The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 26 January 2018

Boston's Back Bay

The Story of America's Greatest Nineteenth-Century Landfill Project

by William A. Newman and Wilfred E. Holton

Boston's Back Bay neighborhood is widely known as one of the more genteel and expensive neighborhoods in the country. It is symbolic of the cultured, conservative, traditional population of this city of red brick and brownstone. So, it is, at first, hard to imagine that many of these elegant townhouses reeked of sewage that flowed backward into their basements. Or that, during the first settlement of the freshly infilled land, patches of lowland were still full of raw sewage, emitting clouds of stink over the expensive new houses. Imagine a humid Boston August afternoon in such conditions. Before the land was filled, a great stench and associated bacterial illnesses rose from what was considered marshy wasteland, to blow over tony Beacon Hill. Indeed, it was just these conditions that prompted early plans to fill in the basin. In the meantime, a city that felt threatened by impovershed Irish Catholic immigrants also saw an opportunity in this new neighborhood to house the Protestant elite, to keep the city from experiencing a drain of its wealthy power structure. The new land had strict controls to guarantee the high cost of its new housing. The only Catholic church allowed to be built was far over in one corner. And other economic reasons drove the infill. A milling operation, which first enclosed the Back Bay in a series of long dams, failed to generate the kind of power and profit that was envisioned while its dams made the accumulation of raw sewage far worse. The entire story makes one wish we could go back again and convince Bostonians of the ecological value of what must have, at one time, been a spectacular estuary of green marshes and tidal flats that had supported thousands of years Native American fisherfolk. What a landscape might have come about? Instead, the sketchy history tells of another project, the largest urban landfill in America.

This book is of a largely scholarly nature. It begins, in an engrossing opening chapter, eight hundred million years ago, when the first prehistoric layers of clay, silt and sand were laid in what would become the Charles River Basin. The first humans to live here captured fish in hand-made catch basins, the remnants of which were found forty feet underground, during the dig for a new subway. Much later, the characters involved are more sketchy figures, some hardly more than names on the page. For such an enormous project, it is surprising how little documentary evidence remains, even after a century and a half. Ever since the 1820s, the rising accumulation of Back Bay sewage prompted an interest in filling the marshland there. The worsening problem with the early Mill Dam accelerated the drive. Once the mills themselves proved unprofitable, a complex of public and private associations drove the project of filling the land, beginning at the end of the 1850s. The State held some land, a mill company held most of the wetlands to the west, in what is now the Back Bay and Kenmore Square neighborhoods. The cities of Boston and Roxbury fought for their slice of the new land, but both came up short. The resulting fill project was enormous, with thousands of train-loads of gravel hauled in from sites around Massachusetts, where farmland and forest were decimated for the resources to be dumped or buried in the new landfill. There were a few towering figures of commerce, many railroad companies, untold numbers of men and horses who labored and often died under early industrial conditions. Much of the story has had to be pieced together and inferred from indirect sources. There is but one extant photograph depicting a gravel train unloading its haul in the marshland. The authors even resort to 20th century dioramas in a big old Back Bay insurance office building for some idea of how this project was completed.

The book is small and densely packed with details of the infill work. The voices of its two authors are apparent. One seems a bit uneasy with his data, often repeating points in the tumble of seemingly random details; the other with a more coherent story of the zoning laws and environmental problems of the project. Can you imagine the anticipation of an earthquake on soft muddy land covered with unreinforced century-old brick buildings? The story feels a little incomplete, as if it needs a more popular-level treatment, a story of a person, an institution, or a city as it wrestles with its identity and challenges of economy, Civil War and changing demographics. (See parts of Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham for some lively glimpses of one man's drive to build a lavish house in the Back Bay, despite the thick marshy atmosphere, to join the society of the well-heeled.) Still, it is a somewhat crazy story, even here; the audacity of filling so much land in the face of still poorly understood environmental networks of land and water. In the end, the rich folks had their new elegant neighborhood. Over the years, some of it, particularly in the old South End and Roxbury, fell into economic decay. Much of that is recovered in the new century's turn back toward urban living. Boston thrives. For many decades, the Charles River, itself, was famous for being so dirty you could die just falling into it. That, too, has largely recovered with many years of remediation projects. Meanwhile, the buried land and lost waterways tell an ever-fading tale of bullish American use and abuse of the landscape.

[Mail John][To List]

See Also: [The Rise of Silas Lapham, by William Dean Howells] [Insuring the City, by Elihu Rubin]

[Other Urban Studies and Architecture]

[Other History, Biography and Memoir]