Cambridgeport, A Brief History By John W. Wood, 1954

Taken from the Cambridge Historical Society Proceedings for the Years 1953-1954 

Early Days

When the subject of Cambridgeport history was first suggested I had, of course, various recollections of people and events connected with the area, but had no conception of the varied and fascinating angles which revealed themselves in a study of these events of a crowded century and a half of growth and development and of the extraordinary number of memorable people who lived here during that time. To crowd the story thus revealed into working proportions of a short paper has meant a difficult selection of material and the omission of many things that should be recalled.

First, let us examine our territory. Where is Cambridgeport? I have assumed it to be the area below Dana Street, bordered on the north by the Somerville line and on the south and east by the Charles River. 

Some time ago Warren Raisley called my attention to a small book written by Mrs. S. S. Simpson, entitled Two Hundred Years Ago, or a Brief History of Cambridgeport and East Cambridge. This book came into his hands in an unusual way, which is a story in itself. It contains gossipy comment on Cambridgeport people much as the author would have told or written it to her dearest friend. She comments on the Phipps family, which owned most of the eastern part of Cambridge. “In the year 1660, on the 30th of September, James Phipps left Bristol, England, and in due time arrived at Pemaquid with his wife and 26 children, twenty-one sons and five daughters, of which Sir William Phipps was one. We hear very little relating to Mr. James Phipps; probably his time was occupied in looking after his little family. If Sir William was a fair specimen he must have had enough to do.” 

Sir William gained considerable wealth by discovering in the West Indies a sunken Spanish treasure ship from which he recovered gold and silver to the value of 300,000 pounds sterling. He married a Boston woman and began acquiring land in Cambridge until he had control of most of the eastern part of the town. After a time he quarreled with his friends and retired in high dudgeon to England, where he died. Most of his land was left to an adopted son, who was very prominent in our early history. Upon the latter’s death the land was inherited by his several children.

After the Revolutionary War much of this land was expropriated from its Tory owners, who fled for sanctuary to English territory. Fortunately much of the land became the property of men of courage and vision, who began to consider its development.

In 1792 Judge Dana, and sundry associates, were incorporated as the Proprietors of West Boston Bridge with authority to build a toll bridge from the westerly part of Boston to Pelham’s Island in the town of Cambridge. They asked for subscriptions to finance the project and these shares when issued were quickly taken up. The bridge was successfully completed and opened in 1793, together with a causeway through the marshes which extended to Pelham’s Island, in La Fayette Square, where it joined the main road to Harvard Square. 

At this time, and for some time thereafter, Cambridgeport consisted of this single road, with some buildings on each side of the road. This road, or Main Street, as it came to be called, was important to the development of the town. It extended beyond Cambridge to the north even to New Hampshire and Vermont, so that the products of the outlying country could be brought to the river for shipment by boat to the Atlantic sea-board. Lowell gives a picture of the road as he saw it: “Great white-topped wagons, each drawn by double files of six or eight horses, with its grim bull dog trotting underneath in the dust, brought the wares and products of the country to their mart and sea-port.” Several large taverns were built to entertain the teamsters. These were large square buildings with vast barns and court yards. Apparently plenty of entertainment was furnished, and Cambridgeport was a lively place after nightfall.

Three large farms occupied most of the area, owned by the Sodens, the Inmans, and the Boardmans. Life on these farms must have had its attractions. There were oyster beds in the river, ducks in the marshes, and berries to be picked in the woodlands. There was a mystery, too. Mike Martin is said to have buried treasure in the woods near what is now Prospect Street. 

The natural result of the commerce along Main Street was a great development of the waterfront. Canals were dug to accommodate more wharfage, and as time went on piers were built capable of handling a considerable tonnage. Indeed, in 1805 an act was passed by Congress making Cambridge a port of entry. Engineers were employed to plan an elaborate system of canals to extend well up to Haymarket Square (now Central Square), but the war of 1812 intervened to upset the whole project and it was never again revived. 

