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Home » Cambridge & Harvard » The History of Cambridge: A Topographical Description

The History of Cambridge: A Topographical Description

1. A Topographical Description of Cambridge. (1)

Conjectural map of Cambridge as existing in 1635.

Conjectural map of Cambridge as existing in 1635.
From The Records of the Town of Cambridge.

CAMBRIDGE is a shire town, in the county of Middlesex. It lies in 42° 23′ north latitude, and 71° west longitude from London. It is bounded on the northeast by Charlestown; on the north-west by Lexington; on the west by Watertown; on the southwest by Newton; on the south by Brookline, and on the south-east and east by Cambridge bay to Charlestown line.

It is about three miles distant from Boston, on a right line; eight miles, as measured on the road leading through Brookline and Roxbury; about four miles and a half through Charlestown, and three miles, one quarter, and sixty rods from the old State-house, by the way of West Boston bridge.

The soil is various. In the south-west part of the town, within a mile of Charles River, the land is hilly, and abounds in springs. The soil is loamy, and natural to grass. In the north-west part of the town, the land is hilly and similar to that in the south-west part. The hills, in each part, afford large quantities of stone for mason’s work. From the foot of the hills on the sourth side of Charles River, excepting a quantity of marsh of about 300 acres on each side, the soil is mostly light, and intermixed with loam, lying upon a stratum of clay, at the depth of fifteen or twenty feet, though at some places it runs to or near the surface. The soil is the same through the first parish, and Menotomy plains. On the sides of the rivulet, which divides the first and second parishes, there is a large quantity of meadow land, producing but little grass, and of an inferior quality. This meadow, however, abounds with peat, which is used by the poorer inhabitants for fuel.

Boston, Cambridge and their environs in the 17th century drawn by Erwin Raisz in 1835.

Boston, Cambridge and their environs in the 17th century drawn by Erwin Raisz for The Founding of Harvard College, Harvard University Press 1935.

The original growth of the land was oak, walnut, and pine. The orchards, planted by the first settlers, flourished greatly. The few ancient trees now remaining, being of a much larger size than any planted within half a century, denote vegetation to have been much more vigorous in former than in later years. From this cause, the quantity of fruit is greatly diminished.

The plains, though not fruitful in grass, are well adapted to the raising of Indian corn, winter rye, and the common esculent vegetables.

From the hilly and diversified surface of several parts, and the passage of Charles river through the middle, of the town, it might be supposed that the air is very pure. Experience confirms the supposition. Many of the inhabitants have attained great longevity; and invalids, from other towns, have realized the beneficial effects of a salubrious air from a temporary residence in the town. Persons afflicted with chronic disorders have also received additional advantages, and the sometimes effectual relief, by the use of the waters in a chalybeate spring in the south-west parish.

The largest river in Cambridge is Charles river, which is navigable to the bridge leading to Brookline, for vessels of ninety tons, and for lighters to Watertown.

Cambridge as bounded in 1644-1655

Cambridge as bounded in 1644-1655.

Three ponds head a rivulet, which divides the first and second parishes, and which empties itself into Mystic river. The fish, usually to be found in the fresh rivers and ponds, may, in their season, be caught in these waters. Anciently, the alewife fishery was of considerable value. Exclusive of the purpose of exportation, the fish were used as manure for the land. (2) This fishery is, at present, of little consequence.

In the north-west parish, in Cambridge, on a small brook, which originates in Lexington, and empties itself into Mystic river, there are one saw mill, and three grist mills. Persons, transporting their grain from the north-west part of the state to Boston, might avail themselves of these mills, with convenience to convert it into meal; and thus render it more saleable in the market.

In the same parish, there is a card manufactory which does great honour to American ingenuity. The machine, used in this manufactory, by a simple operation, bends, cuts, and sticks the card teeth. It was invented in the spring of 1797, by Amos Whittemore, of Cambridge; and, on the first of September, 1799, William Whittemore and company commenced business. Twenty-three machines, now in operation, stick two hundred dozen pairs of cards, on an average, every week. Forty persons, male and female, employed in this manufactory, complete the above mentioned number weekly, for sale. The building, in which the whole work is done, is 46 feet square; and the average price of the cards is 7 dollars per dozen pairs.

About fifty rods below the bridge leading to Brookline, there is a very commodious wharf, owned by William Winthrop, Esquire, at which great quantities of wood and lumber are annually unladen, to the great convenience of the mechanical interests and to the general accommodation of the town. The breadth of Charles river here, is twenty-two rods.West Boston bridge, connecting Cambridge with Boston, is a magnificent structure. It was erected at the expense of a company incorporated for that purpose; and cost 76,700 dollars. The causeway, on the Cambridge side, was begun July 15, 1792; the wood work, April 8, 1793. The bridge was opened for passengers, November 23, 1793, seven months and an half from the time of laying the first pier. It is very handsomely constructed; and, when lighted by its two rows of lamps, extending a mile and a quarter, presents a vista, which has a fine effect.

The much longer West Boston Bridge built in 1793 to connect Boston's West End to Cambridgeport

The much longer West Boston Bridge built in 1793 to connect Boston’s West End to Cambridgeport.
From The Charles: A River Transformed.

