The Saga of Stony Brook

A glance at Hale’s 1832 Town of Roxbury map shows the Stony Brook (incorrectly spelled Stoney) meandering through the middle of the town, which then stretched from the Charles River in Dedham through Jamaica Plain to Back Bay, after rising in swampy areas at the town’s southern border below Canterbury Street and finally emptying into the Muddy River at the Fens.  The present Stony Brook Reservation farther west was not the stream’s source.  Stony Brook is difficult to visualize today because it and its tributaries, the Sawmill (now Bussey) and Goldsmith (now Willow) Brooks in the Arboretum, are almost all hidden from view.

Before its “improvement” Stony Brook attracted many businesses to its banks and was the channel for the entrance of the Industrial Age and its workers into Jamaica Plain.  One business of the area, the Haffenreffer Brewery, brewed its beer from Stony Brook’s crystal clear aquifer.  Yet the brook had tremendous power to do bad as well as good, for it acted as a drain for much of the town and habitually caused massive floods in an area undergoing rapid urbanization.

Thus in 1869 the Town of West Roxbury undertook “the improvement of the brook,” which was cleaned out and deepened; but the real burden lay on Boston (which had annexed Roxbury in 1868) “to deepen the brook within her limits to get the necessary grades.”  Interest grew in the project to make a straighter and deeper channel for Stony for even better drainage.

By 1871 this course was fixed and land claims settled for $15,165 with a complaint that “Boston will not do the works for many years to come unless the Town will contribute to the expense.”  The Town Report for 1872/3 featured a foldout presenting a profile of Stony’s proposed new grade from the Boston line to the Hyde Park line (3.5 miles).  The last Town Report a year later noted $43,027 spent on the entire project from 1868 to 1874.

Boston thus inherited the problem and gave it to its park-and-water czar, Frederick Law Olmsted, who began work in the city in 1878.  His final solution came in the 1890’s when Stony was enclosed in a culvert 11 feet in diameter as a part of his concept to make the Fens a holding basin for the Charles River.

Stony Brook is now noted by the new Orange Line station location and name.  In addition, its mouth is prominently marked by the Stony Brook Gatehouse of Roxbury puddingstone on the Fenway facing the classical Forsythe Dental Infirmary for Children.  A duplicate stands beside it, built in 1905 when the outlet was enlarged to a double channel.  Today there’s more to Stony Brook than just a name, and Olmsted surely would be pleased with the new Southwest Corridor Park on top of his creation. 

By Walter H. Marx