Six news stories from 2020, seen through Atlascope

ArticleOver the past year, sometimes the news invited us into the past

Rachel Mead and Garrett Dash Nelson
December 23, 2020
1123 words

It’s been a challenge marking time in the year 2020: last January feels like a million years ago, but, at the same time, some of our office desks are frozen in place, right where we left them on March 13. It’s been an unprecedented year for the use of the word “unprecedented,” however, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been plenty of opportunities to look back on Boston history from the perspective of current events.

At the beginning of this year, we launched Atlascope, our new portal for discovering maps from our urban atlas collection. These maps aren’t just interesting as historical artifacts—they also dramatically illustrate how we’re stil living in a city marked by traces of the past. And one of the best parts of Atlascope is how easy it is to use; we’ve designed it so that you can simply pick an address and flip through the past. To celebrate this project’s first birthday, here are six stories from 2020 in Boston that become even more interesting when we look at them through Atlascope.

Each story below features an embedded version of Atlascope that you can explore yourself! Drag the pink hand to control the overlay map, or click through to the full Atlascope explorer tool.

From a convalescent home to a COVID ward

At the beginning of March, we only had an inkling of just how much the COVID-19 pandemic would utterly dominate the news in 2020. But by the middle of the month, it was already becoming clear that the disease represented a health crisis like no other in living memory, and on March 18 the Dorchester Reporter broke the news that the Carney Hospital would become the nation’s first facility dedicated exclusively to COVID patients. In a way, this marked a return to the hospital’s origins from more than a century before. As you can see on this 1894 atlas, the site was formerly the home of the Convalescent Home for the City Hospital. Here, patients recovering from diseases like tuberculosis would have passed their days in what was then the relatively rural environment of South Dorchester. If you look at earlier years in Atlascope, you’ll see the estate of Asaph Churchill, which the hospital directors acquired in 1889 for $30,000, noting its “healthy surroundings,” “good views,” and accessibility via horse cart from the hospital in the South End. Read the 1889 report describing the hospital’s decision to acquire Churchill’s estate on HathiTrust, and see a photograph of the building from the Boston City Archives.

Columbus beheaded

In June, the statue in Christopher Columbus Park lost his head overnight, as this CBS Boston report noted. The decapitation was part of the larger protest movement which sought to highlight how European colonization inflicted violence against Black and Indigenous people. This wasn’t the first time the statue was targeted; according to WBUR, it was tagged with anti-colonial grafitti before and was headless for a little while in 2006 as well. This time, the statue was removed. It will be replaced with a more appropriate homage to Italian-American immigration to Boston. However, Columbus will stay in Boston, moving to the Knights of Columbus North End chapter. In this 1938 atlas, we can see that Christopher Columbus Park is a relatively recent addition to the city’s cultural landscape; here, less a hundred years ago, it was still the wooden buildings of the Mercantile Market and Clinton Market.

The first and last Harriet Tubman Houses

In August, WBUR reported that community activists were making one final stand against the conversion of the Harriet Tubman House into condominiums. Despite activists' protest, United South End Settlements decided to sell and demolish the community center in early December. In this 1912 Atlascope view, you can see an earlier home of the Harriet Tubman House at 25 Holyoke Street, a few doors down from its most recent location. The development of the property represents another step towards gentrifying the neighborhood and pricing out current tenants, though USES insists that the proceeds from the sale will be used to support its community programs. Northeastern University has more historic material about USES in their Archives and Special Collections.

Well wishes from Mary L. Pierce

In early December, a sinkhole opened up in Ronan Park in Dorchester: “Holy Sinkhole!” reported NBC 10 Boston. City Archaeologist Joe Bagley investigated the mysterious portal underground and discovered that it likely lead to a well owned by Mary L. Pierce. Bagley commented that “when something like this turns up, it’s shining a light on a story that may have been lost.” Finding these stories is what historical geography is all about! Here you can see Mary L. Pierce’s house in 1884 in Atlascope, on the same spot where the sinkhole opened up. It is unclear whether the newly-discovered well is the 1818 one to which her relative’s will stipulated she needed access, or a new well which she had built later in the century.

Selling liquor down by the tracks

On December 16, the Boston Globe reported that a Boston resident had discovered a mysterious message in a bottle, and appealed to the City of Boston Archaeology Program and the wisdom of the Internet to puzzle through what it referred to. The note referred to a liquor dealer at “31 & 33 Castle St,” which you can see on this 1895 Atlascope view. This stretch of small shops along Castle St. (which is Herald St. today) backed up to a small alley called Orange St. But the owner of the buildings, the Boston and Albany Railroad, had different plans for the site: swipe over to see how the whole area became part of the railrad corridor by the early 20th century.

Jerry’s Pond, lost in plain sight

WBUR reported last week on an effort to reclaim Jerry’s Pond near Alewife Station in Cambridge. The pond is fenced off to public access due to concerns about contamination, but it was a popular swim hole up to the middle of the twentieth century. With a developer recently purchasing the land, neighbors are urging Cambridge policymakers to bring Jerry’s Pond back into public use. In this 1930 view from Atlascope, you can see the pond, then owned by John Johnson, as well as the Dewey & Almy Chemical Company just to the north, which was the source of the pond’s contamination. Swipe up to the 1873 atlas to see an even older use of the pond—there’s an icehouse on its southeastern side.

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