Another result was an increase in the development of the land in the area. It was largely in the hands of Judge Dana and Leonard Jarvis. These men built a somewhat elaborate dike and drainage system to make the marsh land available for building. Unfortunately however, Jarvis got into financial difficulties and his lands were forfeited to the government. After a period of years these lands were liquidated, cut up into a number of smaller parcels, and sold at auction. The new owners then became active in developing their land and building began, with the settlement clustering around the port end of the area. 

The presence of the bridge brought about the building of through roads: Hampshire Street, which connected with the Middlesex Turnpike, and Harvard Street and Broadway, which served the convenience of the towns to the north in establishing access to the new bridge. Until as late as 1835 Cambridgeport was separated from Old Cambridge by an unoccupied belt of woodland. East of Judge Dana’s house on the crest of the hill there was only the Inman House, near the present City Hall. 

Thus isolated, the relations of the new settlement with the people of the older part of the town were interesting. While they were quite ready to profit from the enterprise of the Port, apparently many of the people of Old Cambridge would have been perfectly happy if Cambridgeport had never happened. Relations became more frigid when the Port became the site of the City Hall. Indeed, in 1842, a petition was presented to the Massachusetts

Legislature praying that Cambridgeport and East Cambridge be set off as separate towns, with Old Cambridge retaining the original name. However, opposition to this move arose in all sections and the petitioners were given leave to withdraw. As years went on and communication became easier, this feeling gradually faded away.

The Flowering of Cambridgeport 

As a matter of fairness it should be said that Cambridgeport was not the sad orphan its low-lying marsh lands might suggest. 

About 1820 James Russell Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes attended a school on Austin Street located between Temple and Prospect Streets. They both seemed impressed by the bleakness of the neighborhood through which they passed to get to school. But later Lowell wrote, “The greater part of what is now Cambridgeport was then, in the native dialect, a huckleberry pasture. Woods were not wanting on its outskirts. Its veins did not draw their blood from the old heart of the village, but it had a distinct being of its own.”

Margaret Bell, in her biography of Margaret Fuller says of Cambridgeport: “It was a straggling village of no particular pretension, its cellars were often flooded by the tide-water which broke through the dikes. But its orchards bore fruit and its gardens bloomed; it had pleasantly wooded spaces which ran back as far as the buildings of Harvard College and it had its own meeting-house, and two schools, its music club for ‘cultivating sacred music’ and its little coteries of friendly citizens.” 

Dr. Holmes commented that Cambridgeport must have had its attractions because so many wonderful people lived there. 

Some of these “wonderful people” were world famous. On Auburn Street, between Pearl and Magazine, lived Washington Allston. Strangely enough, he seems to have had no connection with Allston Street which bears his name. Born in the South, of a distinguished family, he gained his training in art in Italy, where he and S. F. B. Morse studied at the same time. His residence in Cambridge represented a hard struggle for recognition, with its ultimate triumph. During his lifetime he was easily the most admired of all American artists. His pictures were eagerly sought for and adorned many American homes. His greatest effort, “The Feast of Belshazzar,” is now in the Boston Athenaeum. 

Again, Margaret Fuller, an equally romantic figure, lived at the corner of Cherry and Eaton Streets not far from the present-day community center, the Margaret Fuller House. This woman was certainly endowed with genius. As a child she was precocious, and growing up was difficult. With maturity, however, her natural gifts gained her recognition from the

intellectuals of her time. She was an associate of the Brook Farm group, though never a member. Her writing and lectures gained for her nation-wide recognition as the outstanding woman of her time. Her marriage to Count Ossoli, and their tragic death at sea, added to the romance of her career.

