Boston is a lot like ogres, which are a lot like onions. Why? They all have layers. And, no, I’m not talking about the earthen layers beneath our feet (although that would make for an interesting discussion because of Boston’s endless landfill projects). I’m talking about the complex, lesser-known history of this glorious city.
Last semester, CA Megan and I had the opportunity to take HI 190: The History of Boston together. As an avid fan of local history, I was very excited to take this course. We discovered histories ranging from the Massachusett tribe in pre-colonization to modernity with the Big Dig. If you are interested in learning more about how our city came to be, I highly recommend it. Anyway, I’ve gathered some lesser-known facts about Boston that may be of interest to you! Take a look:
1. Boston was speculated to be a lost Viking settlement
Sitting at the end of the Commonwealth Avenue Mall is a statue of Leif Erikson. It’s curious to see how a figure seemingly unrelated to Boston has a statue here, but with further investigation, one finds themselves looking into the life of 19th century Harvard professor Eben Norton Horsford. Around this time, some New Englanders speculated that there was once a viking settlement here but had little proof. Horsford became obsessed with the idea. One day, he essentially went on a walk in Cambridge, found some random stones that hardly looked like the foundation for a house, and claimed that it was Leif Erikson’s old home. Now, a plaque rests in that spot in Cambridge and he raised money to sculpt this statue. His theory, however, remains unfounded.
2. In 1919, Boston experienced its most uncommon disaster with the Great Molasses Flood
Killing over 20 people and injuring another 100, what seems to be a popular commodity became deadly. A distillery in the North End filled one of its tanks full of molasses on a cold January day, and it collapsed. A wave over 25 feet high left streets flooded and people coated. Doctors created a makeshift hospital to serve the overwhelming number of victims while volunteers searched for survivors for three days. The harbor had a brown tint until summer, and North End residents claimed the neighborhood smelled of molasses for years following. A plaque now rests at Langone Park in commemoration.
3. Government Center used to be Boston’s red-light district, Scollay Square
When you look at it now, it’s a vast concrete and brick jungle (though I congratulate the city on their initiative to revitalize it) surrounded by the city’s political headquarters. 70 years ago, however, this wasn’t the case. Scollay Square, as it was previously named, was home to Boston’s scandalous side. Vaudeville, burlesque, gambling, prostitution all existed here, especially at the infamous Old Howard Theatre. In a wave of urban renewal in the 1950s and 60s, the area was mostly demolished to make it what it is today. One of the remaining buildings is the Sears Crescent, which now holds a Dunkin Donuts and the iconic copper tea kettle.
4. Boston was America’s first subway system
In the mid to late-19th century, Boston transitioned from a predominantly horse and carriage-based transportation system to a streetcar system. Streetcar trolleys had complex routes and carried passengers from nearby towns into the city. Eventually, the streets became so chaotic that alternative transportation was proposed. The idea of an underground light rail caused controversy (Boston Globe articles debating the topic are online), but it was eventually opened in 1897 and served five stops from Boylston Street to Haymarket. The MTA, which evolved into the MBTA, became a major transportation system that provides over 1 million rides per day. And yes, the mysterious A Line did exist. It branched off from the B Line at Packard’s Corner, continuing down Brighton Ave and ending at Watertown Yard. It eventually closed in 1969 due to low ridership and was replaced by the 57 bus route. If you go to Watertown Yard today, you can still see the tracks that were laid over with concrete.