Perusing the trendy shops and restaurants along Newbury Street, or taking in the famed architecture along the Charles River, it is hard to imagine that Back Bay, arguably Boston's most prestigious and affluent neighborhood, was built on a swamp. Clearly, the neighborhood has come a long way.
A Long History
Development of Back Bay began in 1814, when the Boston and Mill Corporation was chartered to construct a dam that would also serve as a toll road between Watertown and Boston. The dam created a swamp in the tidewater flats of the Charles River, which during the time was deemed a "health hazard."
In 1856, the development plans for the Back Bay neighborhood were proposed by architect Arthur Gilman with Gridley James Fox Bryant. The plans were approved and a year later, the massive project of filling in the back bay of Boston Harbor (for which the neighborhood was named) began. According to area historian and tour guide for Boston By Foot, Lee Fernandez, the project was the world's largest private landfill at the time and spanned approximately 400 acres. The filling in of present day Back Bay was completed in 1882.
During the mid-to-late 1800s, Boston was the seat of a very prominent industrial empire. According to Fernandez, around 1850, Boston was the largest cotton port in the world and home to a booming textile industry, led by Ralph Cabot Lowell. Lowell went to England to study the textile factories and took what he learned back to his factories in Boston. In addition, Boston had strong railroad, shoemaking, and finance industries. With so much industry, there was plenty of wealth in Boston, and Back Bay (and neighboring Beacon Hill) soon became home to Boston's monied upper class.
Gilman's plan for the neighborhood was greatly inspired by the renovations of Paris in the 19th century. The neighborhood is laid out in a strict street grid, focused on order. Five avenues run east-to-west along the length of the Back Bay: Beacon Street (closest to the Charles River,) Marlborough Street, Commonwealth Avenue, Newbury Street, and BoylstonStreet. All of these main avenues are one-way, with the exception of Commonwealth Avenue, which runs both ways from the Public Garden into Kenmore Square.