The Dorchester Reporter
Savin Hill Park:
A monument to
by Bill Walczak, Reporter Columnist
Last Sunday (July 31), dozens gathered atop Savin Hill to hear more about the history of the park and the Neponset band of the Massachusett tribe that lived hereabouts before European settlers arrived in 1630. The event, sponsored by the Dorchester Historical Society and the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association, featured remarks by Thomas Green, a Bay State native and descendant of the Massachusett tribe, who also led a blessing ceremony. Bill Walczak, a longtime Savin Hill resident and a Reporter columnist, also spoke. Following are excerpts from what he had to say:
An 1884 map of Savin Hill shows the land that is now Savin Hill Park divided into house lots (see map below). How this land became a park is a study of persistence and community organizing that is relevant today.
Savin Hill Park is a marvelous place. Though I have lived next to the park for over forty years, I still remember the first time I encountered it. It was the summer of 1976. At the time, I was running a community restitution program at the Dorchester Court in which youth convicted of crime could work off fines by cleaning up parks and vacant lots. Judge King received a request to have the program go to the top of the hill.
The hill was a mess. There were pieces of a burnt car in the overgrown grass and thorn bushes, along with thousands of shards of glass from a party where beer bottles were smashed on the rocks. But the view from the top of the hill was magnificent. I remember thinking at the time that if this park were in my native New Jersey, it would be a tourist attraction.
Savin Hill rises about 100 feet above sea level in a location very close to the coast. It is a hill called a drumlin, left by the retreating glaciers about 20,000 years ago, made up of stone that the Puritan settlers called “puddingstone” because it reminded them of their pudding. When the Puritans arrived in Dorchester on June 6, 1630, they landed near Savin Hill (which they named “Rock Hill”), at a place called “Mattapannock” by the indigenous Massachusett tribe.
The Puritans' concern was the French. The Dorchester settlers knew that the French had been trading with local tribes, so leaders required all to build their homes within a half mile of the meeting house, located at that time where Pleasant Street and Pond Street intersect, in case the French raided the settlement. In 1634, they built a fort on top of Rock Hill and put “Great Guns,” i.e., cannon, on it in 1639 to protect themselves.
Savin Hill was used during the Revolutionary War as the southern point of the Continental Army when the British controlled Boston and Gen. George Washington’s army surrounded Boston in 1775-76. Soldiers lived in two barracks on Savin Hill, one of which was still in existence in 1906. Savin Hill was also fortified during the War of 1812, and, during the 19th Century, militias camped on Savin Hill during summers, which is shown in an 1819 painting which can be seen at the Old State House (see painting above).
The Hill had several name changes. From 1630 to 1730 it was called Rock Hill, and from 1730 to 1830 it was called “Olde Hill.” In 1796, the hill came into the possession of the Worthington Family, whose house on Dorchester Avenue became the Rectory of St. William’s Church, unfortunately demolished when the newer St. William’s Church (now the Waymark Seventh Day Adventist Church) was built.
In 1822, Joseph Tuttle built the Tuttle House, a hotel located where Cristo Rey School is now located. He thought that Olde Hill didn’t sound enticing for bringing in customers, and renamed it Savin Hill, after the Eastern Red Cedar tree, which predominated on the hill. The Eastern Red Cedar was commonly called Savin tree at the time. In stories told about the hill in the 19th Century, the hill was used for hiking and picnicking. Edward Everett wrote of going up to the hill as a boy to hike and play games.
In 1870, Dorchester was annexed to Boston, along with Roxbury, and in 1876 the Boston Parks Commission looked for places to create parks in these two new sections. Savin Hill was a prime site for the Parks Commission, but the Worthington Family said no to the offer from the City to sell it for a park. Sometime before 1884, the Worthington family divided the land up for house lots (see below).
But James Stark, a local resident (he lived in the brick house at the corner of Savin Hill Avenue and Grampian Way), who was instrumental in starting the Dorchester Historical Society, was undeterred. In 1883, Stark started a campaign to get the city to purchase the land for a park, writing of the historical importance of the hill and appealing to city leadership to make Savin Hill a park. Mayor Josiah Quincy 1896-1900, who purchased Savin Hill Beach for the city, tried to purchase Savin Hill, but before that happened, his term ran out. His successor, Mayor Hart, said that if re-elected from his 1900-1902 term, he’d buy the land, but he wasn’t re-elected. Then followed Mayor Collins, 1902-05, who said he’d buy it for a suitable price. The Dorchester Historical Society negotiated with the Worthington Family, who said that they’d sell the land for the back taxes owed by the family, which was $30,000. There was an agreement with the city, but no purchase happened.
The next two mayors, John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald 1906-08 and George Hibbard 1908-10, were pivotal, best reported by James Stark himself, who addressed the crowd at the Dorchester Day celebration on June 6, 1908. The following is part of that address:
“When Mayor Fitzgerald was elected he was with us at first, and afterwards he was against us, but was with us again and promised to give us a park for the benefit of the people of this section. The people at that time sent in a petition signed with 500 names, all taxpayers, also a petition signed by all the principal organizations and citizens in Dorchester, requesting the Mayor to make a park of Savin Hill, and he allowed it to enter the loan bill. Before he signed it, however, he requested us to hold a ratification meeting. This meeting was held at the Savin Hill Yacht Club and was attended by over 500 prominent persons of the district, not one person voting against it. The Mayor then allowed it to pass and it was included in the loan bill, and he ordered the Park Commission to make a taking of Savin Hill for a park before he went out of office, which they refused to do…. The matter was left in this way when Mayor Hibbard came into office. He visited Savin Hill with Mr. Humphreys and myself shortly after he took his seat, and was surprised and delighted with the place and promised he would give us this ground for a park. This morning I was agreeably surprised when I was informed that the Mayor had signed the bonds for its purchase to-day. Therefore we ought to pass a unanimous vote of thanks to Mayor Hibbard for giving us this park, which we now dedicate to the people as Rock Hill.”
The name didn’t stick, but the park did. It took 25 years under the leadership of James Stark and the Dorchester Historical Society to create Savin Hill Park, a tribute to the power of persistence and community organizing. Reclamation of the park from the vandalism and neglect which I first encountered 46 years ago has also been the result of decades of neighborhood activism and advocacy. Stewardship and maintenance of this precious public green space is the responsibility of the Boston Parks Department. If you see something amiss, dial 311.
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