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A Brief History of Jamaica Plain

Transportation has always been a central factor in the shaping of Jamaica Plain.  One only has to look at how early the main lines of transportation were laid down to see that this is so.  Dedham Road – now Centre Street – was built in 1663.  Going through Dedham, it connected Boston to Providence.  The express stagecoach could make the trip, with no heavy baggage and with four changes of horses, in about four hours.  The Norfolk and Bristol Turnpike – now Washington Street – was built in 1803.  It connected Boston with Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and was the only non-toll road into Boston.  The railroad came in 1834; the Boston & Providence tracks ran along Lamartine Street, where they still are today.  Thus the present day outlines of Jamaica Plain came into being almost at the town’s beginning.

Though the transportation routes have been fairly stable, the modes of transportation have changed dramatically, and with these changes Jamaica Plain has changed.  How fast, how cheaply, and how often one could travel between Jamaica Plain and Boston often determined what kind of people lived in Jamaica Plain.  As transportation changed, the people changed, and as the people changed so did the houses, the institutions, the stores, and the places of recreation.

In the eighteenth century, Jamaica Plain comprised the southern part of the Town of Roxbury, which was described in the following way by a contemporary writer:  “It has several high hills which afford an agreeable prospect of the town and harbor of Boston, and one large pond covering about 120 acres, near which is a plain of a mile in length known by the name of Jamaica Plain, remarkable for the pleasantness of its situation and the number of gentlemen’s houses upon it”. (1)

Its wooded hills, surrounding the deep and beautiful Pond, made Jamaica Plain a perfect site for the country estates of the well-to-do.  The town was connected to Boston only by slow moving and infrequent stagecoaches – the first public coaches began operation in 1733 – so many of these families maintained houses in town as well.  This population included such luminaries as the Royal Governor of Massachusetts, Sir Francis Bernard, who from 1760 to 1769 had a summer residence on Pond Street, a sixty acre estate of “beautiful grounds filled with choice fruit trees, plants and shrubs;” (2) and Governor John Hancock, whose country seat was located on Centre Street near the village church.  The population was described by one observer as a “small but choice circle of elegant, graceful and cultivated people used to wealth and accomplished in the arts of life …”

The chief employment of the town was farming; Jamaica Plain helped provide Boston with fresh fruits and vegetables.  However, the presence of a water supply fostered some small-scale industry.  In 1795 the Jamaica Plain Aqueduct Company received a contract to supply Boston with water from Jamaica Pond, which it did until 1848.  Stony Brook, which then flowed above ground from Roxbury Crossing to Forest Hills, was another source of power, and the coming of the railroad along more or less the same route encouraged this development further.  Even before 1850, the Stony Brook Valley was dotted with textile mills, printing shops, foundries, lumber and stone yards, and breweries.  Such industry was, however, clearly subordinate to the area’s great estates.

The institutions and shops of early Jamaica Plain clearly suited a rural village.  As for city government in the mid 1800s,  “The Police Department consisted of one man.  He was chief, sergeant, patrolman, traffic officer, truant officer and everything … The Police Station, Engine House, Lockup and Town Court House were all in one building . . and naturally it was the center for all the town’s activities.  Everything of importance was brought here to be straightened out.” (3)  And for many years Seaver’s Store, established in 1796 and located where Blanchard’s Liquor Store now stands, was the only general store in town.  “It was a community store and sold everything.  After supper the gang would collect there, sit around the old stove and discuss everything from politics to women and believe me, they could gossip.” (4)  
Seaver’s Store was also the starting point for the horse-drawn omnibuses that started service to Boston in 1826.  A personal memoir captures the nature of such a journey.  “A child growing up in the 1840s remembers long tedious trips from Jamaica Plain to Boston in a conveyance which is now called a bus but then its name was  ‘Hourly’, because it started every hour …  It may well be imagined that a little girl would only be taken to town in those days for something very important like visits to a doctor or dentist; no movie shows then.  How we rumbled over Hoggs Bridge and the long interminable Tremont Street to our destination, two rows of people facing each other, their feet in deep straw, and how glad we were to be back in the peaceful village again.” (5)  

