Boston's Back Bay: The Original Big Dig

Boston's Back Bay: The Original Big Dig

It was a project so big, it still boggles the mind.

Two Boston entrepreneurs would stretch the limits of the era’s technology when, in the mid-1800s, they filled in 568 acres of fetid swampland, enabling its transformation into one of America’s great neighborhoods, the Back Bay. Even more mind-boggling is the job was executed without any public money. After completion of the project, they made a profit for not only the investors but for the state of Massachusetts as well.

To fully appreciate the enormity of this project, we need to go back to Boston’s founding in 1630. default Americans called it the Shawmut Peninsula. The first settlers found plenty of fresh water, three distinct hills (which they dubbed the Trimount) and hope for their new colony. One problem that was quickly discovered was that going north to Cambridge or Charlestown was quite a pain. First one would have to go south along the “neck” connecting Shawmut to the mainland. Then some entrepreneurs realized there was money to be made hauling people and goods across the water. These ferries saved the default Americans a long trip, but they were expensive, couldn’t run in bad weather, and took time to load and unload.

Boston in the 1600s

Boston in the early 1700s showing the toll bridges (Author's collection)

A town meeting was held in 1720 to discuss the building of a bridge across the Charles, but there was so much animosity over funding and siting, that the idea was dropped. Sixty-Five years later a bridge was finally built, but only after frustrated local businessmen got together and funded the toll bridge. It was a huge success which, naturally, caught the interest of other entrepreneurs. Toll bridges across South Cove (1805) and a second across the Charles (1809) were equally rewarding to investors.

Private funding of bridges - what we today would consider a “public works” project - were common back then. Entrepreneurs also funded the excavation of Mount Vernon, Beacon, and Cotton Hill which made up the Shawmut peninsula’s original Trimount. The now-leveled hills were transformed into glittering new neighborhoods and their dirt was used to fill in the shore line and extend the boundaries of the growing city. All these projects helped the investors make fortunes.

Something, though, was rotten in Boston.

Boston's Rancid Swamp 1850

The site of the Back Back in the mid-1800s, showing the ill-fated dam across its opening.

In this map from the era is a large body of water to the west of the Public Garden. It was known as the “Receiving Basin.” Since the town did not have a sewage system, take a guess as to what the basin was receiving? In the early 1800s several other businessmen, who were jealous of those successful toll bridges across the Charles, proposed a dam across the basin. Along the top of the dam they would run their very own toll road which would provide a direct route from Beacon Hill to points west. The dam first had to get past some naysayers who stated the dam would block the tide which had been cleaning out the basin and spreading the effluence out to the harbor. If you know Massachusetts politics the following will sound familiar. It was a late-night vote by the Legislature (when only about a fifth of the lawmakers were in attendance) which passed the resolution allowing construction.

The dam was completed in 1814, and it didn’t take long for the naysayers to be proven right. By 1825 the stench of this open cesspool had gotten so bad one citizen proposed a dramatic – and expensive – solution: fill in the basin. Arguments over funding prevented the project from getting off the ground and the stench just got worse as the basin was literally bubbling with fermenting sewage. We can surmise the wind was rarely towards Beacon Hill, because in 1834 legislators voted to permit construction of two railroad causeways across the basin. Now, instead of one large cesspool, Boston had several smaller ones, all collecting sewage.

In 1849 the Boston Board of Health warned the basin’s condition was a “noxious effluvia” and referred to it as threat to public health. Galvanized into action, a commission was appointed (three years later) to investigate the problem. Then – and won’t this sound familiar – it took four more years to resolve internecine fighting between city, state, and other interests before the legislature finally passed a bill authorizing the filling in of the Back Bay.

Back Bay in 1858

Looking at the Receiving Basin in 1858 from Beacon Hill

We now come to a technological inflection point, similar to those I’ve described in my blogs on telegraphy, power distribution, and radio. It is a moment when the technology needed for a job has moved from the laboratory into public use.

Up until 1857, the excavation of hills to expand Boston’s shoreline was done almost exclusively with tip carts, horses and brawny Irish laborers. But those jobs were literal molehills compared to the mountain of fill needed for the Back Bay. There were no more hills left in Boston to cut down, meaning the fill for 568 acres would have to be transported from somewhere outside of the city. The first Back Bay contractor, George Ordiorne, learned the hard way no matter how brawny they were, Irish laborers alone were not going to be enough for this job. Local contractors George Goss and Norman Munson took over the Ordiorne contract in 1858.

Goss and Munson were successful railroad men, having laid miles of track in the Boston area. Munson was well-known to the powers-that-be, having completed several projects for the Boston Water Power company. Munson also knew where there was more than enough sand, gravel and dirt for the project. Having previously found a source in Needham, Massachusetts for an earlier project.* There was still the challenge of excavating and then moving the fill fifteen miles east to the Back Bay.

