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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.

The Charles: A 19th Century Commercial Artery

The Charles River Basin had a very different appearance and function in the 19th century from that of our day. Unsuited for residential development because of its tidal character, the basin developed instead into a commercial artery lined with numerous industrial facilities.  As late as the 1890s, some 2,000 masted vessels a year plied this important commercial waterway servicing its many wharves.

Among the earliest manufactories to arise on the shore of the basin was the Watertown Arsenal, founded in 1816 by the U. S. army. One of the federal government’s chief concerns in choosing the Watertown site for this important facility was its accessibility by schooner to the various U. S. military installations in and around Boston harbor. Uncle Sam invested heavily in the arsenal complex, hiring prominent Boston architect Alexander Parris (the man who later designed the Quincy Market) to execute the design.   

By 1820 the Watertown complex included a quadrangle of two-and-a-half story buildings, storehouses, powder magazines, officer’s housing and barracks for enlisted men, in addition to various shops for the use of the arsenal’s smiths, carpenters, and other workers.  Prior to 1860 the facility was used chiefly for the storage and the manufacture of cartridges and wooden gun mounts.  During the Civil War, however, a foundry and a laboratory were added for testing the strength of various materials, especially steel which had come to replace wood and iron in the construction of gun carriages and other equipment. Through a succession of conflicts, this important federal facility has been at the cutting edge of military technology.
Though never assuming the magnitude that some developers envisioned, industrialization came early to the basin. In two major instances entrepreneurs projected ambitious projects that either failed to materialize or were only partially fulfilled. 
The founders of Cambridgeport visualized the creation of port facilities rivaling Boston's on the river's northern shoreline, in the vicinity of present-day Kendall Square. In 1805, they persuaded Congress to make Cambridgeport an official U. S. port of entry. While some progress was made toward this goal in the first few years, including the construction of canals, wharves, and row houses near the Cambridge end of the West Boston Bridge, Jefferson's trade embargo of 1807 effectively killed the project.
Another failed industrial initiative was the Boston & Roxbury Mill Dam project. Its principal promoter, Boston merchant and developer Uriah Cotting, believed that the Back Bay tides could be harnessed to power as many as 81 mills. This ambitious scheme foresaw the establishment on the margin of a tidal pond of six grist mills, six saw mills, sixteen cotton mills, eight woolen mills, twelve rolling and slitting mills, as well as facilities for producing cannon, anchors, scythes, grindstones, paint, and other products.
The Mill Dam plan as carried into effect in 1821 involved the construction of a fifty foot wide dam-toll road (present-day Beacon Street) between Charles Street and Sewall's Point in Brookline (Kenmore Square), with a cross dam running out to Gravelly Point in Roxbury along the line of present-day Massachusetts Avenue.  While a few mills did arise on the Roxbury margin of the Back Bay, in the end the tides proved to be a much less efficient generator of energy than Cotting and his associates had anticipated, and the major Back Bay industrial district they envisioned never materialized. Had their plan succeeded, the subsequent history and character of the Back Bay would, of course, have been very different indeed.
Greater success awaited the developers of the Lechmere section of East Cambridge.  Preeminent among them was Cambridge landowner and speculator Andrew Craigie, who in 1809 built Craigie's Bridge connecting Lechmere Point to Boston's West End.  By the 1850s East Cambridge contained by far the heaviest concentration of commercial and industrial establishments in the basin area. Two canals, the Broad and the Lechmere, were eventually constructed to facilitate water transport in this developing industrial zone.
The most important early industry to locate in  East Cambridge, were several glass making establishments, which by mid-century had become the largest employers in Cambridge. Other important East Cambridge manufactories produced furniture, wooden products, sugar, and brushes. Especially important in the second half of the 19th century was the meatpacking industry.  By the 1870s there were no less than nine packinghouses in East Cambridge, the largest being John P. Squire & Company, which occupied a 22-acre site on Gore Street and employed some thousand workers.
The construction of railroads on both sides of the basin helped spur shoreline commercial and industrial development. In the 1834-35 period, the Boston & Worcester Railroad was built on the southern side of the river, passing across the Back Bay on a 170-foot long trestle known as the “dizzy bridge,” then skirting the Charles River through Brighton and Newton. The Fitchburg Railroad was completed in 1841 on the northern side of the river, and the connecting Grand Junction Freight Railroad in 1851. The ready access to rail transportation these lines provided fostered large-scale industrial development along the river.
The Charles shoreline also became a center of the publishing trade. A complex of buildings lying between Western Avenue and River Street in Cambridgeport housed the Riverside Press. This company’s history began in 1851 when Little Brown bought the old Cambridge Almshouse and converted it into a book manufactory. Later the property was acquired by H. O. Houghton & Company and expanded. In 1895 the Athenaeum Press, a division of Ginn & Company, located on the river’s edge in East Cambridge in a neo-classical brick and brownstone structure distinctively surmounted by a statue of Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom.
The systematic filling of the Back Bay, which was carried out in stages between 1857 and 1882 and added some 600 acres to Boston’s downtown, reoriented most of Boston’s shoreline toward high quality residential development.  Yet some industrial establishments continued to exist even in Boston until a fairly late date.  A cluster of factories stood just west of Cambridge Street until the late 19th century. They included the headquarters of the Boston Gas Light Company, an organ factory, a coal and wood yard, and a carriage factory at the foot of fashionable Chestnut Street. Still another carriage-making establishment stood opposite Hereford Street in the Back Bay as late as 1876.
There was much industry in the upper basin as well. Industrial establishments here tended to cluster around the various river crossings. They hugged the southern shore of the river just outside of Watertown Square, the most notable establishment here being the Stanley Steamer factory. 
In 1872 the massive Brighton Abattoir was built on the banks of the Charles in North Brighton. The 60 acre complex boasted 1,000 feet of river frontage, allowing schooners and sloops to tie up at its wharves, and included a large rendering house and fourteen slaughterhouses, ten of which were arranged under one continuous roof. In 1881 the Brighton Stockyards moved from Brighton Center to a parcel of land on lower Market Street adjacent to the Abattoir. The laying out of the Boston & Albany Railroad’s huge Beacon Park Freight Yard in Allston in the 1890s reinforced the area’s industrial character.

With the damming of the mouth of the river in 1908 a fundamental transformation in the character of the Charles River Basin became possible---a change from a commercial artery to “The People’s River”---making the Charles River Basin Greater Boston’s most important recreational and visual amenity.
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