Rare and dramatic bird’s-eye view of Boston

Geo. H. Walker & Co., VIEW OF BOSTON FREIGHT TERMINALS, The New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad. Boston: New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, 1903.
Chromolithograph, 24”h x 38”w plus margins. Several long vertical cracks and tears, brilliantly mended so as to be all-but invisible.

A spectacular and extremely rare chromolithographic bird’s-eye view of what is today known as Boston’s Seaport District, issued to promote the freight terminals of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad.

The terminals had their origin in a massive land-reclamation project begun in the 1870s by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the City of Boston. The story is complex, but the project was part of a larger strategy to keep Boston commercially competitive with New York City by both improving Boston’s harbor and expanding the city’s transportation infrastructure. It entailed using fill to create hundreds of acres of land on what had been the South Boston Flats, the result of which is the part of South Boston known today as the Seaport District (Incidentally, the fill was obtained in part from the dredging of shipping channels in Boston Harbor, but also from the rubble left by the Fire of 1872, gravel brought in by rail from neighboring towns, and even household ashes and other waste.)

The view depicts the massive terminals as seen from a vantage point to the north, high above Boston Harbor. The facilities occupy hundreds of acres and include miles of track, passenger terminals, sidings, a roundhouse, warehouses and several piers along the harbor front. The area occupied by the Railroad, including the three large piers, was completed by the early 1880s; the area in the background, colored gray and labeled “Commonwealth Land”, was filled over the next couple of decades. Beyond this is the Reserved Channel, with South Boston and Dorchester Bay in the background.

“Probably the most advantageous situation in the harbor, at least for passengers and local freight, is occupied by the piers of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad at South Boston. They are convenient to the wholesaling and warehousing centers of Boston and across a bridge from South Station, the passenger terminus of the Boston and Albany and New Haven.” (Edwin J. Clapp, “The Development of the Port of Boston and Its Relation to Western New England”, Western New England Magazine, vol. 3 no. 8 (Aug. 1913), p. 342)[1]

Visible at the far right, across the Fort Point Channel, is Terminal Station—now South Station—and the facilities of the Boston and Albany and New Haven Railroad. In the far right background is what remained of South Cove, which today is almost entirely filled.

The vivid chromolithographic color, the belching smokestacks, the dozens of vessels in the harbor and docked at the piers, and the hundreds of horse-drawn wagons and tiny human figures all impart energy to the image and convey the impression of a thriving metropolis.

The view is extremely rare. I find no record of another example having appeared on the antiquarian market and but a single institutional holding, at the the Library of Congress.

George H. Walker & Co.
The view was produced by the great lithographic firm of George H. Walker, presumably at the behest of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad. Established in 1880 George H. Walker & Co. “was the last important lithographic firm to be established in Boston in the nineteenth century” (Pierce and Slautterback). An advertisement in the 1882 Boston Business Directory describes the firm as “publishers and lithographers” doing “engraving in all its branches, map engraving and photo-lithographing.” (Reps) Among other output, Walker issued atlases of Massachusetts and of Essex County, separate maps of Boston and its metropolitan area, and birds-eye views of Boston, Edgartown, Bar Harbor, and Lake Winnipesaukee. Of all the Walker productions—and I have handled quite a few—this view, along with a 1902 Birds-Eye View from Summit of Mt. Washington, is by far the most spectacular.

Not in OCLC or Reps, Views and Viewmakers of Urban America. The complicated story of the filling of South Boston Flats is ably told by Nancy Seasholes in Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003), pp. 295ff.