Rare map promoting development at Chestnut Hill in Brookline and Newton, Massachusetts

J[oel] Herbert Shedd, Civil Engineer & Surveyor, No. 39 Niles Block, Boston / L. H. Bradford & Co.’s Lith., PLAN OF CHESTNUT HILL, IN BROOKLINE & NEWTON. August 1856. Boston: Lee, Higginson & Co., 1856.
Lithograph, 30 3/8”h x 27 ¾”w at neat line plus margins, uncolored. Gently toned, with faint water stains, some wear with minor losses along old folds, and mended flap in upper-right quadrant. Lined on verso. Good or better.

A rare 1856 promotional map of Chestnut Hill on the cusp of its development as a suburban enclave for wealthy Bostonians.

Roughly speaking, the map depicts the area known today as the Old Chestnut Hill Historic District, bounded by Beacon Street to the north, Hammond Pond Reservation to the west, Boylston Street (labeled “Worcester Turnpike”on the map) to the south, and the Chestnut Hill Reservoir (constructed in 1870) to the east. The area straddled the towns of Brookline and Newton with a sliver falling in what was then the town of Brighton.

In 1822 much of this area had been purchased by Salem sea captain Joseph Lee, though until the 1850s it was considered remote from Boston and only lightly populated. On his death as a bachelor in 1845, his nephew Francis Lee settled on the property, named it Chestnut Hill, built an estate for himself, and began clearing roads and subdividing the property for sale and development. The process was abetted by the extension in 1851 of Beacon Street from Kenmore Square to Newton Center and the opening of Chestnut Hill station in 1852, both of which greatly facilitated access to Boston. It appears that development proceeded relatively slowly, however, with a few adventurous souls buying large estates then gradually subdividing them further, often for use by family members. As best as I can tell, most of the area’s grand homes were not built until the 1880s and later.

The map shows this area of Chestnut Hill as of 1856, with the new road and railroad infrastructure in place but almost no residential construction. An estate—I assume that of Francis Lee himself—may be seen west of the intersection of Hammond Street and the tracks of the New York and Boston Railway. Just two parcels appear to have been sold off, one at the intersection of Hammond and Summit to a William G. Hunter, and another at the summit of the hill to D. S. Curtis. A few pencil additions indicate new construction on the Curtis and Hunter parcels, subdivided parcels north of the intersection of Hammond Street and Chestnut Hill Road, and the renaming of Summit Road to “Essex” as it appears on modern maps. Also of interest is land owned by the Boston Water Corporation, which in a few years would be flooded to form the Chestnut Hill Reservoir in order to augment Boston’s water supply.

The map is adorned by three inset landscape views, all presumably taken from the Chestnut Hill summit, one of which faces almost directly east toward Beacon Hill and the State House. An inset map at right center locates Chestnut Hill in its broader geographic contest, highlighting its road and rail access to Boston as well as the Boston Water Works infrastructure.

Would-be investors are instructed to “apply to Lee, Higginson & Co.” of State Street in Boston. Described variously as a brokerage, investment bank and insurer, this firm was founded in Boston in the 1840s and endured until collapsing in 1932 in the wake of the so-called “Swedish match scandal”. Whether Chestnut Hill pioneer Francis Lee was himself a founder of the firm or a relative thereof is not clear.

The map was drawn by Joel Herbert Shedd (1834-1915), a civil engineer specializing in hydraulics and sanitation, based in Boston from 1856-1869 and thereafter in Providence. During his distinguished career, he designed and oversaw construction of the Providence water water and sewer systems; published numerous engineering tests and obtained several patents; and served on state commissions in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island, including the Rhode Island Harbor Commission from 1895 until his death.

The map is very rare: I am aware of only three institutional holdings, though by some fluke there is as of October 2021 a second example on the market, offered at a similar price.

OCLC 843955937 (Massachusetts State Library and Osher Map Library) and 317750756 (Boston Public Library), as of October 2021. Background from Pete Begans, “A Brief History of Chestnut Hill”, in The Heights, vol. LV no. 3 (Sept. 16, 1974), p. 6.