‘Potato, potato, potatoes, potato’: The story behind one of Boston’s most obscure monuments
It’s not hard to stumble upon historical markers and memorials in a city as rife with history as Boston. However, one particularly unique tribute to the days when the smell of baked potatoes engulfed Charlestown sits tucked away, below the sightlines of the Boston high rises and I-93 motorists looking out to Bunker Hill.
Boston’s Potato Shed Memorial got its 15 seconds of fame earlier this year, when local cartographer Andy Woodruff posted a photo of the statue of four burlap potato sacks and its whimsical plaque.
This is a monument to potatoes. It is the best monument in Boston. pic.twitter.com/lpv4YWXRSD
— Andy Woodruff (@awoodruff) August 29, 2017
“Potato, potato, potatoes, potato, potato, potatoes, potato, potato, potato, potatoes, potato, potato, potato,” it reads, explaining that massive potato sheds used to exist among the rail yards in the area — now in the shadow of the I-93 overpass.
The statue’s appreciation for potatoes appeared to be shared by those on Twitter. Woodruff’s tweet got more than 20,000 retweets and 50,000 likes.
“Never thought my big hit would be a photo of a potato monument,” he told Boston.com in an email.
Woodruff said he first discovered the monument several years ago while exploring the Millers River Littoral Way, where it is located just off a walkway on the public arts project.
But why — and how?
From Boston’s Office of Arts and Culture to the state Department of Transportation, local officials said they were unaware how exactly this humble tribute to potatoes came to be. And besides a short post on Atlas Obscura, a website devoted to “hidden wonders,” the internet is also lacking in information on the Potato Shed Memorial.
“I just thought it would be fun,” Ross Miller, the man perhaps most responsible for the statue, said in an interview with Boston.com.
As its plaque explains, “millions and millions” of potatoes were off-loaded from the railways from Maine into the giant storage warehouses from the 1800s into the 1930s. Charlestown residents frequented the sheds to purchase (and, according to Miller, sometimes steal) their dinner supplies before they burned down in 1962. According to local lore, the fire resulted in the entire neighborhood smelling like baked potatoes.
Miller, a visual artist who worked on the Big Dig’s Central Artery Arts Program in the 1990s, says he encountered Charlestown residents with vivid memories of the potato sheds and was amused by the idea of memorializing them.
“I sort of spearheaded the idea,” Miller said, adding that the pedestrian aspects of the massive infrastructure project were relatively “overlooked.”
“There was a lot of freedom,” he said.
The Potato Shed Memorial is just one aspect of the Littoral Way, which highlights the history of the “Lost Half-Mile” and Millers River, which used to divide Cambridge and Charlestown in the North Bank area. As the Big Dig got underway, the team Miller worked with aimed to use public art to preserve the history of the North Bank area.
“One of the things we wanted to do was to make sure that the stories that were in that landscape didn’t get totally lost during this humungous construction project,” he said.
Miller (who began working with the arts program in 1994) says the group’s early planning meetings were highly attended by local residents, many of whom had spent multiple generations in Charlestown and worked in the local potato sheds and rail yards. According to Miller, some even admitted to regularly stealing potatoes from the sheds.
“There were these huge, open sheds, and they were filled with piles,” he said. “You could easily go in and just grab enough potatoes for dinner and nobody would even know it.”
That was until the potato sheds were given a “thorough roasting” by a 10-alarm fire in May 1962, according to The Boston Globe. The blaze reportedly destroyed millions of pounds of produce set to be shipped throughout the East Coast.
“Warehouse 18, a two-story potato shed, was gone — its site marked by a half-mile long, five-foot high pile of smoldering potatoes,” the Globe reported at the time. “Scores of freight cars, sides and or roofs burned off, sat on tracks still smoking — the unpleasant smell of burned vegetables permeating all of Charlestown and Somerville.”
Officials urged local residents to stop making off with food from the ruins, fearing it was contaminated.
Immediate estimates had the fire’s damage at $2.5 million, though a spokesman for the Maine potato industry told the Globe the lost potatoes could easily be replaced. And at least for some, the “unpleasant smell of burned vegetables” became something less unpleasant.
“They just talked about this smell of these potato sheds burning and how it smelled like baked potatoes for years,” Miller said of his conversations with longtime residents. Accounts of the baked potato smell lingering for weeks also appear in several local blogs about the history of the Millers River area.
Miller says the excitement local residents exuded in sharing their memories fed his own enthusiasm for the statue and eventually inspired the plaque’s light-hearted, repetitive introduction.
“I just love the word and was imagining these potatoes spilling all over the place and burning and people going in and out and stealing potatoes,” he said.
Miller said he spearheaded the potato memorial effort, which he says wasn’t exactly given close scrutiny given the enormity of the rest of the Big Dig project.
“Nobody really reviewed it,” he said. “They were like, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool idea. Let’s do that.'”
The designs for the Millers River Littoral Way and the Potato Shed Memorial were completed in the late-90s. But amid Big Dig budget overruns, the projects stalled.
“They were just sitting around, and there was no money to do them,” Miller said.
It wasn’t until a decade later, when the 2009 stimulus bill signed by President Barack Obama was looking for “shovel-ready” projects to fund, that they finally came to fruition.
According to Miller, the potato sculpture was created stacking up real burlap potato sacks with real potatoes to create a mold. The directions for the contractor tasked with the work were meticulously — and hilariously — specific.
“The specifications were like, ‘The contractor shall take four bags of similar quality, stuffed with fall potatoes from Maine or similar, and stack them in casual, but professional manner, and then have the artist come and review them for placement and position, and after approved review, then a mold shall be made and this shall be cast into high quality, fiberglass-reinforced concrete,'” Miller said. “There’s probably two or three pages of incredibly specific contract specifications to get that built, because it had to be built by union workers.”
The entire Lost Half-Mile or New Charles River Basin project was capped off in 2012 with the opening of the North Bank Bridge, which connects Paul Revere Park in Charlestown to Cambridge’s North Point Park.
To the north of that bridge, the Millers River Littoral Way wraps around a Route 1 entrance ramp. And near the end of that walkway — which has marks showing 19th century harbor depths before the area was filled in — sits the potato memorial for pedestrians to stumble upon (perhaps literally, if Miller, who says he originally wanted the sculpture in the middle of the walkway, had his way).
Following Woodruff’s viral tweet, the mini-monument finally got its own marker on Google Maps. As of Thursday evening, it had three reviews and a perfect five-star rating.
Appropriately, the most recent review read, “Potato.”