Wednesday, December 28, 2011

South Boston Institutions of Old

House of Industry, South Boston.



As the 19th Century began, Boston made its first expansion by stealing/annexing South Boston from Dorchester. At the time, the peninsula surrounding Dorchester Heights was sparsely settled, and much smaller than it is today. As the population of the town, and then city grew, developers looked to South Boston as a residential district, while factories began to be built across South Bay from Boston proper.

With the growth of the city came an increase in poverty and of crime. The existing institutions for the care of paupers and the incarceration of criminals were being overwhelmed, and the city fathers looked to the unused lands of South Boston to place their replacements. Under new mayor Josiah Quincy, the city in 1824 bought 53 acres of land along the north shore of the peninsula, looking out at Boston Harbor. There, four institutions would be erected: the House of Industry, House of Reformation, House of Correction and, in 1839, a Lunatic Asylum. The maps above show the layout of the buildings and their significant acreage.

The print above shows the House of Industry, with its gardens that inmates worked to provide for the institutions and to sell in the city. As streets were laid out nearby and people moved in, they did not appreciate being the dumping ground for the city's criminals, neer-do-wells and feeble-minded. And so, the institutions were gradually moved from the site to other out-of-sight locations. Deer Island was one destination, as was Austin Farm, which became the Mattapan State Hospital site. South Boston's grid layout was continued through the old complex, and South Boston washed its hands of its burdensome neighbors.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Old Old City Hall

Boston's first City Hall (BPL Flickr photo group).

Boston made the change from town to city in 1822. At that time, the old State House became a temporary City Hall. In 1841-42, the Old Court House on School street (the building shown above) was taken over as Boston's City Hall. Twenty years later, this building was demolished, and in 1865 the new Old City Hall, which still stands on the site, was opened for business.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Link Time: MBTA Forum

I've added a new link to the forum MBTA board. There are the guys who know the model numbers of every trolly and train that ever ran in Boston, every station that no longer exists, and what work went on in each different maintenance shop. There's a lot of talk about contemporary MBTA issues, but the board is a great source for history as well. To my mind, this is the Internet at its best - people volunteering to share their knowledge with others.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Atlantic Avenue Trains Times Two

South Station with Atlantic Avenue Elevated line.

As some will know, there was once an elevated train line that ran over Atlantic avenue and around the waterfront of the city. The line was part of the original rapid transit plan for the city, a partner to the underground Washington street line. The postcard above shows the elevated structure at South Station. The line followed a loop along Atlantic avenue, Commercial street and Causeway street to North Station.

Boston's rapid transit lines, 1930s.

What fewer people may know is that the Atlantic avenue elevated line was a branch of the main line that would run from Forest Hills to Everett. The map above shows the system with its stops. Coming from the south, a train could either go straight into the downtown tunnel, or turn right at Herald street, and left again on Harrison avenue, in to Beach street, turn right, and then left again and come alongside South Station and follow Atlantic avenue from there. This waterfront route gave people access to South Station, and to what was then a working waterfront, including the ferries that ran both north and south.

Possibly the State Street station.

Rowe's Wharf station.

Atlantic avenue El, just before being torn down.

During the 1920s, jobs on the waterfront were disappearing. The rise of the automobile and the construction of the Sumner Tunnel to East Boston helped kill the ferry service, and ridership declined on the Atlantic avenue line. A wreck at the turn at Harrison avenue and Beach street caused the through route from the main line to Atlantic avenue to be cut, and the Atlantic avenue line became a shuttle between South and North Stations. In 1942, the elevated tracks were taken down and scrapped.

Atlantic Avenue El coming down.

Train running under Atlantic Avenue elevated tracks.

But there's more to Atlantic avenue and trains!

Union Freight Railroad tracks running down Atlantic avenue and spur lines to the wharves and markets (click on image to see larger version).