As William Newman and Wilfred Holton tell us in their book Boston’s Back Bay, the answer was steam power: “The development of more powerful [steam] locomotives, side-dumping gravel cars and steam shovels… solved the problems of excavating and transporting large amounts of high-quality sand and gravel over such long distances.” (British inventors get credit for the steam locomotive but it was South Boston’s own John Souther who designed the steam shovel and other machinery used for the job.)

Adjectives and breathless prose fail us when attempting to describe the enormity of the resulting operation. Nancy Seashole, in her landmark Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston relied on a contemporary account by a clearly awestruck newspaper reporter from The Needham Traveler. “It is believed that the excavation and filling in are going on at a more rapid rate than has ever been known in the history of any similar contract in the country.” The account continued:

One hundred and forty-five dirt cars with eighty men, including engineers, brakemen and all, are employed night and day in loading and transporting the gravel over the road. The Trains… make, in the daytime, sixteen trips, and in the night time, nine or ten, or twenty-five in twenty-four hours. Three trains are continually on the road during the day, and one arrives at the Back Bay every forty-five minutes… The contractors make… on an average, about twenty-five hundred cubic yards… per day. This is equal to nearly two house lots.

Poor health had forced Goss into retirement shortly after the project began, but Munson pressed on alone. For the next 26 years he managed this never-ceasing ballet of steam shovels and trains until all 568 acres of the Back Bay had been completely filled in. Engineers know the value of having a good project manager and Munson demonstrated he was one of the best. There were many obstacles to overcome at different stages of the job.

Trestles along the route from Needham to Boston had to be strengthened to support trains, fully-loaded with dirt and gravel, whose locomotives already weighed 45 tons. As filling continued west from the Public Garden, Newman and Holton tell us “[s]oft sections of the mudflat surface presented major problems to the contractors’ heavy trains… those thick spongy areas of the tidal mudflat would not support the weight of the swaying and jolting gravel trains.” To be able to build in the Back Bay massive wood pilings had to be pounded into the earth to provide stable earth for building foundations.

Boston Seawall 1890

Down by the river, down by the banks of the River Charles…”

From Boston Geology website an 1880s picture of the seawall protecting the Back Bay

As Seashole tells us, even after all of the above problems were solved, the new neighborhood presented a problem:

Before building construction took place, sections of the expanding land area resembled a dusty desert of mud-filled depressions, depending on the season or weather. The sand and gravel dried out entirely between periods of wet weather. Then winds sweeping across open expanses of the Charles River and the Back Bay created dust storms, which were a serious problem for residents of the new houses and for people in nearby sections of Boston.

Did I mention Munson never actually got paid by the state for his work on the project? He was instead granted blocks of land to sell to speculators and builders. Not to take anything away from the risks he took, but by mid-century Boston was bursting at the seams. Everyone could see land in the new 500-acre Back Bay was going to be very valuable. Munson made a fortune from the job. The state used its share of land sales to fund several local schools and colleges.

Even more amazing, three years before the first trainload of gravel made its way east from Needham a plan for the new Back Bay neighborhood had been established. The details worked out ahead of time is impressive (even more so when contrasted with the lack of plans for the open space created when Boston’s elevated Central Artery came down in the early 2000s.) Commonwealth Avenue, for example, would be a wide boulevard with a park separating east and westbound traffic. Houses were to be set back twenty feet from the sidewalks, so as not to overwhelm the streets. Walter Muir Whitehill, who wrote extensively about the Back Bay in his Topographical History of Boston noted architects had the foresight to include public alleys to provide for the discrete delivery of food and the removal of trash.

Few things were left to chance or to debate. The prolific Anthony Sammarco (he’s written over 70 books on Boston history) tells us, in Boston's Back Bay in the Victorian Era, even the names of the streets were decided way in advance:

The filled land, known initially as the New West End, but later to be known as Boston’s Back Bay, was laid out according to Arthur Gilman’s plan… Boylston Street was named for Dr. Boylston, who donated Boylston Hall at the corner of Washington Street, Beacon Street was named after the old wood beacon that once surmounted the hill by that name… [The Back Bay’s] cross streets were named after British Earldoms and were not just alphabetically named (Arlington, Berkeley, Clarendon, Dartmouth, Exeter, Fairfield, Gloucester, and Hereford Streets) but the names also alternated between trisyllabic and disyllabic words.

Much of Boston has changed since the Back Bay project was completed. The West End neighborhood and Scollay Square business district were ground to dust in the frenzy of redevelopment following the Second World War. At the same time, large swaths of the North End and Chinatown were wiped away to make room for an elevated highway through the city. The legacy of the Back Bay is not just surviving the urban renewal onslaught, but how this place of granite and brownstone still retains its relevancy in a city of glass and steel.

* Many in Needham came to regret the removal of so much of their town’s land. Nancy Seasholes, in her book Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston writes “In 1912 an antiquarian historian of Needham commented, ‘Hundreds of acres were transformed into a desert by the removal of this soil, to a depth of many feet, and for 25 years the land was practically of no value.’ Today, however, most of the area is landscaped office parks and not nearly as bleak.”)