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HISTORY OF THE GREAT FIRE.


CHAPTER I.

AN HISTORICAL SKETCH OF BOSTON.

BOSTON, in 1629, had one inhabitant. He, however, called it “Shawmut,” as did the Indians who occasionally hunted partridges through its underbrush and glades, and built their camp-fires beside the ledges of its three hills (tri-mountain). Rev. William Blaxton was the first settler, and, as near as we can ascertain by the records, the only one who made any permanent stay on the peninsula previous to the advent of the Massachusetts colonists. He was a strange man, with considerable skill as an agriculturist, and entertaining a queer notion, that any neighbor nearer than Charlestown would be crowding him. For seven years he held the whole peninsula, and cultivated a portion of it near the bay; and appears to have had a grant of the entire tract from the King of England, although we can judge of that only by the fact that subsequent settlers purchased the land of him without questioning his title.

In the spring of 1680, a large company of emigrants belonging to the Massachusetts colony, which was an incorporated body under the laws of England, landed in Salem under the guidance of Gov. Winthrop. In July they settled in Charlestown, then called “Mishawum.” But there was no pure water to be found in the vicinity of Mishawum except one spring, which was below tide-water. So many were sick, that sufficient help could not be found to care for them; and in that condition some died unattended. A gloomy state of affairs indeed, and such a one as would move the sympathies of anybody. Mr. Blaxton heard of their sufferings, and very generously sacrificed his desire to be alone in order to comfort them; and invited them over to Shawmut, where were beautiful springs, and one especially that was a marvel of crystal beauty. This celebrated spring, which was the real cause of the removal of the colony from Charlestown to Boston, flowed on for a hundred years after, giving health and strength to all who came for its unceasing waters. On the 17th of September, 1630, after “resolving” in the court of governor and council (Sept. 7) to call the settlement “Boston,” the colony was ferried across, and pitched its tents and erected its rude barracks about the coveted spring.

Mr. Blaxton was annoyed by the contiguity of other families, and moved away into a place now known as Blackstone in Rhode Island. Before going, however, he sold all his land to the colony. The houses of the governor, John Winthrop, the deputy-governor, Thomas Dudley, and the secretary, Simon Brodestreet, were built near the spring, being one-story structures with thatched roofs.

They were a wise company, and genuine heroes: but they were not far-sighted enough to provide for the great city which was to follow; and they constructed their roads with a view only to the cost, and avoided with short turns all the knolls, bowlders, and hollows. What was five minutes of walking then, compared with the immense labor of making straight highways?

The first street was doubtless located where Washington and Union Streets now are; and, as more than fifteen hundred persons came into the colony during the first year, that highway and Tri-mount (Tremont) Street, laid out soon after, must have been populous avenues very early in the history of the colony. The town grew surprisingly fast in view of its rough surface, shallow soil, and the strict laws, one of which was a public whipping for being caught kissing a woman.

There were added to its numbers, by immigration, about fifteen hundred persons each year during the earliest period of its life. The land was divided into pastures and gardens by rough fences, with lanes leading to them from the principal highways. The water from the principal spring, as it ran down toward the harbor, kept moist a very troublesome marsh (where Milk Street is now laid), which was the boundary of several pastures.

The hill afterwards known as “Fort Hill” was steep and jagged on the north and east side, with an easy slope on the south and west. It was a famous place for Indian corn; and its crops were the pride of the whole people. James Penn was the owner for many years, and kept his corn-fields in a good state of cultivation, notwithstanding the fact that the town took a small space on the top in 1632 for a fort, and kept it ever after ready for an attack. In 1643, Widow Anne Tuthill, the enterprising wife of an energetic miller, moved her windmill from Newton, “where there was no wind,” to some point on Fort Hill; and entered into competition with like establishments at Copp’s Hill, now known as the “North End.”

The cows were brought from England, and a variety of fruit-trees and vegetables, which, with some at Plymouth, were the nucleus of the widespread orchards of America. There were occasional dangers from the failure to procure food; and many moved to Newton to escape the threatened famines. But a trade was started with the Indians of Cape Cod through the assistance of the Plymouth colony; and thus the calamity was averted.

How they built their houses on the lanes, how they were governed, how they married or conducted their funerals, how they grew in numbers and importance, and the long series of causes which led to the war of the Revolution, can best be read in volumes devoted exclusively to those topics. It is the writer’s more especial work to make reference to such historic localities as were included in or connected with the “burned district.”

