BAHS Home | History | Neighborhoods | Photo Collection

This article by Allston-Brighton historian Dr. William P. Marchione appeared in the Allston-Brighton Tab or Boston Tab newspapers in the period from July 1998 to late 2001, and supplement information in his books The Bull in the Garden (1986) and Images of America: Allston-Brighton (1996).   These articles are copyrighted in the name of the author. Researchers should, however, feel free to quote from the material, with proper attribution. 

Annexation Embraced: Brighton's 1873 Acceptance of Boston

On October 7, 1873 the voters of the independent towns of Brookline and Brighton made sharply contrasting decisions on the question of annexation to the City of Boston. While two thirds of Brookline’s electors rejected merger with the metropolis (for reasons spelled out in my last article), fully 81 percent of Brighton’s voters eagerly embraced the opportunity to join the city. Why did these neighboring towns react so differently when presented with this momentous choice?

The contrasting decisions stemmed from the very different economic and social character of these adjacent communities. Though once very similar (both had been farming towns before the American Revolution), by the early years of the 19th century, Brookline had become Boston’s premier elite suburb, while Brighton had developed into one of the city’s key industrial satellites.

The cornerstone of Brighton’s industrial edifice was its livestock trade. This town at the western gateway to Boston was the principal cattle and slaughtering center of 19th century New England. Thousands of head of livestock reached its stockyards and slaughtering facilities each week from distant points, some driven overland, some arriving by rail. In 1869 alone, 53,000 head of cattle, 144,000 hogs, and 342,000 sheep arrived in Brighton.

Brighton also contained the largest concentration of slaughterhouses in New England---over forty of them. Other Brighton manufacturing establishments produced a wide range of animal by-products, including varnish, lampblack, bone fertilizer, soap, oil, tallow, lard, whips, buttons, and corset bones. Livestock-related enterprises served as the engine of the local economy.

While the great majority of the town’s residents were dependent on the cattle and slaughtering trades---either directly of indirectly--for their livelihoods, these industries also emitted foul odors and generated waste products that were indiscriminately dumped into its watercourses. In 1866 public health expert Dr. Henry Clark, described the waste disposal practices of the forty-plus Brighton’s slaughterhouses as “prolific and provoking causes of disease.”

For these reasons Bostonians looking for a suburban locations in which to build homes were inclined to give Brighton a wide berth. Of all the towns around Boston, it had the lowest population of commuters.

Another barrier to residential development were large numbers of drovers, cattle dealers, country farmers, and itinerant merchants who poured into the town each week to attend the Cattle Market. The town continued some fifteen hotels for the accommodation of this transient element, hotels equipped with bars that dispensed as much liquor as the patrons cared to pay for, that tolerated disorderly and drunken behavior and that furnished a haven for high-stake gambling.

The poor condition of the town’s roads, its lack of street lighting, and an almost complete absence of sewers also militated against suburban development. Believing that there was little point in investing the town’s resources in roads over which droves of cattle were regularly driven, the town fathers spent very little money on highways. They also declined to invest in sewers which might tend to undermine the freewheeling dumping practices upon which the slaughterhouse proprietors relied. A relatively wealthy town, Brighton preferred to invest in public facilities---in a handsome Greek Revival town hall, a new brick grammar school, state-of-the-art fire houses and fire fighting equipment, and an elaborate 14-acre town cemetery. Such expenditures advertised the town’s prosperity and protected its property without in any way threatening the cattle and slaughtering trades.

The economic and political landscape of Brighton was transformed quite suddenly in the 1870 to 1873 period---the four years that led up to the annexation vote---by two factors chiefly.  One of these was a major technological breakthrough---the introduction of refrigerated cars on American rail lines. Once they came into service, cattle could be slaughtered nearer the source of supply. With the introduction of refrigerated cars the eastern slaughtering industry of the United States began a slow but relentless decline.

Another factor that seriously threatened Brighton’s cattle and slaughtering industries was the rise of a powerful public health movement in Massachusetts. In 1869, the newly-organized Massachusetts State Board of Health accused the Brighton slaughterhouses of sending tainted meat into Boston, and demanded stricter regulation of the industry. The State Board also pointed to Brighton’s high mortality rate as evidence of the unhealthy disposal practices---a mortality rate equal to that of most crowded neighborhoods of Boston, and higher than those of the nineteen largest cities and towns of the Commonwealth.

To solve this problem, the State Board urged the establishment of a single, modern slaughtering facility somewhere near Boston---an abattoir---which all the butchers within a six mile radius of the city would be required to use.

Brighton’s more enterprising businessmen were quick to recognize the diminished prospects of the slaughtering trade---quick to appreciate that residential development now offered greater profit-making potential. At this point a group of Brighton businessmen  took the initiative by establishing the Butcher’s Slaughtering and Melting Association, the corporation that, in 1872, built the sprawling Brighton Abattoir on the edge of the Charles River in North Brighton.

The business leaders who masterminded the transformation of Brighton in the 1870 to 1873 period---beginning with the abattoir scheme---were well-to-do men who had made their fortunes, either directly or indirectly, from the town’s cattle and slaughtering trades---Benjamin Franklin Ricker, Horace Jordan, and Horace Baxter---all slaughterhouse proprietors, State Senator William Wirt Warren, the favorite lawyer of the slaughterhouse proprietors, and George Wilson, a hotel keeper. All of them owned substantial real estate which they expected would appreciate in value as a result of the measures they supported.

Prior to filing the legislation that created the abattoir corporation, this same group of businessmen---later referred to as “The Brighton Ring”---had seized control of Brighton's Board of Selectmen and Board of Health. In the four years that followed, they continued to dominate the political life of the town.  

The transformation of Brighton from an industrial town to commuter suburb was accomplished in three broad steps between 1870 and 1873:

First, the town’s slaughterhouses were closed down and its butchers forced into the abattoir, thus opening previously fouled acreage to suburban development.

Then, a massive program public works program was inaugurated with the object of making Brighton more attractive to would-be commuters. In the four years leading up to the annexation vote Brighton spent some $500,000 on improved roads, curbings, sidewalks, sewers and street lighting. Additional sums were also spent on public facility improvements, including a new public library, a handsome grammar school, and several new firehouses.

The “Brighton Ring” also used its control of town meetings for private profit, frequently selling the town parcels of land at greatly inflated prices.

The impact of this orgy of spending on the town’s finances was intentionally staggering. Brighton’s income in the four years under consideration totaled only $438,000, but it level of spending reached an incredible $1,560,000, four times what it received. The difference could be made up only one way---by heavy borrowing. In the 1870 to 1873 period, Brighton’s town debt increased by 800 percent! If Brighton had remained an independent town, after 1873 its residents would have been obliged to pay substantially higher taxes.

Members of “The Ring” meanwhile filed the legislation that authorized Brighton’s annexation to Boston. In building the town’s huge indebtedness, they laid the groundwork for the annexation decision of October 7, 1873. Allow Boston to annex Brighton, they advised the townspeople, and the metropolis would automatically absorb its potentially crippling debt.

As the debt rose in the 1870 to 1873 period, the opposition to annexation, which had been fairly strong in 1870, steadily eroded. As early as December 1872, nearly a year before the annexation vote, a majority of those attending a town meeting approved instructing Brighton’s representatives in the state legislature to "use their utmost efforts in behalf of annexation." A rising tax rate, coupled with a prospect of further sharp increases, had reconciled the great majority of Brighton’s voters to union with Boston.

Thus when the question was finally put to the voters in the fall of 1873, Brighton embraced annexation by an overwhelming vote of 622 to 133.

BAHS Home | History | Neighborhoods | Photo Collection