The Back Bay neighborhood of Boston is home to some of the city’s most famous landmarks, including Prudential Tower, the Boston Central Library, Trinity Church, and the posh shopping district of Newbury Street. It’s hard to imagine that about 150 years ago, this area was almost completely covered in water. Back Bay was, in fact, a bay.
You could say that the only thing constant about cities is that they are always changing. But we may not often think of cities changing the physical geography, or that is, the natural landforms upon which they are built. Land reclamation, or the creation of new land from water bodies such as sea or wetlands, has a long global history, as humans have tried to harness nature and shape the landscape to meet our needs. The extensive map collections of the Geography and Map Division allow us to see how urban landscapes have evolved over time, whether through forces of nature or human engineering. A great place to explore changing cities through historical maps is the city of Boston. Since its founding in 1630, the geography of Boston has undergone major transformations, and we have the maps to prove it!
One of the earliest maps of Boston in the collection is a 1728 map by William Burgis and Thomas Johnston that was produced for William Burnet, who was then the British colonial Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. The map shows a dramatically different geography of Boston from the one we know today, with the peninsular city precariously connected to the mainland of Massachusetts by a narrow, fortified isthmus that became known as “Boston Neck.”
Over the years, the city of Boston would expand through annexations of nearby municipalities and, more dramatically, in the creation of new landforms in ambitious landfill projects. An 1814 map of Boston by John Groves Hales and Thomas Wightman shows the progress of urban expansion through landfill. Mill Pond, a pond created by a milldam that provided power to nearby grist mills and sawmills, is visible in the map near the northern tip of the peninsula and close to the map’s compass. It was during this time that Mill Pond was in the process of being filled and converted to urban land, with the plan for the area’s new streets drawn on the map. This area today constitutes the Bulfinch Triangle Historic District (named after architect Charles Bulfinch) located near North Station. In addition to Mill Pond’s infill, Hales and Wightman’s map provides an inset map showing early expansions of Boston Neck.
Moving forward several decades to 1854, we can see Boston continuing to evolve in J.H. Colton and Company’s “Map of Boston and Adjacent Cities.” Among other expansions of the city through annexation and landfill, Colton’s map shows the pre-construction planning for one of Boston’s largest expansion projects: the filling in of Back Bay. At the time, Back Bay was a tidal marsh separated from the Charles River by a milldam in a somewhat similar way to Mill Pond but over a much larger area. The area was slated to be transformed into a new neighborhood of Boston, with potential streets drawn onto the map in dotted lines. This forward-looking map design even includes Silver Lake, a proposed artificial lake in the middle of the neighborhood that ultimately did not come to fruition. Seeing the Back Bay today as one of Boston’s most iconic neighborhoods, I find it fascinating that we can look back at a map like Colton’s and see the neighborhood, and the city as a whole, still evolving to reach its present-day form.
To help us imagine Boston in the late-1800s, still undergoing massive changes in its geography, we can turn to some of the many incredible panoramic or “bird’s eye view” maps preserved in the Geography and Map Division’s collections. As a cartographer, I would argue that any map will incorporate a certain balance of science as well as aesthetics, but these maps are particularly strong arguments for cartography as an awe-inspiring art form. An 1873 panoramic map of Boston by Charles R. Parsons and Lyman W. Atwater brings into focus what has been driving the landform changes seen in earlier maps: Boston as a burgeoning metropolis, seemingly bursting at the seams.
Moving into the 20th century, many more land reclamation projects were in Boston’s future, including the filling in of South Bay, the creation of the Seaport District in South Boston, and the construction of Logan International Airport in East Boston. Through land fill projects and continued annexation of neighboring municipalities, we arrive at the Boston geography we know today. Seeing Boston change over time shows the incredible value of using maps to understand what cities were like in the past and where they are going in the future, both figuratively and literally!