back Bay’s New Land was created over 37 years with gravel from Needham, nine miles away.
The project would not have gone far, however, without the fortuitous invention of the steam shovel. These stationary devices loaded up to 35 rail cars—drawn by equally new steam locomotives—in just five minutes and the trains rolled in to a tipping point in the marsh 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The filling proceeded from the Public Garden on the east to the Fenway area and created much more land than is currently included in what is now called the Back Bay neighborhood. When it was done, Boston had grown by 570 acres.
That would be a major project today and even now we recognize it as an engineering marvel and an enormous technological feat. Because the New Land was flat and relatively straight, it had a logical pattern of boulevards and cross streets. The streets are named alphabetically, starting at the Public Garden: Arlington, Berkeley, Clarendon, Dartmouth, Exeter, Fairfield, Gloucester, and Hereford.
Next came building on the New Land, which was planned as a neighborhood of elegant homes for wealthy Yankees. Unfortunately, the real estate consisted of uncompacted gravel and that’s not a stable base for anything bigger than a shed. How did they do it? More later.