The Roxbury Chemical and Color Manufacturing Works / by Jason Turgeon

One of the themes of this blog is that the only constant is change. Our tiny neighborhood is in many ways a microcosm of the country as a whole. The events that shaped America are writ small in Fort Hill, and those who take the time to look are rewarded with stories that help explain not just the layout of our streets, but also the layout of our nation.

Consider the story of the once-mighty Roxbury Chemical and Color Manufacturing Works Company, often abbreviated to the Roxbury Color Works. Founded in 1826 along the Stony Brook in roughly the area where the New England Baptist Hospital's employee parking lot and the Boston DPW  yard now sit, the Color Works was an early industrial enterprise at a time when the idea of the industrial revolution was just starting to take hold of this young country.

 A description of the Roxbury Color Works' businesses in the American Journal of Science, 1830.

A description of the Roxbury Color Works' businesses in the American Journal of Science, 1830.

At the time, the area was farmland.  Boston's early rail service to Dedham along the Stony Brook was not yet conceived, and the original five investors who laid out Highland Street and developed the bulk of Fort Hill were just getting started.  If you needed to build a chemical factory, you would want access to water and transportation, but you would also want to be some distance from the neighbors so as not to disturb them with noise and pollution.  The location was perfect, well situated on the Stony Brook for water, at the crossroads of the major road between Boston and Dedham, not too far from Roxbury's population centers to be inconvenient but far enough away not to disturb anyone.

The business, run by one A. A. Hayes, appears to have prospered.  It probably didn't hurt that a few years after opening, the Boston and Providence railroad laid tracks right past the front door, with a stop conveniently located just a few hundred yards away at Roxbury Crossing.  

 The Roxbury Chemical Works and its neighbors in 1832.

The Roxbury Chemical Works and its neighbors in 1832.

The Chemical and Color works would have served many other industries in the nascent industrial age.  Chemicals and dyes, then as now, were an important part of the manufacturing process of just about everything: acids for steel production, dyes for shoes and clothing, cleaning agents, and much more.  Given the huge boom in industrialism in the following years, it's a safe bet that the facility was a crucial part of Boston's - and Massachusetts' - growth as an early industrial powerhouse.

 A barrel of Roxbury Color's Chrome Yellow is preserved in Sturbridge, MA. Photo by Jeffrey Klee

A barrel of Roxbury Color's Chrome Yellow is preserved in Sturbridge, MA. Photo by Jeffrey Klee

With the introduction of the railroad and the massive population growth of Roxbury in the decades that followed, the area soon changed.  The first new neighbors, shown on the 1832 map, were Roxbury's poor, moved to the "new Almshouse" next to the new industry, freeing up more valuable real estate closer to Eliot Square.  Today, warehousing the poor next to a polluting industry would run afoul of the environmental justice movement and the regulations that accompany it. But 180 years ago, no such protections existed.

 An ad in the New England Farmer, 1832.

An ad in the New England Farmer, 1832.

The poor weren't alone, though. At a time of extremely limited mobility, the new railroad and the omnibus system that connected Roxbury to Boston opened up Roxbury to become one of America's first suburbs.  Soon, the farms were bought and subdivided into luxurious estates where men of means built mansions and country gardens.  The first gentrification of Roxbury had begun!  

Some of the biggest names in Roxbury built their homes on Fort Hill and Mission Hill.  The most prominent were probably the Lowell family - yes those Lowells, including houses belonging to J.A. Lowell and "The Misses Lowell" on the family's Norfolk farm just across the Stony Brook from the factory.  But there were some other big names nearby, including Supply Clapp Thwing just up Highland Street.  

McIntyre's 1852 map does us the pleasure not only of showing us the site of the factory and its proximity of the neighbors, but also of giving us a sketch of the facility.

 The facility was important enough to be highlighted with a border sketch in McIntyre's 1852 map of Roxbury, lower left corner.

The facility was important enough to be highlighted with a border sketch in McIntyre's 1852 map of Roxbury, lower left corner.

At about the same time that McIntyre was producing his map, a curious thing happened.  The facility was featured on the back page of the Saturday, May 14th, 1853, issue of Gleason's Pictorial, an early magazine.  Meanwhile, a cousin of that magazine, Ballou's Pictorial and Drawing Room Companion, had a center spread on the "Highland Villas" that had sprung up nearby in recent years.  Both magazines extolled the virtues of their respective subjects.  And while gushing over the mansions of the rich is neither new nor surprising, in retrospect the treatment given to the Color Works seems a little suspicious.  

"he atmosphere of the buildings, so far from being deleterious to health, is considered by those engaged in the works as highly beneficial, no one having died of any lung complaint who has worked there for a length of time, and the place is visited by some invalids for benefit in lung complaints, instead of taking a sea voyage, for the atmosphere in one of the buildings is similar to to that at sea. A visit to the works will richly repay one for the trouble.

 Images from Gleason's Pictorial, May 14, 1853

Images from Gleason's Pictorial, May 14, 1853

Roxbury Chemical description - Gleason's.jpg

While I'm sure that Gleason was richly repaid for the trouble of writing such a lovely report, it doesn't seem to have convinced the neighbors. The inside of the buildings might have been redolent with the scent of sea air, but the building's mighty 210' tall chimney apparently was doing a lousy job of dispersing the stench of chemical manufacturing.  Doubtless they had been complaining for quite some time before this article came out, and eventually their complaints came to a head.

On March 24, 1856, two separate petitions, each with over 50 signatures, were submitted to the City government seeking the abatement of the "nuisance" of the operations of the Roxbury Color and Chemical Company.  City government apparently worked more efficiently in those days, and a scant month later, on April 28, 1856, a special committee had completed its investigation of the matter.  The special committee published a report that, in slightly less than 5 pages, weighed the merits of the two sides.

The report found that, while the company had indeed been built at an earlier time when there were few neighbors to offend, and that while the company had made efforts over the years to abate the odors coming from the facility, the new neighbors were right.  The place was indeed a "nuisance," and the authors even italicized the word to emphasize it.  

The committee then took a highly unusual step. They ordered that the facility be shut down, under the powers granted to them by an act passed just months before in 1855, that allowed Boards of Health in Massachusetts to close businesses that emitted noxious odors.

More than a century and a half later, this battle is still being repeated across the country. Corporations, in spite of being huge employers and big taxpayers, still find themselves pitted against their neighbors, who want to live a healthy, quiet life.  In many places, the industries have largely disappeared, lured to foreign countries by a variety of factors that includes not just cheaper labor but also less environmental regulation.  And while we lament the loss of the jobs and income that accompanied these industries, very few people miss being subjected to acidic fumes so bad that they damaged nearby vegetation and caused chronic coughs.

The only later record of the Roxbury Color and Chemical Works I can find online comes from a one-line description of the handwritten papers of Ellis Gray Loring, an abolitionist lawyer active in Boston: "Roxbury Color and Chemical Manufactory. Insolvency proceedings. October, 1859."

The 1873 Ward Map tells the story in terms just as stark. The buildings are gone, the land sold, and all that remains is the old chimney.

I like the story of the Roxbury Color and Chemical Works for many reasons, but none more so than the way it tells the story of America - our transition from farmland to industry, our waves of immigration, our budding environmentalist movement, the tension between jobs and health, the further tension between old and new residents. And in its own small way, the story of the Color and Chemical Works informs us about the tensions that still shape the neighborhood today.