A brief history of economic development in Somerville

This story was originally published in the Somerville Journal

With multiple development efforts in Davis Square, Union Square, and East Somerville, the city is on the edge of major changes.

Amidst those changes, President of the New England Chapter of the Victorian Society in America Edward Gordon took a look back at past efforts in Somerville.

Since being hired by the Somerville Historic Preservation Commission 12 years ago, Gordon has led multiple walking tours in East Somerville and Union Square, highlighting historic neighborhoods.

In the 1800s, Somerville was still a part of Charlestown, explained Gordon. What made Somerville the successful and independent city it is today, he continued, was the rapid growth of industry and railroads.

Here is a timeline of some of the biggest industry moves in Somerville:

1820s: Somerville petitions for independence

As the Middlesex Bleachery and Dye Works, the first good-sized and significant industrial complex, moves into Somerville, said Gordon, the area sought independence.

“Industries had a big part in allowing Somerville to be independent,” explained Gordon. “The industries are going to attract workers.”

Since the area is so close to Boston, he continued, it was a prime candidate for industrial development. Boston itself, he explained, didn’t have enough land for the development.

1840: The Fitchburg Railroad

Trains allowed businessmen to commute from “rural-ish” homes in Somerville to the city, said Gordon.

“It made sense for the communities all around Boston to be where the industry would be placed. It kind of starts with the early industries, like rope-making, the brickyards,” said Gordon.

1842: Somerville separates from Charlestown

The implementation of railroads helped Somerville separate from Charlestown, explained Gordon.

With the rise of industries like rope-making, brickyards, etc., the area was successful enough to form its own city.

“Industries had a big part in allowing Somerville to be independent,” said Gordon. “The captains of industry, if you will, were living up in the hilltops, the favorite place for the elite to live. Industry and transportation is really key to Somerville’s independence.”

1850s: Union Square Glass Co., American Brass Tube Works, and the horse-drawn trolley

With the horse-drawn trolley, there are more connections between Boston, Cambridge and Somerville, explained Gordon.

And when glass and tube works come to the area, industrial complexes expand even more.

1860s-1870s: Meat packing industry

When this industry hits Somerville, explained Gordon, it brought a handful of environmental problems.

There used to be a visible river, more like a creek, flowing through Union Square, he said. But when the meat packing industries started dumping gallons of animal blood and carcasses into it, they had to fill it in 1874.

As industrial development expanded, the environmental impacts were hard to deny.

“The atmosphere was so horrific from all this smoke coming out of the factories,” said Gordon. “Paint of the buildings peeled off–if paint is peeling, terrible things are happening to people’s lungs.”

1890: Electric trolley

When the electric trolley started dominating transportation, more and more commercial blocks were added, explained Gordon, especially in Union and Davis Square.

1900s: Industries really start expanding

“Between 1890 and 1910, a 20-year period, half of what Somerville still has in building stock was built in that period,” said Gordon.

During that time, he continued, labor conditions were horrible and photojournalists from all over were being sent to document the conditions.

Rather than going to school, he said, some children were staying home to work.

“[Conditions] were primarily associated with meatpacking, and there was a very influential photographer, Lewis Hine, who photographed these poor kids,” said Gordon.

In 1916, a national child labor law was passed to enforce stricter regulations.

1926-1957: Ford Assembly Plant

The Ford plant came to Assembly Square in the 1920s. The company produced cars until 1957 when they closed down, said Gordon.

The company debuted their Edsel car, which did not go over well with the American people.

“That almost singlehandedly threw the Ford company into an uproar and shortly after Ford closed its doors,” said Gordon.

After that, “big box” stores moved into the area, eventually becoming the Assembly Square Somerville knows today.

1988: Brickbottom artists

“This is one of my favorite places,” said Gordon.

Artists came to Brickbottom in the late 1980s, staying in loft buildings in the area.

Gordon will be hosting a talk about the history of Somerville at Aeronaut Brewing Co. on May 13 at 11:30 a.m.

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