Becoming Boston

An Industrious Era

Smokestacks and railroads were symbols of industrial modernity in Boston’s nineteenth-century landscape, while grand buildings and squalid tenements testified to growing spatial inequality.

As the region’s industrial economy began to harness new energy sources, like the swift-moving rivers of the New England interior and fossil fuels like coal, Boston’s urban metabolism underwent a total transformation in the middle of the nineteenth century. The city was the terminus of some of the earliest railroads in the United States, and a dense transportation network soon evolved linking Boston to smaller cities like Lowell and Worcester, as well as farther out to the industrial and agricultural heartlands of the west. Now able to draw on food and resources from distant locations, the city quickly densified. Rapid transit lines between neighborhoods knit together what had previously been more than a dozen independent towns into a functionally unified metropolitan area, and Boston began to annex formerly independent towns like Roxbury and Dorchester. Some people grew wealthy from this supercharged economic growth, and developed elite residential enclaves adorned with grand cultural institutions. Many others, however, found themselves crowded into hastily-built neighborhoods that swelled with the city’s growing population.

Boston and environs

Geo. H. Walker & Co.
Library of Congress Geography & Map Division

The municipal boundaries of the City of Boston are nowhere to be seen in this striking bird’s-eye view of the metropolitan region at the beginning of the twentieth century. Oriented looking towards the west as if the viewer is floating above the outermost reaches of Boston Harbor, this map encompasses more than two dozen independent cities and towns, which many reformers argued had been so substantively linked together by technological, economic, and social forces that they were now effectively a single massive city. One of the transformations which had most dramatically affected metropolitan geography at the turn of the century was the rise of electric street railways, shown here as red lines. Not only did these railways connect a ring of cities stretching from Weymouth in the south (left) to Lynn in the north (right), but they also allowed people to reach green spaces like the Middlesex Fells and Blue Hills reservations, both labeled here.

Map to accompany report of State Board on Docks and Terminal Facilities: showing existing conditions and proposed changes at the Port of Boston

Geo. H. Walker & Co.
Mapping Boston Collection

A growing economy demanded space for facilities like rail yards and port facilities, as shown here on this map from a government report on how to manage the city’s industrial geography. The blue and yellow area between Cambridge, Somerville, and Charlestown shows the massive rail yards that occupied the filled land formerly at the mouth of the Miller’s River. On the peripheries of South Boston and East Boston, proposals are shown for port facilities stretching out into the tidelands. The South Boston flats would eventually become today’s Seaport district, while the East Boston flats would become Logan Airport. Near the yards indicated by yellow and orange at the very center of the map lay neighborhoods like the South Cove and the lower South End, both of which were densely crowded with substandard housing for the working-class families whose labor was indispensable to the industrial system.