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Lost Crossing: The Lewis Street Mission to Boston’s “Black Sea”

By Jessica Dello Russo

The North End of Boston is world-famous for historic sites with ties to the American Revolution from North Square to Copp’s Hill. Just outside of this circuit, along the water’s edge, are signs of another upheaval, literally, just that, in the sense of where we find the Boston Harbor shoreline today, instead of several blocks inland, as it would have been in Colonial times. In the late 1700s, Paul Revere’s commute to his workshop at the top of Hancock’s Wharf on Fish Street (between Moon and Fleet) was a few minute’s stroll from North Square: the entire North End district, in fact, was still separated from the rest of Boston by a canal between the Mill Pond and Marketplace Square.

Corner of Lewis and Fulton Streets ca. 1855

By around 1830, all this had changed. The old waterfront docks and buildings and canal crossings were gone and in their place was a new commercial district that we generally identify with Quincy Market, though the historic neoclassical display hall in granite is only one piece of a much larger and more involved puzzle that, when put together, shows the colonial North End waterfront on the harbor side nearly surrounded by new wharf development. It may not be so much in evidence today, but many of the “substantial brick and stone buildings” in the words of one eyewitness, on Commercial and Fulton Streets, filling as well the rock seawalls of the new wharves, were built for mercantile purposes such as warehouses, factories, company offices, and stores. 

Living quarters were squeezed into narrow spaces between the commercial blocks, the courtyards, or dead end byways, without much visibility. To be exact, many “living” in the area were often in a temporary or undocumented arrangement, in rooming houses or tenements, even in makeshift shacks or sheds in someone’s yard (outhouses provided the plumbing, unless you had permission to dig a drain right to Boston Harbor). The transient population included many sailors disembarking on the wharves after several months or years at sea. Having landed, they were paid, and, once armed with cash, many headed into the city looking for food, drink, entertainment, and other services amply rendered in the North End waterfront area known as the “Black Sea.”

The setting interests me personally, because decades later my father’s family began its American journey on the shores of the once-notorious Black Sea, in rented rooms overlooking two dead-end alleyways like those described above, leading off of North Street just below North Square (Quincy Court and Baker’s Alley). Around the time my great-grandfather Nicola became an American citizen in 1924, he bought a building close by, on Lewis Street, a narrow brick structure on a short block in between Fulton and Commercial Streets.

Lewis Street had been laid out in the 1830s as a straight path sloping downward toward the shore on mostly made land between the area of North Square and the new wharf complex of the Lewis family (it may well be that the street took its name from the family residence between Moon and Fish Streets, which connected via a passageway to a dock on the mud flats of the harbor between Long Wharf and Hancock’s Wharf). 

Much of Lewis Wharf today is quiet and secluded (not counting, in memory, some epic childhood playtime in the private outdoor pool). But in the 1830s the wharf was described as an “excellent landing and accommodation (i.e. for ships) in Boston,” a hub of transport and receiving activity with multiple berths for ships, a transit station between the ferry and railroad, and storage facilities for all types of imported materials. Back then, it could be a confusing mass of people and machinery, but the architecture of the era was a guide. One could follow a series of wide, straight streets lined with brand-new buildings to Quincy Market (Commercial and Fulton Streets). These bypassed the winding courses of the older streets that had been conditioned by the original water line and other pre-existing topographical features. Lewis Street, on the other hand, plunged right into the North End, which is why it had different urban characteristics than the wharf of the same name.

Because of a street widening in the late nineteenth-century, there’s not much left of the original Lewis Street except for the building at 3 Lewis that my family still owns. A photograph from 1855 confirms that the lower floors are part of the original 19th-century building (described as “recently renovated,” which could indicate that some pieces of the structure were even older). The foundation stones are heavy granite blocks and the storefront originally had granite post-and-lintel features very typical of urban architecture of the late Federalist era. A real estate ad for the building in 1844 describes it (in typical realtor language) as:

“A spacious house, containing 23 rooms —its central location, being near the Depot of the Eastern Railroad, one of the great thoroughfares of the city, renders it one of the moot desirable places in the vicinity for an Hotel or Boarding House. The buildings have recently been put in perfect repair, with a view of being used as a house ol public entertainment (i.e., a public house, or tavern).”

