Somerville is a city in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, United States, located two miles northwest of Boston. , the United States Census has the city with a total population of 75,754 people, and is the most densely populated municipality in New England. , it was the 15th most densely populated city in the country. It was established as a town in 1842, when it was separated from Charlestown. In 2006, the town was named the best run city in Massachusetts by the Boston Globe. In 1972 and again in 2009 the city received the All-America City Award.
The territory now comprising the city of Somerville was first settled in 1629 as part of Charlestown. In 1629, English surveyor Thomas Graves led a scouting party of 100 Puritans from the settlement of Salem to prepare the site for the Great Migration of Puritans from England. Graves was attracted to the narrow Mishawum Peninsula between the Charles River and the Mystic River, linked to the mainland at the present-day Sullivan Square. The area of earliest settlement was based at City Square on the peninsula, though the territory of Charlestown officially included all of what is now Somerville, as well as Melrose, Malden, Stoneham, Medford, Everett, Woburn, Burlington, and parts of Arlington and Cambridge. From that time until 1842, the area of present-day Somerville was referred to as “beyond the Neck” in reference to the thin spit of land, the Charlestown Neck, that connected it to the Charlestown Peninsula.
The first European settler in Somerville of whom there is any record was John Woolrich, an Indian trader who came from the Charlestown Peninsula in 1630, and settled near Dane Street. Others soon followed Woolrich, locating in the vicinity of present-day Union Square. The population continued to slowly increase, and by 1775 there were about 500 inhabitants scattered across the area. Otherwise, the area was mostly used as grazing and farmland. It was once known as the "Stinted Pasture" or "Cow Commons", as early settlers of Charlestown had the right to pasture a certain number of cows in the area.
John Winthrop, the first colonial governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was granted of land in the area in 1631. Named for the ten small knolls located on the property, Ten Hills Farm extended from the Craddock Bridge in present-day Medford Center to Convent Hill in East Somerville. Winthrop lived, planted, and raised cattle on the farm. It is also where he launched the first ship in Massachusetts, the "Blessing of the Bay." Built for trading purposes in the early 1630s, it was soon armed for use as a patrol boat for the New England coast. It is seen as a precursor to the United States Navy. The neighborhood Ten Hills, located in the northeastern part of the city, has retained the name for over 300 years. New research has found that less than a decade after John Winthrop moved to the farm in 1631, there were enslaved Native American prisoners of war on the property. Each successive owner of Ten Hills Farm would depend upon slavery's profits until the 1780s, when Massachusetts abolished the practice.
In a short time, the settlers began laying out roads in all directions in search of more land for planting and trade with various Native American tribes in the area. Laid out as early as the mid-1630s, the earliest highway in Somerville was probably what is now Washington Street, and led from present-day Sullivan Square to Harvard Square. In its earliest days, Washington Street was known as the "Road to Newtowne" (renamed Cambridge in 1638). During the 1700s and early 1800s, Washington Street, together with Somerville Avenue, comprised "Milk Row," a route favored by Middlesex County dairy farmers as the best way to get to the markets of Charlestown and Boston.
Laid out in 1636, Broadway was likely the second highway built in the area. Originally called "Menotomie's Road," it ran from the Charlestown Neck to the settlement at Menotomy (present-day Arlington). Initially bordered by farmsteads, Broadway would come into its own as a commercial thoroughfare after horse-drawn trolleys were introduced to the highway in 1858.
Role in the Revolutionary War
Somerville was home to one of the first hostile acts of the American Revolutionary War. The theft of colonial gunpowder by British soldiers, and the massive popular reaction that ensued, are considered to be a turning point in the events leading up to war.
First built by settlers for use as a windmill in the early 1700s, the Old Powder House was sold to the colonial government of Massachusetts for use as a gunpowder magazine in 1747. Located at the intersection of Broadway and College Avenue in present-day Powder House Square, the Old Powder House held largest supply of gunpowder in all of Massachusetts. General Thomas Gage, who had become the military governor of Massachusetts in May 1774, was charged with enforcement of the highly unpopular Intolerable Acts, which British Parliament had passed in response to the Boston Tea Party. Seeking to prevent the outbreak of war, he believed that the best way to accomplish this was by secretly removing military stores from storehouses and arsenals in New England.
