Gravel digging in the Heights, circa 1860. The gravel was loosened with long poles, then loaded by steam shovel into the flat cars for transport to Boston.
The Back Bay Fill
Needham Heights used to be higher. As high, in fact, as the hill that the Sheraton now sits on. In the thirty years between the 1850s and 1880s, gravel was dug from the beds in Needham Heights and carted into Boston to fill in the Back Bay from Massachusetts Avenue to Charles Street. The Boston Common once touched the shoreline of the Back Bay, but the City decided that the area of the Bay was more useful as residential land to accommodate the increasing demand for city real estate, than it was as a stagnant and filthy repository of the city's sewage.
In the year 1857, two railroad builders, N.C. Munson and George Goss, won a contract from the Commonwealth to fill in the fetid mud flats of the Back Bay receiving basin. The Bay was created in the 1820s when a mill dam was built on the Charles River between the shores of the Common and Sewell's Point in Brookline, in the belief that the waters rushing in and out would power the mills. Unfortunately, the dam prevented the daily tidal flushing of the Muddy River and the Fens, clogging the operation of the mills and creating an immense and highly odiferous swamp.
Goss and Munson's winning bid called for filling in the entire Back Bay, in exchange for title to 25% of each building lot they created. Since the hills of Boston had been flattened in the past to fill in and expand the Boston peninsula, Munson and Goss found few sources of fill within Boston proper. So, for sufficient fill to create 700 buildable acres, the contractors looked to Needham (just nine miles from the Back Bay swamp). Here they found hundreds of acres of glacial sand and gravel just west of the Charles River. The land was vacant, and was (most importantly) adjacent to a railroad spur.
In 1859, the Needham Town Meeting and the Selectmen permitted the "Gravel Company" to remove gravel by "taking down the hill between Otis Alden's and Josiah Eaton's" and in 1863 "removing the hill near Kendrick's Bridge and building a proper road" from the site adjacent to the Charles River. This incredible engineering project flattened Needham's land mass by an estimated 100 acres in topography and hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of sand and gravel, within the area roughly bounded by Central Avenue, Gould Street, and Highland Avenue.
The contractors added spurs to already existing railroad lines and Munson and Goss laid railroad tracks to connect their gravel pit in Needham to the railroad junction in the Lower Falls. The contractors also had two 25-horsepower steam shovels brought to Needham. These ran on tracks parallel to the gravel mounds while railroad engines, each pulling 35 specially-designed side-dump railroad tip-carts ran beside them on adjacent tracks. Each 35-cart train moved 2,500 yards of fill every day from Needham to Boston. They made 25 round trips each day and night, 6 days a week, arriving at the Back Bay site every 45 minutes where they quickly and efficiently dumped their loads of Needham soil and returned for another fill.
At the Back Bay site, 550 acres of tidal marshland were covered with Needham's sand and gravel to an average depth of 15 feet. Boston's land area as a whole was increased by 70% with the addition of 700 acres of new land. This incredible project cost state taxpayers nothing, since the land created was sold for lots in the fashionable new Back Bay section. Money from the sale of land was returned to the Commonwealth and the net profits on the sale up to 1882 were $3,070,000.
The result in Needham was less fortunate, at least at first. The gravel-extraction operations of the Back Bay Fill left a great wasteland on the border of Needham near the Charles River and Upper Falls. Excavation removed all soil, sand and gravel, leaving nothing but exposed bedrock over much of the area. Lacking soil, plants could not grow up to cover the ground, and it lay barren for the fifty years following the Fill operations. It is said that on windy days, dust from the pits would blow in clouds toward Heights and Needham Center.
However, in the 1950s, a time of economic prosperity and residential expansion, this waste land became valuable again. The land was ideal for development - it was vacant and already cleared, and it lay alongside the route designated for the Circumferential Highway, Route 128. The state had laid out a basic route in the 1930s, joining up existing local roads between Peabody and Canton; in Needham, the Circumferential Highway was Greendale Avenue from Upper Falls to Dedham. The building of the real highway parallel to the 1930s route began in the mid-1950s. For the first time, a modern highway linked the outer suburbs with the port and transit facilities of Boston, bypassing the ancient hub-and-spoke system and the tangle of small local roads. It became economically feasible - even advantageous - to direct growing industrial operations into the less-expensive real estate west of the city by taking advantage of the new road. In addition, the housing boom that followed the War created demand for rapid new residential construction, increasing the value of previously marginal land.
