Boston's Fort Point District
A Landmark of New England's Maritime and Industrial Past
The Honorable Thomas M. Menino
Mayor of Boston, Massachusetts
Ms. Ellen Lipsey, Executive Director
The Boston Landmarks Commission
March 27, 2001
With deep appreciation, we thank Sinclair Hitchins and Aaron Schmidt of the Department of Prints at the Boston Public Library for providing access to these historic photographic plates of Fort Point circa 1900. We also thank Albert Rex of the Boston Preservation Alliance for his support, and Doug Terpstra of the Boston Preservation Alliance for providing a text of historic research on the Fort Point Channel. Thanks to Don Eyles for providing further additional text of historic research, and to Clark Quin for his assistance with binding.
Todd Gieg, Photographer
Residents of the Fort Point Historic District
"Coarse grass tufted the little hillocks which rose at intervals to relieve the monotony of sand, mud and sluggish sea water captured by the inlets and held in pools at the change of the tides."
- from historic documents of the Boston Wharf Company
Fort Point: A Brief History
The Fort Point Channel was originally a natural channel that linked Boston Harbor and the South Bay, separating Boston from the tidal mudflats that lay off Dorchester Neck. The channel derived its name from Fort Point, an area near today's Rowes Wharf where Fort Hill and the Colonial fortifications known as the South Battery were located. In colonial times a cannon battery was posted in Fort Point to protect the inner harbor. As Boston grew, the hill that dominated the point was leveled and the soil used to fill the coves on either side.
Although there were wharves along the Boston side of the South Bay, Dorchester Neck was sparsely settled during the Colonial period. The state Legislature approved a petition in 1804 to annex the Neck to Boston and authorized a toll bridge to link the two areas. The Boston South Bridge opened in 1805. A second bridge, the North Free Bridge, opened in 1826 on the site of today's Dorchester Avenue Bridge. The new bridges provided an accessibility that allowed for more extensive development of South Boston. Industries, such as glass making, ship building, and iron making, settled along the waterfront and built new wharves.
One of the most significant industrialists to open a business in South Boston was Cyrus Alger, who opened an iron foundry in 1814 near the Boston South Bridge. He incorporated the South Boston Iron Works in 1827 and purchased all the land between Dorchester Turnpike, now Dorchester Avenue, and the channel and from the North Free Bridge to a short distance south of the Boston South Bridge. Alger filled the flats off of today's Foundry Street and built wharves and buildings for his company. Other iron works and machine shops settled along Foundry Street as well, including the Adams Printing Press and Machine Shops, the Fulton Iron Foundry, and the Globe Locomotive Works.
Filling was also occurring on the opposite side of the channel. The North Free Bridge cut off the wharves in the South Cove. In 1833, a group called the South Cove Associates formed to fill the Cove and provide land for a station and rail yard for the Boston & Worcester Railroad. Part of this land is today's Chinatown. Wharves were built on the channel along the edge of the filled land and formed part of the west side of the channel.
In 1836, responding to strong demand for new wharf space in Boston, a group of ship owners founded the Boston Wharf Company. The BWC began to fill the mudflats and form the channel, initiating an effort that would continue for over 50 years. The BWC purchased land along First Street and built a seawall out into the flats. The space enclosed by the wall was filled with material from Nooks Hill, today's Andrew Square. The Company built two stone wharves at the site, forming three docks.
Today's A Street, originally named Granite Street and then Midland Street, ran along the eastern wharf. The BWC used the new wharves primarily to store sugar and molasses for the city's sugar refineries, one of which, the Standard Sugar Refinery, purchased and located its firm on some of the BWC land. The Company filled additional land along its north and east sides in the 1850s to attract railroad spurs to its land.
Two new bridges opened in 1855. The Mount Washington Street Bridge connected the BWC wharves to Kneeland Street in Boston. The Eastern Railroad Bridge brought the Boston and New York Central Railroad, later to become the New York & New England, lines across the channel in a wide half circular sweep from Summer Street in Boston to the northern edge of the BWC land.
The edges of wharves and filled land were not determined by the corporations sponsoring the work, but by a state commission, the Boston Harbor Commission. Such a commission had been established as early as 1835 to survey the harbor and determine boundaries for wharves and sea walls in order to maintain a straight line which they thought would channel the tide and prevent shoaling of shipping channels. Various successors to the first were established in an attempt to keep pace with the activity on the waterfront. Finally, in 1860, the state asked the federal government for help. One of the federal commission's recommendations was to build a seawall around the rest of the South Boston flats with the intent of increasing the scour of the tide through the Fort Point Channel. Thus the extent of the channel and the edges of the district were determined before the land defining it was even filled.
