Boston’s Mill Pond

Bostonians have an amazing ability to change the landscape to suit their needs. When the English first settled Boston in the 17th century, the Mill Pond area was a marshy cove. In 1643, Boston granted a group of investors ownership of the cove and its surrounding marsh on the condition that within three years they erect and maintain one or more corn mills along the shore. They dammed the cove and constructed a channel called Mill Creek to connect the new pond to Town Cove (adjacent to Long Wharf) and constructed floodgates at the north and south ends of the dam. The creek provided tidal water from the harbor to power the mills and, later, several rum distilleries. The floodgates along the dam allowed the free passage of boats between the pond and the harbor. The proprietors periodically dredged the pond to keep the water deep enough for small boats to navigate. During the next century, the shores of the Mill Pond became dotted with wharves, homes, and a Baptist meetinghouse. It was a diverse neighborhood with residents of differing social position and economic status.

Central Artery archaeologists excavated a typical shore-side lot and traced its ownership from ca. 1650 until ca. 1830. The excavated site had been at various times home to a wheelwright, a tailor, and a housewright. The archaeologists recovered the remains of a late 17th-century wharf, a late 18th-century bulkhead and dock, 18th-century living surfaces, and 17th- to early 19th-century landfill.

This excavation photo (right) shows a section of the wharf uncovered during archaeological excavations. A 4-layer grid of stacked-pine timbers made up the superstructure.

A group of businessmen who called themselves the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to the Indians owned the lot during the first part of the 18th century. They were committed to real estate investment and other financial ventures as well as to converting Native Americans to Christianity. The society rented a house and wharf on this lot to generate income. While little evidence of the house remained, archaeologists recovered many details about the wharf. The wharf was constructed on site and consisted of a grid of four layers of stacked pine timbers. After the timbers were stacked, fill was deposited into the voids to create a solid dry surface about one foot above the high water mark. This simple construction would not have withstood impacts from large vessels so the boats that docked there were necessarily small. The society sold the lot in the latter half of the 18th century. Subsequent owners included metalsmiths and truckmen, merchants who bartered goods rather than using cash. In 1795 truckman Josiah Vose built a bulkhead and attached a 10-foot pier to the end of the wharf to facilitate loading and unloading goods.

To the right is a Plat map of Mill Pond Lot 21. In the early 18th century this lot was owned by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to the Indians, who rented out the house shown here to generate revenue for their organization. (Reproduced courtesy of Guildhall Library.)

What is a Mill Pond?

Water mills provided power for manufacturing before the age of coal or steam driven mills. The mills found around Mill Pond were powered by water flowing in and out of Mill Creek and the floodgates during times of high tide. Water was collected in Mill Pond and would be slowly released through these channels where it turned the water wheel that operated the milling mechanism. Mills along the Mill Pond included corn, grist (for grinding wheat into flour), saw and later a chocolate mill.

Tidal mills had several advantages over other types of water mills. By using salt water from the harbor the mill could operate during the winter since the salt water would not freeze like fresh water. The proprietors also didn’t have to worry about a drop in water level during times of drought. Finally with tidal mills once a tide chart is established the mill owner would know the precise day and time his mill would be operating.

Filling the Pond

By the end of the 18th century the character of Mill Pond had changed and the pond’s proprietors faced several problems. The gristmill was falling down. The pond water was silty and the water level was falling. Residents were dumping trash in the pond creating a growing health hazard. Many of the owners of lots along the shore had added to their land illegally by filling small portions of the pond forcing the proprietors to initiate several lawsuits.

Mill Pond after it was filled (Hales 1814). Famous Boston architect Charles Bulfinch designed this triangular street pattern.

Around 1797, a new group of proprietors bought the rights to the pond intending to fill the pond and sell the land. They closed the floodgates to prevent fresh water from entering the pond, but residents continued to dump trash into the water creating a terrible mess. Filling the pond would eliminate the pollution problem and alleviate a growing land shortage. (The population of Boston had expanded from 18,320 people in 1790 to 33,787 in 1810.) Many area residents supported the project, hoping that the filling would create more taxable land and therefore reduce taxes.

There were opponents, however. Some argued that the pond should remain a body of water because the cool breezes that blew across the water promoted good health. Others had a prejudice against “made” land, which they argued was composed of filth and a source of disease. The debate raged for seven years. In March 1804 the proprietors incorporated as the Boston Mill Corporation, and in the spring of 1807 they reached an agreement with the town that allowed them to begin filling the pond.

'Cutting Down Beacon Hill.' Boston Athenaeum.

Most of the fill for the project came from Beacon Hill, Copps Hill, and surrounding areas as needed. For more than 21 years workers carted the Beacon Hill fill to Mill Pond. The demolition of Beacon Hill and filling of Mill Pond was completed around 1828. In the end, the filling of Mill Pond added 50 acres of land to the city of Boston. Architect Charles Bulfinch designed a triangular street pattern for the new land, which is south of present day Causeway Street. The remainder of the filled area was gridded off into lots and sold.