The railroad trains allowed for a certain amount of commuter traffic, as train travel was relatively fast, but it was also fairly expensive and made few stops.  The establishment of the horse-car trolley in 1856 widened this traffic a bit further.  “With the introduction of horse cars, sometime in the fifties, and the greater frequency of steam trains, it became much easier to make trips to and from Boston for business and shopping and occasional theatre or opera … on some wonderful Saturday afternoon, to be taken to the Boston Museum to see Aladdin’s Lamp, or some other fairy spectacle, and, incidentally, to see the grand wax works, that was indeed a treat to a child of that period, to be remembered for many a long day.” (6)  

The main event, however, in the reshaping of Jamaica Plain was the creation of electric streetcar service in 1889.  The streetcars were twice as fast as the horse cars, carried more passengers, and were relatively cheap; and for the first time opened the suburbs as a regular place of residence to large numbers of people who worked in Boston.  The rural atmosphere of the area attracted many members of the middle class, who could now quit a dense, dirty and over-populated Boston, and for the first time separate their places of residence from their places of work.  The large estates were sold and subdivided, and houses quickly put up – large elegant single-family homes for the substantial members of the upper middle class; two-family and three-decker apartment houses for the lower middle class who still rented their lodgings, all with at least a small yard.  Jamaica Plain changed from the site of large country estates to a new residential suburb, which strove to recreate the charms of the country for its new inhabitants.  In 1851 Jamaica Plain had seceded from Roxbury and joined the town of West Roxbury to escape Boston’s continued expansion, but in 1873 West Roxbury was itself annexed to Boston – a reflection of the area’s changing status from independent village to integral suburb of the city.

Jamaica Plain grew quickly, and the institutions to minister to this population soon sprang up.  They reflected the values and priorities of the Victorian middle class – education, science and moral uplift.  The Jamaica Plain Branch Library opened in 1876 as a room in Curtis Hall, but moved to its present location on Sedgwick Street in 1908; the Sedgwick building represented the first independent branch library built exclusively for library purposes.  The Jamaica Plain High School on Elm Street was built in 1867, but by the 1890s it was no longer large enough – an addition was begun in 1898 which was four times the size of the original building.  The Children’s Museum had its origins in a Science Teacher’s Association and opened at Pinebank near the Pond, as a means for transmitting the principles of natural science to children.  The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood House began as the Helen Wald House in 1897, as a club for young women working at a local factory, and moved to its present location on Amory Street in 1918.  Its aim, as an early director stated, was “recreation and character building, not relief.”  The Adams-Nervine Asylum, an institution for the “nervous who are not insane,” opened its doors in 1880.  Its program was based on the “moral treatment” system of a contemporary psychiatrist, which incorporated some remarkably modern ideas, including an emphasis on small hospitals with a home-like, community atmosphere.

Perhaps all of these trends came together in the construction of Franklin Park, begun in 1885, according to the plans of the great landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted.  For Olmsted, the plan represented a combination of moral and scientific intentions.  It was meant to conform to the principles of natural science, reflecting the ecology and natural contours of the site; but its purpose was to provide a rural retreat from the rigors of urban life, to permit necessary leisure and moral rejuvenation.  Only through such scientific large scale planning, Olmsted believed, could rapidly growing cities provide the necessary spiritual sustenance and relief for its population.  For Olmsted, the creation of the parks system in Boston and throughout the country was a response to a national transformation which Jamaica Plain at the turn of the century reflected perfectly – the separation of work place and residence, i.e. the creation of suburbs, and the search for a suburban way of life.   “…  When not engaged in business, (the worker) has no occasion to be near his working place, but demands arrangements of a wholly different character.  Families require to settle in certain localities in sufficient numbers to support those establishments which minister to their social and other wants, and yet are not willing to accept the conditions of town-life which were formerly deemed imperative, and which, in the business quarters, are yet, perhaps, in some degree, imperative, but demand as much of the luxuries of free air, space and abundant vegetation as without loss of town-privileges, they can be enabled to secure.” (7)

For the new residents of Jamaica Plain in the 1880s and 90s, Franklin Park provided just the kind of romantic natural setting, within traveling distance from their work, that they had left the inner city to find. The rapid growth of the area produced a welter of commercial activities even though most of the people living in Jamaica Plain at this time worked in Boston.  A present resident remembers the “hives of small stores” around the Boylston Street, Green Street and Forest Hills Railroad stations in the first decades of this century, along with four movie houses, and “dance halls galore,” with dances every night except during Lent.  The layer of small industry continued to develop.  Perhaps the best-known examples are the Haffenreffer Brewery, which opened in 1870 on Brookside Avenue, and the Thomas Plant Shoe Company on Centre Street near Jackson Square, with around 1,000 workers, which a current resident has described as a “city in itself.”  Given the much more decentralized modes of production, compared with today, the number and variety of factories and shops located within Jamaica Plain was great.  A partial list from the memory of a resident who has lived in Jamaica Plain since the 1920s includes factories producing twine, surveyor’s instruments, strings for musical instruments, eyeglass cases, and automobiles, a milk bottling plant, four print shops, and the Continental Dye House on Brookside Avenue which left the boys who swam in the brook nearby a different color upon emerging each day.

