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Remaking Boston

Remaking Boston: An Environmental History of the City and Its Surroundings

Anthony N. Penna
Conrad Edick Wright
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    Remaking Boston
    Book Description:

    Since its settlement in 1630, Boston, its harbor, and outlying regions have witnessed a monumental transformation at the hands of humans and by nature.Remaking Bostonchronicles many of the events that altered the physical landscape of Boston, while also offering multidisciplinary perspectives on the environmental history of one of America's oldest and largest metropolitan areas.Situated on an isthmus, and blessed with a natural deepwater harbor and ocean access, Boston became an important early trade hub with Europe and the world. As its population and economy grew, developers extended the city's shoreline into the surrounding tidal mudflats to create more useable land. Further expansion of the city was achieved through the annexation of surrounding communities, and the burgeoning population and economy spread to outlying areas. The interconnection of city and suburb opened the floodgates to increased commerce, services and workforces, while also leaving a wake of roads, rails, bridges, buildings, deforestation, and pollution.Profiling this ever-changing environment, the contributors tackle a variety of topics, including: the glacial formation of the region; physical characteristics and composition of the land and harbor; dredging, sea walling, flattening, and landfill operations in the reshaping of the Shawmut Peninsula; the longstanding controversy over the link between landfills and shoaling in shipping channels; population movements between the city and suburbs and their environmental implications; interdependence of the city and its suburbs; preservation and reclamation of the Charles River; suburban deforestation and later reforestation as byproducts of changing land use; the planned outlay of parks and parkways; and historic climate changes and the human and biological adaptations to them.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7768-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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    (pp. 1-16)
    Anthony N. Penna

    IN 1630, English settlers established the town of Boston. Four years later, William Wood, a visitor to the frontier outpost, published a description of its physical features. His book,New England’s Prospect, became for many readers an early example of boosterism, as it extolled the virtues of this bountiful new land. Wood’s picture of Boston is especially revealing because the town that he described bore only a remote resemblance to the city since created by centuries of land making. In his vivid portrayal, Boston stood on a mostly square peninsula connected to the mainland at Roxbury by a very narrow...


    • 2 The Drowning of Boston Harbor and the Development of the Shoreline
      (pp. 19-32)
      Peter S. Rosen and Duncan M. FitzGerald

      IT was the harbor, deep and inviting, that attracted Boston’s English founders to the peninsula on which they built their settlement, and the harbor has continued to mold the community’s development to the present. Boston’s environmental history consequently begins at the water’s edge. Before considering how human settlement and the harbor interacted, however, it is important to understand the context. It is imperative to assess the physical characteristics of the harbor and how it assumed its current form. Physical processes produced the land, the shoreline, and the harbor that Boston’s Puritan settlers encountered in 1630. The glaciers of the most...

      (pp. 33-55)
      Michael Rawson

      RETIRED sea captain John Sleeper made little effort to hide his frustration as he addressed the assembled members of the Boston Marine Society. Asked to deliver a paper at the society’s annual meeting in 1872, Sleeper chose a subject that weighed heavily on the minds of the gathered mariners: encroachments on Boston Harbor through land making. The state had recently approved yet another new land-making project, this one to fill almost a thousand acres of the South Boston flats, and the society’s members were united in their belief that making new land where there once had been water was irrevocably...

    • 4 Remaking Boston Harbor: CLEANING UP AFTER OURSELVES
      (pp. 56-74)
      Steven M. Rudnick

      ON September 2, 1988, as television cameras rolled, Republican presidential candidate George H. W. Bush clambered aboard a boat in Boston Harbor and charged his Democratic opponent, Michael S. Dukakis, with responsibility for the port’s deplorable condition.¹ Although Dukakis ultimately played a major, and perhaps negative, role in the cleanup of Boston Harbor, his 12 years as governor of the commonwealth do not explain 350 years of pollution that has plagued the harbor. From Boston’s earliest days of settlement, its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean has suggested an easy way to dispose of its inhabitants’ waste. The resulting problems have...

      (pp. 75-102)
      Stephen T. Mague

      THE shape of the Shawmut Peninsula before the bays and marshes surrounding this fist of land were filled in to create present-day Boston is of both academic and practical interest. For scholars, the subject illuminates early attempts to modify the terrain, with implications for the landscape, property rights, and the built environment. For those with more immediate concerns—including civil engineers interested in the potential effects on development of groundwater seepage and earthquakes and lawyers litigating real-estate cases dealing with ownership interests in filled tidelands—the issue has direct consequences. This chapter offers one answer to the question of the...