Atlantic avenue was also the route of a street-level railroad line, the Union Freight Railroad. The line allowed rail access directly to the waterfront wharves and the markets and warehouses on the land side of Atlantic avenue. There is a mention of a 99 year lease for the Atlantic avenue right of way, but apparently the company gave up its rights as the Boston waterfront lost its freight traffic.

Oops! Boxcar goes off the tracks under the Atlantic avenue El.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Braves Field

Entrance to Brave's Field.

My mother once told me that my grandmother used to listen to baseball on the radio while doing her housework. That surprised me, as I knew her only as an elderly woman, playing scrabble or solitaire in her room in my parents house. What surprised me even more was that she did not listen to the Red Sox - she was a Boston Braves fan.

The Boston Braves baseball team had a history that went back in time to the post-Civil War era. I'll leave the various team names, owners and leagues to the baseball aficionados, and start when the team became the Braves in 1912. At the time, the team was playing its home games at the South End Grounds, near today's Ruggles Orange Line T stop. In 1914, the team would win the World Series (although the games were played at the larger Fenway Park), and the next year a new park was built.

Braves Field, 1916.

Braves Field was built between Commonwealth avenue and the Boston & Albany railroad tracks in Brighton. When it opened, it had the largest seating capacity in the National League. Ironically, with the now-larger facility, Braves Field would host the Red Sox when they played in the 1915 and 1916 World Series. Braves Field would also be home field for three professional football teams, including the Boston Braves, who played there for one year before moving to Fenway Park under the new name the Redskins. That franchise would later move to Washington D.C., and is still there today.

Aerial view - note railroad tracks on right (BPL Flickr photo group).

Circa 1930 (BPL Flickr photo group).

Circa 1930. Note railroad tracks and bridge over the Charles river on the left (BPL Flickr photo group).

The original layout of the field included a massive outfield, which made hitting home runs over the fences almost impossible. And although the photos above show a full ballpark, the team did not attract sufficient fans to make ends meet. In 1953, the team moved to Milwaukee. Soon after, the park was sold to Boston University. Two years later, much of the original facility was torn down, but some of the structure does remain. Nickerson Field now stands on the site, along with dormitories and Walter Brown Arena.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Link Time: MIT-Libraries Photostream

I had forgotten about this collection, but I just followed a link to one of its photos. Unfortunately, the owner has decided not to make this images available via Creative Commons, so I can't download a photo and use it here to give you an example. I could have done a screen cap of course, but hey, if they don't wanna share, then so be it.

MIT-Libraries Flickr photostream.

I linked to a series of Scollay Square photos from the 1950s, but feel free to poke around when you get there. There are many pages that I don't find interesting, but you'll have to see what's there for yourself.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Coconut Grove

Coconut Grove nightclub, between Piedmont and Shawmut streets, 1938.

Shawmut street.

Piedmont street entrance.


Corner of Broadway and Shawmut street.

It was one of the biggest news stories of the 20th Century for the city of Boston. It was the fall of 1942, and the country was at war. November 28 was a Saturday, and soldiers and sailors preparing to go overseas were out on the town, along with a Thanksgiving holiday crowd. The Coconut Grove was a popular nightclub that meandered through multiple buildings on a narrow block between Piedmont and Shawmut streets near Park Square. The location had been a speakeasy at one time.

The story of the fire is well known. Regulations were lax at the time. A single revolving door was at the main entrance. The doors at other exits opened in. One exit had been boarded up to prevent customers from leaving without paying. Much of the 'Tropical' decor was made of flammable paper, and covered the walls. Afterwards, it was claimed that an effort to replace a lightbulb lead to the initial fire. The fire spread rapidly, from walls to faux palm tree fronds. The flames ran from room to room before they could be put out.

In the panic, exits became blocked, and bodies piled up. firefighters couldn't get in the building, blocked by the bodies. Some people were found sitting at tables, glasses in their hands. The faire had taken them so fast, they couldn't respond. Four hundred and ninety two people died in the blaze.

