With a rich tapestry of history and community South Boston is the place many turn to to experience some of the city’s oldest stories. Boston.com recently caught up with Robert Allison, a historian and president of the South Boston Historical Society, for a quick glance at some his favorite historical stories about the seaside neighborhood.
My family moved to South Boston in 1992, as my wife (who grew up in Quincy) and I (not originally from Massachusetts) liked the area and the people we met here. As a professional historian, I am always curious about what happened—so I have a natural historical curiosity. More importantly, through the Historical Society we have met some extraordinarily interesting people—who care about history for its own sake.
Can you give us a brief history of the society (when, where, why did it start, how many members)?
The South Boston Historical Society was created more than 30-years ago by a group of volunteers committed to preserving and recording the history of the neighborhood. For many years our guiding force was Dr. William Reid, former headmaster of South Boston High, and a noted historian (his doctoral dissertation was the definitive history of the Cape Cod Canal). The Society collects and preserves material on South Boston’s history, and holds monthly meetings for the general public. Our biggest project in recent years was an historical map of South Boston, giving walking tours of neighborhood history. We also sponsor activities around Evacuation Day. We have about 100 members, who pay annual dues of $6.00. Members are always welcome to join!
Would you consider South Boston rich with history?
South Boston has a remarkably rich history—more so than any other Boston neighborhood (not that it’s a competition). Castle Island---the longest, continuously fortified position in North America; Dorchester Heights, marking the first victory of the American War for Independence; the Alger Iron Works, which produced cannon for the Union Army—and Cyrus Alger paid for his nephew Horatio’s education; the original Perkins School for the Blind, where Laura Bridgman was the first deaf-blind person to learn to communicate—and where Helen Keller was brought for the same treatment in the 1880s; Julia Ward Howe lived here in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s—from here she went with her husband to Washington in 1861, and wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” St. George’s Cathedral, of the Albanian Orthodox Church—originally a Congregational Church, Fan Noli transformed it into a beautiful shrine; St. Vincent’s Church—originally a Universalist church in Fort Hill (now the financial district), bought by the Archdiocese, taken apart and floated to South Boston in 1872; the St. Augustine’s Chapel and Burying ground—the oldest Catholic church building in the Archdiocese—built in 1818.
Who are some of the most important figures from the neighborhood?
Cyrus Alger—iron manufacturer
Julia Ward Howe—poet, married to Samuel Gridley Howe, director of the Perkins School
Richard Cardinal Cushing—born in South Boston, Archbishop of Boston 1945-1969;
John McCormack, Congressman from South Boston, speaker of the US House of Representatives 1963-1971;
Louise Day Hicks, Congresswoman, first woman president of the Boston City Council; controversial for her opposition to court-ordered busing.
William Bulger, state representative and state senator from South Boston, president of the State Senate 1978-1994;
Ray Flynn, Mayor of Boston 1983-1993; Ambassador to the Vatican 1993-1997;
What are some of the most import events that have happened in the neighborhood?
Dorchester Heights—evacuation of Boston.
Perkins School for the Blind—when Charles Dickens came to Boston in the 1840s, he most wanted to meet Laura Bridgman, the first deaf/blind person to learn to communicate;
Calamity of busing in the 1970s. Not an easy thing to sum up in a few short sentences.
What is the most important historical site in the neighborhood?
How has the neighborhood transformed over the years?
The native people called it Mattaponock—place by the water; a good place to be for access both to the harbor and its resources and the interior; the Puritans turned into a grazing place for cattle—it was the Dorchester cow pasture; in 1804 a group of developers—Harrison Gray Otis, Gardiner Greene, Jonathan Mason engineered its acquisition by Boston, as South Boston, and set out to develop it; in the 19th century the two major ideas were luxury resort for its proximity to the water, and industrial powerhouse; two incompatible ideas, only one could survive, so South Boston became an industrial powerhouse—iron works, ship yards, rope walks, made possible by the immigration of laborers from Ireland, Germany, and later other places—development began in the “Lower End” and moved east; also in the 1820s and 1830s it became a place to send Boston’s problems—House of Correction, Almshouse, and Home for the Feeble Minded opened along the First Street waterfront (between M and O streets); for a century it remained a blue collar neighborhood; current transformation into a hip urban neighborhood, as its proximity to the city makes it appealing.
How can the SBHS protect this history?
The South Boston Historical Society can protect this history by reminding our residents of it—by publishing our map, by bringing history to the schools, and by helping our colleagues in the area interpret sites—the National Park Service with Dorchester Heights, the Archdiocese and Knights of Columbus with St. Augustine’s Chapel; with Evacuation Day events and other opportunities to present history.
How can residents get involved in the Society?
Send $6 to South Boston Historical Society, Box 495, South Boston, MA 02127
Check us out on Facebook. South Boston Historical Society.
What are some upcoming SBHS events?
We are hoping to have a History Trolley Tour as part of the South Boston Street Festival Sept. 15;
Our first meeting of the year, Monday, Oct. 1, 6:30 p.m. at the South Boston Library—I will speak about the War of 1812, followed by a discussion of SBHS activities for the year