I draw a blank today in imagining how a three-story structure plus attic (it was much smaller back then, with a sloped roof) could have been divided up inside into twenty-three rooms, but even as late as 1990, the upper floors that were not lived in still had the layout of rooms-to-let: multiple doors opened onto the hallway (and to each other) and there was one toilet stall per floor. The set-up was typical of 1900, but not 1990, and explains why these floors could no longer be rented out and became instead to us children a creepy, mullti-storied attic to hide in at risk of falling through the floor (I didn’t really think much at the time about the implications of just the toilet stall and sink without a tub or shower, and makeshift kitchen arrangement in one of the rooms, with stove, sink, and icebox). 

Corner of Lewis and Fulton Streets ca. 1855, with buildings at 1-5 Lewis Street (Eagle Hotel, Marine Hotel, and Baptist Seamen’s Bethel) (Boston Public Library).

Like the building next door at the corner of Lewis and Fulton Streets (5 Lewis, today a BRA parking lot), our building at 3 Lewis operated as a hotel, going by various names, the Portland House in 1847, and a year later called the Naumkeag House. As the rapid name changes suggest, running a small hotel by the city docks was a risky business. In point of fact, on 4 May 1849, a notice appeared in the Boston Post newspaper listing all of the contents of the building for sale, with the “stock and furnishings of a hotel.” The sale clarifies, at least, that instead of 23 rooms, as the real estate ad had suggested, there were “23 feather mattresses and bed steads.”

Also available for purchase at that time were an unspecified number of second-hand “carpets, sofas, cane seats and cushion chairs, rocking chairs, looking glasses (mirrors), comforters and pillows, sheets and pillow cases, crockery and glassware, and 4 stoves.” The bar room fixtures available for purchase were not very different from those my family used to operate Nick’s Tavern in the following century: “kegs and demijohns for liquors, beer and soda pumps, tumblers, (and) decanters”: the stock included rum, brandy, gin, different types of wine, cider, and even vinegar.

By 1855, the year of the photograph, the hotel business in the building at 3 Lewis had settled on the straightforward “Marine Hotel.” There was a small clearing in the back, presumably for more kitchen space and storage, and to provide the back rooms with ventilation. The warves and railway depot both provided a steady stream of customers, but also created problems, like the quarentine imposed on the entire building at one point because of an outbreak of cholera. The named building proprietors and tenants had Anglo or Irish names, but a living descendant of one of the building owners at the time confirms that her ancestor had immigrated from the Azores, as had a lot of his staff. A significant population of Portuguese lived in that area of the North End by the wharves, not far from one of their cultural centers, the Church of St. John Baptist.

Detail of 1868 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, locating the Lewis Street hotels (Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library).

The hotel business remained steady until the late 1800s, when the building was bought by some Italian grocers from North Street. In modern real-estate terms, it was owner-occupied, and housed other families as well in a conversion of the interior into two or three-room apartments. As the demand for housing surged, the roofline was raised and flattened with two upper floors of apartments. This gave the building the appearance it has today of a tenement, although as many North Enders know, an old building can hide state-of-the-art renovations and roofdecks and fire escapes aren’t just for laundry, anymore.

In the decades before my great-grandfather bought the building (family legend says it is where he was first lodged upon arriving from Italy to the USA), the barber shop of Santo N. Alessi operated at street level (Alessi later was an Italian interpreter for the Boston law courts). Nicola instead reactivated the “tavern,” whose foundation he put at 1924, strangely enough, right in the middle of Prohibition. He had been a member of another Italian social club, the “Italian Community Club” at 18 Marshall Street near the Union Oyster House, and had his own business and personal reasons for running a similar operation around the fishing docks and transit hubs for the trains and ferries.

For all purposes to which it was applied, on or off the books, the business did very well: Nicola expanded his real estate holdings to include the building next door at 1-1/12 Lewis Street, known as the Seamen’s Union, or Longshoremen Union Hall. 

