Some Aspects of the East Cambridge Story

By John W. Wood, 1956

“This paper gives a totally inadequate account of an appealingly picturesque and colorful neighborhood, the area that might have been a slum and isn’t, the step-child of the University City. “

For some reason, the local history of East Cambridge has been almost completely neglected. It is a little hard to understand why this should be. There is so much that is interesting.

It was here that eight hundred British soldiers landed to begin their march to Lexington and Concord, and made a dismal start to a terrible day by fording the icy flood tide over the causeway. One of their number, left behind because of illness, found his way to the home of Thomas Graves and thus spread the alarm which sent the Cambridge company speeding toward Concord. Graves’ house, incidentally, was the first to be built in Cambridge.

Not only in history, but in other fields, East Cambridge was, if not unique, certainly unusual. Nowhere else in the city was there a “Millionaire Row” — Otis Street — nor so many rapidly changing fortunes. It was the scene of the largest real estate development by one corporation, where Andrew Craigie, reputed to be the shrewdest Yankee in the country, took a flyer and lost his shirt. Further, it saw the glass industry come, grow to international fame, and go, leaving no trace. Sugar refining, too, flourished and died, as did fine furniture making. Yet the town lived on, and population-wise harbored such a variety of people from so many foreign lands that few areas could match it.

Also unique were the “Dearos,” exiles from East Cambridge by their own will, but with their “hearts still in the hielands.” Did anyone ever sigh for dear old Cambridgeport? These are only a few of the reasons why East Cambridge should have awakened the pride of Cantabrigians.

“Did anyone ever sigh for dear old Cambridgeport? These are only a few of the reasons why East Cambridge should have awakened the pride of Cantabrigians.”

In speaking of East Cambridge, I have in mind only what is now Ward One, a relatively small area covering perhaps three hundred acres more or less. Until after the Revolution it was an upland surrounded by swamp land to the west and south, and by Miller’s River and the Charles estuary on the other two sides. At high tide the marshes were covered by water and the point became an island. A causeway, located approximately where Gore Street is now, afforded a dubious passage over the marsh.

When East Cambridge became important from a military standpoint, General Washington had the causeway repaired and strengthened to permit the passage of troops and material. The military importance of East Cambridge consisted in the fact of its nearness to Boston. It will surprise you to see how the river narrows at Lechmere Point, and to realize how easy it was to lob cannon balls from old Israel Putnam’s fort and a mortar battery at Lechmere Point over into Boston. The fort was a well-designed and well-constructed work, extending for some distance from the top of the hill both north and south.

Old Put, its commander, was a salty character, in addition to being a well-trained and able commander. The story goes, that on one occasion, upon the capture in the Bay of a 13-inch brass mortar, Old Put mounted astride it with a bottle of rum in his hand, and “stood parson,” while godfather Mifflin gave it the name “Congress.” Notice that history fails to suggest that Old Put smashed the bottle as a part of the christening ceremony. He may have been able to think of other ways to use it.

Settlement in East Cambridge really began with the formation of the Lechmere Corporation in 1810. Andrew Craigie, by quiet negotiations, succeeded in getting control of all of the land at the point, comprising upward of three hundred acres, for a total investment of about $30,000, and obtained permission from the legislature to form a corporation to develop the area and to build a toll bridge across the river to Boston. By 1813, the toll bridge was successfully completed, and with access to Boston secured, the undertaking seemed well on its way to success. The corporation, including most of the land and the bridge, was capitalized at $360,000, and some shares were sold. Also, a road was laid out in a straight line from the bridge to Cambridge Common. This road, now Cambridge Street, is so straight and level that to one standing on the corner of Fourth Street (now Sciarappa), the tower on Memorial Hall is plainly visible.

Now that the stage seemed all set for a real estate boom, a reluctance appeared on the part of prospective buyers. This is easily understandable, as there was very little in the area to attract capital. However, two events occurred to change this situation. First, Andrew Craigie hit upon a shrewd move. In November, 1813, he offered to give to Middlesex County the land bordered by Otis, Second, Thorndike, and Third Streets as a site for a County Court House, and further to present to the County $24,000 with which to erect the Court House and Jail. This offer was promptly accepted, much to the displeasure of the people of Old Cambridge.

