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Boston, Massachusetts, Physical Description (Hayward)

Gazetteer/Almanac

John Hayward, Gazetteer of the United States of America... (Philadelphia: James L. Gihon, 1854), 287-300.

The peninsula on which Boston proper is built is connected with the main land of Roxbury on the S., from which it extends, in a direction a little E. of N., about 3 miles, having an average breadth of about a mile. The isthmus, or Neck, as it is commonly called, is something over a mile in length, and is nearly all included within the limits of Boston. It was originally quite narrow, and so low that parts of it were frequently overflowed by the highest courses of the tides. The waters of the harbor, flowing up into the bay of Roxbury, on the E. side of the Neck, and those of the Charles River, spreading out over the flats upon the W., formed a broad but shallow cove upon that side, between the isthmus and the main land of Brookline. Until 1786, 156 years after the settlement of Boston, the only passage into the town was over the Neck. It has been much elevated in being improved and built upon, and additions to its width are continually made by filling up the flats, especially upon the W. side. There are now four broad avenues passing over the Neck from Roxbury to the city: Harrison Avenue, Washington Strict, Suffolk Street, and the Tremont Road. — The main body of the peninsula, which was thus nearly surrounded by the waters of the harbor and of Charles River, comprised within its natural limits about 700 acres of land. In three points it swelled into hills of considerable elevation; one being on its S. E. angle, and presenting a bold barrier to the waters of the ship channel; another being at its N. extremity, looking off towards Chelsea and Charlestown ; and the third, which was more central, with a very much broader base, extending its N. and W. slopes nearly to the banks of Charles River. This was the most elevated of the hills, being 138£ feet above the level of the sea; and its summit was cleft into three conical peaks, which, being near the original centre of the town, led at first to the adoption of the name of Tremont, or Trimountain, for the town itself. This name, however, was soon dismissed for its present name, which it received on the 7th of September, 1630, in honor of the Rev. John Cotton, the second minister of the first church, who came from Boston, in England. The Indian name of the peninsula was Shawmut. — There is extant a very accurate description of Boston in 1633, by William Wood, the author of New England Prospect, which Snow, a writer of high authority on this subject, remarks, "could hardly be amended." — " Boston," says Wood, " is two miles N. E. of Roxbury. Its situation is very pleasant, being a peninsula hemmed in on the S. side by the bay of Roxbury, and on the N. side with Charles River, the marshes on the back side being not half of a quarter of a mile over; so that a little fencing will secure their cattle from the wolves … It being a neck, and bare of wood, they are not troubled with these great annoyances, wolves, rattlesnakes, and mosquitoes. Those that live here upon their cattle must be constrained to take farms in the country, or else they cannot subsist, the place being too small to contain many, and fittest for such as can trade into England for such commodities as the country wants, being the chief place for shipping and merchandise. This neck of land is not above four miles in compass, in form almost square, having on the S. side, at one corner, a great broad hill, whereon is planted a fort, which can command any ship as she sails into the harbor within the still bay. On the N. side is another hill, equal in bigness, whereon stands a windmill. To the N. W. is a high mountain, with three little rising hills on the top of it, wherefore it is called the Tramount From the top of this mountain a man may overlook all the islands which lie within the bay, and descry such ships as are on the sea-coast….

The original conformation of the ground was such that the N. part of the peninsula was almost severed from the other by the coves or indentations of the shore which ran in around the base of Copp's Hill on the S., both from the harbor on the E., and from Charles River on the opposite side, so as nearly to meet at their extreme points. When the tides were highest, this part of Boston, and the central part, which would also be nearly or quite cut off from the continent by the flowing of the waters across the Neck, presented the appearance of two islands, rather than that of a peninsula. The tide ran up on the E. to where Dock Square now is, and in a northerly direction almost to Hanover Street at a point a little E. of Union Street. From Charles River, on the opposite side, a broad cove came up to a point only a few rods N. W. of Hanover Street, leaving but a narrow neck of land for the connection between the centre and the north end of the town. By the erection of a causeway where Causeway Street now is, this cove was subsequently converted into a capacious mill pond, and by means of a short canal cut through the neck by which its waters were separated from the harbor, they were made available for a tide mill at this place. This was long known as Mill Creek, and constituted the dividing line between the centre and the north end. That part of the map of Boston which exhibits an equilateral triangle, as included between Charlestown, Merrimac, and Causeway Streets, having its apex in Haymarket Square, covers the principal part of the area which was occupied by this mill pond ; having been converted into solid land with the materials obtained by the leveling of Beacon Hill and the eminences W. of it, excepting the creek, which was kept open to connect the river with the harbor as long as the navigation upon the Middlesex Canal was a matter of consideration. This improvement was commenced about 1804, and when completed, it had added to the area of the city about 43 acres. And here it may be remarked that the area of the peninsula, which in its natural condition comprised, as above stated, only about 700 acres, has been enlarged by continued encroachments upon the sea, until it contains fully double this number of acres at the present time. The city is now extending its limits in this manner more rapidly than at any former period. The quantity of land made, and in the process of being made, by improvements recently undertaken by the city at the south end, is estimated at over 2,000,000 square feet. By the railroads in this direction entire hills of gravel are being removed from their bases in the vicinity of Boston, to form the foundations of a new and beautiful extension of this flourishing city. It is not improbable that the whole of the bays on each side of the Neck may, at some period not far distant, disappear before the march of human enterprise, and that the city may be otherwise extended much into the area of Roxbury and Dorchester. — Some knowledge of the natural structure of the ground on which Boston is built is necessary to explain the great irregularity of the plan upon which its streets and thoroughfares have grown up. The high hills in different quarters of the town, with the coves, and creeks, and marshes, thrusting themselves up between them on all sides, would necessarily control the choice of sites for building, and the location and courses of the principal streets, in a place thus springing up in the poverty and infancy of the country. There is a similar irregularity in the lower part of the city of New York. Even in Philadelphia, the situation of which upon a gently-swelling plain admitted of the most uniform arrangement of the streets which could possibly be desired, the operation of this principle is illustrated, in the case of Dock Street, in the oldest part of the city, which follows the winding course of an ancient creek running into the Delaware. This seems the more remarkable there from being almost a solitary exception to the general plan. But in Boston it would have been perhaps impossible for the founders of the city, even if they could have anticipated its future growth and greatness, with the means they had at command, to have caused it to be built up on any outline materially different from that which it received. As an example, an order dated March 30, 1640, provides for a road between certain points, " two rods in breadth, as directly as the land will bear."

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