Just after dawn on September 1, 1774, a force of roughly 260 British regulars from the 4th Regiment, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Maddison, were rowed in secrecy up the Mystic River from Boston to a landing point near Winter Hill. From there they marched about a mile to the Powder House, and after sunrise removed all of the gunpowder. Most of the regulars then returned to Boston the way they had come, but a small contingent marched on to Cambridge, seizing two field pieces from the Cambridge Common. The field pieces and powder were then taken from Boston to the British stronghold on Castle Island, then known as Castle William (renamed Fort Independence in 1779).
In response to the raid, amid rumors that blood had been shed, alarm spread through the countryside as far as Connecticut and beyond, and American Patriots sprang into action, fearing that war was at hand. Thousands of militiamen began streaming toward Boston and Cambridge, and mob action forced Loyalists and some government officials to flee to the protection of the British Army. This action provided a "dress rehearsal" for the Battles of Lexington and Concord seven months later in the famous "shot heard 'round the world", and inflamed already heated feelings on both sides, spurring actions by both British and American forces to remove powder and cannon to secure locations.
After the raid on the Powder House, the colonists took action to conceal arms and munitions of war in Concord. When General Gage found out, he was resolved to take the powder by force if necessary. The Americans learned that the British intended to start for Concord on April 18, 1775, and veteran courier Paul Revere set out on his famous ride to warn the farmers and militiamen in between Boston and Concord, including Sam Adams and John Hancock. That night he set out from the North End through Charlestown towards East Somerville, where he encountered two British officers stationed on Washington Street. They immediately pursued him, and Revere galloped up Broadway towards Winter Hill and eventually eluded them. His warning gave the militia enough time to prepare for battle, and launch the American Revolution.
Shortly after Paul Revere set out on his ride, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith and 700 British Army regulars landed near Lechmere Square. As it was nearly high tide, East Cambridge was an island and the troops, skirting the marshes, were obliged to wade "thigh deep" to reach Somerville. They probably came through Prospect Street into Washington Street, and through Union Square.
Defeated and in retreat, the British army passed again through Somerville en route back to Boston. Upon reaching Union Square, the British marched down Washington Street as far as the base of Prospect Hill, where a skirmish took place. The handful of rebellious locals, having heard of the storied battles at Lexington and Concord earlier that day, caught an exhausted retreating British contingent off guard. As the story goes, 65-year-old minuteman James Miller lost his life in the scuffle while standing his ground against the British. He was shot thirteen times after famously telling a retreating colleague, "I am too old to run."
Somerville occupied a conspicuous position during the entire Siege of Boston, which lasted nine months, and Prospect Hill became the central position of the Continental Army's chain of emplacements north of Boston. Its height and commanding view of Boston and the harbor had tremendous strategic value and the fortress became known as the "Citadel". Originally occupied by just 400 men, Prospect Hill became a primary encampment for American forces after General Israel Putnam's retreat from the Battle of Bunker Hill. On January 1, 1776, the Grand Union Flag flew for the first time at the Citadel, the first official raising of an American flag.
Independence, Urbanization and Rapid Growth
With the Revolutionary War over, the residents of Somerville were able once again to devote their energies wholeheartedly to the business of making a living. From the 1780s until Somerville's separation from Charlestown in 1842, material progress was continuous, if a bit slow. As transportation infrastructure gradually transformed the area, new industries sprang up, such as brickmaking, quarrying and dairy farming.
Transportation improvements in the early to mid-1800s factored significantly in the growth of a more urban residential form and Somerville’s incorporation as a City in 1872. These improvements included the opening of the Middlesex Canal through Somerville in 1803, various turnpikes such as Medford and Beacon streets, built during the 1810s and 1820s, and especially the introduction of rail lines. In 1841, the Fitchburg Railroad was built between Boston and Fresh Pond in Cambridge, paralleling the route of Somerville Avenue. This led to the establishment of industries along its path. Soon after, in 1843 the Fitchburg Railroad commenced passenger service and enabled residential development along the southern slopes of Prospect and Spring hills. By the early 1840s, the population of present-day Somerville topped 1,000 for the first time.