The second critical event was the purchase of a large tract of land running four hundred feet on East Street, four hundred feet on North Street, three hundred feet on Water Street, and on “land covered with water” four hundred feet, by Jesse Putnam. It was conveyed by him to the Boston Porcelain and Glass Company. This was the site of the important glass industry that was to develop.

From this time on, sales were brisk and settlement of the district went on successfully. Apparently, too, the advent of industry set the pattern of growth in the area. It is an interesting fact that at no time in East Cambridge could you find large estates, such as those in Old Cambridge and in Cambridgeport. The story runs that Spencer Phipps, in the early days, built himself a mansion on what is now Otis Street, but that during the house warming to welcome his friends, the house caught fire and burned to the ground.

Perhaps the fates were against it. Whatever the reason, in later years the well-to-do families who built up “millionaires’ row” occupied relatively small houses. The Sortwells, the Chaffees, the Lockharts, and others who lived here apparently had no ambition to build on a large scale. Perhaps there just wasn’t room. It is remembered in East Cambridge that Mr. Lockhart used to bring a large steam yacht to anchor in the river just below the bridge.

It is interesting to note that many of the East Cambridge families later moved into large houses in the upper part of the city — Judge McIntire, Gustavus Goepper, Otis S. Brown, and Frank Fitzpatrick on North Avenue (Massachusetts Avenue), the Rindge family and Oliver H. Durrell on Dana Hill, the Sortwells on Highland Street, and William E. Doyle on Cambridge Street.

With the establishment of the glass works, a considerable number of English families were brought over to furnish the necessary knowledge and skill, as there were few if any such workers in America. At the same time, there was a considerable influx of Germans, with some Scotch and Irish. Typical representatives of the German element were the Gutheims. One son later became Chief of the Cambridge Fire Department, and another is a prominent attorney in Washington. Another family was the Goeppers, who built up a successful barrel factory as an adjunct to the Revere Sugar Refinery. Gustavus Goepper was a prominent citizen of Cambridge, active as President of the East Cambridge Savings Bank and Vice-President of the Cambridge Electric Light Company and in many other interests. Charles Emmel, an artist in furniture design, and Louis Volpe, an artist in glass decoration, were Germans living here.

The New England Glass Company was the most famous of the early industries. It was originally the Boston Porcelain and Glass Company, organized by Amos Binney and Daniel Hastings of Cambridge and Edmund Munroe of Boston. Demming Jarvis, who later organized the Sandwich Glass Company, was the general manager and sales agent, and to him should go much of the credit for the early financial success of the enterprise. The New England Company made a wide variety of plain and moulded glass. Its greatest pride, however, was rich cut glass. The company was also a large producer of red lead, which was shipped to all parts of the United States.

By 1823, East Cambridge had a population of one thousand people, closely following the growth of the New England Company, which was then reputed to be the largest glass factory in the world. By 1849 the factory had five hundred workmen and a payroll of $200,000. The technical efficiency of the glass works was largely due to members of the Leighton family. Thomas Leighton was induced to come over from England to serve as superintendent. It was not easy for him to leave England as there was a law forbidding glass workers to leave for America, but he went first to France, and from there succeeded in reaching Cambridge. He was thoroughly conversant with the art of glass making, and the business flourished under his direction. The New England Company reached its greatest prosperity near the middle of the century.

Oddly enough, no one contributed more to the decline of the company than William Leighton, a genius in glass production, who was a son of Thomas Leighton. It was he who invented lime glass, which could be produced much more cheaply than the flint glass made by the New England Company. The serious competition which resulted, particularly from Ohio, where cheaper fuels were available, finally created a competitive position which was almost impossible to meet.

In 1872, Mr. William L. Libbey was brought in to try to stem the tide, and for a time conditions improved. Mr. Libbey died in 1883 and was succeeded by his son, Edward, who continued the losing battle until labor troubles multiplied the problems to such a point that a shutdown was imperative. In 1888 the Cambridge business was liquidated, and Edward Libbey moved to Toledo, Ohio.

