North End History: From Rags to Riches

North End History by Guild Nichols


After 1780, Revere expanded his business interests in keeping with the feverish commercial development along the North End waterfront. He opened a foundry for the smelting of iron and brass and was soon supplying bolts, spikes and nails for the burgeoning shipbuilding industry. He produced cannons and cast church bells, one of the largest of which still rings in Boston’s King’s Chapel. The copper sheeting from his copper rolling mill in Canton covered the dome of the Massachusetts State House and the hull of the U.S.S. Constitution, built in Hartt’s shipyard at the far end of Hanover Street.

Paul Revere Engraving of Boston in 1768

Shipping was the magnet that drew thousands of new mechanics, journeymen and sailors to the North End in the early 1800s. As the neighborhood began to outgrow its physical limitations, efforts began to reclaim the marshlands and mudflats surrounding the peninsula. The Mill Pond, which had become a body of festering, stagnant water; was filled in. Over the next 25 years, portions from the tops of Beacon Hill and Copp’s Hill were transported to reclaim nearly 70 acres of buildable land. This included the North End neighborhood to the west of Salem and Prince streets, as well as the area now called the “Bulfinch Triangle” where the Boston Garden and North Station now stand.

On the eastern waterfront side of the narrow North End peninsula, new wharves reached out into the harbor and massive new brick and granite warehouses rose up to accommodate the incoming shipments of goods from European and the East India trading companies. While back in the very heart of the North End, one of Boston’s most celebrated period architects, Charles Bulfinch, was building a New North Congregational Society church in dignified “American” classical style on Hanover Street.. Its bell was cast and hung by Paul Revere. It is to this day the only surviving Bulfinch-designed church in Boston and is now named St. Stephen’s Church.

On the North End’s western side adjoining Blackstone Street, the cornerstone had been laid for a brand new marketplace building adjacent to Faneuil Hall – named Quincy Market after Boston’s second Mayor Josiah Quincy. When completed in 1827, this massive, new two-story structure was 535-feet long and 50-feet wide, built upon landfill.

These new physical transformations in and around the North End belied the changing character of the neighborhood itself, which was overflowing with itinerant seafarers, shipbuilders, and all and sundry people attracted by the booming shipping and mercantile trade. The North End had developed a new persona. From the inside, it was still a tough, thriving working class neighborhood. To outsiders, it became a frightening and dangerous slum. And proper Bostonians kept their distance.

The North End had become a haven for gamblers, criminals, whores and often drunken and violent sailors. The area around North Street (known then as Anne Street) was the most notorious, lying just one block in from the harbor. It came to be called “Black Sea” and the “Murder District.” Boston policemen stayed away out of fear for their own lives. And yet, it is not as if the neighborhood completely acquiesced. In 1825, a mob of incensed citizens raided the infamous “Beehive” brothel. And about this time, a stalwart seafarer walked up into North Square with a purposeful mission in mind: to save the souls of sailors.

Edward Thompson Taylor was an orphan who at the age of seven set out to sea. After nearly 25 years he came ashore and was ordained a Methodist minister. He became a missionary in charge of the new Seamen’s Bethel, which opened on North Square in 1833. His stories of life on the high seas, coupled with his knowledge of nautical matters and an uncommon eloquence, earned him wide respect, love and admiration. His sermons were so riveting, his oratory skills so pronounced that Ralph Waldo Emerson dubbed him “the Shakespeare of the sailor and of the poor” while Walt Whitman called him “an essentially perfect orator.” Herman Melville is said to have patterned the church sermon of Father Mapple inMoby-Dick after Rev. Taylor’s speech and manner.

This Seamen’s Bethel was not the sole institution to give aid and sustenance to sailors and ship mechanics who flocked to the North End. A Baptist Bethel was also built on Hanover Street and, in 1847, a Mariners House was founded by the Boston Port and Seamen’s Aid Society opposite the Bethel in North Square. This boarding house still continues today to provide food, lodging and counsel to mariners from around the world just as it has for over 150 years.

But if the quality of life in the North End neighborhood had changed for the worse, so too had its physical character. A dark and downward spiraling malaise had set in. Buildings were left to deteriorate, cobblestone streets went unrepaired, refuse accumulated in every corner and alleyway. It was as if the new, promising bright City of Boston on its very periphery had turned its back and severed all connections. Into this urban slum now flowed tens of thousands of new Irish immigrants fleeing the famine at home.