    • 6 Remaking Boston, Remaking Massachusetts
      (pp. 105-126)
      Brian Donahue

      LOOKING out from the State House dome a century ago, Charles Eliot could have just seen the wooded hills of Weston, perched on the western rim of the rapidly expanding metropolis. Looking back from the top of Doublet Hill today, a resident of Weston can still make out the dome, nestled among the office towers of the modern city. Eliot wanted to protect Doublet Hill as part of a forest reserve for his metropolitan park system, but he did not succeed. Weston acquired the rocky outcrop some eighty years later, and today it maintains a public lookout, but one needs...

      (pp. 127-147)
      William B. Meyer

      IN February of 1847, Edward Everett, then president of Harvard University, climbed a large hill near Boston in the course of a weekend ramble. The scene he found at the top seemed at first to be oddly incongruous. There was a view “of surpassing beauty,” but the only houses enjoying it were a few “wretched wooden cottages.” Yet the vista and the shacks did go together after all. With the summit “offering no one temptation but Prospect & Air as if this would supply the place of every convenience of life,” Everett reasoned, it was no wonder that it attracted nobody...

    • 8 Reforestation in Norfolk County, Massachusetts, 1850–1910
      (pp. 148-167)
      David Soll

      FOR those familiar with the traditional narrative of agriculture’s inexorable decline in heavily industrial nineteenth-century New England, the contents of theNew England Farmerin the early months of 1883 may come as a bit of a surprise. By the early 1880s many of the region’s farmers had embraced innovative practices, generally grouped under the rubric “intensive agriculture,” and expressed guarded optimism about the prospects for agriculture in the region. Although the editors opened the 1883 inaugural issue with the oft-repeated lament that soil depletion had led to “a constant tide of emigration,” they also observed that “the means are...

    • 9 How Metropolitan Parks Shaped Greater Boston, 1893–1945
      (pp. 168-197)
      James C. O’Connell

      BOSTON has been called a “city of firsts,” and among its innovations it was the first American city to create a metropolitan park system and the first to undertake regional planning. Established in 1893, the Metropolitan Park System was one of the most influential civic achievements of Progressive Era Boston. Boston took Frederick Law Olmsted’s concept of networked parks and applied it to the rapidly growing metropolitan region. The parks were the first regional effort to protect environmentally significant areas and mitigate the most damaging consequences of the rampant real-estate development of the latter nineteenth century. For half a century...

    • 10 Reclaiming the Middle Charles River Reservation
      (pp. 198-212)
      Daniel Driscoll and Karl Haglund

      IN 1987, near the economic high point of what was then called the “Massachusetts Miracle,” the state legislature passed a five-hundred-million-dollar bond bill for the purchase of open space. It allocated fifty million dollars to the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC), the successor agency to the Metropolitan Park Commission.¹ Acclaimed at the beginning of the twentieth century as the first regional organization of public land in the world, the MDC had shifted its focus to active recreation facilities in the 1950s.² The 1987 bond bill followed the appointment as commissioner of William Geary, a Boston native who had grown up near...


    • 11 Bostonʹs Weather and Climate Histories
      (pp. 215-232)
      William B. Meyer

      THERE is no part of their environment that Bostonians talk about more than the weather and climate, and for good reason. For one thing they have plenty to talk about. The city’s location in the path of a set of major storm tracks gives it an unusually wide and fast-changing repertoire of weather—atmospheric events and conditions with lifespans ranging from hours to days.¹ Not only in time, but also in space at any given moment, Boston’s weather can exhibit some of the “sumptuous variety” that Mark Twain ascribed to that of New England in general. On hot summer days...

      (pp. 233-258)
      Lauri Bauer Coleman

      ON November 18, 1755, an earthquake abruptly roused the residents of Boston. The tremor was centered just off the coast of Massachusetts, but it shook cities, towns, and hamlets all the way from western New York to Nova Scotia to Annapolis, Maryland. Despite the intensity of the quake, which had a moment magnitude of 5.8, no Bostonians were killed or even hurt.¹ The early hour meant that most people were still in bed and not the unwary targets of crumbling chimneys and flying roofing tiles. Even without deaths to add to its toll, people in and around Boston were eager...

    • 13 Biological Responses to Climate Change in Boston
      (pp. 259-276)
      Abraham J. Miller-Rushing and Richard B. Primack

      THE behaviors of plants and animals are changing in response to warming temperatures. In recent years biologists have observed birds wintering farther north, tropical frog populations declining, and insects relocating to higher altitudes on mountain slopes because of changes in climate.¹ Yet the most convincing evidence that living organisms are responding to global warming comes from the timing of spring events. Analyses of these records show conclusively that wild and cultivated plants are flowering earlier, birds are migrating earlier, and ponds are ice-free earlier than in the past because of warmer spring temperatures.² Historical records from the Boston area provide...