Despite the growth, however, discontent was growing steadily outside the "neck." The area's rural farmers paid taxes to the local government in Charlestown, but received little in return. By 1842, the area had no churches, few schools, no taverns, and suffered from poor and impassable roads. For many years after the Revolution the two parts of Charlestown styled "within" and "without the neck" were nearly equal in population; the former had by this time completely outstripped the latter. With this growth of population and trade came the need of city institutions, and consequently greater expenses were involved. Therefore, the rural part of Charlestown found herself contributing to the paving of the streets, the maintenance of a night watch, to the building of engine houses, and various other improvements from which they derived little benefit.
In 1828, a petition was presented to the Legislature asking that a part of Charlestown be set off as a separate town, to be known as Warren. This petition was subsequently withdrawn. The desire for a separate township continued to spread, and by 1841, becoming impatient at the neglect of the government to adequately provide for their needs, the inhabitants again agitated a division of the town, and a meeting in reference to the matter was held November 22 in the Prospect Hill school house.
A petition was accordingly drawn up and signed by Guy C. Hawkins and 151 others, and a committee deputed to further its passage through the Legislature, then in session. A bill incorporating a new town was signed by the governor on March 3, 1842. The original choice for the city's new name, after breaking away from Charlestown, was Walford, after the first settler of Charlestown, Thomas Walford. However, this name was not adopted by the separation committee. Charles Miller, a member of this committee, proposed the name "Somerville", which was ultimately chosen. It was not derived from any one person's name, and a report commissioned by the Somerville Historical Society found that Somerville was a "purely fanciful name".
Before Somerville became a township in 1842 the area was primarily populated by British farmers and brick makers who sold their wares in the markets of Boston, Cambridge and Charlestown. As the markets grew, the population of Somerville increased six-fold between the years of 1842 and 1870 to 14,685. With the sharp influx of immigrants to the Somerville area, industry boomed and brick manufacturing became the predominant trade. Before mechanical presses were invented, Somerville produced 1.3 million bricks a year. Thereafter, production increased rapidly to 5.5 million bricks a year, and the success of the brickyards began to attract numerous other industries. In 1851, American Tubes Works opened, followed by meat processing and packaging plants. Other Somerville factories came to produce steam engines, boilers, glass, and iron.
Shortly thereafter Somerville incorporated as a city in 1872. The population growth was due in part to improvements in pre-existing transportation lines, as well as a new rail line, the Lexington and Arlington Railroad, introduced through Davis Square in 1870. At its height, Somerville was served by eight passenger rail stations. Somerville’s buoyant economy during this period was tied to industries that tended to locate at the periphery of the residential core, near freight rail corridors. By the mid 1870s meat packing plants were the primary employers and profit centers of the community.
The Late Industrial Period (1870-1915) was a time of phenomenal growth for Somerville in all spheres including civic and commercial ventures. Infrastructure such as rail, water lines, telegraph and electricity were established and connected to surrounding towns. The population exploded from 15,000 to 90,000. While brickmaking had taken a hold in the area after the railroads first arrived in the 1830s, Somerville's brickyards boomed through 1870. Meatpacking soon displaced brickmaking as the primary industry in the city, dubbed "The Chicago of New England." Additionally, Somerville's location adjacent to Boston and proximity to rail and road transportation made it an ideal location for distribution facilities.
Between 1915 and 1930 population growth slowed slightly as Somerville's industries consolidated rather than expanded, and the period's most important enterprises were meat packing, dairy processing, ice and food distribution. Construction of the McGrath Highway in 1925 marked the turning point of Somerville as an industrial city, which accelerated when the Ford Motor Company built a plant in Assembly Square in 1926. In the years that followed, Somerville would see itself transformed into a major industrial center as automobile assembly would surpassed meat packing as Somerville's most important industry.