As a result of the Coconut Grove fire, many states drew up new fire regulations for public buildings like nightclubs. Flammable materials on walls were outlawed, and doors were required to open out.

Coconut Grove Plaque, Piedmont street. Erected by the Bay Village Neighborhood Association, 1993. Photo by Tom Kelley (Creative Commons).

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Link Time: Boston Fire Historical Society

Assorted history of fires and firefighting in Boston. The material speaks for itself, so I'll just let you check it out. There are some dead links and some pages that were never created, but if you poke around you'll find lots of good stuff.

Boston Fire Historical Society

Monday, November 14, 2011

Lost Train Stations: Fitchburg Railroad

Fitchburg Depot, Causeway street (photo from Wikipedia).

Fitchburg Depot, Causeway street, on the right, 1883.

(Edited to add information 1/9/13)

The Fitchburg Railroad was founded in 1842. The line originally terminated in Charlestown, but moved across to Boston in 1848. The line crossed the mouth of the Charles river to Charlestown and northwest to Fitchburg, and was later extended west through northern Massachusetts, with branches running to Vermont and New York. Part of the line ran through the Hoosac Tunnel. The Hoosac went 4.75 miles through the Hoosac range. The work took 20 years at a cost of $21,000,000, at a time when a dollar was a dollar. At the time it was the second longest tunnel in the world, and remains the longest in the United States east of the Rockies.

The Boston depot shown above was built, quite appropriately,  from Fitchburg granite, and was known a Crocker's Folly (Alvah Crocker being the president of the company) and later the Great Stone Castle.  When the line moved to the north union station, the space was used by the company for offices, There was a fire in 1925, and by 1928 the structure had been demolished.

The Boston and Maine line bought the Fitchburg Railroad in 1900.

Jenny Lind Tower (Truro Historical Society).

Here's a fun story/fact. Famous Swedish singer Jenny Lind performed in the Fitchburg depot when she visited Boston. The show was oversold, and in order to satisfy unhappy ticket holders left outside, Jenny sang from one of the turrets. When the depot was torn down, a wealthy fan had the turret removed block by block and rebuilt near Highland Light in Truro MA.

Great story, but apparently not quite accurate. Lind did perform in the second floor auditorium (then the largest in New England) in 1850, and contemporary newspaper reports describe fans rushing the stage (does that sound familiar?). However, there was no mention of Lind singing from the turret. the depot was not torn down until 1927, and the lawyer who bought and moved the turret was not born until seventeen years after the concert.

 Resource:  Boston's Depots and Terminals, Richard C. Barrett. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Perkins Institution for the Blind - South Boston

Perkins Institution, East Broadway, South Boston - early 20th Century postcard.

Perkins School, BPL Flickr photo group.

"Blind Asylum," Broadway, 1852.

Perkins Institution property marked in red, 1884.

I've already discussed South Boston's Carney Hospital - here's an institution that has its roots in the older, Yankee Boston. The Perkins Institution for the Blind was founded in Boston proper in 1829 by John Dix Fisher. After merchant Thomas Handasyd Perkins donated his Pearl street estate, the school was named to honor him.

It might be worthy of notice here that Perkins and his brother James made their money in the China trade, primarily selling Turkish opium on the Chinese black market, and entirely against Chinese law. The Perkins company and other Boston companies were the leading Americans in this notorious trade, and were different from contemporary South American and Mexican drug cartels only in that they didn't go about killing people. They simply bribed them. Thomas H. Perkins - the so-called Merchant Prince - was a pillar of the community and a philanthropic leader. And everyone knew where his money came from, and no one seemed to mind.

Originally the New England Asylum for the Blind, the institution was founded in 1829. The first leader of the schools was Samuel Gridley Howe, probably better known today as the husband of Julia Ward Howe, activist and composer of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. This is unfortunate, because Howe's story is remarkable, and deserves to be remembered. When the school outgrew it's first home, Thomas H. Perkins allowed his Pearl street mansion to be used.

