The Diversions of Boston

When I set out to write historical novels set in colonial Boston, I found myself often diverted by discoveries of the old city that lie beneath the present one. Take for example, the old State House. 

All you’ll see in the background here are Boston’s skyscrapers.

There it is, right in the middle of everything, surrounded by tall buildings. That’s one of the nice things about this city — the unexpected presence of an artifact when you least expect it. But I am interested in showing you a diversion that amused and amazed me for some time.

A careful look reveals as background of hills.

If you look closely enough at the cover of my first colonial book, you’ll see that there are hills in the background. Rather substantial ones. These were part of what was called The Shawmut Peninsula. Today only Beacon Hill remains, but it is 40 feet lower than the Puritans found it.  A British map I located shows us the prominent position these hills played, and what interests me is the remnants. Let’s compare a section of an old, 1776 map and a more modern one.

The same downtown section


Map detail courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhall Map Center at the Boston Public Library

Two blocks “up” from the State House (circled in red) is Cambridge Street, an extension of Tremont that curves around Pemberton Hill. Even though Pemberton is no longer there, the current map shows us that its curve remains, a living reminder of what once was there. And before then —

This is the earliest sketch we have of the peninsula.

The Shawmut Peninsula was composed of a glacial deposit called a moraine. The ice moved along, pushing debris ahead of it, and when it stopped and melted, the stuff it was pushing stayed where it was. Pemberton Hill was part of the Tri-Mountain (Beacon Hill, Mount Vernon and itself). The street running in front of its highest point (Beacon Hill) became Tremont (TriMount). It’s easy to spot on the old map. The modern one has undergone a lot of “clean up” so that my point about Pemberton will make sense, and spotting Tremont Street isn’t so easy. Copps Hill and Fort Hill have histories of their own, which we may explore — some other time.