This rich opportunity for industrial growth in Needham was seized by the Boston real estate firm of Cabot, Cabot and Forbes. By the mid-1950s, CC&F was expanding into industrial development, and turned the old gravel works into the New England Industrial Center - the first such industrial park in the country. Tenants of the Center enjoyed the advantages of transportation access, centralized physical facilities, and approved industrial zoning. For Needham, the Industrial Center created an industrial base that generated revenue and jobs. Ultimately, easy access to Route 128 accelerated Needham's transformation into the residential suburb we know today. Business continues to grow in the N2 Innovation District (as the Industrial Center is know called), a reminder of the present benefit that arose from an old misfortune.
The barren gravel pits, prior to development into the New England Industrial Center. This land became the site of the Industrial Center and the Exit 19 interchange on Route 128.
Sunday, November 17th, 2 pm - Bring on Broadway!
at the MIT Endicott House, 80 Haven Street, Dedham.
Tuesday, October 29th, 7-8:30 pm -
Frances Perkins Reception
at the Needham History Center, 1147 Central Avenue.
Join us for a reception and display about the life and accomplishments of Frances Perkins - workers' rights advocate, Secretary of Labor (1933-1945), and the first woman to serve in the US Cabinet. The traveling display is on loan from the Frances Perkins Center in Newcastle, Maine.
Also learn about the Center's efforts to create the Frances Perkins Homestead National Historic Landmark. (The traveling display can also be viewed at the Needham History Center on October 31-November 1 from 10-230, and on November 4-6 from 10-230).
Wednesday, October 30th, 6 - 9 pm -
Annual Meeting and Dinner
This is our annual get-together to enjoy some good food in a beautiful setting, socialize with your friends, and meet some new ones! We will update you on the History Center's activities, and show off some of our new projects. Tickets and information
at the Needham History Center, 1147 Central Avenue
Join Big Smile Entertainment for a stunning afternoon of the Best of Broadway from yesterday to today. Their professional vocalists, many who have performed on Broadway, will sing some of the most beloved Broadway favorites. Featuring: Fiddler, Oklahoma!, Chicago, Cats, Sound of Music, Les Miserables, Jersey Boys, West Side Story, King and I, South Pacific and many more. [NB - this is a change of program from the Calendar announcement; this replaces the Civil War program]
Heirloom Shoppe - Item of the Week!
A Dedham Pottery-style trinket box, $15.
This box was made by The Potting Shed, a family-owned company in West Concord, MA. The original Dedham Pottery closed in the 1940s. The Starr family started producing reproduction pieces in the 1970s - originally to add to a personal collection, but discovering that there was still a demand for the iconic blue-and-white ceramics. Like the Dedham originals, each piece is collectible and individually hand made.
Save the Date! Our Holiday Sale is on December 8th,
from 11am to 4pm!
You can also visit our Gift Shop
Notice of Public Hearing re. John Mills House (1834)
The Needham Historical Commission will hold a public hearing on Monday, November 4th at 7:00 p.m. in the Select Board Meeting Room in Needham Town Hall, 1471 Highland Avenue, to gather input from neighbors and interested parties regarding the proposed demolition of an historic building located at 1479 Great Plain Avenue, Needham.
The Commission seeks the input of neighbors and interested parties to make a determination as to whether or not to recommend that the house be preferably preserved, and whether or not to therefore impose a six-month demolition delay under Needham General Bylaws 18.104.22.168.2. Comments may also be submitted by email to the Chair of the Needham Historical Commission, Mr. Don Lankiewicz, at email@example.com or by mail to Don Lankiewicz, Chair, Needham Historical Commission, Needham Town Hall, 1471 Highland Avenue, Needham, MA 02492.
From time to time, we will post event information from our community partners and friends, that might be of interest.
The Best Possible Death: Conversations for You and Your Family. A series of five events, October 27-November 17. Difficult conversations, addressed with compassion and inspiration. The Lane Lyceum/First Parish in Needham. For information and details, see www.lanelyceum.org.
We Did It For You! Women's Journey through History. November 3, at 3:00pm in Powers Hall. A powerful musical that tells the story of women's struggles and triumphs in the fight for equal rights. Sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Needham. For tickets and information, see www.lwv-needham.org.
We thank our Corporate Sponsors
for their generous and ongoing support!
The Dedham Inst. for Savings . The Middlesex Bank . Louise Condon Realty . North Hill . Petrini Corporation . The Vita Needle Company
The Needham Women's Club . JC Timmerman, Inc.
Briarwood Rehab & Healthcare .