From the beginning to the end, the New England Company produced glass equal to the finest produced anywhere. Sandwich glass, which has become so famous that it has become a collection item, was hardly in the same class. The probability is that many of those treasured pieces purporting to be Sandwich glass were made in East Cambridge. As a matter of fact, some of the more elaborate pieces made by the New England Company have never been surpassed.

Many of the glass workers lived in the area of Winter, Gore, and Bridge Streets. It was an attractive neighborhood with well-shaded streets and attractive little homes, each with its own garden. For the most part, these houses were owned by the glass workers themselves. The glass house buildings have disappeared leaving no trace. Even the tremendous chimney, higher than Bunker Hill monument, is gone. Part of the land was bought by Squires, but the largest part was acquired by the Boston and Maine Railroad for freight yards, which brought complete desolation to an area which might have been an attractive part of the city.

The decline of the glass industry and the removal of at least one hundred families from a small area like East Cambridge would seem to be a finishing blow to the town, but fortunately the furniture-making shops had been growing rapidly; the large packing plants of Squire and North, and the Revere Sugar Refinery more than made up for the loss of the glass works in the ’70’s and ’80’s. The change in population, however, became more and more marked. Irish families came in large numbers until they occupied East Cambridge almost to the exclusion of all other nationalities. In 1930, Mrs. Watkins remarks, some of the old families were still living in this part of the town, although business had crept in around them, and Leighton Court was called “Yankee Village” because it had resisted the invasion of foreign arrivals. The original population had been mostly English, Scotch, German, and Irish.

It is an interesting fact that both the glass and furniture industries called for a high type of workman. Much of the glass produced was artistic, both in design and execution, and many of the pieces which have survived show this fine taste. The same could be said for much of the fine furniture produced. Hence the population of the town must have contained an exceptionally high average of ability.

Speaking of the furniture industry, it should be noted that there were several large factories. The Geldowsky factory, for example, was an immense structure occupying the square bounded by First, Otis, Second, and Thorndike Streets. Much of the furniture produced was hand-made and of a very high grade, although there was a considerable amount of machine work. Here again, the competition of machine-made goods from the West, particularly Grand Rapids, brought about a gradual decline in prosperity and the final disappearance of the industry.

These drastic changes in industry have had their effects on the population of the town, as, for example, in the departure of the families of glass workers to Toledo after 1888. But new industries have always appeared to keep East Cambridge busy, and new families have come to fill the vacancies. From the beginning, there were a number of people of Irish ancestry in East Cambridge, and as a result of changes described above, there came a gradual increase in their numbers until they became the dominant factor. Warm-hearted, thrifty, devout, they did much for the life of the town. From these families have come a Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, a leader in the civic and philanthropic life of Boston, and at least one leader in the civic life of Cambridge.

“From the beginning, there were a number of people of Irish ancestry in East Cambridge… Warm-hearted, thrifty, devout, they did much for the life of the town.”

It is important to note that here in East Cambridge occurred the organization of the first Catholic parish in the city. An excellent account of the history of this event is given by Judge Mclntire. Until the year 1793, the Catholics of Cambridge were obliged to row across the river to go to church, but as their numbers increased, Cambridge was made a part of the parish of St. Mary’s in Charlestown. In 1830, a Catholic Sunday School was organized in what had been the Methodist Academy Building at the corner of Fourth and Otis Streets, with Daniel Southwick as Superintendent. The children, after their lesson, were formed in line and marched to the church in Charlestown for the morning Mass. In or about 1842, the number of Catholic families increased to the point that a meeting was held in the Academy Building to consider the erection of a church. $3,600 was subscribed at this meeting, and Bishop Fenwick was asked to consider assigning a priest to organize the parish. Messrs. Southwick, Loring, and Gleason were appointed to supervise the building project.

Their work was so successful that Mass was said by Father Fitzpatrick in the basement October 6, 1842 and the following September the building on Fourth Street was dedicated by the Bishop as St. John’s Church. So rapid was the growth of the parish that in 1872 a newer, larger church was planned. Father John O’Brien was appointed to direct the program, and the building was completed and dedicated in 1883. This is the Church of the Sacred Heart at Sixth and Otis Streets, for many years the largest and handsomest Catholic Church in the City.

