Saturday, January 1, 2011

A Very Brief History of Cambridge: 1800-1900, Part 1 -- Cambridge Changes Shape and Size

I would hate to imply that one century had more to it than another century, or that the history of one period is worth telling at a greater level of depth than another. Still, I am dividing the 19th century into several posts. The story of Cambridge in the 19th century includes a few large concepts, and while they are interrelated, they also deserve detail on their own.

Cambridge Changes Shape and Size

      Cambridge started out sprawling but barely settled. As centers of population emerged in the outlying areas of the village, they began to break off and form their own towns. The areas of Shawnsin and Cambridge Village became Billerica and Newton, respectively, in the seventeenth century, and Cambridge Farms became Lexington at the beginning of the eighteenth.1 By the nineteenth century, Cambridge's outline roughly resembled what it is today. Yet, the town's population was growing: it went from around 2,000 in 1810 to around 8,000 in 1840.2 This speedy growth rate was three times the growth rate of Massachusetts during the same period. At the beginning of the century, if you had told a local that the population would be growing that way in his or her lifetime, he or she would probably have assumed – incorrectly – that Cambridge was finally going to take off as a center of trade, like Boston.

      On January 11, 1805, Congress certified Cambridge as a port of entry, the idea being that trade could be conducted up the Charles River, and not just from the Boston Harbor. The “Cambridgeport” area, as it came to be known, briefly became the focus of economic energy in the town, with speculators buying up land in anticipation of a boom. The area's population began to increase in that decade, and soon there was a schoolhouse, fire society, and church for the residents. However, in 1807 Congress passed a trade embargo, banning trade with foreign countries. The isolationist move was a national controversy, with most of the opposition coming from the trade-oriented North, and its effects were felt strongly in Cambridge. Speculators fled from Cambridgeport as land values plummeted.3

      As more bridges were built for trade with Boston, and as industry began to overtake trade as a leading economic force, the areas of Cambridgeport and East Cambridge raced for development. For the rest of the century, Old Cambridge, Cambridgeport and east Cambridge were distinct sections of town and rivals for importance.4 Cambridgeport, after being crushed by the Embargo Act, got an early start on developing industry, beginning with furniture and glass factories in the first few decades of the century.5 East Cambridge development was boosted by the construction of the Canal Bridge in 1809, approximately where the Museum of Science is today. Estates and marshland gave way to industry and denser residential settlement. Many new residents of the area commuted to jobs in Boston over the bridge.6 In 1816, the Middlesex County Courthouse moved to East Cambridge from Old Cambridge, because Andrew Craigie, a speculator in the decline of his career, donated the land for a new building.7

      Many in Old Cambridge felt that their area was the proper center of the city, even though this was becoming less and less true. Central Square, which was more a part of Cambridgeport, was becoming the true commercial downtown.8 In 1830, Old Cambridge had a successful movement to enclose the Common, meaning that the roads going through it became pedestrian paths, making the Common more like a public park. Its original purpose had been for grazing animals, but that was less of a public need by that point. In the early 19th century, people in other areas of the city used the roads that went through the Common for transporting goods.9 North of Harvard Square was sparsely settled, but there were very productive clay pits and brickyards in that area,10 and the Common contained good routes to other towns in Eastern Massachusetts, so most of Cambridge was upset at the old section of the town for the enclosure.11

      The major enterprise of Old Cambridge was Harvard. Students and professors patronized local businesses, and the school itself was a major employer. Where religious leaders and prominent Loyalists had once been the big names in Cambridge, many prominent Harvard personalities rose to fame in the 19th century. The list includes poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, professor of modern languages, scientist and philosopher Louis Aggasiz, professor of natural history, poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who did his undergraduate and theological studies at Harvard, and Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, who introduced the smallpox vaccine to the United States and taught at the Harvard Medical school.

     By the early 1840's, many residents of Old Cambridge were so frustrated with the feuding with the other two sections, and felt so different from the rest of the town, that they petitioned to separate. Their proposition failed, and made other Cantabrigians aware of a need for a more efficient local government. Cambridge incorporated as a city in 1846, and so the three areas stayed under one government.12 However, that same decade was when immigration to the city began to rise. The flood of new national groups and expanding industrial character of Cambridgeport and East Cambridge provided new energy to the neighborhood tension as it continued through the rest of the century, quieter than it had been but still somewhat present.

1Sutton, S.B. Cambridge Reconsidered: 3 1/2 Centuries on the Charles. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1976), 20.
2Sutton 53.
3Sutton 40.
4Sutton 45.
5Martin, Mary L. and E. Ashley Rooney. Cambridge, Massachusetts Past and Present. (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2008), 9.
6Rooney 9.
7Sutton 45.
8Rooney 12.
9Sutton 47.
10Rooney 9.
11Sutton 47.
12Sutton 54.

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