Monday, February 28, 2011

Book Club: Gaining Ground - A History of Landmaking in Boston

I was able to access this very nice book through the Minuteman library network - delivered straight to my local branch library. Nancy S. Seasholes put this book together out of her Ph.D dissertation - a common incubator for such books. And while it does bear the mark of such books - detail piled on detail in places - don't let that put you off. Within the fourteen chapters is the story of Boston's evolution from island town to metropolitan city.

The book's subject is the made land of Boston. This included the obvious - the Back Bay and the South End - plus the less-considered: Charlestown, East Boston, South Boston and the Dorchester shore. As Seasholes points out, the growth of Boston's land are didn't begin with the Back Bay - Bostonians were already filling in shoreline during the 18th Century. Wharves were built out, filled in and built out into the harbor again. Coves and mudflats were filled piecemeal and in 'projects.' And hills were leveled across the town to provide the fill.

Each new landmaking project is described in detail from primary sources, including the controversies that often arose from them. The book is very well illustrated with maps and photographs - for a map-o-phile like me, this is one of the prime virtues of the book. Throughout the book, the author gives you contemporary street maps with the original Shawmut peninsula outline (circa 1630) overlaying it. This is a great tool for keeping the reader oriented.

This isn't a book to read from cover to cover, but that is not a bad thing. Think of it as a reference book - a book to both study and browse. If you really want to know Boston, this is a book to have on your shelf.


  1. This is a great book for map-lovers. It was the textbook in my "history of Boston" class at Northeastern 7 or 8 years ago. The professor told us not to bother trying to read the dense text, just to use it for the maps. It's been pretty good advice. I had it out last week for a good long look.

    My only complaint is that it doesn't really cover much of Roxbury (my 'hood), but that's not surprising since most of Roxbury is "highlands" and not really subject to the landfilling that is the subject of this book.

    The most surprising thing to me in my recent look at the book was that there used to be a canal along Albany St that extended behind BU Medical Center all the way to the other side of Mass Ave.

  2. There is some interesting discussion about Roxbury in the book. When they were building bridges across South Bay from Boston Proper to South Boston, Roxbury wharf owners complained that the bridges would make it difficult to get ships to their docks! So Roxbury did have some harbor access. The wharfs along the South End and Roxbury primarily dealt with bulk products like coal and lumber.