In 1814, a man who has since been called the “Chief Benefactor of Boston” had an idea. It was so stupendous that it was then considered a weird, impossible dream. Yet the train of consequences resulting from that idea have been largely responsible for Boston’s greatness today.
One hundred and twelve years ago, Uriah Cotting, on behalf of a group of men who together formed the Boston and Roxbury Mill Corporation, applied to the legislature of Massachusetts for a charter which should empower the Company to build a series of dams connecting Boston, Brookline, and Roxbury; to use these dams as toll roadways, and to develop water power by the tidal flow in and out of the Back Bay. This Bay was so called to distinguish it from the harbor - or Front Bay, and from the South Bay. It was at that time a shallow sheet of water, spotted here and there by marshy islands and flats. Charles Street, Boston Neck, and the Roxbury mainland marked the shore line, but when the tide was unusually low much of the entire expanse was bare.
The project of Uriah cotting and his associates marked the first attempt at development in this area. In spite of much opposition, the legislature granted the charter of the Mill Corporation, slipping it through rather secretly at a session when only fifty members were present. Governor Strong signed the bill, and work was soon begun.
The Mill Dam was built from the Common at the foot of Beacon hill to the solid land at Sewall’s Point, now the junction of Brookline and Commonwealth Avenues. It was a toll thoroughfare, today known as Beacon Street. When first opened to travel it formed a new, short way between Boston, the Brighton road, and the Punch Bowl road, which ran westward from the outer end of the dam. It was here that the famous Punch Bowl Tavern was located.
The stream of traffic that passes through Governor Square today represents the growth during many years of that which flowed over the old Mill Dam highway.
Connecting the Mill Dam with Gravelly Point - a promontory extending from Roxbury to what is now the corner of Massachusetts and Commonwealth Avenues - was built the Cross Dam. The two enclosed the power company’s receiving basin.
In the neighborhood of Gravelly Point, the Roxbury town landing had been located. With the completion of the Cross Dam and the availability of water power, the Point became the center of a manufacturing community. Near here were grist mills, soap and candle works, a fulling mill, a looking glass and a carpet works.
Today Gravelly Point is still the center of a business community. Despite the passage of years and a multitude of changes, we see in the Massachusetts Avenue neighborhood the development of the old-time Cross Dam Community.
Uriah Cotting did not live to see his project completed. He was succeeded by Loammi Baldwin, who finished, in 1821, the construction of the dams.
The area enclosed by them formed a tidal basin which soon became a nuisance, an eyesore, and a menace to the health of the city. The building of railways and dissatisfaction among the mill interests with the available power foretold further development. The public voice began to urge that the flats of the basin be filled in and new land be made, as had already been done along the harbor front.
By 1844, two railroads had been laid across the flats - the Boston and Worcester Railroad and the Boston and Providence line. The rails of these lines could be used to transport material - “clean gravel and earth” - easily and cheaply. By making use of the dams as retaining walls, sand dredged from the bed of the Charles River could be used to make land on the flats. Several plans for the development of the district were proposed, and, in 1852, a legislative committee recommended that the district be filled in.
That the narrow and winding streets of the older city somewhat preyed on the minds of the citizens is realized when it is observed that the new district was to be “laid out in rectangular plots, with wide streets.” Ordinary streets were to be a hundred feet wide between buildings, while the central boulevard - Commonwealth Avenue - was to have the unprecedented width for Boston of two hundred and forty feet! Imagine the meaning of this to those who could hardly even conceive a street over thirty feet wide.
It was the accepted program that the State should pay for the work of filling in the basin, and should be repaid by the sale of the new land. Certain lots were to be set aside for museums, schools, charities, and so forth. Other spaces were to be left for parks and playgrounds, and the balance to be sold for residences.
But before actual work could be begun, there was much wrangling and disagreement. The town of Roxbury, perhaps a bit jealous of her larger neighbor, refused at first to disclaim title to the bottom lands within her boundaries. The powerful water power company held out for better terms. Petty bickerings and politics delayed operations several years, but finally, in 1859, the Back Bay was attacked with sand, gravel, and earth.
Progress was slow. By 1874, the dry land extended only as far out as Gloucester Street. As the filled area increased size, building went on apace.
The fashionable families began to desert the South End for new and magnificent homes along the wide, parked streets of the newly made section. The name Back Bay, instead of an epithet applied to a sheet of shallow water and mud flats, became a synonym for fashion and culture.
Beacon Street - the former Mill Dam - was soon lined with the now familiar brown stone homes. The parallel streets were given the names that in the early days had been given to parts of Washington Street - Newbury and Marlborough. Commonwealth Avenue soon began to take on an atmosphere of luxury a bit above its neighbors. Clubs and hotels appeared - and the back bay was Back Bay.
The finishing touches at the Fenway were added between 1882 and 1885, marking the first step in the famous Metropolitan Park system of Boston.
For a decade or more the pressure in the congested downtown section of Boston has caused many to seek a business home in the wider spaces of the newer city. Very gradually trade has crept westward into Back Bay. New business centers have grown up in the neighborhood. The modern apartment house has, in many cases, displaced the residence of the ‘70’s.
Recognizing the trend of the times, the Old Colony Trust Company has established a new office to serve this growing neighborhood. This office occupies the ground floor of a fine new building at the corner of Massachusetts and Commonwealth Avenues, on the exact spot where the old Cross Dam joined the mainland at Gravelly Point, the only bit of lower Commonwealth Avenue that is not man-made land.