1851 Report of the Committee in Favor of the Union of Boston and Roxbury / by Jason Turgeon

In the late 1840s and early 1850s there was a raging battle among the eminent citizens of Roxbury - almost all of whom lived in our neighborhood - about whether or not Roxbury should join up with Boston.

The side in favor of Roxbury’s independence was led by Samuel Guild, the prominent merchant whose name lives on in Guild Row at Dudley Square and Guild Street to the south of the Bartlett Yard.  I’ll have a post about the Guild family eventually.

The side in favor of annexation was led by William Whiting with backing from a number of Roxbury landowners and businessmen including George Simmons, one of the 5 original developers of the Highlands.

At some point in 1850 or 1851, Guild and his crew published a treatise called “A word for old Roxbury,” which despite being referenced in a number of places around the web I can’t find online.  It was a defense of Roxbury’s continued independence, and elucidated the many reasons why the two cities should not merge.  One of those reasons was undoubtedly civic pride and an unwillingness to see the end of  a city that many people had grown up with.  But there were also concerns about increased taxes, water and sewer bills, home rule, and questions about whether or not Boston could deliver the services it promised to such a large new territory.

In response, Whiting et al. published this report.  The authors spend 31 pages plus an appendix rebutting Guild’s document point by point.  It’s a slow, laborious read at times but it also provides a great deal of insight into the conditions of Roxbury at the time.

Roxbury was growing by leaps and bounds from a tiny farming community into a major metropolis in its own right and had recently switched from town government to city government.  The town had no public sewers or water supply, no public parks, muddy roads covered in filth, and in the lower sections near the tidal flats conditions in the tenements were absolutely deplorable.  

Boston had recently spent over $500,000, an extravagant sum at the time, building the Cochituate Reservoir and the water mains to bring water from it to Boston and the recently annexed East Boston.  Boston was also an early innovator in the construction of gravity sewers, leading New York in this major public health improvement. Roxbury relied on the Jamaica Pond, the increasingly polluted Stony Brook, private wells, and cisterns for its water needs.  Its citizens used outhouses, or perhaps simply dumped their chamberpots in the streets in the slums on the low-lying land around Boston Neck.

But the group in favor of annexation was also upset by a long list of other grievances.  The short version is that they felt that the City government was not providing for the general public good.  They were upset that the City had no parks, no public water, no sewers, no plan for paving roads, no mandates for sidewalks, no plan to manage growth, or any of the other things that residents of Boston enjoyed and that we now take for granted.  After over 220 years of independence, they questioned how much longer the city could wait and worried that if Roxbury did not soon buy open space and make plans to widen and improve its streets that the city would turn into a vast slum.  They were worried that property values in Roxbury would stagnate as other territories around Boston were annexed and received the benefits of these public services, and pointed to the rapid growth in East Boston - in both population and wealth - after it joined with Boston and received public water.

Eventually, of course, Roxbury became a part of Boston and immediately got access to Cochituate reservoir water - and a park - with the construction of the Cochituate standpipe in Highland Park.  But it took another 17 years after the publication of this report.  I can only imagine that in the central meeting points of Roxbury at Eliot Square, Dudley Square, Guild Row, and on the omnibuses that things were chilly between members of the two warring factions for decades to come.