The railroads and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts spurred the filling of more of the flats in the 1870s. In 1869, the BWC sold 25 acres where the Fan Pier is now located to the Boston, Hartford & Erie Railroad and an adjoining 50 acres to the Boston & Albany Railroad. The BHE however went into receivership, and their land reverted to the BWC. In 1873, the Boston & Albany, BWC, the City of Boston, and the Commonwealth reached an agreement to fill more of the flats. The state agreed to fill the site of Pier 1 (the Fan Pier) and build sea walls; the BWC and B & A were to fill their lots with the fill coming from harbor dredging. Boston was to build two bridges across the channel and was given rights to lay out two main streets and additional cross streets through the filled land.
The original 1874-75 Congress Street bridge was the first of these two bridges to be constructed across the Fort Point Channel; the Northern Avenue Bridge was to be the second. The first Congress Street Bridge was a swing span bridge, as the Northern Avenue Bridge was to be. Other bridges further up the channel were constructed at this time. The first version of the Broadway Bridge was completed in 1871, but the cast iron beams failed within a few years. A replacement was completed in 1875. The superstructure that stood until recently dated to 1915 and was originally designed to carry streetcar lines as well as vehicular traffic. This span of road not only carried traffic over the channel, but also over the railroad lines carrying trains to South Station. In 1877 the West Fourth Street Bridge replaced the Dover Street Bridge, itself a successor to the 1805 South Boston Bridge. The West Fourth Street Bridge was rebuilt in 1893-94 and was replaced early this decade by the current bridge of that name.
In addition, the state bought shore rights between B and E streets and filled the flats to Cypher Street. The state also filled a 25 acre lot in 1875. In 1877-79, the state built a pier at this lot and leased the land to the New York & New England Railroad. This railroad also traded with the B & A for the flats east of the B & A's 50 acre lot and bought from the state the 25 acre lot and a 12 acre lot east of B Street and south of Congress Street. By 1893, the state had filled 170 acres east of B Street to the edge of the Reserved Channel and the South Boston Naval Annex. Although streets had been laid out in this land by 1900, few buildings had been constructed by that time. Commonwealth Pier, although not its buildings, was completed by 1900.
In 1896 the railroad companies with lines running south of Boston incorporated the Boston Terminal Company. The costs of maintaining individual lines were skyrocketing and a single consolidated railroad station on the model of North Station helped reduce each company's expenses. South Station opened to the public in January 1899 and quickly became the busiest station in the country. The station when built had a train shed 570 feet in width, but severe deterioration forced its demolition in 1930. With the completion of the South Station railyards in 1898, the Fort Point Channel had attained its present form, with the exception of two slips on the South Boston side and the remains of the South Bay.
The docks and wharves in the South Bay, along the channel, and eventually along the harbor created a tremendous amount of activity along the waterfront. By 1880, the Boston Wharf Company had seventeen sheds for the storage of imported sugar and molasses. Beginning in 1883, however, the refineries began to import and store their own raw materials. Also, several of the refining companies consolidated into a single entity using the facilities of the Standard Sugar Refinery. To compensate for the loss of revenue the BWC began to use its land to generate income from real estate activities. The Company constructed buildings along Congress Street, the first of these identified at 321-327 Congress Street. Some wharf buildings were rented to tenants and others were sold to commercial and industrial concerns.
The activity from these buildings, in addition to that from Pier 1 and the other docks, increased traffic on Congress Street so much that in 1896 the extension of Summer Street into South Boston was authorized. With the completion of South Station, the Eastern Railroad Bridge was no longer needed and, in 1899, was replaced with the Summer Street Bridge. Many wool merchants moved across the channel from Dewey Square to the new wool warehouses and offices that the BWC constructed for them along Summer Street. By 1930, the district would be the center of the wool trade in the United States.
Farnsworth, Pittsburgh and Stillings Streets were completed in the early 1890's. The warehouses and factories located along these streets had multiple rail spurs from the adjacent railroad yards. Many of the buildings along A and Midway Streets were constructed in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Morton D. Safford and Howard B. Presscott, staff architects of the Boston Wharf Company, designed most of the company's buildings.
In addition to BWC, a number of industries were attracted to the burgeoning wharf district. In 1900, the Fort Point Channel was lined with wharves where ships unloaded coal, lumber, bricks, and cement, among other items. Leather bound for the warehouses adjacent to South Station was unloaded at channel wharves. Ice, sugar, iron, machinery, and beer were also transferred through the many wharves lining the channel.
The Gillette Company opened a factory on West First Street in 1905. The Macallen Company, makers of electrical supplies, built a factory between Broadway and West Fourth Street in 1906; the building is known today as the Court Square Press Building. With the opening of the Fish Pier in 1914, the fishing industry moved to the channel area. Likewise, the Commonwealth Pier in 1911 brought passenger liners as well as large cargo ships to South Boston.