The first church-edifice erected in Boston was located on the road now called State Street, on the south side, near the building so long known as “Brazer’s Block.” It was a one-story, thatched-roof structure, with rude benches, and a more rude pulpit, made rough from necessity, and “to contrast with the extravagant Saint Bartolph’s Cathedral in old Boston, England,” from which the builders came. This awkward church was built in August, 1632; the regular services having been held in private houses or under the trees before that time, with the Rev. John Wilson acting as pastor. In 1640, when the first building was destroyed, the congregation relaxed a little in their belief in the efficacy of rough boards as a purifier of the soul, and built a much better house on the present site of Joy’s Building, on Washington Street. This was burned in 1711, and replaced by a brick church structure, which was taken down in 1808.

Sept. 30, 1648, the Second Church was organized, and a house of worship constructed at the North End, on North Square. It was torn to pieces by the soldiers in 1775, and the members united with Dr. Lathrop’s church in Hanover Street.

In July, 1669, seceders from the First Church erected the Old South on its present site; which was formerly a portion of Gov. Winthrop’s estate. In 1729 it was taken down, and the present brick edifice reared on the same foundation. Since that time, it has been most intimately connected with American history; and there has clustered about it a store of reminiscences dear to every true American heart. There powerful sermons against oppression were delivered; there Warren nerved the hearts of his hearers for a first rebellion; there the patriots held public and secret meetings; there, it is said, the plot for the destruction of the tea was formed; and from its doors sallied the disguised freemen who destroyed that cargo. The first election-sermon was preached there in 1712; and that precedent was followed for a hundred and sixty years. Earthquakes, fires, storms, lightning, and human marauders, spared it; and even the British soldiery, who made bunks of the seats, bar-rooms of the galleries, and dance-halls of the aisles, did not deface its exterior: yet trade, that leveller of “sacred hills,” is less considerate; and the venerable pile must fall.

In 1689, King’s Chapel, at the corner of School and Tremont Streets, was built, and rebuilt in 1713. It was again rebuilt in 1754.

In July, 1715, a company met at the Bull Tavern, in Summer Street, and organized a church, to be called the “New South.” In September of that same year, they applied for leave to erect a church on the spot now known as the “End Lot,” at the junction of Summer and Bedford Streets. The house was originally built of wood, but was rebuilt with Chelmsford granite in 1814, and “stood the test of time” until four years ago, when it was removed to give place to those elegant palaces of trade, built in 1868, of which we all were proud.

Trinity Church, in Summer Street, situated on the north side, near Washington Street, was erected of wood in 1734, and was the third Episcopal church built in the city. Christ’s Church had become so crowded, that another church was necessary; and, accordingly, the Summer-street lot, then in the most aristocratic portion of Boston, was selected as its site. In 1828 it was taken down, and built of Quincy granite, in the massive Gothic style, — so like the eloquence and thought of him who last occupied its pulpit. It had seats for twelve hundred persons. The interior wood-work was painted in imitation of oak, and the ceilings were artistically frescoed. Burial tablets, of costly design, also adorned the walls; and underneath the church was a burial-place containing fifty-five tombs, one of which was used for the interment of strangers.

There have been eleven rectors of the church, whose settlements may be enumerated as follows: Rev. Addington Davenport, settled 1740; died 1746. Rev. William Hooper, 1747; died 1767. Rev. William Walter, D.D., 1767; left 1775. Rev. Samuel Parker, D.D., 1775; died 1804. Rev. John S. C. Gardiner, assistant 1792; rector 1805; died 1830. Rev. George W. Doane, D.D., assistant 1828; rector 1830; left 1833. Rev. John H. Hopkins, D.D., assistant 1831; left 1832. Rev. Jonathan M. Wainwright, D.D., 1833; left 1837. Rev. John L. Watson, assistant 1836; left 1846. Rt. Rev. Manton Eastburn, D.D., bishop of the diocese 1842; died 1872. Rev. John Cotton Smith, assistant. Rev. Phillips Brooks, present rector, settled 1869. The corner-stone of the first edifice was laid by the Rev. Mr. Price, of King’s Chapel; who also preached the first sermon in the church, Aug. 15, 1735.

In the year 1836 a free Episcopal church was established in Common Street, and soon became so crowded, that in 1845 a larger and more substantial house was erected in Purchase Street for the congregation. Hon. William Appleton gave twenty-seven thousand dollars, and Edward Tuckerman bequeathed five thousand dollars, toward the same object; and thus was established a beautiful, substantial church, and thus did great men send the gospel to the poor. The Rev. E. M. P. Wells was the last rector who officiated regularly within its walls.

On Sunday, Jan. 17, 1706, Benjamin Franklin was born in a two-story, thatched-roof building, covered on the front with rough clapboards, and on the sides with rude shingles, and which occupied a piece of ground about twenty by thirty feet. This queer dwelling, having but one room on the ground-floor, was situated on Milk Street, near the corner of Washington Street, and opposite the Old South Church. Benjamin’s father soon after moved to the Blue Ball, at the North End; but the old house, having undergone various changes, stood until 1810, when it was destroyed by fire. Afterwards a large granite building was built on the same ground; and the wealthiest merchants of the country bought and sold merchandise on the much-honored spot.

