Home > History > What Ever Happened to Boston Harbor?

What Ever Happened to Boston Harbor?

22-Apr-08 10:03 pm EST Leave a comment Go to comments

Fig. A: A map of the city of Boston, drafted by the British during the American siege of the city during the American Revolution, 1775.

Fig. B: A satellite photo of the city of Boston, acquired from Microsoft’s Windows Live Maps service, thumbnail & source image taken April 21, 2008.

Fig. C: A high-resolution version of the original map annotated with a coordinate grid for reference.

I was browsing some material on the American Revolution this past weekend and came across a map (Fig. A) attached to an article concerning revolutionary military history on Wikipedia.  I couldn’t really relate anything I saw in the map to modern-day landmarks (not that I know Boston’s geography all that well, never having actually been there), so I decided to pull up some satellite images of the area on the Internet.   Climate change might not be responsible.  But I quickly realized the configuration of Boston has changed very dramatically since the days of the American Revolution.  That in and of itself isn’t a surprise, perhaps.  But if you take a look at one map drafted by a British military cartographer working for General Gage, you quickly realize that the city doesn’t look anything at all like that today.

The initial explanation one might well reach is that the abilities and technology available to cartographers of the period contrast sharply with today’s satellites and GPS systems.  Perhaps the inaccuracies the legend of the map (Fig. A) itself describes are a result of this.  But even in 1775 when the map was created, there couldn’t have been such extensive errors made capturing the likeness of the terrain.  As its function was military, it would hardly have served, for example, to depict only one obvious land route into Boston from the south as a small isthmus referred to at the time as "the neck" obviously refers to there being an abundance of water on both sides of the land formation (just west of grid marker H4 in Fig. C).  But if we refer to the satellite image, it’s clear there’s a lot more land in the vicinity and to the south of old Boston now.  "The neck" and the road depicted running along it on the old map may well be what is now called Hudson or possibly Lincoln Street.  It seems safe to suggest that most of the area directly west of the Boston Common today, was either swamp or completely under water when the English found themselves besieged in the city, back in April 1775.

Note also that the configuration of the harbor itself has changed very dramatically over the last three centuries.  If one visits the Windows Live Maps site and pulls up old Boston, the islands that used to exist in and about the harbor are mostly gone.  (It’s also readily obvious that Boston’s Logan International Airport is completely man-made terrain; literally landscaped right out of the harbor!)  Referring back to the annotated map (Fig. C, left), we can see no island whatsoever at grid reference points I5 and just southwest of J6, also formerly known as Noddles and Hogg Island, respectively.  Each appears to have been annexed into greater Chelsea and been colonized by those fleeing the urban congestion of neighboring Charlestown.

Okay, this might not be cause for too much excitement, but I do find it fascinating that in a little over 250 years, the city that was once surrounded almost entirely by water has seen its landscape change so dramatically.  Most of the work to turn harbor into land that could be occupied and built upon took place long before the dawn of the 20th century too.  Which means a lot of hard work went into claiming space from the sea.  And it also explains why maps of the revolutionary period might not look anything like Boston today – so much so that at first glance you’d otherwise not know it was actually a likeness of Boston at all.

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Categories: History
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