Another and somewhat different Cambridgeport story is that of Alvan Clark and his family. Clark was an established portrait painter at the age of forty, when his attention was drawn in another direction by his son, who was carrying on his studies in astronomy at college. In order to build a telescope for his son, Clark read up on the art of lens grinding, and succeeded in producing a successful instrument. This led the elder Clark to establish the world-famous telescope business, where he produced the most powerful refracting telescopes of his time. The younger Clark had a distinguished career as an astronomer, and is credited with the discovery of the companion of Sirius. The Clarks lived in a large house on the corner of Magazine and Henry Streets, which was surrounded by ample grounds where a shop was built to carry on the lens business. At that time this neighborhood was one of the most attractive in the city. On ground sloping up from the river near Cottage Farm Bridge were three large estates, one owned by Edmund Reardon, who lived to be 105, one by the Eastmans, and the third by the Clarks. The Clark and the Eastman families were closely associated by marriage, and it was into this seemingly ideal situation that the famous Eastman-Grogan murder trial intruded. Now all traces of the three estates have disappeared with the encroachment of industrial buildings.

Another famous Cambridgeport character, who lived at the corner of Norfolk and Austin Streets, was Elias Howe, the inventor of the sewing machine. The story of his struggle to produce a workable machine, and later to obtain a patent, is a fascinating one, resulting in final triumph and financial independence, with Howe’s machines finding their way into every corner of the globe.

Also in this same neighborhood was the birthplace of Richard Henry Dana, author of Two Years before the Mast. The Dana family name is prominent throughout the history of Cambridgeport. A large part of the land which made up the town was originally owned by Judge Dana, and it is a fair guess that the house on Clark Street where Richard Henry was born may have been included among the original family buildings. It is unnecessary here to follow the annals of the famous Dana family.

An interesting anecdote which perhaps belongs here relates to the first successful telephone call. On October 9, 1876, Thomas A. Watson, who was an assistant to Alexander Graham Bell, was stationed in a building at the corner of Maine and Osborn Streets for the purpose of testing Bell’s invention. Bell, of course, lived in Cambridge. It must have been a great thrill for both men when Bell called Watson from Boston and carried on a conversation with him — the first successful telephone call. Thomas Watson was a remarkable character. He not only had a successful career as an electrical engineer, but he branched out into the business of building war vessels for the government in 1896, and finally incorporated this business as the Fore River Ship and Engine Company of Quincy, which has since become one of the great shipbuilding companies of the country. 

Nor was this the only contribution of Cambridgeport to the development of the telephone. General John Carty, famous telephone engineer, was born on Willow Street and educated at the Cambridge Latin School. He was to develop into a genius in the telephone field both from the scientific and the practical sides. Much of the early effort to make telephone use universal came as a result of his many inventions. He became chief engineer and vice-president of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. General Carty was perhaps better known outside his native city than in it, as is attested by the many medals and honors conferred upon him. His title of General was awarded for his service to the army during the First World War. 

Still another famous family in this great era of Cambridgeport was that of Otis Skinner. His father, the Reverend Charles A Skinner, was minister of the First Universalist Church on Inman Street, opposite the City Hall. This church, originally built near Lafayette Square, was moved to its present site when the land it occupied was required for other uses. The church has now been sold by the Universalists to the Syrian Orthodox Catholic Church. Otis Skinner was one of the great actors of the American stage, utterly without the usual temperamental eccentricities of some stage favorites. His public watched for his coming to town and attended his plays time after time whenever he appeared. His daughter, Cornelia Otis Skinner, is still one of the ornaments of our theatre.

Great Causes

In the 70’s and 80’s the people of Cambridgeport were interested in many causes, among them temperance, coeducation, and the securing of a hospital for Cambridge.

