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Home > Boston's Neighborhoods > Back Bay

Learn more about your ancestor's neighborhood through the timeline, find more information in the Further Reading section, or use the links to experience life in that community today.

Timeline

  • 1600-1750: Back Bay is named as the Bay in the back of the town. It is a tidal bay, and at low tide primarily tidal flats. Native American fish weirs in this area, off of what is now the Common, go back at least 1000 years. They were found during building excavations for The New England on Boylston Street (between Berkeley and Clarendon Streets.)

  • 1775: British troops cross Back Bay on their way to Lexington and Concord.

  • 1821: Mill Dam runs from Beacon Street to Charles Street and across to Sewellís Point, Brookline. The dam is the brainchild of Uriah Cotting and the Roxbury Mill Corporation. The structure is 50 feet wide and one half mile long with a toll road running over it between a row of trees. It is called Western Avenue and later Beacon Street.

  • 1825: Back Bay is annexed to Boston.

  • 1827-1847: The city discharges raw sewage into the basin of Mill Dam.

  • 1837: The Public Garden opens. It is the idea of horticulturist Horace Gray. The Garden is later redesigned by George Meacham in 1859.

  • 1850s: A second perpendicular dam is extended from Mill Dam to Gravelley Point, Roxbury that divides the bay into two parts. The Boston and Worcester and Boston and Providence Railroads run across the marsh. Steam power and railroads combine to accelerate the filling of Back Bay. However, the dam and railroads disrupt the tides and combined with pollution make the area a stagnant cesspool.

  • 1857: Several contracts were awarded to fill in the Back Bay. While some of the fill was given to the contractors, the rest was taken by train from Needham.

  • 1858: Arlington Street and Commonwealth Avenue Mall are laid out. Arthur Gilman and Gridley J. Fox Bryant design a street plan for Back Bay that is a grid. Streets are named for Massachusetts towns from Arlington to Ipswich and arranged in alphabetical order.

  • 1859: Edward Clarke Cabot designs the Russell and Gibson Houses on Beacon Street

  • 1860: The Arlington Street Church is constructed and designed by Arthur Gilman and Gridley J. F. Bryant. It is the oldest church in Back Bay. By this time, Back Bay has been filled to Clarendon Street.

  • 1862: Emmanuel Church is designed by A.R. Estey on Newbury Street.

  • 1863: The initial buildings of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Museum of Natural History are built side by side on Boylston Street. MIT is founded by William Barton Rogers whose father Partick was an Irish immigrant who fled to the United States after the failed Irish uprising of 1798. Both MIT and the museum later moved.

  • 1866: The Central Congregational Church is built on Berkeley and Newbury.

  • 1867: William Gibbons Preston (1842-1910) and Clemens Herschelís (1842-1930) suspension bridge in the Garden is the smallest of its kind in the world.

  • 1868: The First Church (originally founded in 1632) is moved to Berkeley and Marlborough Streets. That same year, William Robert Ware establishes the first architecture school in the United States at MIT.

  • 1869: Thomas Ballís (1819-1911) statue of George Washington is unveiled in the Public Garden. Patrick S. Gilmore hosts the National Peace Jubilee in St. James Park to celebrate the end of the Civil War. A 10,000 person chorus, 1,000 piece orchestra, and 100 anvil percussion section played the Anvil Chorus of Il Travatore as the finale.

  • 1870: Oliver Wendell Holmesí (1809-1894) townhouse is built on Beacon Street. It is now an apartment building. At this point, Back Bay has been filled to Exeter Street.
  • 1872: Thomas Paget takes visitors on the first swan boat ride in the Garden. Park Square station is built by Peabody and Stearns as a stop on the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad. It is later demolished.
  • 1872-1877: The Trinity Church is built in Copley Square.
  • 1873: Brattle Square Church, designed by Henry H. Richardson, is built on Commonwealth Avenue. The structure is constructed on 4,500 wooden pilings that were sunk into the ground.
  • 1876: The original Museum of Fine Arts opens in Copley Square on the site where the Copley Plaza Hotel now stands (built 1911).
  • 1879: The Trinity Church rectory is designed by Henry.H. Richardson (1837-1886). Peabody and Stearns finish a townhouse for John Phillips which is now the First Lutheran Church of Boston on Marlborough Street.
  • 1880: Emerson College of Oratory is founded. At this point, Back Bay has been filled nearly to the mainland.
  • 1881: The Harvard Medical School is built at Boylston and Exeter Streets. The Prince School is built and named after Mayor Frederick O. Prince (1818-1881).
  • 1883: Copley Square is named after Beacon Hill artist John Singleton Copley.
  • 1884: Hollis Street Church is built. Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909) is its pastor for many years as well as being the chaplain of the United States Senate.
  • 1893: A 100 foot promenade is extended into the Charles River.
  • 1895: Mary Baker Eddyís first Christian Scientist Church in Boston is built on Falmouth and Norway Streets. The Boston Public Library opens at Copley Square.
  • 1901: The Lenox Hotel, designed by Arthur Bowditch, is constructed.
  • 1905: William Lindsay (1858-1921), inventor of the ammunition belt, commissions Chapman and Frazer to build him a mansion on Bay State Road. Today, "The Castle" is owned by Boston University.
  • 1906: Charles Brigham designs the First Church of Christ, Christian Scientist Church on Huntington Ave.
  • 1920: The Lindsay Memorial Chapel is added to the Emmanuel Church in honor of William Lindsayís daughter Leslie who dies along with her husband, Thomas Mason, on their honeymoon when the Lusitania is torpedoed.
  • 1927: The Ritz Carlton Hotel opens.
  • 1931: The Storrow embankment is created with a park that runs along the Charles River promenade.
  • 1951: Storrow Drive is constructed from 1949 to 1951.
  • 1964: Construction of the Prudential Building in the old Back Bay railroad yards. Back Bay station is moved, and the railroad is put underneath the Center. Mechanics Hall, the main convention center for Boston (on Huntington Avenue where the Christian Science reflecting pool is now) is torn down in 1959. Hynes Auditorium, then War Memorial Auditorium is under construction from 1960-1964. It opens on February 22, 1964.
  • 1966: The Back Bay Neighborhood Association (formed in 1955) is given the power to veto any exterior changes to buildings.
  • 1975: The John Hancock Tower is constructed (1968-1975)and becomes the tallest building in New England.
  • 1977: The Boston Architectural Center (founded 1889) is decorated with a trompe líoeil painting by Richard Hass.
  • 1981: The surrealist Tramount Mural is painted by Morgan Bulkeley on Newbury Street.
  • 1987: The Friends of the Public Garden erected a statue commemorating Robert McCloskeyís famous book Make Way For Ducklings which is set in the Public Garden.
  • 1991: The Newbury Street mural is designed by winners of a local art contest. Each figure has a Boston connection.

Further Reading

  • Moore, Barbara W. and Gail Weesner. Back Bay: A Living Portrait. Boston: Century Hill Press, 1995.
  • Sammarco, Anthony Mitchell. Back Bay. Images of America. Dover, NH: Arcadia, 1997.

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