Another of the interesting churches of East Cambridge was the Trinity Methodist, which for many years occupied a site at the corner of Third and Cambridge Streets. The original church building contained timbers salvaged from old Fort Putnam. This building, however, was replaced by a large brick building seating 1200 people. In its time it was one of the leading Methodist churches in New England. Mr. Wheeler recalls the fact that it was called the “Eel Pot,” it was so hard to get into of a Sunday morning. He further recalls that while he was a student at Harvard, Theodore Roosevelt used to teach a class in the Sunday School. As was true of so much of East Cambridge, the church declined in membership and was finally torn down, the site to be used as a parking lot. However, it is interesting to note that in the closing days of 1955, the Trinity Methodist Society acquired a house on Fourth Street where services are now being held. It is doubtful if this indicates any considerable population shift. Rather, it is a tribute to the loyalty of the congregation.

For some reason, East Cambridge did not produce the sort of nationally known celebrities as was the case in Cambridgeport. However, it was the home during his college years of the eminent jurist John Henry Wigmore, Dean of Northwestern University Law School, who married an East Cambridge girl. Professor Wigmore was known internationally as the author of books on jurisprudence, and in 1912 he was awarded an honorary degree from Harvard.

Also, there was Edward D. Libbey, who perhaps was not born in East Cambridge, but was closely identified with the town through his work at the New England Glass Company. Mr. Libbey was a remarkable person. When his struggle to preserve the New England Company ended with a disastrous strike, he decided to move to Toledo, Ohio, in the region of cheap fuel and abundant sand, whence had come the competition which had been his undoing. Judging from his photograph, he was an exceptionally handsome man. He participated in the social life of East Cambridge, but never married. He established a glass factory in Toledo, with the help of many of his old employees. He maintained there the same high standards which had prevailed in Cambridge, and was successful from the very beginning. His business developed into the great Libbey-Owens-Ford Company of today.

At his death, the leading Toledo newspaper said of him: “The story of his life is largely a story of the remarkable machine age. For centuries, glass-making had been an art involving a large amount of highly skilled labor. Through the association of Mr. Libbey with the business and his various enterprises, the industry in all parts of the world has felt the touch of genius which brought mechanical triumph in glass manufacturing. To the Libbey Company, this meant the organization of the great Owen Bottle Company, founded upon the automatic blowing machine invented by Michael J. Owen, a member of the Libbey firm. “At his death in 1925, Edward Libbey was mourned as Toledo’s first citizen. Scarcely a family in Toledo has not been touched in some way by the benefactions of the great multi-millionaire manufacturer, patron of art, city builder, philanthropist and citizen.” Edward Libbey was not the only interesting character connected with the town, although he was perhaps the greatest.

James D. Green, the first Mayor of Cambridge, was intimately connected with East Cambridge. He was a graduate of Harvard and of the Harvard Divinity School. He was only thirty-two when, in 1830, he was ordained minister of the Unitarian Church which still stands at the corner of Third and Thorndike Streets. He continued in the ministry until 1840. The first city government was formed in 1846 and met for inauguration ceremonies in the town house, at the corner of Harvard and Norfolk Streets where St. Mary’s Church now stands. The organization of the town into a city must have presented many problems not faced by mayors of later years, but evidently it proceeded smoothly and to the satisfaction of the voters, as Mayor Green was reelected in ’47, ’53, ’60, and ’61. The salary of the Mayor was $600.00, but fortunately Mr. Green had some private means.

Evidently the police force offered some problems. It is said that Mayor Green once remarked to City Clerk Jacobs, in his usual decisive and abrupt manner: “If I could have my way, the entire police force of the city would be abolished.” “What would you do then?” enquired the City Clerk. “Let every man keep a dog,” replied the Mayor. However, he evidently was greatly appreciated by the people of Cambridge. It was said of him that “his entire life was a conscientious and faithful performance of duty.”

