Boston annexation map
On October 7, 1873 the neighboring towns of Brookline, Brighton, and West Roxbury faced a momentous decision—whether to continue to be self-governing entities, or to relinquish their political independence to the City of Boston.
The answers the voters of these three towns gave to that question were strikingly different. While Brighton and West Roxbury’s endorsed annexation by large majorities, more than two-thirds of Brookline’s voters emphatically rejected the opportunity to join Boston.
This 1873 rejection of annexation by Brookline marked a decisive turning point in Boston’s territorial growth. In the 1868-73 period five communities—Roxbury, Dorchester, Charlestown, Brighton, and West Roxbury—opted to merge with the city, thereby increasing Boston’s area fivefold and adding some 108,000 new residents to its population.
Brookline’s rejection of annexation took the wind out of a seemingly irresistible consolidation movement. Boston would, in fact, absorb no more towns for nearly forty years, until 1912, when Hyde Park became the last suburb to approve a merger.
What prompted Brookline to make this historic and precedent-setting 1873 decision?
Of all the towns on the edge of Boston, Brookline was the most prestigious. In the late 18th century there had been little to distinguish it from its neighbors, but by the early 19th century this scenic and conveniently situated community on the southwestern edge of the city had emerged as Boston’s leading elite suburb.
Brookline’s Jeremiah Gridley Mansion. Prominent attorney and Attorney General of Massachusetts at the time of his death, Gridley (1702-67) acquired this Brookline property in the mid 1750s. He served as moderator of the town of Brookline in the period 1759 to 1761 and represented the town in the Provincial legislature on several occasions.
The many prominent Bostonians who established estates out in Brookline in the early 19th century tended to settle in two fairly compact areas of that community—the elevated south central section, through which ran the old Sherborn Road (now Walnut Street) and neighboring Warren, Cottage and Goddard Streets (the area near the 1848 Brookline Reservoir), or, alternately, in the northeast corner of the community adjacent to Boston’s Back Bay, the so-called Longwood/ Cottage Farm district.
Among the first Bostonians to pick Brookline as a country retreat were the Cabots, Higginsons, Masons, and Perkinses, families of great wealth and social prestige. Three early residents, George Cabot, Stephen Higginson, and Jonathan Mason, were members of the so-called Essex Junto, an ultra-conservative faction that dominated Massachusetts politics at the beginning of the 19th century.
Another early settler of note was Thomas Handasyd Perkins, the leading China trade merchant of his day, who, in 1799, acquired a sixty-seven acre property on Cottage Street. Perkins’ brothers and business partners, James and Samuel, also located nearby in the early years of the century. Later still, two of his sons-in-law, the merchant Samuel Cabot and the lawyer William H. Gardiner, established estates in the same general area. Other prominent families who established country seats nearby included the Gardners, Philbricks, Sargents, and Lees.
Thomas Handasyd Perkins (1764-1854), the great China Trade merchant, established a country seat in Brookline in 1799, helping to establish that town as the suburb of preference for Boston’s Brahmin class. This painting by Thomas Sully dates from 1832. Two of Perkin’s brothers also resided in Brookline as did other members of his family.
Brookline’s other elite enclave, the Longwood/ Cottage Farm district, was established in the 1821 to 1851 period chiefly by two wealthy Boston businessmen, David Sears and Amos Adams Lawrence.
While the owners of these country estates occupied the highest social position in Brookline, they comprised only a tiny fraction of the town’s overall population, of whom the great majority were ordinary farmers. And since the owners of these estates occupied their properties only in the warmer months of the year, they took little part in the management of the town’s affairs.
The Brookline Branch Railway, dating from 1848, provided a direct link between Boston and Brookline that greatly facilitated the town’s emergence as a commuter suburb.
A second and far more significant influx of well-to-do Bostonians entered Brookline in the 1850 to 1870 period, a development that effected a political revolution in Brookline. The new residents were mostly Boston businessmen, who had need to commute to their jobs and offices in the city on a daily basis. This influx of commuters was fostered by major improvements in the transportation network connecting Boston and Brookline that included the opening, in 1848, of the Brookline Branch Railroad linking Brookline Village with the Downtown; the construction, four years later, of the Charles River Railroad, an extension of the Brookline Branch into Chestnut Hill; the building, in 1851, through the heart of the town of Beacon Street; and, finally, the inauguration, in 1859, of a horse-car line running from Brookline Village to Boston via Lower Roxbury and the South End.