The activity in the channel had begun to decline by the mid-twentieth century, due in no small part to the number of bridges that ships had to pass to reach the wharves. As many as eight bridges at one time crossed the channel, and ship captains had to use all their skill to navigate to their destination. In addition, the ship captains charged a fee for each bridge they had to pass, driving up shipping costs. Also, each time a bridge was opened, all land traffic across that bridge had to stop. As early as 1845, merchants in Roxbury protested the opening of the Old Colony Railroad bridge, concerned that the bridge would interfere with ships heading to their wharves. In 1892, Boston tried to regulate the hours when the bridges could be opened in order to prevent traffic backups, but the Harbor and Land Commissioners blocked this effort, citing the economic importance of the channel and the need to navigate with the tides, which would be in conflict with the hours set by the city. Nevertheless, by 1928, the Broadway Bridge was opened only 922 times, down from the 2381 times two decades earlier.
In a last ditch effort to help save commerce along the channel, the Congress Street Bridge was replaced in 1930 with a new 75-foot drawspan intended to allow larger ships into the channel. The replacement bridge is an overhead trunnion bascule bridge, only three of which survive in Massachusetts. This type of bridge was developed by Joseph B. Strauss, who also designed the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco
In addition to the bridges, other factors impacted the commerce of the wharf district. Synthetic fabrics and the decline of the New England textile industry severely damaged the wool trade in Boston. Trucking and air freight replaced railroad and maritime shipping. Various enterprises had been filling the South Bay since the early 1800s, and by 1900, the South Bay was only half its former size. As early as 1868, legislative committees were recommending that the South Bay and Fort Point Channel be completely filled. The southern and eastern sections were filled in by 1916. In 1948, only two wharves remained. Most of the rest of the bay was filled for the construction of the Southeast Expressway in the 1950s, although a small channel remained open into the late 1960s. In 1948, the Dorchester Avenue Bridge was fixed in place, ending ship traffic below that point.
As the shipping activity ceased, non-maritime uses moved into the area. In 1963, the Gillette plant replaced the American Sugar Refinery. The U.S. Postal Service built its regional headquarters between the channel and South Station. The channel became an ill-regarded backwater, leading to a deficiency of maintenance. The fireboat house at the Northern Avenue Bridge, for instance, collapsed into the harbor in 1968. Railyards along Fort Point's northern and eastern edges which once served wharf-based commerce, were vacated and replaced by parking lots, material storage and scrapyards.
In the mid-1970's, a group of artists displaced by a fire at the Plante Shoe Factory in Jamaica Plain, moved to the Fort Point area, settling on Farnsworth Street. An influx of artists followed, also seeking the abundant, affordable space available to them in Fort Point's sturdy timber and masonry buildings . By 1980, an artists community had incorporated. Other tenants in Fort Point through the latter part of the 20th century included a number of small businesses, light industrial manufacturing, produce and storage. Gillette Corporation continued to thrive and expand in its facility along the Fort Point Channel.
In the 1980's, public works projects were planned, stimulating interest in the Fort Point area the South Boston waterfront. These projects were underway by the final decade of the 20th century. While a Central Artery highway project tunneled through Boston's downtown, another underground connection tunneled from the Masschusetts Turnpike, under the Channel, the Fort Point district and Boston Harbor to connect with Logan Airport. The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority began construction of a public transportation transitway under the Fort Point Channel to serve the South Boston waterfront. A Federal Courthouse was constructed on Fan Pier. The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority began construction of a Convention and Exhibition Center at Fort Point's eastern edge.
These and other public works projects, along with its close proximity to Boston's downtown financial district, invigorated private interest and investment in the Fort Point area. In the heated economic climate of the 1990's, the South Boston waterfront was tapped for its development potential in serving as a frontier for commercial development. The Boston Redevelopment Authority, completing a two-year public planning process for the waterfront in 1998, concluded that zoning and planning should manage Fort Point's growth for two distinct functions. According to this plan, a Fort Point Historic Subdistrict would be planned and zoned to evolve as a mixed-use neighborhood including both residential and commercial uses, while a Fort Point Industrial Subdistrict was to allow for expansion of industrial concerns.
Today, the distinctive wharf buildings and seawalls of the Fort Point district serve as a stunningly well-preserved reminder of New England's industrial and maritime past, while remaining important modern day examples of architectural integrity, character and timelessness.
Compiled from excerpts from sources including A History of the Fort Point Channel by Doug Terpstra of the Boston Preservation Alliance and A Brief History of Fort Point by Don Eyles. Both texts were excerpted with permission of the authors.
Your comments as a visitor to the SAND website would be appreciated and forwarded for discussion.