There are two other rather flamboyant characters who should be mentioned, namely, Frank Fitzpatrick and Thomas W. Lawson, who had perhaps a good many things in common. The former accumulated a fortune by selling tickets in the Louisiana State Lottery, at one time a flourishing enterprise, long since extinct. He used to threaten Mr. Wheeler with withdrawal of his money from Mr. Wheeler’s bank if he ever bought any of his “goods.” The Fitzpatricks later moved to the corner of Arlington Street and Massachusetts Avenue, and it is recalled that one year he planted his large front lawn to cabbages, much to the edification of the neighbors.

Tom Lawson was never very closely identified with East Cambridge, although he resided there at one time. His career was almost incredible. Starting with nothing, he built up a large fortune through speculation in copper. He built the seven-masted schooner, “The Thomas W. Lawson,” the largest ever built; wrote a best seller; he developed a large estate in Scituate, which he called “Dreamwold”; and finally he lost almost everything he had. You may recall that he is one of the villains under a very thin disguise in Mary Bancroft’s somewhat scurrilous book Upside Down in the Magnolia Tree.

To revert to the glass industry for a moment, however, it should be noted that besides the great New England Glass Company, there were six or seven smaller firms which together accounted for a large output. Noticeable among these smaller concerns was the New England Glass Bottle Company, which was located in the area of Third and Spring Streets. Until a few years ago, this neighborhood was known in not too complimentary a term as “The Bottle House.”

Another interesting concern was the Bay State Glass Company, at Bridge and Fourth Streets, of which Amory Houghton was a director. In 1851, Amory Houghton established the Union Glass Company in Somerville, a business which persisted until a few years ago. Thinking that there might be some connection between the Cambridge family of Houghton and the Corning Glass Company, I made enquiry of Mr. Frederick H. Knight, Secretary of Corning Glass Company and received the following information: “When I received your letter of March 2nd, I asked our Chairman, Mr. Amory Houghton, whose great-grandfather founded the company [Corning Glass] whether he had any information which would answer your question. “Mr. Houghton tells me that the Massachusetts company, founded by his great-grandfather in 1851, was located in Somerville, Mass., and was called the Union Glass Company. Manufacturing operations were transferred to Brooklyn, New York, and the Houghtons first came to Corning in 1868 and the “Corning Glass Works” was incorporated in New York in 1875.”

Thus it is quite evident that the two great American glass companies had their beginnings with men whose experience came from the East Cambridge enterprises. In the fifties and sixties, there were many flourishing social organizations in East Cambridge. The Germans gathered for their characteristic parties at Harugari Hall, which was a branch of a larger organization represented in many parts of the country. Their meetings may have been nostalgic but they were lightened by good music and good cheer. With the change in the population, due to changes in industry, membership fell off until the affairs of the society had to be liquidated.

It speaks well for the management that the last members shared in a division of funds that amounted to a substantial sum. Some of the active businessmen of the town formed the Putnam Lodge of Masons in 1854. Starting with a small group, it soon grew in strength and numbers until it was one of the vital, strong lodges of the city. Putnam Lodge had a remarkable record in the War between the States. A history of Masonry in Cambridge says: “The name of Ezra Ripley, the first master of the lodge, is indelibly inscribed upon the Soldier’s Monument on Cambridge Common, as is also that of that true mason and able soldier, Colonel P. Stearns Davis, its fourth master; also, Lieutenant Jared Shepard of the 47th Mass. Volunteers, another active member of the lodge. All of these members died in the service of their country, in the war for the maintenance of the Union.”

Putnam Lodge was finally transferred to the Masonic building in North Cambridge. Another society, the Putnam Club, is a study in contrasts. Its members were recruited exclusively from Millionaire’s Row, and their club room was located over a butcher’s shop on Cambridge Street. When in the course of events the club was disbanded, its quarters were taken over by the Father Mathews Total Abstinence Society. By far the largest of these organizations was the St. John’s Literary Institute, which was founded in 1854 and continued its activities until 1917. This was the period in America when “culture” was pursued seriously. In those days there were Lyceums, Chatauquas, and lecture courses everywhere. There is an appealing story of Ralph Waldo Emerson making a career of traveling through the country east of the Mississippi, lecturing to audiences furnished by these societies, and realizing for a winter’s work perhaps as much as $800. His real profit lay in bringing his message to these serious people who were looking for a better way of life. Life was hard; to be endured, it had to have a meaning. In the early days the St. John’s Institute sought to bring to its membership, most of whom were members of St. John’s Church, lectures, debates, and miscellaneous entertainment. Classes were organized for the benefit of the young men who worked in the glass factory and for some of the older men whose education had been neglected. The society was directed by the older men, who naturally ran the meetings along conservative lines in close touch with the church. As time went on, however, the younger members began to assert themselves. Money was raised for a new building, and while fairs were held for the benefit of the church, culture was less popular, and the emphasis on the social side became greater.

