Monday, September 26, 2011

Fort Hill

Boston, 1630 - Fort Hill labeled Corn Hill at bottom.

When the Puritans settled Boston in the 1630s, there were three elevated areas on the Shawmut peninsula. Beacon 'Hill,' then a series of three peaks, Copp's Hill to the north, and Fort Hill to the south. The map above, made later but representing the area at the time of settlement, shows Fort (or Corn) hill at the edge of the harbor. With it's location along the water facing the harbor, the southern hill was a good place for a fort, and was used as such.

Fort Hill with Washington square at the peak, 1852.

As the town of Boston grew in population, the flat lands near the docks were settled first, with the slopes of the hills left mostly empty. In time, space pressures drove people up the hills, and both Beacon and Fort hills were settled by the well to do. Settlement by the well to do began in the early 19th Century, but by 1850 Irish fleeing the famine had congregated around the sides of the hill.

By the Civil War, the hill was a warren of tenements, shantys, and even holes dug into the side of the hill to house the poorest of Boston's poor. Much of the hill was given to drunkenness and crime, and was considered a disease-ridden slum. Over time, calls were made to clear the hill, level the land, and turn it over to commercial interests to serve the city's growing warehouse needs.

Fort Hill, before its removal.

Fort Hill before demolition.

Boylston school, circa 1850.

This school was to the right and behind the two views above.

Fort Hill demolition, 1871.

Work started in 1866. The first work brought Oliver street down to grade level, but the expected gravel turned out to be hard-packed earth, less valuable for land-filling projects going on around the city at the time. After a pause, the project resumed, with the former hill being used to create the new Atlantic avenue along the harbor. With the help of steam shovels, the work was completed, although the financial depression of the early 1870s slowed development of the new district. Over the next decade, the new streets were built out with exactly the warehouses and businesses they were planned for.


Fort Hill Square, contemporary with the map directly below.

Fort Hill Square, 1938.

While Boston's West End urban renewal project is now notorious in urban planning circles and in the popular mind, Boston had it's first urban renewal project almost 100 years earlier. The Irish were removed, and their homes given over to moneyed interests. The more things change, the more they remain the same.


  1. Wow those are some amazing photos. My sister lives in the Fort point area and it's amazing to hear it was once such a rundown neighborhood. Now it's a beautiful, quiet and peaceful neighborhood.

  2. My second great grandfather, John L. Wiley, went to Boylston School. Under-aged, he ran away to the War in 1865, then back to Boston a changed, battle-hardened and injured young man trying to make a living hauling telegraph poles, slate roofing, and finally as a Cambridge police officer until 1900.