In 1839, Perkins sold the house and donated the proceeds to buy the former Mt Washington hotel in South Boston. As a side note, over time the hill the school sat on was gradually cut away over time for ease of building. The black and white photograph above shows the walls that had to be built to retain the earth around the building after the slope had been cut down, a reminder of Boston's many cut-and-fill projects.

In an effort to help blind children of pre-school age, the Perkins Institution opened a Kindergarten in Jamaica Plain. I've already discussed that institution on my Jamaica Plain blog, so please go here to read about it.

In time, the school outgrew it's South Boston campus, and moved both the main school and the Jamaica Plain kindergarten to Watertown.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Louis Prang

Louis Prang & Co. printing, Roxbury street. The building is still there.

Louis Prang Printing Company, Roxbury street (1884). Building marked with red star. The Prang house is shown at the back of the property, on Centre street.

This entry strays from Boston Proper to Roxbury Crossing to remember Louis Prang, printer, and father of the American Christmas card. And unlike the subject of many entries, this original building still stands. Born in 1824, Louis Prang was a German immigrant who came to Boston in 1850. After failed attempts to enter into business, Prang found work as a wood engraver.

Prang began his career in lithography printing in 1856, and in 1860 bought out his partner and formed L. Prang and Co. A trip to Europe during the 1860s allowed Prang to learn the chromolithography process, which would revolutionize the printmaking and advertising fields with it's bright colors. The company produced both copies of popular paintings and album cards, meant to be collected. In 1873, the company entered the British Christmas card market, and the next year introduced the product to the United States (see below).

L. Prang Christmas Card.

L. Prang chromolithograph print.

The Prang company brought art to the middle class home at a reasonable price, bright colors (and many of them) to advertisements, and the tradition of exchanging Christmas cards (and all the other holiday cards to follow) to the American public. Louis Prang himself also supported the training of art teachers in the United States. His business just off Roxbury Crossing was a national leader, and he lived right behind it on Centre street, as was common of businessmen/entrepreneurs of the time.

The company merged with another in 1897 and moved to Springfield, Massachusetts. Louis Prang died twelve years later.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Pi(e) Alley

Washington street, arched entrance of Pi(e) alley.

Newsboys assembled in Pi(e) alley.

There are two stories for the origin of the name Pi or Pie Alley. The first refers to printer's type, or pi. When printing was done by assembling individual pieces of metal with characters on the top (yes, there was a time before laser printers), a pile of loose letters or other characters was called pi, or pied type. The presence of many newspaper publishers in the area probably first suggested the name.

The other option comes from the presence of a restaurant that served pie and drinks to newsboys and pressmen. Feel free to take your pick .

Monday, October 17, 2011

Lost Train Stations: Old Colony

Old Colony Depot, Kneeland street.

Old Colony Depot, Kneeland street, on the right, 1883.

While Boston's earliest railroad lines were laid out in the 1830s, it wasn't until 1844 that the Old Colony line was built between Boston and Plymouth. The line quickly expanded to serve southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, with criss-crossing lines serving Cape Cod to Provincetown and Woods Hole, the southeast coast to New Bedford and Fall River, as well as Newport and Providence in Rhode Island. After many mergers and the resulting expansion, the company was bought out by the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, which gained an effective monopoly on rail service in southern New England.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Link Time: Medieval Boston

I meant to add a link to this web page a while ago, but it got lost in the bookmarks. This link is to an internet forum thread titled Medieval Boston, which features great photos of Boston street scenes lost to urban renewal during the mid-20th Century. Rather than pinch the photos, I think it's better to send you to the thread and let you read the comments as well.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Boston Floating Hospital

Boston Floating Hospital, 1932 (landlubber version) BPL Flickr photo group.

Boston Floating Hospital ship postcard.

Once upon a time, the Boston Floating Hospital actually floated.

Nurses working on the first Floating Hospital ship.