It stands on 180 piers, and is 3483 feet long.
Bridge over the gore, — 14 do. —275 do
Abutment, Boston side, — 87 1/2
Causeway — 3344.
Distance from the end of the causeway to the first church in Cambridge — 7810
Width of the bridge — 40

It is railed on each side, for foot-passengers. The sides of the causeway are stoned, capstand, and railed; and on each side there is a canal, about 30 feet wide. A toll is granted to the proprietors for 70 years.

The distance from the first church in Cambridge to the old state house in Boston, over this bridge, is three miles, one quarter, and sixty rods; and to the new state-house about three miles.

The erection of this bridge has had a very perceivable influence on the trade of Cambridge, which, formerly, was very inconsiderable. By bringing the travel from the westward and northward through the centre of the town, it has greatly invigorated business there. It, at the same time, has given rise to a thriving trade in the vicinity of the bridge, where several houses and stores have already been built, and where a rapid progress of trade and commerce may rationally be expected. The land, on each side of the road to Boston, from the farm formerly Inman’s (lately Mr. Jarvis’s) to the bridge, is divided into small lots, accommodated to the purpose of houses and stores; and has recently been sold. (3) The sale will, probably, be introductory to a compact and populous settlement.

There are five edifices for public worship in the town: within the limits of the first parish, a Congregational and an Episcopal church; in the second parish, a Congregational and a Baptist church; and in the third, a Congregational church.

There are five College edifices belonging to Harvard University:

  1. Harvard Hall (standing on the cite of old Harvard, which was burnt in 1764) containing a chapel, and dining hall, the library, and museum, a philosophy chamber, and an apartment for the philosophical apparatus; built in 1765;
  2. Massachusetts Hall, of 4 stories, containing 32 rooms, and 64 studies; built in 1720
  3. Hollis Hall, of 4 stories, containing 32 rooms, and 64 studies; built in 1763:
  4. Holden Chapel, lately converted into lecturing and reciting rooms, for the use of the professors and tutors; built in 1745. These 4 buildings are of brick.
  5. College House, a wooden building, of 3 stories, containing 12 rooms with studies. This building stands without the college yard, having been originally built, about 1770, for a private dwelling-house, and purchased, about two years afterward, by the Corporation of Harvard College.
Harvard, Stoughton, and Massachusetts Halls in 1755

Harvard, Stoughton, and Massachusetts Halls in 1755.
From The Harvard Book, a wood etching.

Stoughton Hall, which stood nearly on a line with Hollis, on the south, was a brick building, built in 1698, and taken down in 1781. An extensive and beautiful common spreads to the north-west of the colleges, and adds much to the pleasantness of this central part of the town.

A few rods to the south-west of the first church, stands a county court-house, where the judicial courts are holden, and the public business of the town is transacted. At the south-west corner of Market Square, is the jail, an ancient wooden building, not much used, for the confinement of criminals, since the erection of a stone jail at Concord, (the other shire town of Middlesex) in 1789.

A little to the westward of the Episcopal church is the grammar school-house; where a town school is kept through the year. Beside this, there are six school houses in the town; two in each of the three parishes.

During this summer, a bath was erected at brickwharf, principally for the benefit of the students of the University. It was made under the superintendance of Thomas Brattle, Esquire, and happily unites ornament with utility.

Brattle House, now 42 Brattle Street

Brattle House, now 42 Brattle Street.

William Brattle 1706-1776 as painted by John Singleton Copley in 1756

William Brattle 1706-1776 as painted by John Singleton Copley in 1756. From Cambridge Reconsidered

The gardens of Thomas Brattle, Esquire, are universally admired, for the justness of their design, and for the richness, variety, and perfection, of their productions. In no part of New England, probably, is horticulture carried to higher perfection than within his inclosure. A mall, adjoining his grounds, made in 1792, and shaded by handsome rows of trees, is a work of neatness and taste; and is, at once, convenient and ornamental to the town.

On the road leading to Watertown, there are several elegant seats, which attract the notice, and delight the eye, of the traveller. One of these seats, now owned by Mr. Andrew Craigie, was the place of General Washington’s residence, while he was with he American army at Cambridge.

It is generally conceded, that this town eminently combines the tranquillity of philosophic solitude, with the choicest pleasures and advantages of refined society.

Acres rods.
The First Parish in Cambridge contains — 2851 60
The Second — 4345 118
The Third — 2660 81
In October, 1798, the number of dwelling-houses in the First Parish, and within the town, was – 148
In the Second – 85
In the Third – 68
Total houses in Cambridge, – 301
The present number of inhabitants in Cambridge is 2445
In 1790, the number was — 2115
Increase in 10 years 330
Washington's headquarters—John Vassall-Craigie-Longfellow House, now 105 Brattle Street.

Washington’s headquarters—John Vassall-Craigie-Longfellow House, now 105 Brattle Street.
From Historic Guide to Cambridge

1 ^ For the Description, I am principally indebted to my worthy friend, and respectable parishioner, Caleb Gannett, Esquire.

2 ^ This singular species of manure appears to have been much used in the infancy of the country. An early writer, in reference to the first settlers of Concord, observes: “The Lord is pleased to provide for them great store of fish in the spring time, and especially alewives, about the bigness of a herring: many thousands of these they used to put under their Indian corne.” Wonder-working Providence of Sion’s Saviour in New-England.

3 ^ January, 1801.

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