Here to return to
THE portion of this highway lying between Somerset and Tremont Streets, formed originally a part of School Street. About five years after the setting up of the Beacon, a roadway was laid out thereto, extending from the principal thoroughfare (now Washington Street) in accordance with a vote of the Town, March 30, 1640, as follows: “It is ordered that the Streete from Mr. Atherton Haulghe’s to the Centry Hill be lay’d out, and soe kept open for ever.” Atherton Hough, a former Alderman of Boston, Lincolnshire, had come over from England in 1633 with the Reverend John Cotton and other prominent persons. His residence was on the southwest corner of Washington and School Streets. Under the date August 20, 1660, is to be found this Order in the Town Records: “Whereas there was a Streete ordered formerly from Mr. Haughe’s house to the Centry Hill; and Lieutenant Robert Turner hath lately erected a new house in the said line; It is ordered that the Select men, with the four Captaines, shall have power to order the said Streete to the best advantage of the towne.” It appears that the section of Beacon Street between the site of King’s Chapel and the Beacon was not used as a roadway immediately after being laid out; but the land was leased to individuals for cultivation in gardening.1 School Street was so named by the Town in 1708, and in the first Boston Directory, of 1789, it is called “South Latin School Street.”
Early in the eighteenth century the western limit of Beacon Street was at or near the Shaw Monument. It was afterward described as leading “from Tremont Street over Beacon Hill, westerly through the upper side of the Common, and so down to the Sea.” At that period, therefore, it extended as far as the present Charles Street, to a point very near the former garden of the pioneer settler, William Blackstone. As early as June, 1724, Simon Rogers was granted leave to build a wooden house on Beacon Street, as set forth in his petition, and entered in the Book for recording Timber Buildings. Simon Rogers was the name of the landlord who was in charge of the George Tavern near the Roxbury line, at about that period. For some years after the Hancock house was built, Beacon Street seems to have remained in a somewhat neglected state. And evidently the disposition of the water, which poured down from off the steep incline of the original Beacon Hill in rainy seasons, was a difficult problem for the Town authorities. On May 2, 1739, a committee reported that whereas previously the water from Beacon Street had mostly run across the Common, and so took its course into Winter Street, its direction had been changed by raising the grade of the Common opposite to the head of the latter highway. “So that now,” in the words of the Report, “the water from Beacon Street will spread over the Common; and as little will run down through Winter Street as runs through most streets of the Town.”
One of the first houses built on Beacon Hill was the stone mansion of Thomas Hancock, dating from 1737, and afterward the residence of his nephew, John Hancock, the patriot, who was the first Governor of Massachusetts under the Constitution, serving from 1780 till 1785. The price paid for this house-lot in 1735 was one thousand dollars. It comprised about an acre of land. Adjoining it on the west were the stable and carriage-house. His cow pasture, which included the whole of the present State-House grounds, had been bought by Thomas Hancock in 1752 for eleven hundred dollars. In 1855 it was estimated to be worth eleven hundred thousand dollars. “A thousand fold rise in value,” wrote Nathaniel Ingersoll Bowditch, in “Gleaner Articles,” “is very fair for such an old place as Boston.” According to an inventory of the estate of Captain Nathaniel Cunningham, land in lower Beacon Street was worth less than one hundred dollars an acre in 1757. Previous to the Revolution, Beacon Hill was distinctly rural in character; and we learn that it was the acquisition of the Hancock pasture as the site of the new State House which gave the impulse for the development of this region.
On August 15, 1739, Mr. Thomas Hancock appeared before the Board of Selectmen, and informed them that since the Common or Training Field had been railed in, the highway called Beacon Street, whereon his house fronted, had been “so much used by Carts, Horses, etc; passing in it, that he apprehended what he had done to make the said highway convenient, will be greatly damnified, and the said highway spoiled, and soon become a nuisance, unless some means be taken to prevent the same.”
In response to a petition of several inhabitants, whose estates abutted on Beacon Street, setting forth the necessity of paving said street, the Town appropriated fifty pounds sterling for that purpose in the year 1754. It seems, however, that the citizens naturally became more chary of expenditures during the hard times immediately preceding the Revolution. For at an adjourned public Town Meeting, held in the Reverend Dr. Joseph Sewall’s Meeting-House (the Old South Church) in March, 1761, a request for funds wherewith to repave Bacon Street was voted down.
In November, 1815, the Selectmen authorized the widening of that portion of Beacon Street lying between the southwest corner of the State-House yard and Belknap (now Joy) Street, by taking from the Hancock estate a strip of land averaging about eighteen feet in breadth. This action was in response to a petition presented by a number of gentlemen residing near by. They maintained that the public safety and convenience required this widening, and that the improvement could be made at that time with peculiar convenience “owing to the shattered and ruinous condition of the fences” occasioned by the historic equinoctial gales of September in the same year.