The factories meant that working class people also lived in Jamaica Plain, which required the construction of housing to meet their needs and within their means.  Especially after the construction of the elevated structure, which “darkened Washington Street in more ways than one,” business was generally diverted toward Centre Street, and the area between Washington Street and the railroad tracks became the location of much of the cheaper housing and also a victim of deterioration and blight.  The Neighborhood House moved from Carolina Avenue to its location on Amory Street in 1918 to provide social services to the population of this area, known as the “The Jungle.”  A letter from a worker at the Settlement House describes conditions in this part of Jamaica Plain, figuratively and literally on the wrong side of the tracks.  “I feel sure that if the people of Jamaica Plain knew first hand the Amory Street section where our Neighborhood House is located; knew the swarms of children who live in unfit and over crowded homes, the working mothers who are our best friends and helpers, to say nothing of the liveliest toughest boy proposition I have ever known, money would flow into our treasury.” (8)

It is remarkable how much of Victorian Jamaica Plain has remained into the present.  Many of the institutions established the late 19th century have only recently outgrown their Victorian homes, forced to abandon them for more spacious and modern accommodations.  A brand new Jamaica Plain High School opened its doors just a year ago (September, 1979); the Children’s Museum moved to a new more central location downtown also in 1979; and the Adams-Nervine Asylum merged with the Faulkner Hospital in 1975, now providing its services in Faulkner facilities.  Of all the early institutions it is perhaps Neighborhood House, still located on Amory Street and currently being renovated, which has shown the most persistence.

These changes merely reflect forces which have transformed Jamaica Plain in the last two decades, and in this transformation the way people travel has again played a major part.  In the period after World War II government-subsidized mortgages, but perhaps more importantly the automobile as a generally available commodity, made the farther-out suburbs accessible to many members of the middle class.  Whereas Jamaica Plain had itself once been an outlying suburb offering a rural retreat from the urban center, the automobile turned it into an inner-city neighborhood which commuters passed through to reach the newer suburban towns.

Cars, of course, require highways.  As early as 1948 the City of Boston published a plan for an inner highway belt to run through lower Roxbury, where it would connect up with an Interstate highway (I-95) which, running through the predominantly white working and middle-class communities of Hyde Park, Roslindale, and Jamaica Plain, would exit Boston going South.  In 1966 the Department of Public Works released a design for this road – it was to be an eight lane highway, in Jamaica Plain running along the railroad embankment from Jackson Square to Forest Hills.  The next year land clearance for the project began.  More than 300 businesses and 700 households in Jamaica Plain and other neighborhoods abutting the tracks were relocated.  The result for the area along the proposed highway route, called the Southwest Corridor, was disastrous.  Houses now stood abandoned or demolished, while homeowners in adjacent areas felt great uncertainty about the impact of the highway on their community.  Many in Jamaica Plain saw the highway as a monumental barrier which would divide their community in two, and as a use of neighborhood resources and land without consideration of the needs and interests of the community itself.

The relocation of families along the Corridor was only an exacerbation of the larger exodus of middle-class families from the inner city, a movement which produced great changes in Jamaica Plain.  The housing stock of the area attracted new groups – among them blacks moving to northern cities from the South after the War, and in the 1960s and 1970s many new Cuban, Puerto Rican, and other Latin American immigrants, while many of the white working class residents of Jamaica Plain remained, from necessity and from choice.  As these new groups had little money or political power, Jamaica Plain lost much of its claim to adequate funding and services – its houses, still beautiful, often tended toward decay.

But Jamaica Plain also became one of the most varied and integrated of Boston’s neighborhoods, which gave this area its own vitality and appeal.  Different groups in the area often came into conflict, but they also struggled to get along and to provide the services they needed for themselves.  Brookside Park Family Center, which began operation at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in 1970, to provide medical and social services conveniently and affordably to the changing population of Jamaica Plain, was only one of the many social institutions which came into being through the efforts and hard work of neighborhood residents themselves.  