As anyone who has lived in the North End long enough will know, neighbors can be a real pain. This was the case almost from the start for the hotel owners at 3-5 Lewis Street, and later for my great-grandfather. The problematic neighbors were those at 1 Lewis. Around the time of the opening of the hotel as a “place of public entertainment” in the mid-1840s, a Baptist church congregation led by the Rev. Charles W. Denison leased out a large part of the adjacent building at the corner of Lewis and Commercial Streets and turned it into a Baptist Bethel for seamen. The Bethel Baptist Society operated at the location above the clothing store Gould and Proctor between 1843 and 1864 before consolidating its mission at its anchor church, the First Baptist Mariners’ Church at the corner of Hanover and North Bennett Streets (332 Hanover, where NEW Health is located today). Even after that time, a small missionary outpost remained as the “Lewis Street Mission.”

Piece of stained-glass window with the word “Baptist” from the Boston Baptist Bethel at 332 Hanover Street, now NEW/Health (private collection).

The main drive or focus of this society was to save the souls of seamen, then described as of “a noble, but little-valued class of citizens.” It hoped to achieve this by means of inspired preaching in the meeting hall carved out of two upper floors of a commercial building with storefront at 1-11/2 Lewis (the ceiling had to be removed between the second and third floors because the second preacher-in-charge, Rev. Phineas Stowe (1812-1868), practically had his head against the ceiling whenever he stood in the pulpit and he couldn’t gesticulate properly in the restricted space). 

The end result was described as “small and dingy,” but could fit several hundred people. To reach this capacity, the hall’s furnishings were spare: the focal point at one end was the stern of an old boat that was used as the actual pulpit, somewhat like the bow still used in the Seamen’s Bethel in New Bedford. As the mission took hold, the inconvenient pulpit had to be replaced with a table, and a gallery was added for extra seating. The Baptist organization also operated practical services for sailors, such as a library, mail holding and forwarding, provisions for “clothing and other necessities,” arrangements for lodgings in hostels supportive of the mission, especially the mission’s own Mariner’s Exchange nearby at 247 North Street, and other social initiatives, down to a receiving tomb in Copp’s Hill Burying Ground that Stowe dedicated in 1851 “to seamen of all nations.” 

Detail of inscription on the Seamen’s Tomb, erected by the Rev. Phineas Stowe of the First Baptist Bethel Church of Boston in 1851 in Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, Boston (Author photo).

Like the larger Seamen’s Bethel in North Square run by the celebrated Methodist minister Fr. Edward T. Taylor, the Baptists drew an audience to their door by hoisting a large, blue flag with the word “Bethel” in white letters, but for good measure, they also used a bell. The sound of church bells was recurrent throughout the day in nineteenth-century Boston, and not only for times of prayer. No one would have taken issue with the bell per se, but some of the Lewis Street Bethel services began at midnight as an alternative to the dance halls, brothels, and provisions of the “splendid, rum-selling hotels” like the one next door at 3 Lewis.

Rev. Stowe also punctuated his sermons with singing accompanied by the playing of a brass band: one had to keep up with the neighbors on Boston’s “Rotten Row” who featured in their drinking and dancing establishments the live playing of “bagpipes, pianos, horns, and fiddles,” or, depending on the clientele one wished to attract, classier performances of “clarinette … violin and piano.” Rev. Stowe even published a special hymn book of “Ocean Melodies” (1849), including many he himself had written. He also composed new lyrics to popular tunes to commemorate events like special ship voyages, as well as a plaintive “Voice from the Police Station” meant to console detainees. Some of Stowe’s hymns are still sung in marine chapels and included in the prayer books of the U.S. Navy and other maritime organizations.

Stowe saw the Lewis Street mission as his “old battle grounds” for combating the wages of sin. The liquor business was booming, the number of taverns on Boston’s waterfront was increasing, and women were seen dancing and mingling promiscuously with men. Public drunkennesss could lead to arrest and jail time. As an alternative, the Bethel set up at the corner of Lewis, Fulton, and North Streets (formerly the Discharged Soldiers’ Home) a women’s shelter called the “Quincy Home for the Friendless,” “where sin-cursed women might find a friend,” as Phebe Ann Hanaford described it in the poem “The Midnight Meeting.” The desperation of the homeless women staying there is perhaps better illustrated by the report of a fire in the building in 1866 which burnt up the paper money a guest had hidden in a mattress. As the reporter summed up the situation: “beds are bad safes.” 

