The site of Boston was chosen for its excellent harbor, dotted with islands and lighthouses. From the earliest settlement, the Shawmut Peninsula was constantly expanded by the building of wharves (wooden piers with warehouses on top or nearby) along the harbor front. Beginning in the North End, these wharves created a focus on the mercantile life of the harbor that continued into the twentieth century. The eighteenth-century centerpiece of this wharf culture was Long Wharf, extending from the end of King (now State) Street. The Paul Revere print of Boston Harbor during the occupation of British troops preceding the Revolution most effectively presents the animation and scale of colonial waterfront commerce.
The great age of Boston maritime commerce occurred in the first half of the nineteenth century as the China Trade made fortunes for many Bostonians and made the harbor one of the busiest in the world. Clipper ships, many built across the harbor in East Boston, provided the fastest modes of maritime commerce. First brick and then granite replaced the wooden wharf warehouses of the colonial period. With each decade, the scale of trade and of the architecture continued to increase. Even in the early twentieth century, despite the well-established challenge of railroad traffic, Boston continued to build new and large wharves and warehouses, especially on the made-land of South Boston.
As wharves aged or ceased to generate full capacity of commerce, they were demolished and often replaced by parking lots. Sadly, the waterfront and its wharves were cut off from the rest of the city by the construction of the elevated Central Artery between 1951 and 1959. (After more than a decade of construction known as the Big Dig, the artery has been depressed along this same corridor, reconnecting Boston with one of its greatest assets.) The city's commitment to the waterfront and the harbor, as seen in the Walk to the Sea, a corridor from Government Center to the harbor that was initiated during the period of urban renewal or the more recent requirement of public access to a continuous promenade along the waterfront, are evidence of a renewed reverence for the maritime past and the scenic beauty of the harbor. Today's wharf buildings, though, are more likely to be an expensive condominium complex in a converted historic structure or a new building designed in sympathy with the maritime commercial image.
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