The last ten years in Jamaica Plain have seen new, surprising and sometimes ironic changes.  After a long and heated struggle, and through the efforts of a coalition of groups from several neighborhoods, including Jamaica Plain, affected by the proposed I-95, Governor Sargent announced in October of 1972 that no Interstate facility of any size would be built in the Southwest Corridor.  However, since the land had already been bought and cleared under eminent domain, it provided a vast opportunity for planning of the area on a scale which was bound to dramatically change the shape of Jamaica Plain.  The community is working hard to insure that its voice will be heard in this planning.

At the same time, larger forces were again having their effect on Jamaica Plain.  Changing lifestyles, and the existence of lovely, if run-down Victorian houses in Jamaica Plain, which could be bought inexpensively and elegantly renovated, drew many young families out of the suburbs and back into Jamaica Plain.  More recently, the high cost of gasoline has made long daily commutes by car an unforeseen burden.  The inner city has again become both a fashionable and economic place to live.  A reflection of this has been the conversion, or planned conversion, of many of the buildings which housed the public social institutions of Victorian Jamaica Plain into private condominiums designed for the middle and upper-middle class.  These include the buildings of the old Children’s Museum on Burroughs Street and the Adams-Nervine Asylum, and the old Jamaica Plain High School on Elm Street and the Police Station on Seaverns Avenue.  Whereas at the end of the 19th century Jamaica Plain combined the best of city and country by being accessible to downtown Boston while being as far from it as possible, it is again attracting people by combining the best of both worlds, while being as close as possible to downtown.  The sign advertising the Adams-Arboretum condominiums at the old Adams-Nervine site, which has the Arboretum as its backyard, expresses this well: “A Country Estate for Urban Living.”

If such private development has been one form of neighborhood redevelopment, other buildings are being rescued and adapted, with community pressure, for more public uses, many along the Corridor route – especially the old, often defunct, factory buildings which originally bordered the railroad tracks and Stony Brook.  Brookside Park Family Life Center reconverted the Paris Paper Box Company on Washington Street to use as a new, expanded site for their Health Center, and opened their doors in 1975.  An old plastics factory on Amory Street became housing for the elderly; the Boston Gas Company became the new Jamaica Plain High School.  A grant has only recently been approved for a neighborhood development corporation to convert the old Haffenreffer Brewery building into a commercial and light industrial site.  

This transformation will of necessity include the transformation of the transportation system as well.  As the expense of running cars has increased, attention has again returned to public transportation.  As part of the Corridor redevelopment plan, the elevated tracks which have long blighted Washington Street will come down, and depressed transit and railroad tracks with new stations will be built along the Corridor route.  Again, the basic lines and routes of transportation have not changed, but the forms have been dramatically altered.

Given the tremendous and rapid rate of change in Jamaica Plain, it is inevitable that different groups, in and out of the community, have and will see the opportunities for development with different and often conflicting perspectives, with different feelings of excitement and regret.  It is only to be hoped that in the process of change, the beauty of 19th century Jamaica Plain will be preserved, while the variety of races, ethnic and economic groups which recent decades have produced, will not be lost.

1.  Francis S. Drake, The Town of Roxbury, 1878, p.46
2.  Ellen Ernst, Our Boston, “Jamaica Plain Before Annexation,” p.18
3.  Address by Fred Seaver before the Jamaica Plain Board of Trade on April 1, 1931
4.  Address by Fred Seaver
5.  Paper presented by Miss Ellen Morse, age 80 to the Jamaica Plain Tuesday Club 1921
6.  Paper presented by Miss Ellen Morse
7.  Albert Fein, Frederick Law Olmsted and the American Environmental Tradition, p. 22
8.  Letter from Elizabeth Paine, retiring headworker, Jamaica Plain Neighborhood House, 1921

Prepared by the Jamaica Plain Historical Task Force Place Over Time Exhibit, Jubilee 350

William Dunfey
Katherine Gondek
Joan Hamilton
Henry Keveaney
Justine Liff
Richard Norton
Yolanda Rivas
Alice Woodall

Research Advisor:    
Carol Pryor

Volunteer transcription services graciously provided by Peter O’Brien.


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