Fire and water have defined Charlestown most dramatically. The water came first with the natural advantages of deep channels in the Mystic and Charles rivers and inner Boston Harbor surrounding the triangular-shaped community on three sides. A narrow neck at the northwest corner (Sullivan Square) connected the peninsula to the mainland. The steep topography of Town, Bunker, and Breed's hills, running parallel to each other along a northwest line, further encouraged the development of a maritime economy. Fire followed when the British bombarded the town in the battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, burning most of the prosperous port to the ground. Like the proverbial phoenix, Charlestown rose again from the 1780s on to become a successful port and distribution center throughout the nineteenth century.
English settlement of Charlestown predates that of nearby Boston. In 1625, blacksmith Thomas Walford settled here among the native population. Four years later, a company of English settlers from Salem relocated to the peninsula, evicting Walford and naming the place Charlestown for Charles I. They built a Great House at Market (now City) Square and began to lay out roads. John Winthrop and the Massachusetts Bay Company stopped here during the summer of 1630 before moving on to the Shawmut Peninsula to establish the new town of Boston. Wharves soon extended into the surrounding waters as Charlestown assumed its role as a transportation hub for the hinterland. By the time of the Revolution, Charlestown boasted approximately four hundred dwellings for its two thousand residents.
Transportation fueled the recovery of Charlestown from the bombardment and fire. The establishment of the Boston Naval Shipyard (CH15) in 1800 on Charlestown's eastern shore stimulated the local economy. The Middlesex Canal (see WO5; 1803) terminated near Sullivan Square, opening the inland markets to the port of Boston. Three railroad lines reached Charlestown's wharves between 1837 and 1854, reinforcing the transport nexus of the port. Constant wharfing out of the peninsula in all directions created a commercial and industrial zone that still rings Charlestown today.
Rebuilding the housing stock began soon after the Revolution. Brick three-bay side-entrance row houses fanned out from City Square toward the Neck on newly created streets. More rapid development followed the opening of a free bridge to Boston in 1836. Soon wealthy Bostonians began an exodus to Charlestown and surrounding communities as new immigrants from Ireland flooded the Shawmut Peninsula. The brick and frame residences built in the mid-1800s defined the character of community thereafter. Charlestown incorporated as a separate city in 1847, but annexation by Boston followed in 1873. At that time, the elite began to leave Charlestown, wary of the increasing political might of the immigrants. By 1890, Irish immigrants composed 90 percent of the Charlestown population. The Roman Catholic Church built three religious complexes for these Irish parishes, which further redefined the landscape of Charlestown. By this time, the community had been heavily developed and achieved its highest population density.
Twentieth-century development of the industrial zone continued with increased wharf activities and new industrial complexes. But the port business diminished after World War II and the federal government decommissioned the Naval Shipyard in the 1970s. Gentrification of the historic housing stock of the town and adaptive reuse of the navy yard's industrial buildings began in the 1980s. The construction of the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge (WF5) signals a new phase in the incorporation of Charlestown into the central city.
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