It is hard to realize now how earnest temperance people were in driving the saloon out of Cambridge. They put into their effort all the fervor of a religious crusade. The pages of the Cambridge Chronicle were filled with stories of the dire effects of alcohol, physical and moral. Spirited campaigns were carried on at election time to induce everyone to vote “No.” At the head of these temperance campaigns were two picturesque figures, the Reverend Father Scully of St. Mary’s Church, and the Reverend David N. Beach of the Prospect Congregational Church. Both men were eloquent speakers and attractive figures, and under their leadership Cambridge went for “no license” year after year. This whole question has now faded into obscurity, and with it the opportunity to take part in a burning community cause.

In writing of the results of these campaigns, Dr. Beach relates several benefits which came to the City. He says: “In the second place, previously existing lines of division have been wiped out. Catholics have come to love Protestants, and Protestants to love Catholics.” On his part, Father Scully went even further when he said: “The saloon seems to have been among us to keep us by the ears one against another. We Catholics did not like you Protestants and you Protestants did not like us Catholics. But now that the saloon is gone, we love one another, and are nobly helpful one toward another.” 

It seems almost unbelievable that as recently as 1867 there was no organized hospital in Cambridge. In 1867, Miss Emily E. Parsons, who had been an army nurse for two years during the Civil War, tried to interest her friends in correcting this situation. By the most persistent efforts she was able to start a small hospital for women and children, but at the end of a year she had to give up for lack of funds. However, her efforts were not wasted, as interest in the hospital project for which she had worked did not die. Indeed, in 1871 the Cambridge Hospital was incorporated by a group of men, including Isaac Livermore, Sumner R. Mason, W. W. Wellington, Benjamin Tilton, the Reverend Alexander McKenzie, and Dr. Henry P. Walcott. 

Judge Walcott has called my attention to the fact that of this group, only Dr. McKenzie and Dr. Walcott lived west of Harvard Square. Later, when the hospital was opened, the first Board of Trustees bears the names of prominent Cambridgeport people — Robert O. Fuller, Asa P. Morse, Charles L. Harding, and William A. Bullard. 

The hospital continued for only one year. It was quite evident that more money would have to be raised. 

In 1873 Isaac Fay left $10,000 for the hospital, and this was invested as a nest egg. There was no possibility at that time of a rich Federal Government’s furnishing abundant funds, as would be expected today. It was necessary to secure funds from the public. The Cambridge Hospital Sales of those days were an interesting result of these efforts. These sales were not only amazingly successful financially, but were equally successful social events. By 1886 sufficient funds had been gathered so that it was possible to build a well-planned substantial brick building on the historic site near Mt. Auburn. It is interesting to note that the location of the hospital had the most careful consideration. A location on the shores of Fresh Pond and also on Captain’s Island in the Charles River were studied, but for various reasons were rejected. It is clear now that no better location could have been found. From that day the hospital has gone forward under the careful fostering of its friends until today it is a completely coordinated modern institution serving a large number of patients. 

I am interested in the men from Cambridgeport who were members of the first hospital board, as they are typical of the solid, successful, public-spirited men who developed and were developed by Cambridge-port. 

The first of these men, Robert O. Fuller, was born in Cambridge. He was poor and at fourteen he went to work at a salary of $50.00 a year. Each morning he walked across the West Boston Bridge to get to his job in Boston, having to pay a one cent toll for the privilege. By intense application he became a partner in the firm of Fuller, Dana and Fitz, iron and steel merchants. He purchased the large brown-stone house situated next to the

Prospect Street Church, with land extending along Harvard Street to Inman Street. He was active in the First Baptist Church and in many civic activities. He was elected to the Governor’s Council from his district and served with distinction during the terms of Governors Ames and Bracket.

Asa P. Morse, second cousin of Daniel Webster, made a great success in the importing business, was interested in building and real estate, and held many public offices. 

Dr. W. W. Wellington is said to have been a member of the Cambridge School Committee for forty years — an all-time record. 

Joseph A. Holmes, as a boy of seventeen went to work in the West Indies Goods & Country Produce Store on Main Street, and soon became a partner. This was distinctly a large enterprise of its kind. His public career began in 1846 with his election to the Common Council. In due course he moved on to the Board of Aldermen, having in the meantime acted as City Treasurer. He was for years a deacon of the First Baptist Society. He was also elected President of the Cambridgeport Savings Bank. An eminently useful citizen.

Of course, no story of the Cambridge Hospital could be complete without mention of the great contributions of Dr. Morrill Wyman and Dr. Henry P. Walcott. Dr. Walcott was chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Health. There is an interesting collection of Dr. Wyman’s papers in the Cambridge Public Library.

Modern Times

A great change in Cambridgeport came with the opening of the subway in 1895 and the building of the Charles River dam. The effect of the subway was, of course, to bring about a great increase in population, accompanied by the migration of the old families to the northern part of the city and to Belmont and Arlington. Houses were tucked into backyards and wherever else space could be found. From a town of spacious homes, Cambridgeport became an overcrowded city with all of the complex problems that accompany such growth. 

The building of the sea wall along the river, and the building of the Charles River Dam transformed the river basin into an attractive body of freshwater. The mud flats which had been a great nuisance were now covered at all times and it was possible to beautify the whole riverfront. Of course, at this time Cambridgeport ceased to be a port of entry. A large tract of land was reclaimed by filling back of the sea wall, and this land was eminently suited for residence or industrial purposes. The most important result of the development, perhaps, was the decision of the Institute of Technology to locate on these reclaimed lands. The coming of Tech, however, came too late to affect social conditions in Cambridge-port residential areas. The whole area was already densely populated and had lost its appeal as a possible college community. But in another sense the location of Tech in Cambridge was of the utmost importance.

With the scientific and technological knowledge available at Harvard and Technology, the river front between these two colleges was ideally situated for the new type of industrial enterprise founded on research, and the application of new discoveries. So that now the former mud flats and salt marshes have been supplanted by the fabulous “research row.” 

This rapid review of an epoch of local history is in its essence a typical example of the American way of life — the taming of a difficult wilderness area by sturdy, far-seeing men whose efforts transformed their surroundings and who made their contribution to the strength of the nation. It has seemed wise to base our story largely on the lives and characters of the men and women of Cambridgeport, but there are many interesting stories left untold for future Historical Society papers. 

In conclusion, you will notice many omissions in these pages. Such characters as William F. Bradbury — Old Brad — William J. Rolfe, Captain James P. Richardson, who organized the first company to enlist in the Civil War, prominent merchants like John H. Corcoran, Dana W. Hyde, James A. Holmes, and countless others should surely have been mentioned. But time and space did not permit. I sincerely hope that someone will be interested to pick up some of these interesting threads in the future.

A letter from Judge Robert Walcott, received some time after this paper was written, throws an interesting sidelight on early times in Cambridgeport:

Content Warning:  Use of offensive language

May 14, 1954
John W. Wood, Esq.,
43 Linnaean Street,
Cambridge, Mass.

My dear John:

I think you spoke of the fact that a large part of the area of Cambridgeport back of the oyster beds was covered with woods. Here is contemporary evidence which may amuse you, from the diary of Rev. William Emerson or Concord, grandfather of Ralph Waldo Emerson, which appears in the contribution to the proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society for October 1921, entitled, “A Chaplain of the Revolution,” by Dr. Edward W. Emerson.

Sincerely yours,

Robert Wolcott

“Last Saturday, visited ye camp, or rather wigwams of ye Indians who are under ye care and Government of Colonel Patterson, who informed me to my great satisfaction yt yy were wholly under his control. They are permitted to live by themselves in a very thick wood that belongs to Inman’s Farm. . . . They have some of them bro’t their squaws and papooses with them. I had the pleasure of sitting down with ’em at a fine mess of clams, cooked and eat in ye true genuine Indian taste. I wish you had been there to see how generously they put their fingers into ye dish and pic’t out some of ye largest clams to give me, and with what a fine Gust I eat them.”


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