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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).  Researchers should, however, feel free to quote from the material, with proper attribution.  

Building The Mill Dam

One of the greatest engineering accomplishments of early 19th century Boston was the construction, in the 1818 to 1821 period, of a causeway---the so-called Mill Dam---across the Back Bay.  Prior to the building of this raised roadway Beacon Street extended only as far as the foot of Charles Street, where the waters of the Back Bay impeded further western progress.

However, the Boston & Roxbury Mill Dam, as this structure was originally known, was not conceived as a transportation project. The proposal was advanced with the object of fostering the industrial development.

The individual chiefly responsible for building the mill dam was Uriah Cotting, merchant, real estate promoter, and amateur engineer, who had already helped modernize a major part of Boston’s waterfront. Boston historian Justin Winsor described Cotting as “the projector and guiding spirit in nearly every enterprise involving the development of the town for business during the first twenty years” of the 19th century. Yet Cotting remains a somewhat shadowy figure.

It was during the War of 1812, at a time when industrial products were in short supply, that Cotting conceived a plan to harness the water power of the tidal Charles River for manufacturing. The plan called for the building of two dams, one on either side of the Boston Neck. The first would extend from the foot of Beacon Hill to Sewall’s Point in Brookline (the present Kenmore Square), the other from Boston to South Boston. The resulting basins would be connected by raceways. At high tide, water would be allowed to flow into the Back Bay basin, and through the connecting raceways into the South Boston basin, before emptying into Boston Harbor at low tide.

Not everyone in Boston supported Cotting’s scheme for the industrialization of the Back Bay. The following letter, which appeared in the Daily Advertiser in early 1814, expressed concern about the impact the project would have on the appearance and health of the city:

Citizens of Boston! Have you ever visited the Mall [a promenade at the western edge of the Common]: have you ever inhaled the western breeze, fragrant with perfume, refreshing every sense and invigorating every nerve?  What think you of converting the beautiful sheet of water which skirts the Common into an empty mud-basin, reeking with filth, abhorrent to the smell, and disgusting to the eye?  By every god of sea, lake, or fountain, it is incredible.

However, enthusiasm for industrial development was so prevalent in these years that proponents had little difficulty persuading the Commonwealth to authorize the Mill Dam scheme.  Thus on June 14, 1814, the Massachusetts Legislature incorporated Uriah Cotting, Isaac P. Davis, William Brown and associates as the Boston & Roxbury Mill Dam Corporation to carry the Cotting plan to completion. The corporation was given license to “lease or sell the right of using the water [thereby generated]...upon any terms, and [in] any manner they may think.”  They were also authorized to sell 3,500 shares to capitalize the venture. Since the conditions of the economy in the immediate post-war period were unfavorable to manufacturing ventures, however, the project was delayed for four years.

When Boston & Roxbury Mill Dam stock was finally offered for sale in 1818, investors snapped it up with great enthusiasm. Cotting, who drafted the 24-page prospectus for the project, contended that the Mill Dam had the potential to provide power for 81 mills, including, 6 grist mills, 6 saw mills, 16 cotton mills, 8 woolen mills, 12 rolling and slitting mills, and also facilities for the manufacture of cannon, anchors, scythes, grindstones, paint, and other manufactured goods. While the Mill Dam would cost $250,000, a huge sum at that time, Cotting estimated that it had a potential to generate about $520,000 in income per year.  Here, clearly, was an investment opportunity not to be missed!  One determined investor is said to have crawled through Cotting’s office window in his determination to procure Boston & Roxbury Mill Dam shares.

The plan as finally carried out eliminated the South Boston basin. The Mill Dam would be confined to the Back Bay.

First, a mile and a half long and 50 foot wide stone dam was built from the foot of Beacon Hill to Sewell’s Point (now Kenmore Square) in Brookline, enclosing 600 acres of the Back Bay. Then a cross-dam was constructed from Gravelly Point in Roxbury, subdividing the impounded area into two basins, a westerly full basin, of about 100 acres, and an easterly receiving basin of some 500 acres. At high tide the waters of the Charles would enter the westerly basin, pass through sluices into the easterly basin, turning turbines to generate power, before emptying back into the Charles at low tide.

In the end the Boston & Roxbury Mill Dam proved a dismal failure. Cotting optimistic predictions proved completely erroneous. The cost of building the Mill Dam, which he had estimated at $250,000, proved to be a whopping $700,000. The number of manufactories established on the margin of the Mill Dam never exceeded three---a far cry from the 81 Cotting had predicted. In 1834, the Mill Dam Corporation generating a mere $6,133 in gross annual receipts, well short of Cotting’s $520,000 estimate.

It is perhaps fortunate that Cotting died in May of 1819, two years before the completion of the project, for his public reputation was greatly damaged by the project’s colossal failure. He was, incidentally, only 53 years of age at the time of his death.

The failure of the Mill Dam project was in one respect most fortunate for the city. Had the Back Bay developed into an industrial zone, as Cotting hoped it would, the area would almost certainly not have become the handsome elite late Victorian residential district of our day, one of the architectural glories of Boston.

The Mill Dam, as already noted, benefited the city by providing Boston with direct access to the towns on its western periphery. Prior to the construction of this roadway (present-day Beacon Street), persons traveling out to Brookline, Brighton, Watertown, and other westerly towns, were obliged to approach the area indirectly. Travelers could there by way of the West Boston Bridge (a wooden toll bridge that linked the West End to Cambridgeport), or by way of the Boston Neck (the only overland route), across Roxbury to the Punch Bowl (now Brookline Village), a point of convergence of several westerly roads. The latter route involved making a great six mile arc around the Back Bay.

On the other hand, it was some years before the Mill Dam Road carried much traffic, for it was a toll road.  In addition, the ride across the Mill Dam to Brookline was neither particularly safe nor pleasant.  William Lawrence, the future Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts, furnished a detailed description of the road’s drawbacks in his memoirs:

It seemed a long our house in Longwood, for just beyond Charles Street the blocks of houses stopped. The Public Garden was then a dirty waste, and at Arlington Street was the city dump, where ashes and other refuse were thrown by tip-cars into the Back Bay

Nor were the surroundings uninterruptedly rural.  There were the perils of commercial traffic and (after 1834) railroad crossings to contend with.

Halfway across the Dam was the tollgate, where every team and carriage stopped to pay the toll: and just beyond, where at flood tide the Charles rushed in under a cut in the road to fill the Back Bay, and at ebb tide rushed out again, were the mill and the mill-wheel which ground corn hauled in from Brookline and Newton by farmers.  At the fork "Brighton Road" ran out where Commonwealth Avenue now is, and the "Punch Bowl Road" to the left [Brookline Avenue], leading to the Punch Bowl Tavern in the Boston and Worcester---now the Albany---Railroad tracks.  Over the road was a great sign, "Railroad Crossing: Look out for the Engine while the bell rings."

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