Boston: A Timeline of Change

As I briefly mentioned in the introduction to this fascinating city, one of the more intriguing aspects to both the history and geography of Boston is the actual land itself.  The original city was a mere 783 acres, and except for a small isthmus (known as the Boston Neck) connecting it to the mainland, it was practically an island lying out in the harbor.  This fascinating map by British engineer and cartographer Thomas Hyde Page (image courtesy of the Library of Congress and now in the public domain) shows the extents of land at the time of the American Revolution.

Over the years, much work has been done to fill in many marshy or entirely underwater portions of what used to constitute the Charles River and Boston Harbor.  Here is a comparison of the total land portion of the city, then and now.

What a change!  Just as drastic a change occurred to the landscape but is nearly imperceptible when peering down on a map from the top (at least without the aid of topography or a digital elevation model) - the terrain was drastically changed as the major hills of Boston were actually cut down to provide the dirt for these large engineering projects.  Here is a low-oblique angle with a USGS topo map underneath.  You can see that, even with the vertical reach of the hills bumped up to 5X their actual size, the changes in elevation are difficult to see in the 21st century.

This very detail has played a great deal into my interest in this city, and in the importance of grasping the geographic history of a place to understand its real story.  So what did Boston used to look like?  What did Paul Revere see as he peered towards the bell tower of Old North Church from across the river?  How did the city appear just outside Faneuil Hall as Samuel Adams was inside, thundering against unjust practices by the Crown?  What landscape did George Washington experience as he successfully laid siege to the British-held city in 1775?  Stay tuned as we continue to explore!


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