Back Bay Deconstructed - A private walking tour led by Jake Sconyers

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This is one in a series of monthly History Camp Boston outings. Sign up for the History Camp Boston list to receive early notice of future events.

With the Freedom Trail as the centerpiece of Boston's tourism industry, it's easy to lose sight of another revolutionary period in our city's history.  The mid- to late-nineteenth century was a time of sudden, tumultuous change in Boston.  With a wave of new immigrants threatening to upend the existing social order and new technologies enabling construction on a grander scale than ever before, civic leaders set out a bold plan to fill in Boston's tidal Back Bay and create an elite residential neighborhood.

Today, the Back Bay is the Grande Dame of Boston’s neighborhoods. Here you will find fine dining, upscale shopping, and a grid of streets that actually makes sense.

Looking around at the the cultural institutions located in Copley Square or the public art along the Commonwealth Avenue Promenade, it is hard to imagine that this area was once a trash and sewage-filled lagoon.

Understanding the history of the Back Bay is one of the keys to unlocking Boston’s history.  By examining this Victorian era transformation--exploring geography, immigration, and technology--we will link Winthrop’s Puritans and the War of 1812 to Boston’s iconic twentieth century skyscrapers.

  • How was the Back Bay, the largest Boston infrastructure project of the 19th century, completed without any taxpayer money at all?  (By contrast, the Big Dig, Boston's largest infrastructure project in recent memory, cost taxpayers over $24 billion.)
  • What street in modern Boston hides the remnants of a 1.5 mile long industrial dam?
  • How did construction of New York's Erie Canal help inspire construction of the Boston's Back Bay?
  • Who were the industrialists who were willing to gamble their fortunes on the unproven plans and technologies that built the Back Bay?
  • What beloved children's book accurately portrays the steam powered machines that were put to work building the Back Bay?  (Hint: It's Mike Mulligan!)
  • Where did we get the huge volume of material needed to fill in the Back Bay?  If you answered "from the top of Beacon Hill," you have fallen victim to one of Boston's most persistent urban legends.
  • How did Boston's sewage help inspire construction of the Back Bay, and how did our sewage later lead to the near destruction of Boston Public Library and Old South Church in Copley Square?
  • How did policies meant to bar Irish-Americans from public life in Boston lead to their integration and eventual cultural dominance?
  • How did a potato famine in Ireland trigger Boston’s most ambitious engineering project to-date?
  • Which Back Bay landmark floats like a boat in the marsh and sand beneath the streets?

Join us as we trace the social and civil engineering of the Back Bay project by strolling from Boston’s colonial coastline at the foot of Boston Common to the heart of the “new” neighborhood in Copley Square.

On our two hour tour, you'll learn the answers to all these questions and more.

At the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775, Boston was a small city on a tiny peninsula, surrounded by the sea:


One hundred years later, Boston had become a sprawling metropolis.  On our tour, you'll learn how the critical decades from 1850 to 1880 completely transformed the city of Boston:


In this 1858 panorama taken from the top of the statehouse dome, railroad tracks cut straight paths through the unfilled Back Bay.  The 'X' formed at their crossing marks today's Back Bay station and the site of the Hancock tower: