II. Allston-Brighton and Commonwealth Avenue
Known as Little Cambridge at the time of the revolution, Allston-Brighton was a cattle market used to supply the Continental Army headquartered in Harvard Square. Due to the failure of Cambridge to repair the bridge connecting the two, Little Cambridge seceded in 1807, forming an independent municipality.
With the advent of streetcar transportation systems, the landowners decided it would be lucrative to redesign the area as a residential hub for Boston, all but jettisoning the agricultural, cattle, and horticultural industries that made it thrive. By 1873, amid the wave of annexations, the community elected to merge with its neighbor without much protest.
Allston-Brighton grew eager to tie itself into Boston by modern roadway. Brookline resident and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead–famous for co-designing Central Park in New York and designing Boston’s Emerald Necklace––provided a vision for the development of Brighton Avenue, which is what the street between Packard’s Corner and Kenmore Square was called during Brighton’s independence. By March of 1887, the widened Brighton Avenue was renamed Commonwealth Avenue for the Boston street it became connected to. (Boston had finished its portion of Commonwealth Avenue, replete with the mall, in 1881.) The left side of the Packard’s Corner fork-in-the-road was also renamed Commonwealth Avenue, extending to Chestnut Hill, and the right remained Brighton Avenue.
The development project, which took place between 1885 and 1895, was a major success. A writer in a local publication called the Brighton Item wrote, “It is no wonder that Bostonians are proud of the avenue, or that [President Benjamin Harrison] on Wednesday last should have been driven over it as Boston’s most finished and, it might be added, polished driveway.”
(In 1920, Boston University purchased 15 acres of the land between Commonwealth Avenue and the Charles River in order to establish a unified physical presence in the city. It had formerly owned disparate buildings in the Beacon Hill area and was headquartered near Copley Square.)
III. The Megacity that Never Was
Following Brookline’s rejection in 1873, Boston’s expansionary designs waned for almost four decades. In 1912, they were briefly revived with a bold proposal submitted to the state legislature by Daniel J. Kiley––coincidentally, a lawyer in Brookline of all places––to annex all municipalities within 10 miles of the State House.
The proposal would have brought in towns from Lynn to the north, Quincy and Braintree to the south, and Wellesley to the west. It would have made Boston 327 square miles––larger than New York or Chicago by land area––and the fifth largest city in the U.S. by today’s population.
Kiley’s proposal failed, as did earlier proposals to create a County of Boston or at least a board to coordinate the region’s economic development.
IV. The End of Boston’s Expansion
On November 7th of 1911, the town of Hyde Park acceded to Boston’s annexation, the first and last municipality to do so following Brookline’s rejection. Again, the incentive was economic. The Neponset River––the lesser known of Boston’s rivers––passes through Hyde Park. It provided power for factories that were constructed along the river. Annexation gave Boston the tax revenue from these factories in exchange for the provision of public services.
When Hyde Park formally joined Boston on New Year’s day 1912, Boston ended a little over a century of growth. Aside from minor land reclamation, the city has remained at these boundaries since.
*Special thanks to the online resources of the Brighton Allston Historical Society, the various local municipal governments’ websites, and various other publications including but not limited to The Boston Globe, LA Magazine, BU Today, and Boston Magazine.
**These links include two important maps of Boston prior to land reclamation. This one shows the city 1814, when the Boston Common was on the Charles River. This one shows the city in 1856, when the Public Garden formed part of the shoreline of the Back Bay and when Beacon Street acted as a dam, separating the Back Bay from the Charles River.