After a portion of Fort Hill was purchased of Mr. Penn for a fort, it became a kind of public resort for evening and holiday promenaders; and after some years the corn-fields gave place to the dwellings of the wealthier people of Boston who could “afford to live so far in the country.” While the vicinity of Federal, Pearl, and Devonshire Streets, was still a cow-pasture, elegant houses were occupied on the slopes of Fort Hill; and Summer Street was its natural avenue of approach. By an ancient map of the town, made in 1728, we find that the land was still much used for farming-purposes between Milk Street and Essex Street, and doubtless continued so for a great many years. At the date mentioned, the principal streets were laid out as they now run. The names of some of them sound a little ludicrous in the ears of the modern Bostonian. High Street was called “Cow Lane;” Batterymarch Street, “Crab Lane;” Exchange Street went by the title of “Pudding Alley,” and sometimes “Pudding Lane;” and the streets connecting State Street (then called King Street) with Dock Square were named “Crooked Lane,” “Shrimpton Lane,” “Perkins Alley,” and “Merchants’ Row.” Portland Street was called “Cold Lane;” Boylston Street was known by the nomen, “Frog Lane;” while fourteen of the streets now in use were called lanes.

It was as late as 1800 when Fort Hill began to be very extensively occupied by private dwellings. Who were the pioneers in the movement is not positively known. It is certain, however, that the Hon. Andrew Oliver, stamp-officer, whose house was attacked by the Stamp-Act rioters of 1765, and who was compelled to come in the rain to the Liberty-Tree, at the corner of Essex and Washington (now) Streets, and publicly resign his office, lived on one side of that hill; and he was one of the most wealthy citizens.

In 1830 it was a “very princely quarter,” according to a weekly paper of that period; and the transformation of the decayed old fort into a public park (Washington Square), and the establishment of public buildings there, doubtless much increased its popularity.

Within a score of years, the place changed much; and all the princely families moved away to Beacon Street, the Back Bay, or the South End, leaving their mansions to be occupied, room by room, by the poorest of Boston’s population. In 1865 the city voted to cut away the hill, and proposed to use it for filling up the Church‘ street district, Atlantic Avenue, and other places; and in 1869 appropriated a million two hundred and fifty thousand dollars for that purpose. It was at once cut down to the grade of the surrounding streets; and its removal left a large unoccupied space to be filled with business-houses.

Summer Street continued to be a dwelling-place for wealthy “old residents” until as late as 1858. Daniel Webster, for many years, had his home on the corner of High and Summer Streets; and the dwelling only five years ago gave up its claims to a granite building of very extensive proportions. In a house two doors west of Otis Street resided the great orator, Edward Everett, during the last years of his life; and it is only very recently that the dwelling was superseded by stores.

In Hawley Street, in the year 1808, a mineral spring owned by Mr. Hall obtained great celebrity on account of its medicinal qualities, but suddenly became unpopular, and was abandoned. Arch Street and Winthrop Square were long noted for their fine gardens; and the business-blocks there, as on Franklin Street, were all nearly new at the time of the great fire. Previous to the grand business-palaces of Franklin Street, there was a double row of brick dwelling-houses, called Franklin Place, and, previous to the dwelling-houses, a boggy marsh running down through Mr. Charles Bulfinch’s garden.

The Quaker meeting-house erected on Congress Street (then called Leverett’s Lane), at the head of Lindall Street, in 1709, near which was the “old Quaker burying-ground,” and to which the society removed from Brattle Square, was standing in 1828, when the yearly meeting of Friends conveyed it by deed to Dr. Edward H. Robbins. It was afterwards occupied by “The Boston Daily Evening Transcript; “and in 1860, on the removal of that popular paper to Washington Street, Messrs. J. E. Farwell & Co. leased the chambers for their large printing-establishment. The burying-ground, which of course has been wholly removed, was the fourth in point of antiquity in the town, — the King’s-Chapel graveyard in Tremont Street being the first, Copp’s-Hill burying-place the second, the Granary burial-yard, near Park-street Church, the third.

Of these historic localities, the recent great fire swept over the birthplace of Franklin, about the old South Church, Gov. Winthrop’s homestead, and the Quaker meeting-house. It piled ruins around Fort Hill, and over the foundations of Webster’s and Everett’s homes. It demolished Trinity and St. Stephen’s churches. It levelled the stores on the site of the New South Church, and it boiled about the mineral springs; and the crystal fountain which called the Massachusetts colony from Charlestown was only protected by the new United States treasury-building. So great had been the growth of the city, that a half-century had seen that whole region covered with substantial brick and granite One day served to destroy it.


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