Although Union Square and Davis Square continued to be the largest commercial areas during the first decades of the 20th century, smaller, less-developed squares grew as well. Ball Square, Magoun Square and Teele Square were developed with one- or two-story masonry commercial buildings. Retail development and banking facilities also spread. During this time of industrial prosperity, continuing through World War II, the city of Somerville reached its population apex at 105,883 residents in 1940. The building boom continued until the 1940s, creating the dense residential fabric the "city of homes" is known for.
Deindustrialization and decline
By mid-century, powerful social and economic forces precipitated a period of industrial and population decline that lasted into the 1980s. The postwar period was characterized by the ascent of the private automobile, which carried significant implications for Somerville. Streetcar lines that had crisscrossed the city since 1890 were systematically ripped out and commuter rail service was discontinued at the city’s eight railway stations, one by one. Passenger rail service along the Fitchburg and Lowell lines had been declining for some time, and stations such as Gilman Square were removed as early as the late 1940s. Passenger rail service stopped altogether by 1958.
The number of cars on Somerville's streets continued to rise, and road construction projects proliferated. The Alewife Brook Parkway, Mystic Valley Parkway and the Fells Connector Parkways, originally conceived in the 1890s as a means for city residents to reach the metropolitan parks, evolved into congested commuter routes for suburban drivers. Highway projects were advanced in the wake of the Federal Highway Aid Act (1956), in some instances displacing entire neighborhoods. The Brickbottom neighborhood was razed in 1950 to prepare for a proposed Inner Belt Expressway, and construction of Interstate 93 resulted in demolition of homes in The States neighborhood during the late 1960s.
Industry slowly moved outward to the metropolitan fringes, encouraged by highway access and cheap, undeveloped land. The Ford Motor Plant in Assembly Square, which had been one of the region’s largest employers, closed its doors in 1958 with severe consequences for the local economy. From the late 1950s through the early 1970s, Finast Supermarkets used the building that had earlier housed the Ford assembly plant on Middlesex Avenue, but in 1976 it too closed its doors. By 1976, Assembly Square was becoming a ghost town: Finast Stores, the Boston and Maine Railroad, and Ford Motor Company, which had each paid the city over $1 million in annual taxes, were gone. By the late 1970s, Somerville was losing population, revenue and jobs.
In the last years of the 20th century, the situation in Somerville stabilized and growth returned - first to West Somerville, and then the rest of the city.
Almost thirty years after passenger rail service to Somerville was halted, the Red Line Northwest Extension reached Davis Square in 1984. The city and community used the creation of the new station as a catalyst for revitalizing the faded square, promoting new commercial development and sponsoring other physical and infrastructure improvements. However when the new transit station opened, business around Davis Square did not immediately thrive. The number of retail stores in the area declined from 68 in 1977 to 56 in 1987. However many non-retail uses, such as beauty salons and real estate offices, had already begun to fill the empty retail spaces. With the Boston area's emergence from its long recession, the area truly began to revive. Clearly, the community's vision of a rebirth of commercial and retail activity has, in the past few years, been fully realized. All benefit from their proximity to the MBTA station, as retail vacancy rates around the square are close to zero.
The telecommunication and biotechnology booms of the mid-to-late 1990s significantly contributed to Somerville’s revitalization. As with the housing boom a century earlier, the sudden increase in the number of jobs available in the cities of Somerville, Boston, and particularly Cambridge – as well in as the other communities immediately surrounding Somerville – led to a new surge in the demand for housing. Additionally, the end of rent control in Cambridge coincided with the economic recovery in 1995, increasing demand for Somerville's affordable housing options.
Until the 1990s, Somerville was colloquially referred to as "Slummerville", on account of its blue-collar residents and its reputation for crime, especially in the city's east, where the Winter Hill Gang was based. The city also had a very high car theft rate, once being the car theft capital of the country, and its Assembly Square area was especially infamous for this. However, after the gentrification period the city went through in the 1990s, and an influx of artists to the area, this name has mostly faded from use and the city has instead gained a reputation for its active arts community and effective government, including being named the best-run city in Massachusetts in 2006. Nowadays lobbying by grassroots organizations is attempting to revive and preserve Somerville's "small town" neighborhood environments by supporting local business, public transit and gardens.