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Where did Dewey Square get its name? A short history of the Occupy Boston site

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  November 1, 2011 01:18 PM

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1901 and 2011.jpg

(Left photo courtesy Boston Public Library, right photo Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)

Dewey Square and South Station in 1901, as a bustling center of transportation and industry, and in 2011, where even the 5 p.m. commuters can’t compare to the activity of 110 years earlier. The Occupy Boston tent city is just past the Fiduciary Trust Building at the left edge of the frame.

Long before Dewey Square became the site of Occupy Boston, it was a transportation hub surrounded by warehouses and light industry, a small park of limited usefulness, and the site of some of the most complex construction Boston has ever seen.

The square alongside Atlantic Avenue was named for one of the great heroes of the Pacific, George Dewey, a commodore in the US Navy who led the American Asiatic Squadron to victory in the first major battle of the Spanish-American War. Dewey later became the only person in US history to reach the rank Admiral of the Navy, the most senior rank in the US Navy.

William M. Fowler Jr., a distinguished professor of history at Northeastern University, said Dewey, a native of Rutland, Vt., was often quoted for issuing the famous order that began the battle of Manila Bay, “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.”

“Gridley fired, and within a few minutes, Dewey had wiped out the Spanish Fleet,” Fowler said.

J.G. Hales’ 1814 map of Boston shows the area that became Dewey Square was then part of Bull’s Wharf, along the city’s waterfront. By the middle of the 19th century, Fowler said, that area had become filled in and railroads began entering the city, making the area an important transportation hub.

By the time Dewey Square was dedicated to the naval hero in 1898, the area was already linked to rail transport, something that only became more significant the next year with the opening of South Station, built as the terminus for trains entering Boston from the south, just as North Station was built as the northern terminus.

“There are about four railroads that come into the South End of Boston, coming up from New York and down along the Cape,” Fowler said. “So that geography makes that particular location absolutely critical. It becomes the dumping point for the railroads.”

Boston’s unusual geography and competition among the railroads prevented a continuous rail link through the city, Fowler said, so the station was enormously important as a center of rail travel and also was the launching point for a popular boat that went to Fall River and connected to New York City.

In the late 19th century and well into the 20th, there was a freight line that ran along Atlantic Avenue between North Station and South Station, as well as an elevated passenger rail on Atlantic Avenue that was in service from 1901 to 1938. The Dewey Square area of the early period contained a number of roundhouses and car barns where railroad cars were stored and repaired, Fowler said.

“These are steam-belching, coal-burning railroads, so that wouldn’t make it a very attractive neighborhood,” Fowler said.

As the city built the Central Artery in the 1950s, historian Thomas H. O’Connor wrote in his 1993 book “Building a New Boston,” the City Council opposed the plan to tear down large sections of Chinatown and the Leather District as had been done in the North End and other parts of downtown.

The state’s Public Works commissioner at the time agreed to build a tunnel that would take the highway underground just north of Dewey Square, preserving that space, though the Central Artery would eventually destroy about half the land area of Chinatown.

The neighborhood around Dewey Square in the mid-20th century was largely an industrial area defined by the factories and warehouses of Fort Point Channel and the Leather District.

Fowler, 67, remembered the Dewey Square of his youth as a “grubby” area where the old elevated train “went screeching by, right along South Station.”

“It was a terrible, wretched area,” he said. “That tent city’s an improvement on what was there in the 1950s.”

In 1977, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston was built at 600 Atlantic Ave., just across from Dewey Square. The location of that building is one of the reasons Dewey Square was an attractive site for the Occupy Boston protest — just yesterday, protesters caused a brief lockdown of the building when they approached its entrances — but the site wasn’t always one that drew crowds.

In his 1982 book “The City Observed: Boston,” architect Donlyn Lyndon described the area as an empty wasteland.

“Dewey Square and Summer Street opposite South Station were once densely urban, crowded places filled with the excitement of city,” Lyndon wrote. “They are now barren wastes of road presided over by this gleaming emblem of our inflation, the space its lobby opens to empty of everything but contrived significance.”

During the Big Dig, Dewey Square became a construction zone and the site of some of the most complex work in the massive project, as the new highway tunnel was constructed below three other underground layers: the Red Line, the Silver Line tunnel, and an underground lobby area beneath South Station. It was the deepest section of the tunnel project.

After the Big Dig, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society had planned to build a four-season Japanese garden in Dewey Square with a visitors’ center and a massive, $70 million greenhouse in the the two Fort Point Channel parks beyond it to the northwest. But those plans were abandoned in 2008 when the financially struggling non-profit organization proved unable to fund the ambitious project.

Instead, Dewey Square and the Fort Point Channel parks became open green spaces designed by landscape architect Tobias Wolf for the Halvorson Design Partnership and placed under the stewardship of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy.

Today, the conservancy works to keep these parks active and useful, partnering with the Boston Public Market Association to bring a farmers market to the plaza each Tuesday and Thursday and welcoming the Clover Food Lab truck five days a week. The conservancy’s plans for a food truck festival in the park were cancelled last month due to the occupation.

Throughout all its changes, Fowler said, the square’s significance has remained tied to its connection to transportation.

“Interestingly enough, it is today what it has always been,” Fowler said. “I guess aside from Logan Airport, it must be the most important transportation hub in the city.”

Email Jeremy C. Fox at jeremycfox@gmail.com.
Follow Jeremy C. Fox on Twitter: @jeremycfox.
Follow Downtown on Twitter: @DowntownUpdate.

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(Aerial photo on left by Boston Water and Sewer Commission, 1995, via Boston Redevelopment Authority’s Boston Atlas. Satellite photo on right from Google Maps, 2010)

Dewey Square Park as seen from above before the Big Dig and last year.

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