J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Rise and Fall of Boston’s Tide Mills

The small West End Museum in Boston just opened a small exhibit about “Tide Power in Colonial Boston.” On Tuesday, 21 July, at 6:00 P.M. the museum will host a reception for that show. Both exhibit and reception are free and open to the public.

The event announcement says:
Tide Power in Colonial Boston explores the mechanisms of the mills and trades they supported. Historical maps illustrate the role of Boston’s topography in the construction of the mills and the demand for land-making which contributed to their downfall.

The rise and fall of tides have been harnessed for energy since Roman times. The earliest known tide mills date back to sixth-century Ireland. As the tides come in, sea water enters into a reservoir called a mill pond. When the tides recede, the stored water is released to turn a water wheel which powers the mill.

Around 1630, a settler named Crabtree attempted to extend an island in Boston’s North Cove—approximately where Causeway Street is today—to build a dam and form a tidal mill pond. The task proved to be too much for one person, so he soon abandoned the project. Thirteen years later, Henry Symons and five associates were granted the rights to the Cove on the condition that they construct a mill pond and erect one or more mills. They succeeded and, for the next 150 years, no fewer than five tide mills operated there.
The Mill Pond appears just below the compass on the map above, a major feature of colonial Boston. The mill creek that connected that pond to the inner harbor also served to define the North End, or at least the North End Gang’s territory. Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography about playing beside the Mill Pond. The Baptist Meetinghouses were built along its edge to make adult baptism easier.

But with population and economic growth after independence, Boston needed land more than it needed tidal power. In 1797 a consortium proposed filling in the Mill Pond to make new land. It took ten years before the government approved that change, and more than twenty before the project was done. The West End Museum exhibit tells that whole story, concluding with a next-generation, never-realized plan to dam the Back Bay and create more tide mills—another project overwhelmed by the demand for real estate.

“Tide Power in Colonial Boston” will be up until 19 September. Visitors can view it during the museum’s regular hours, which are noon to 5:00 P.M. Tuesday through Friday and 11:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M. on Saturdays. The West End Museum is at 150 Standiford Street.

In addition, the Massachusetts Historical Commission has an online exhibit about archeological finds at the site of the old Mill Pond.


G. Lovely said...

You state that there was a "..never-realized plan to dam the Back Bay and create more tide mills...", but the plan was realized in 1821 by the Boston and Roxbury Tidal Mill Corporation. (The dam is now under Beacon Street) However since only three of their projected 80 mills were ever built the project was a financial failure, due in part to the near concurrent development of Lowell, steam power, and railroads, and in a few years, with the mil races not maintained, the entire area became a silted up mudflat and too convenient trash dump.

Schemes for filling the Back Bay date at least as far back as Robert Gourlay's 1843 "Elysian Fields" design, and, while that went unrealized, by 1859 the filling began in earnest and continued day and night for 50 years using a dedicated rail line running gravel from the hills of Dedham (scars still visible) along the still used rail right of way.

J. L. Bell said...

As for whether that scheme was ralized, I guess that's a question of whether we view the Back Bay as half-empty or half-full.