Miles Standish was the first white man, it is said, who stood on the peninsula of Boston. The records go to show, however, that William Blackstone, an Episcopalian, in 1626, became the first white settler, and his dwelling was somewhere in the vicinity of what now is the corner of Beacon and Charles streets. His memory is kept in mind in this city by having a very busy commercial street and a handsome square at the South End named after him. The best authorities agree that the original firm ground of the peninsula of Boston was only 625 acres, the whole of which was purchased for about £30. Its topographical features were striking. Three hills, of which Beacon, the most westerly, was the highest, were all washed at their base by the sea, and they formed the north end of a peninsula which was connected with the main land by a narrow isthmus, near where the Metropolitan car-stables now stand, on Washington street. Besides Beacon there were Copps and Fort hills. There were three sea coves; the most easterly was enclosed by the headlands of Copps and Fort hills, and was used for the town dock, where Dock square and the markets are. Another was embraced between the point of land near the foot of South Street, formerly known as "windmill point," and the head of the bridge to South Boston, and was called the South cove. The third inlet was on the northwest of the peninsula, lying between the two points of land from which now extend bridges to Charlestown and East Cambridge, and became subsequently a mill pond. Over a narrow causeway, built on the line of Causeway street, the sea swept at high tide and covered the low ground now known as Blackstone street. Boston can no longer be called a peninsula, and Fort hill, one of the trimountains, has no longer an existence, while the other two are much shorn of their proportions, and the three coves have been made into firm land and valuable real-estate sections.
The First Buildings
of the early settlers were of the rudest kind and were constructed of wood with thatched roofs, and chimneys built of pieces of wood placed crosswise, the spaces between being filled in and covered with mud. These structures were built upon the narrow strips of land along and around its three hills and bordering on the three coves and smaller arms of the sea which environed the incipient metropolis. A certain number of highways had been established within fifteen years from the actual settlement of the town. No regular names were given to them at that time, although nearly all of them have continued to run in about the same direction and have the same location as then. Washington street, first known as High street, was laid out as the highway to Roxbury, but the roadway to that town was along the beach of South cove, facing South Boston, which ran from Essex street and parallel with Washington street at a distance which allowed but a single house-lot in depth up to Dover street and beyond. Crossing Washington street, at Dover street, the Back bay waters almost swept to the street. It widened out to the northwest parallel, but outside of Pleasant street, and then the bay waters curved inland, covering not only the places where stand the houses of the wealthy who now reside on Commonwealth avenue and Arlington street, but that little Eden of our city—the Public Garden—and also the parade ground of the Common, while Boylston and Tremont streets, in the earlier maps, mark the line of occupancy.
Above the Waters of the Back Bay
arose Beacon hill, uncrossed then by any path. The north part of Tremont street and Court and Cambridge streets wound around its base, the high-water line crossing Cambridge street at its junction with Anderson. A peninsula stretched northwest and ran across the Brighton street, and was bounded east by the Mill cove which then covered the lands occupied by the Boston and Main and other railroad depots on Causeway street and the streets adjacent. The firm land went below Leverett street; the water crossed Gouch and Pitts streets at half their length and crossed Sudbury street between Bowker and Portland streets. A canal ran in the course where Blackstone street now stands and connected the mill pond with the town dock spoken of above. The dock was, as has been stated, where the market now stands (Dock square), and of course old North End was by reason of this water course an island.
In and around where the Old South Church stands was the residence of Governor Winthrop, and it became a centre of population. Hanover street, and its branches were occupied by notabilities of the time, while around the high land of Copps hill and North square a colony of settlers was formed. Washington street was not laid out beyond Essex street until 1664.
The Committee on Ordinances
of the last city government, from whose report on the nomenclature of streets some of the above records are made, say that they took their starting point on the changes of the names of streets from the date, 1708, in which the above appellations were recorded by the ancient fathers of Boston town. The Pudding lane is suggestive, and where it ran since stood, on Congress square, a stately edifice known as the Exchange Coffee House. It was seven stories high, and completed in 1808, costing $500,000. It was intended to use the first floor for a merchants' exchange, but it was too far ahead of its time, and is said to have been the means of ruining many of the mechanics who were employed in building it. A fire on November 3, 1818, destroyed it, and a less expensive tavern replaced it, which lasted until 1853, when it was demolished to give way to the City Exchange building.
But to go back again, it may be worth while to quote a lady who, entering Boston in 1795, wrote a description of the appearance of its domiciles then. She says, "The ranges of wooden buildings, all situated with one end towards the street, and the numerous chaises we met, drawn by one horse, the driver being placed on a low seat in front, appeared to me very singular." Another observer in 1805 wrote: "The houses were most of them wood, seldom enlivened by paint, and closely resembling the old-fashioned, dark-looking edifices to be seen in Newport, R. I." In 1703 the first block of brick buildings was erected in Franklin street.
Boston Daily Globe, Jan 25, 1880, p. 9