On the Tour: The Back Bay from the Ground Up

Now that I have finished my Boston by Foot docent training and passed the final (both written and verbal), it’s time to learn the tour that I have chosen to give. Many different tours are offered by @bostonbyfoot and there’s so much to know that learning to do one well before branching out is the wisest course.

I chose the Victorian Back Bay tour for several reasons. The filling of the Back Bay is an engineering marvel that I find fascinating along with the resulting construction requirements for all of the nineteenth-century houses and many of the twentieth-century buildings.

Boston, made land, shoreline 1630

Boston–1630 and Today

The Shawmut Peninsula

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.

Common wisdom blames cow paths for Boston’s random street pattern but the poor cows have been maligned. The first streets were laid out by people who needed to go past the hills and around the three lobes while on their way to important destinations like the harbor, the spring, the pasture, the Town House, and the market. As land was filled in different locations and at different times, more streets were created to fit the newly created section. None of them fit into a logical grid.

A City Built on Made Land

These 487 acres met the town’s needs pretty well, although land making started early along the waterfront. Fully one sixth of Boston is built on made land. But things changed in the nineteenth century when a variety of influences drove a need for more land. Over that same period, the Back Bay had been converted by damming and railroad causeways from shallow salt marshes and mud flats on the tidal Charles River to a stagnant stinking sewer. Everything went into it from garbage and raw sewage to dead animals. The tony families in their Beacon Hill homes found that Old Mother West Wind had very bad breath.

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.

Important Inventions

Boston, made land, Needham quarry, rail cars

Stationary Steam Shovel
Filling Rail Cars

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.. 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.

For those who are interested, the definitive book on the land making in Boston is Gaining Ground by Nancy Seasholes, an historian and historical archaeologist. The book is organized geographically and each chapter deals with a specific section of Boston. t’s big, very detailed, packed with information, and illustrated with lots of maps and photographs.

Boston, Back Bay, State House, Beacon Street, made land

View of the Back Bay from the State House

A Civil Engineering Marvel

That would be a major project today and even now we recognize the filling of the Back Bay 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. 

Gaining Ground, Nancy Seasholes, made land, Boston shorelineNext 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.