Early in the nineteenth century, land on Beacon Street, anywhere between the top of the hill and the present Charles Street, could be bought at the rate of about seventy-five cents a foot. Dr. Jerome Van Crowninshield Smith, who was Mayor of Boston in 1854, related that a worthy carpenter named Ingersoll, of “unsullied reputation,” was employed to fence in a lot on Beacon Hill, west of the State House, where there was a luxurious growth of huckleberry bushes. Mr. Ingersoll built a substantial fence, and in due time presented his bill, which the landowner considered excessive. After vainly endeavoring to obtain a reduction, the owner offered the land in payment for the fence. This offer was indignantly refused. A half-century later the same piece of land, with the buildings thereon, was worth nearly a million dollars.2 In the very early days lots within the Town limits were divided among the inhabitants, and cost from one to fifteen shillings an acre. Swamps and rocky land went for naught. There were no sidewalks until after the Revolution. We have read that the townsfolk of Old Boston rose and went to bed early, wrought hard, and had long prayers several times daily. “They didn’t laugh often enough, and were too strait-laced. Dogs and small boys were not happy. The maidens were as demure as tabbies, and wore ribbons. Their gallants wore periwigs, though the pulpit thundered against them.”
The present State-House lot was bequeathed by Thomas Hancock to his widow, Lydia, together with his mansion-house, the gardens and other adjoining lands; also various outbuildings, including the carriage-house, and his chariots, chaises, and horses, besides all his negroes. Mrs. Hancock died in 1777, and Governor John Hancock was her sole residuary legatee. The estate comprised “all the State House lot and lands to the west of it as far as Belknap Street (previously called Clapboard Street, now Joy Street) and all of Beacon Hill to the north of it.”3 In 1800, and for some years thereafter, Sumner Street led from Beacon Street, opposite to the head of Park Street, nearly due north and past the new State House, to the Beacon Monument. The location of Sumner Street is shown on a plan of Boston from actual survey, by Osgood Carleton.
The first brick house on Beacon Street was built by the Honorable John Phillips, Boston’s first Mayor, in 1804. This house, now occupied by the Misses Mason, was the birthplace of Wendell Phillips. In the very early days of the nineteenth century, Beacon Street was considered rather remote. When Mr. John Phillips moved into his new house, his uncle, Judge Oliver Wendell, was asked what had induced his nephew to reside out of town!4 At that period there were but three houses on Beacon Street between Charles Street and the top of the hill. The fourth house built in that locality belonged to Dr. John Joy, a druggist, whose shop was on Washington Street, at the corner of Spring Lane. His wife was an invalid, and her physician advised her removal to Beacon Street, which she was averse to doing, because it seemed so far away.
“That this part of the city is really on a hill,” wrote Robert Shackelton, in the “Book of Boston,” “is recognized as you climb it; and if, on some of the streets, you sit inside one of the bowed windows, and a man is walking down the hill, you are likely to see him from the waist up as he passes the upper window, and to see only the top of his hat when he passes the lower. This Beacon Hill is so charming a part of the city as to be supreme among American perched places, for delightfulness of homes and city living.”
The denizens of the “Hub” are so accustomed to raillery and banter regarding their crooked thoroughfares and alleged provincialism that a few words of praise for Beacon Hill from unprejudiced observers may not seem inconsistent with becoming modesty. Anthony Trollope, the English novelist, who visited Boston during the Civil War, remarked that Beacon Street bears some resemblance to Piccadilly as it runs along the Green Park in London. And there is also a Green Park in Boston, called the Common, he observed. Mr. Trollope avowed that he had become enamoured of the Lincolnshire seaport’s American namesake. The State House, with its great yellow dome, was sightly in his eyes. And the sunsets over the western waters that encompass the city were superior in brilliancy to all other sunsets that he had ever seen. “I have stood upon. the keep of Carisbrooke Castle in the Isle of Wight,” wrote E. C. Wines in “A Trip to Boston” (1838), “on the Leaning Tower of Pisa; on the dome of the Cathedral at Florence; on the summits of Gibraltar, Vesuvius, the Acro-Corinthus at Corinth, Greece; the Acropolis of Sardis in Asia Minor; and on many other elevated points in all the four continents. And I declare that few of the prospects thus obtained are equal, and fewer still superior, to that enjoyed from the State House at Boston.” Again, a well-known English author and traveller, E. V. Lucas, after a tour of sight-seeing in this country during the year 1820, admired the “serene façades” of the Beacon-Street houses overlooking the Common. These façades he considered to be “as satisfying as anything in Georgian London.”
In some “Sketches of History, Life and Manners in the United States” (New Haven, Conn., 1826), the author, Mrs. Royall, of Saint Stephens, a village on the Tombigee River in Alabama, thus wrote: “The State House, Boston, a grand edifice, with a lofty dome, stands upon the highest ground in the City, nearly in the centre. This, and the cupolas of Faneuil Hall, the Old State House, and a dozen others, with about seventy white steeples, pierce the clouds in every part of the town. Much as I had travelled, and curious as I had been to regard the scenery of the States through which I passed, never had I seen anything to compare with this view from the State-House cupola. Even my favorite scenery in Washington City shrinks into nothing beside it.” And the gilded Dome was described by Henry James as “high in the air; poised in the right place over everything that clustered below; the most felicitous object in Boston.”
1A Record of the Streets, Lanes, etc., in the City of Boston. 1910.
2The Boston Almanac. 1853.
3Gleaner Articles, page 107.
4The Memorial History of Boston, III, 225.