Another key factor fostering the removal of these upper class Bostonians to Brookline was a marked decline in the quality of life of residents of the inner city.
Downtown Boston, once largely residential in character, was by 1860 almost entirely commercial and highly congested.
In the period 1840 to 1860 Boston experienced a virtual doubling of its population—from 93,000 to 178,000. As a result of the Irish potato famine of the late 1840s and early 1850s, the number of immigrants in Boston had mushroomed, transforming the city’s oldest neighborhoods—most notably the North End and Fort Hill districts—into congested, noisome, unhealthy slums. In addition, as Boston’s commercial district expanded, the elegant residences that had once lined many of Downtown Boston’s streets were disappearing. In short, by the early 1850s the older parts of the city were no longer providing a suitable environment for middle and upper class families, causing them to flee to suburban locations, of which Brookline was a favorite destination.
While a substantial number of Irish-Catholic immigrants also found their way into Brookline in the 1846 to 1860 period, they came, more often than not, to work on the estates of Brookline’s well-to-do residents. The Irish who could not be accommodated in this fashion were relegated to a crowded immigrant ghetto on the banks of the Muddy River just outside of Brookline Village known as “the Marsh.”
The post 1850 commuters element that would eventually come to dominate Brookline, it should be emphasized, was different in several key respects from their elite predecessors. Though quite prosperous, they were not as wealthy as the earlier group. In addition, they were year-round residents, and as such were much more interested in town government.
Brookline’s Town Seal (adopted in 18481848) reflects the community’s edenic self-image at that juncture of its history.
They also shared many of the values of the older elite element—admiring and seeking to emulate their lifestyle. Areas of cultural congruence included a common ethnic heritage (Anglo-American), a common religion (Protestantism), and a common social outlook. They also shared a pervasive sense of anxiety stemming from the rapid and destabilizing changes that were occurring in America in the 1830 to 1860 period—changes in economic relationships, in the structure and function of the family, and in the social and ethnic composition of society. No period of American history before or since has been more anxiety-ridden than the decades immediately preceding the Civil War.
The commuter element quickly assumed leadership in Brookline. Under its direction, in the 1850 to 1873 period, Brookline established public facilities and services that were comparable or superior to those in Boston—including well-constructed roadways, sidewalks, street lighting, a fine school system, handsome public buildings, and ample police and fire protection. Moreover, the fine homes that the upper classes built in Brookline in these years gave the town a solid tax base that enabled it to make improvements without resorting either to heavy taxation or heavy borrowing.
Robert C. Winthrop, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S Senator, gave expression to Brookline’s self-image as Boston’s premier elite suburb
Indicative of Brookline’s lofty self-image at the time of the 1873 annexation vote is the following description from a leading citizen, former U.S. Senator Robert C. Winthrop:
I think that no one will dispute that Brookline was for a long time pre-eminent in the little cordon of towns which have so long constituted the exquisite environs of Boston…. I speak of a half century…during which, certainly, Brookline, enjoyed a prestige for culture and beauty, which might almost have entitled her to that appelation of ‘a peculiar.’
In only one respect was the elite suburb unable to furnish its citizens with services equal to Boston’s—in the quantity and quality of its water supply. Boston’s Cochituate Water System had been providing the residents of Boston with ample, high quality water since 1848. In 1870 this outstanding water supply system had been enhanced by the construction of two adjacent reservoir on the boundary of Brighton and Brookline, to which non-Boston residents were denied access. The pro-annexation forces contended that only through consolidation with Boston could Brookline procure a reliable supply of water.
Boston’s excellent water supply system, recently enhanced by the construction of the Chestnut Hill Reservoir on the Brighton-Brookline boundary, provided Brookline’s pro-annexation advocates with a powerful, albeit insufficient argument for annexation to Boston
Anti-annexationists countered this argument by questioning the capacity of the Cochituate System to meet Brookline’s long-term needs, claiming that its capacity was limited, and would shortly be unable to meet even Boston’s water-supply needs.
But the most important factor shaping Brookline’s 1873 rejection of annexation was the determination of its prosperous commuter class to preserve the edenic retreat it had created on the western edge of the city. This affluent, numerous, and politically savy element understood that annexation would rob it of its power to shape the future character of this unique town.
Brookline Town Hall, the building in which that town’s electors voted on October 7, 1873 to emphatically reject annexation to Boston. Robert C. Winthrop delivered the dedicatory address. Designed by Samuel J. F. Thayer, this handsome structure was portrayed in the municipal textbooks of its day as “America’s ideal town hall.”