All the initiatives of the bethel preached temperance, from the North End Total Abstinance Society prayer meetings at midnight to the distribution of anti-swearing pledge cards and free coffee, tea, and cold water, anything but the “table swimming in alcoholic poisons.” Stowe’s next book of hymns, “Melodies for the Temperance Ship” (1854), tried to make the message more palatable to seamen off shore. Predictably enough, swimming against surrounding “Black Sea” currents, these social projects had mixed results. Even members of the dedicated staff were accused at one point of hitting the bottle in their efforts to fraternize with seamen in the bars (the incident led to the creation of a breakaway group, the Independent Bethel, in East Boston). Still, Stowe’s hope in “the abandoned North End” was unwavering. The onset of old age and the national crisis of civil war, however, directed more and more of his attention to his main assignment as pastor of the First Baptist Mariner’s Church, which was attended not just by seamen, but also families with children. 

In the late 1870s, the Rev. Charles Cullis moved his own North End Mission from the corner of Richmond and Fulton Streets to Stowe’s abandoned chapel on Lewis Street. For the next decade at least, the Temperance Society meetings continued (under the leadership of Methodist missionaries): apparently, so did business in the bar room and hotel next door. By the time my great-grandfather bought 3 Lewis, the building next door at 1 Lewis was owned by the City of Boston and leased out for meetings of various seamen’s organizations.

Detail of early 20th-century Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Boston, identifying Nicola and Carmela Dello Russo as owners of 3 Lewis Street (Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library).

Although temperance was no longer shouted and sung to the rafters, the clubs remained difficult neighbors, probably running their own liquor services instead of patronizing the tavern next door. I was told that my great-grandfather took matters into his own hands one day and had the place burnt down. It seems to have settled an old score, with 3 Lewis now the last man standing on the block. But then came the era of liquor licenses and neighborhood gentrification. Phineas Stowe would no doubt say that justice at last has been served.

Jessica Dello Russo is a native North Ender and daughter of regular contributor Dr. Nicholas Dello Russo. A graduate of the Vatican’s Institute for Archaeology, she now directs an archaeological foundation in Boston, the International Catacomb Society.

One Reply to “Lost Crossing: The Lewis Street Mission to Boston’s “Black Sea”

  1. Nice article, Jessica, your very expensive Ivy League education finally paid off.
    I have an addendum and an addition.
    First, ny father bought the building at 3 Lewis Street from his brother Fred in the early 1960’s for $5,000. That’s what buildings in the North End cost at that time. He thought Fred overcharged him.
    Next, my grandfather didn’t burn down the building at 1 Lewis Street. He never owned it.
    My father bought the building at auction from the city in the late 1950’s. He paid $1,500 and was the only bidder. The building was a 2 story brick clad building with a peaked roof. It must have dated from Colonial times because the interior was post & beam construction with massive oak beams and the cellar was constructed of huge rectangular granite blocks.
    My father rented most of the building to a box company. There were several of these in the area. They would collect wooden produce boxes from the Haymarket area, refurbish them and resell them to the truck farms that surrounded Boston. I worked one summer in a box company on Commercial Street where Billy T’s restaurant is located. The other storefront was occupied by a deaf & dumb barber who everyone called “the Dummy.” I got my haircuts there.
    One night the box company had a fire which destroyed the roof. My father didn’t want to spend a few thousand dollars fixing it so he and a couple of his friends, Taffy and Charlie Moore, had a few drinks after hours in the tavern. Charlie was in the demolition business and had a dump truck. At around 2 AM they attached a heavy chain from the truck to the central supporting beam and put the truck into low gear. In an instant the building collapsed. It’s a wonder they didn’t bring down 3 Lewis Street as well. I don’t think they had a demolition permit. Having a parking lot for his customers was more important than preserving a beautiful Colonial era building where Paul Revere could have had a workshop.

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