While the dramatic prowess of the members was not of course generated by the Institute, the Institute certainly furnished an opportunity for their development. Harry Mahoney, Editor of the Cambridge Sentinel for many years, and John T. Shea, a prominent citizen, wrote of this side of the life of the town as follows: “Cambridge Street from Lechmere Square to the railroad crossing and its contributary Streets housed as brilliant a body of would-be Booths, Barretts, Davenports and Warrens as any community of its size in the country. A keen flair for the dramatic has always characterized the human spirit of old East Cambridge. No matter what the theme or the field, whether religious, political, social or humanitarian, East Cambridge was bound to dramatize it.”

“No matter what the theme or the field, whether religious, political, social or humanitarian, East Cambridge was bound to dramatize it.”

With this abundance of natural talent, and with such outstanding men as John T. Shea, John Whoriskey, and James Aylward, the Institute shows attracted crowds from all over the city. Activities were continued in a diminishing ratio until 1917, when as the population had changed in character, the affairs of the Institute were wound up, and the assets were turned over to the Right Reverend Hugh F. Blunt, then pastor of the Sacred Heart Church. Among other picturesque organizations was the Apple Island Fishing Club. The club used to row in large boats from Lechmere Point to the Island, a little spot of two or three acres off Winthrop. To one sufficiently fortified, this little outing presented no great difficulty, and while there were very few fish to be caught, it was always possible, with the aid of the fish market, to put together a chowder, and a good time was had by all.

In the early days, St. Patrick’s Day was the high point of the year, usually celebrated by a parade. The story runs that as one of these parades was in progress, the Hibernians were proceeding down Cambridge Street and were part way past Fourth Street just as the St. John’s Institute delegation appeared marching down that street. Such a situation offered certain exciting possibilities. But the colonel commanding the Hibernians, a fine figure of a man mounted on a horse, met the situation with the command, “Skither about now, skither about, and let the St. John’s Literary Institute pass through yez,” and the crisis was safely passed. It is interesting to note that these three societies represented the dominant racial stock of the early days, and that none of them survived the change in population.

At the present time, the dominant racial strains residing in East Cambridge are Italian, Portuguese, and Polish. What of the future? This little hillock, sticking up out of the marsh has seen some stirring events. Its marshes have gradually disappeared. The river front has been smoothed off with a granite wall. Craigie’s bridge has given place to the Charles River Dam, and the attractive waterfront park has gained in interest and importance by the building of the Science Museum. Apparently, however, there has been no change in East Cambridge housing for at least a hundred years. It remains one of the most overcrowded areas in the city. The Planning Board says that the strong church affiliations and national loyalties are contributing factors to a strong civic pride in East Cambridge, and probably more important, to absence of serious social problems. In two areas, from 85 to 90 per cent of the houses have no central heating. The prevailing rents are from $18.00 to $21.00 monthly. The absence of social problems, despite poor physical conditions, may well be attributed to the strong influence exerted on the community by the East End Union Settlement House and the four parishes, Irish, Italian, Polish, and Portuguese, three of which maintain their own schools. In view of what has happened to East Cambridge in the past, the present tendency toward smaller more diversified industry points to more stable conditions in the future.

However, the future looks rather drab in contrast with what the past has shown. In conclusion, let me say that this paper gives a totally inadequate account of an appealingly picturesque and colorful neighborhood, the area that might have been a slum and isn’t, the step-child of the University City.

I am greatly indebted to Mr. Wheeler, for many years President of the East Cambridge Savings Bank, for his kind interest and many suggestions from his great store of memories of the people of Old East Cambridge; also, to Mr. Kenneth Goepper, and to Mrs. L. W. Watkins’ book, Cambridge Glass.