Fresh Water at Mill Pond

Wells, cisterns, builder’s trenches, and drains excavated by Central Artery archaeologists provide additional information about land use and modification at Mill Pond. Archaeologists excavated a large 19th-century well adjacent to the north end of the earlier bulkhead. Although early 20th-century construction events destroyed the stratigraphy of the surrounding soils, the well still had a story to tell. Archaeologists determined the well had been 56 feet deep with water rising to about 15 feet from the top. Like other Boston wells of the time, it was constructed out of vertical wood sheathing held together by large wooden rings.

To construct the well, a deep shaft was dug, then wood sheathing was built either inside the shaft or outside in sections to be lowered down later. Once the form was completed, it was lined with clay to create a water-proof lining. Next, a dry- laid stone shaft was constructed against the interior of the wood form. In order to draw water from the well, a wooden pipe was installed in the shaft. One foot in diameter, it was octagonal in shape and had been constructed in sections. A soapstone plunger or weight was then lodged at the top of the pipe to serve as part of the water-drawing mechanism. Archaeologists had the good luck of finding the plunger during their excavation (right).

Mill Stones from the Mill Creek Site

On a cold day in November of 1999 construction workers on the Big Dig uncovered several fragments of mill stones—large, carved granite disks that were used in mills to grind wheat and corn into flour. The workers immediately called the Boston City Archaeologist and the Central Artery Archaeologist to investigate.

Studying Fill at Mill Pond

You may be wondering why archaeologists took the time to study the trash used to fill Mill Pond. Fill often contains household trash which is a great resource for learning about people’s lives.

Mill Pond Occupation Layers

The artifacts displayed on the top left of this page date from between 1720 and 1810 and represent domestic refuse from three families living on the Mill Pond site. The artifacts come from soil layers representing mixed household activities and various surface layers around the homes.

William Maycock: 1720–1760
Joseph Jackson: 1770
Josiah Vose: 1780–1810

Serving Meat at Mill Pond

Take a look at what archaeologists learned about how Bostonians ate from the discarded animal bones they excavated.

During the Mill Pond excavations, archaeologists uncovered large numbers of animal bones. Many were from the 17th- and 18th-century houselot deposits on the pond’s edge, but many were also recovered from the Mill Pond fill layers. The majority of these bones were from domesticated animals commonly used for food during the colonial period including cows, pigs, and sheep. By analyzing these bones, archaeologists have been able to learn more about which meats early Mill Pond residents ate, and, from the cuts of meat, how meat was popularly served.

Mill Pond residents ate predominantly beef. Mutton was second, followed closely by pork. Domestic fowl, goats, fish, and wildlife in smaller quantities provided an occasional change of pace. While residents may have occasionally raised a few cows or pigs at home, most of the meat was purchased from local butchers. Early on, Boston developed a market-oriented system of food distribution. Few people could raise enough livestock on their small urban lots to satisfy all of their meat needs. Instead, butchers, merchants, and local farmers sold meat to residents who could purchase what they needed for the day.

Demand for meat was high, but butchering was a messy business that created a large trash problem. To curb health hazards in residential neighborhoods, restrictions were put on meat distribution as early as 1642, when Boston butchers were asked to move their activities to remote locations. In 1656 a law required them to throw waste products in waterways (including Mill Creek) to be carried away. Slaughterhouses were restricted to designated areas on the outskirts of the city, and butchers were not permitted to buy and sell wholesale meat in town.

Archaeologists learned a number of different things from the bones. Most of the cows were butchered either very young or very old. Cows in their prime were more valuable as milk producers and breeders. The same pattern is seen in the sheep consumed at Mill Pond. Young lambs were commonly eaten for their tender meat, while adult sheep were killed only when no longer needed for their wool.

Animal bones also usually have marks on them that tell us how the animal was butchered. From these we can figure out what tools were used for butchering and which cuts of meat were most popular. Chopping was the most common butchering method in Boston during the 17th and most of the 18th century. Butchers used axes or cleavers. Chopping lent itself to cutting large pieces of meat, which were typically roasted and served in a large trencher or communal platter. In the late 18th/early 19th century, communal eating gave way to small individual portions served on plates. After chopping following the natural structure of the skeleton, saws were used to slice through bone wherever desired. Use of the saw allowed people to cook smaller pieces of meat. Plates became more popular on the table as each individual had their own portion of meat.

Archaeologists found hundreds of fragments of cow, sheep, and pig bones in Mill Pond’s fill and occupation layers. The remains of many meals past, several of these bones exhibit distinctive cut marks from butchering.

Look closely at the cut marks on the bones. Can you see the difference between the marks left from chopping and those left by saws?

By examining the bones recovered from the Mill Pond site archaeologists were able to tell exactly what portions of meat were available from local butchers and consumed by the Mill Pond area residents.

Mill Pond in the 20th Century

In the first decade of the 20th century an elevated railroad (now the Green Line to North Station) was built over the Boston and Maine. In the 1950s, the elevated Central Artery highway (Rte. 93) was built right over the former Mill Pond. From the time the colonists arrived in Boston through the present day, we have been modifying Boston’s landscape to meet our needs. This landscape modification will continue as Boston continues to grow into the next millennium.