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Boston's rise from 1850-1900
featured in Quincy speech

Posted by dinouye  May 13, 2010 04:31 PM

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Boston's history has been the recurring subject for Stephen Puleo's books, and his latest takes a broad look at city's growth in the late 19th century. Puleo visits Quincy Monday to talk about "A City So Grand,'' and in an interview with the Globe, the Weymouth resident described how he conceived of the book.

The germ of the idea for the book started when I took a subway ride to Park Street. I got off and for the umpteenth time looked at the huge mural of the construction of the first subway....As I headed towards Beacon Hill, I stopped, as I’ve done before, at the really inspirational monument to the Massachusetts 54th, the African-American regiment during the Civil War that inspired the movie ‘Glory.’

Later when I walked down Commonwealth Avenue, I thought, ‘Wow, all these things took place during the 2nd half of the 19th century. Let me start doing some research to see if there’s a way to connect these dots.’ And there was.

The book goes from the Great Abolitionist movement through America’s first subway in 1897. It’s a 50-year period when Boston was transformed from a large town to a world-class city. It’s a time when the word ‘no’ wasn’t in Boston’s vocabulary. They were able to accomplish so much and take the lead in so many areas.

When you read about history, and you think and write about it, you always compare or contrast it to the present day. In the modern era, the notion of accomplishing great things often appears overwhelming, sometimes impossible. Just look at some of the issues with developing the Rose Kennedy Greenway, or the Downtown Crossing blight, or Fan Pier....

But in the period I write about, you had a city that just kept moving forward and accomplishing great things. In the first decade alone, you have the Great Abolitionist movement, you have Boston’s great Railroad Jubilee, you have America’s first lending library, the first compulsory education law, the first telegraph fire alarm system, the absorption of thousands of Irish immigrants.....

And then you have the beginning of the Back Bay, where Boston takes on this monumental project that takes 35 years to complete, and does it successfully from an engineering standpoint, and also a financial standpoint, because here’s a case where the city and state don’t spend a penny of taxpayer money, and they actually make a profit of $3.5 million, which is hard to believe today....

That sort of sentiment continues for the whole 50-year period, and even after the fire of 1872, Boston bounces back, and bounces back better than ever. It’s a period of time when Boston had this boldness, and this confidence, and this vision -- and you hope that someday they can be revived.

Stephen Puleo's speech, sponsored by the Quincy Historical Society, takes place at 7:30 p.m., May 17, at the Adams Academy Building, 8 Adams St., Quincy. Admittance is free. Call 617-773-1144 for more information.

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