Under the influence of minister/philanthropist/writer Edward Everett Hale and a similar facility in New York City, Reverend Rufus Tobey founded the Boston Floating Hospital in 1894. The facility began on a rented boat, with the intention of taking mothers and children from the tenements out of the city and into the fresh air of Boston harbor for medical exams and care. They also sought to teach poor mothers how to care for their children. This element - middle class WASPs concern with the ability of immigrants to raise their children properly - ran through late 19th Century and later Protestant philanthropy.

In 1906, the organization built their own dedicated boat/clinic for the treatment of children. They became known for their advances in the typical childhood diseases of the day, particularly gastroenteritis, which often came from unrefrigerated milk. During the 1920s, they expanded to an on-shore facility, and in 1927 when the ship burned, the decision was made to move permanently to land. In 1931, the Jackson Memorial building opened.

Floating Hospital, 1938 (click to enlarge).

My only connection to the Floating Hospital is shown above. As the Forest Hills elevated train went down into the tunnel portal on the way in town, the Floating Hospital could be seen to the right. Most of what you saw was the backs of brick buildings and weedy trees growing up through asphalt, so it was not an attractive sight.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Piano Hub of the Universe

Chickering building, Tremont street (BPL Flickr group).

Chickering Piano Factory, Tremont street, 1895.

During the 19th Century, Boston became a national leader in piano manufacturing. Skilled craftsmen, many from Germany, brought the needed knowledge and experience, and the city's established cultural community supported them. Most of the factories were established in the South End, while the companies usually had sales showrooms in the downtown retail district.

One of the earliest companies operated under the Chickering name. Jonas Chickering went into business with a partner in 1823, and by 1853 was knows as Chickering and Sons. The original factory was on Washington street in Boston (at a time there was no 'South End' yet), but a fire in the 1850s destroyed the building and sent then to Tremont street in the South End, where the building still stands, now converted to housing and artist space. During the mid-19th Century, Chickering was the largest piano manufacturer in the country, with one of the largest building in the nation, and it's quality was among the highest in the world. The plant was so large that the nearest train station on the Boston Providence line two blocks away at Camden street was named Chickering Station.

Emerson Piano Company.

Emerson Piano Company, Harrison avenue and Waltham street, 1908.

William P. Emerson founded his company in 1849. His pianos featured the finest exotic woods, expert woodworking and high quality sound. The company lasted until the start of World War II.

Hallet and Davis factory.

Hallet and Davis, Harrison avenue, 1902. Now a parking lot.

This company started as Brown & Hallet in 1835 on Washington street. Various partnerships were formed and dissolved, with Hallet the only consistent member. Like Chickering, they moved from Washington street to the South End, in this case Harrison avenue, where they produced high quality pianos during the late 19th and early 20th Century. They also produced fine player pianos during the early 20th Century.

Charles C. Briggs apprenticed with Boston piano makers, and opened his own business in 1868. He was followed in the business by his son, and like many other producers, the company was bought out and the name disappeared by the Depression. The listed address was at the corner of Washington and Dover streets in the South End. I assume this would have been the showroom and offices, as I found what looks like the factory on Albany street.

A. M. McPhail Piano Company.

The McPhail company was another producer of high quality pianos in Boston. The company was founded in 1837, and in the 1880s moved to Washington and Waltham streets in the South End.
McPhail was one of the few Boston piano companies to stay in business and independent through the Depression, surviving until the 1950s.

Bay State Organs, Albany street, 1902.

And let's not forget the piano's cousin the organ! Bay State Organ was founded in 1875. We think of organs being used in churches, but they were also popular home instruments. Before the development of the electric organ, domestic organs were foot-powered, the foot pedal used to fill bellows to blow air through reeds. Unfortunately, Bay State Organ left behind few traces to be found on the internet.

Smith American Organ.

Smith American Organ, Albany and East Brookline sts, 1883.

More organ love.