When tourists visit the North End, they come to see the colonial sites on the Freedom Trail. Sure, they may get some cannoli at Mike’s or a slice of pizza at Umberto’s but Paul Revere’s House and the Old North Church are the main attractions. Those of us who live here know the history of our neighborhood didn’t end with Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty. That was just the beginning because the history of the North End is the story of Immigration to America, and what a rich and interesting history it is.
The photo accompanying this article shows the North End that welcomed my grandparents to their new country. At first glance you might think it looks like one of the industrial cities in nineteenth century England. Factories and warehouses are located right up against tenement buildings. Laundry is hung out to dry on roof top clothes lines. Smoke and steam spew into the sky from scores of coal fired furnaces. The air must have been thick and toxic. This scene could have been in Liverpool, Leeds or London in Charles Dickens’ time. You’d never mistake this for Beacon Hill.
Yet, to a poor immigrant it was beautiful, the promised land, because each of those factories and warehouses had jobs, low paying, back breaking dehumanizing jobs but jobs that paid a wage. Living in the North End meant a poor immigrant could walk to work, feed his family and maybe even save up to buy a two or three family house in Somerville, Medford or Revere. If you spoke English you could get an inside job in one of the factories. Those who only spoke Italian would have to be day laborers, not too bad in warm weather but the New England winters were brutal.
The details in this picture are fascinating. The first thing to note is it was taken from a huge Boston & Maine coal bunker next to the Charlestown Bridge where the Marriott Residence Hotel is located. The long, covered chute is a coal conveyor belt that transferred coal from schooners or barges to the bunker. On the left side of the wharf you can see the two masts of a schooner which was probably unloading coal. Schooners and barges were the workhorses of the 19th century coastal trade and at that time Boston was a maritime city. To the right of the wharf is a pleasure yacht with a British flag in the stern. The coal bunker burned in the mid 1950’s a year after the B & M railroad went from steam to diesel. It was a spectacular fire that lasted for days.
Off to the right, the State House looms over the city. Without skyscrapers it was visible from all over downtown Boston and served as both a landmark and a beacon for our “City on a Hill.”
The streets leading from North Station to Haymarket Square, Haverhill, Friend, Canal, Merrimack, etc are lined with warehouses. I can see the Paine’s Furniture warehouse and a chair manufacturer. Lovejoy Wharf is to the right. North Washington Street is a hive of activity and there is a sign for the Mazen Confectionary Company. There were a number of these candy factories in the North End/West End mostly owned by German Jews who brought their confectionary skills with them to America. My aunt, Aurora, was a candy dipper at the Deran Candy Factory located on Medford St. The taller buildings of the Financial District are in the background along with the Park Street Church and the Old South Meeting House. Wealthy and poor Boston huddled together, side by side.
The main object in the picture is the Charlestown Bridge with the elevated rail line on top. The El to the right went to North Station, the one to the left went to South Station.They met at Keaney Square and went on to Sullivan Square where commuters could transfer to trolly cars for the northern streetcar suburbs. No need for a bus lane or bicycle track in those days, public transportation was cheap and plentiful.
In the left center of the photo is St. Mary’s Church. Its official name was St. Mary of the Sacred Heart but we just called it St. Mary’s. This photo shows the two magnificent bell towers which burned and were not replaced. They were painted deep blue in honor of the Virgin Mary and were a prominent North End landmark. St. Mary’s was the largest church in the North End and could hold 1,800 parishioners. It was built for the Irish immigrants in 1835 and greatly enlarged in 1877. St. Mary’s and St. Stephen’s were the two Irish parishes in the North End and John F. Fitzgerald, Honey Fitz, returned to the North End with his wife every Sunday for Mass at St. Stephen’s long after he left his beloved “dear old North End.” There are two signs on the low wharf building just under the left side of the bridge each advertising a parish reunion, one for St. Stephen’s and the other for St. Mary’s. The signs face the El on top of the bridge so the riders could see them as they rode in and out of downtown because by this time the Irish had moved out to Charlestown and beyond, displaced by hoards of Italians.
To the left of St. Mary’s Church and slightly behind it is St. Mary’s grammar school where I attended as a child. It was staffed by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur a teaching order who taught North End children for over one hundred years. These long suffering nuns chastised the boys, sometimes severely, and fawned over the girls. They also protected the older girls from certain priests who had wandering hands. The nuns were remarkable women who came from blue collar Irish families. It must have been quite a culture shock teaching a class of forty five unruly children some of whom didn’t speak a word of English. Their convent was in Roxbury where the Academy Homes are and they traveled to the North End in an old station wagon with one intrepid nun as the designated driver. Their GPS was the Holy Ghost because the starched, white bonnets under their head shawls eliminated any lateral vision. Whatever guided them must have worked because I never recall them having an accident.
In the Charles River it looks like the tide is low but rising. We can tell that because there is a small skiff being rowed upriver by two boys. The Charles River dam wasn’t built until two years after this picture was taken and in 1906 the Charles was still a tidal river. Rowing against an outgoing tide would have been very difficult.
Here is a challenge for really old North Enders. To the left of the bridge where the tennis courts are now located is the Joseph Goodnow lumber yard. This was a North End institution for over a century. After World War II it was replaced by a locally owned business. What replaced it and who owned that new business? (Enter your answer in the comment section.)
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.