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History time: The origin of Egleston Square's name (Part 2)

Posted by Matt Rocheleau  November 22, 2011 09:00 AM

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Part of an occasional series highlighting a piece of neighborhood history. The following is the final installment in a two-part series about the origin of the name Egleston Square. To read part one, click here.

On November 16, 1848, a land surveyor acting on behalf of the Roxbury Latin School produced a plan of house lots and a new street on an eighteen acre sloping tract of land bounded by School Street, Washington Street and Walnut Avenue (Norfolk County Deeds. Bk. 231. Pg. 19. Plan Book 250. Pg. 77.) This was part of one of the largest bequests ever received by the School founded in 1645, the oldest grammar school in Roxbury and Jamaica Plain and one of the oldest in British North America. At his death in 1672, the merchant Thomas Bell gave all his landed estate in Roxbury, where he had lived from 1635 until his return to England in 1654, to the Roxbury Latin School. Bell?s home was at the corner of Boylston and Lamartine Streets. This land stretched from about Lamartine Street to Walnut Avenue. School Street was laid out through his estate in January of 1662 and was later named for the Roxbury Latin School. The land was rented out or its produce and wood sold for annual income and in 1848 the School looked to sell it to increase its endowment. Connecting Walnut Avenue with Washington Street on the map was a proposed street with ample house lots on each side.

This became Egleston Square in 1866 when the Town of West Roxbury, acting on a petition by a group of citizens, voted to build the new street at the Board of Selectmen meeting on March 24, 1866 (West Roxbury, including Jamaica Plain and present - day West Roxbury, separated themselves as an independent town from the city of Roxbury in 1851. Jamaica Plain was later annexed to Boston in 1874 after Roxbury was absorbed in 1868.)

The town built the public way it named Egleston Square connecting Walnut Avenue and Washington Street at an original width of 48 feet and at a length of 1900 feet. It was a logical extension of two heavily traveled interior roads: Walnut Avenue was one of the first streets in Roxbury built in 1667; Washington Street, or Shawmut Avenue as it was called in 1866 was renamed for President George Washington during the nations? centennial celebration in 1876. It was first built in 1806 as the Norfolk and Bristol Turnpike, a private toll road for farm and commercial traffic. The petitioners, most likely local landowners seeking to capitalize on their holdings now that a new street railway was being built down Washington Street, were probably influenced by Walnut Park built by the city of Roxbury with a green oval at the crest of the street in 1863.

The original Egleston Square ceased to exist when it became absorbed in the extension of Columbus Avenue in 1895, but by then it had long changed from a public way to the name of a community.

It was a very different community from 1866 as well. Electric street car lines on fixed iron rails embedded in the cobblestones replaced the plodding horse cars: the city built the first school in that part of town and in 1893 one of the earliest apartment houses was built in Roxbury and Jamaica Plain at 3115-3125 Washington Street with storefronts at the street level.

It is harder to discover who or what the petitioners had in mind when they named the new street Egleston Square; there is nothing in the official records. It was common in the 19th century to name squares after English towns or country estates, but there are none by that name in Britain. Egleston is also not a name common to Roxbury or Dorchester; one Bagot Egleston immigrated to Dorchester from Yorkshire in 1630, but he removed to Connecticut in 1633. There were only two men named Egleston living in Boston in 1865 and 1866; one was a merchant who lived on Kneeland Street and the second was a South Boston waiter.

It was also common in the years following Appomattox to name places after veterans or battlefields in the Civil War and here is the closest hint about the origin of the name Egleston. Five Massachusetts men named Egleston served in the Civil War. Two were deserters but two others suggest a possibility. Corporal Charles T. Egleston of Westfield, Mass. was killed at Petersburg, Virginia on May 16, 1864. The second was William R. Egleston of Springfield who served from 1862 until June 29, 1865 in Company M of the Fifth Cavalry (Colored.) It is quite plausible that one of the petitioners for the Square was in command when Corporal Egleston was killed or an officer with the 5th Calvary (Colored.)

Given that West Roxbury was the home of Robert Gould Shaw and the high regard that Boston had for black regiments in the Civil War, it is possible that Egleston Square was named for a black cavalry soldier named William R. Egleston.

© Richard Heath / Jamaica Plain Historical Society 2011

This column is a submission from the Jamaica Plain Historical Society.

To read more about the rich history of Jamaica Plain, visit the Jamaica Plain Historical Society website at: http://www.jphs.org/.

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