On October 7, 1873 the voters of the independent towns of Brookline and Brighton made sharply contrasting decisions on the question of annexation to the City of Boston. While two-thirds of Brookline’s electors rejected merger with the metropolis, fully 81 percent of Brighton’s electors eagerly embraced the opportunity to join the city. Why did these neighboring towns react so differently when presented with this momentous choice?
An 1832 advertisement for the recently opened Cattle Fair Hotel in Brighton Center, behind which stood the original Brighton Stockyards, the focal point of the New England cattle industry. The Cattle Fair was owned and managed by famed hotelkeeper Zachariah Porter, who later managed the Porter House Hotel in Porter Square, Cambridge, after which the Porter House Steak was named.
The contrasting decisions stemmed from the very different economic and social character of these adjacent communities. Though once very similar (both had been farming towns before the American Revolution), by the early years of the 19th century, Brookline had become Boston’s premier elite suburb, while Brighton had developed into one of the city’s key industrial satellites.
The cornerstone of Brighton’s industrial edifice was its livestock trade. This town at the western gateway to Boston was the principal cattle and slaughtering center of 19th century New England. Thousands of head of livestock reached its stockyards and slaughtering facilities each week from distant points, some driven overland, some arriving by rail. In 1869 alone, 53,000 head of cattle, 144,000 hogs, and 342,000 sheep arrived in Brighton.
This map shows the location of the more than forty slaughterhouses and related industrial facilities that dotted the landscape of Brighton in 1866.
Brighton also contained the largest concentration of slaughterhouses in New England—over forty of them. Other Brighton manufacturing establishments produced a wide range of animal by-products, including varnish, lampblack, bone fertilizer, soap, oil, tallow, lard, whips, buttons, and corset bones. Livestock-related enterprises served as the engine of the local economy.
While the great majority of the town’s residents were dependent on the cattle and slaughtering trades—either directly of indirectly–for their livelihoods, these industries also emitted foul odors and generated waste products that were indiscriminately dumped into its watercourses. In 1866 public health expert Dr. Henry Clark described the waste disposal practices of the forty-plus Brighton’s slaughterhouses as prolific and provoking causes of disease.
For these reasons Bostonians looking for a suburban locations in which to build homes were inclined to give Brighton a wide berth. Of all the towns around Boston, it had the lowest population of commuters.
In 1852, the Cattle Fair Hotel was significantly expanded. At that point it contained 100 rooms, a dining room that could accommodate several hundred guests, and what was reputed to be the largest saloon in the Boston area.
The Brighton Center Stockyards as they looked in the 1850s.
Another barrier to residential development were the large numbers of drovers, cattle dealers, country farmers, and itinerant merchants who poured into the town each week to attend the Cattle Market. The town contained some fifteen hotels for the accommodation of this transient element, hotels equipped with bars that dispensed as much liquor as the patrons cared to pay for, that tolerated disorderly and drunken behavior, and that furnished a haven for high-stakes gambling.
The poor condition of the town’s roads, its lack of street lighting, and an almost complete absence of sewers also militated against suburban development. Believing that there was little point in investing the town’s resources in roads over which droves of cattle were regularly driven, the town fathers spent very little money on highways. They also declined to invest in sewers which might tend to undermine the freewheeling dumping practices upon which the slaughterhouse proprietors relied. Though a relatively wealthy town, Brighton preferred to invest its taxable income in public facilities—in a handsome Greek Revival town hall, a new brick grammar school, a state-of-the-art fire houses and fire fighting equipment, and an elaborate 14-acre town cemetery. Such expenditures advertised the town’s prosperity and protected its property without in any way threatening the cattle and slaughtering trades.
In 1841 Brighton provided itself with a handsome new Greek Revival style Town Hall, designed by the prominent Boston Architect Richard Bond. Brighton’s leadership sought to project an image of prosperity for the town, but an image that would in no way compromise the economic position of the cattle and slaughtering trades which dominated the town’s economy.
The economic and political landscape of Brighton was transformed quite suddenly in the 1870 to 1873 period—the four years that led up to the annexation vote—by two factors chiefly. One of these was a major technological breakthrough—the introduction of refrigerated cars on American rail lines. Once they came into service, cattle could be slaughtered nearer the source of supply. With the introduction of refrigerated cars the eastern slaughtering industry of the United States began a slow but relentless decline.
Refrigerated railroad cars had the effect of undercutting the local slaughtering trade by transferring much of that industry to the middle west, to localities like Cincinnati and Chicago closer to the source of supply. One of the Brighton slaughterhouse proprietors who relocated to Chicago was Gustavus Frankilin Swift, founder of the Swift Meatpacking Company.
Gustavus Franklin Swift, who founded the Swift meatpacking empire, transferred his headquarters from Brighton to Chicago in the early 1870s, using refrigerated railroad cars to ship meat to all parts of the United States.
Another factor that seriously threatened Brighton’s cattle and slaughtering industries was the rise of a powerful public health movement in Massachusetts. In 1869, the newly-organized Massachusetts State Board of Health accused the Brighton slaughterhouses of sending tainted meat into Boston, and demanded stricter regulation of the industry. The State Board also pointed to Brighton’s high mortality rate as evidence of unhealthy disposal practices and a mortality rate equal to that of most crowded neighborhoods of Boston, a rate higher than those of the nineteen largest cities and towns of the Commonwealth.
To solve this problem, the State Board urged the establishment of a single, modern slaughtering facility somewhere near Boston—an abattoir—which all the butchers within a six mile radius of the city would be required to use.
Brighton’s more enterprising businessmen were quick to recognize the diminished prospects of the slaughtering trade—quick to appreciate that residential development now offered greater profit-making potential. At this point a group of Brighton businessmen took the initiative by establishing the Butcher’s Slaughtering and Melting Association, the corporation that, in 1872, built the sprawling Brighton Abattoir on the edge of the Charles River in North Brighton.
The Brighton Abattoir, a facility owned by the newly incorporated Butchers Slaughtering and Melting Association, provided fourteen modern slaughterhouses under one roof at a location on the Charles River in North Brighton. An act of the Massachusetts State legislature required that all slaughtering within a 5 mile radius of the city be carried out at this location, thus creating a virtual slaughtering monopoly for the Brighton facility.
Former Congressman William Wirt Warren, who more than any other individual masterminded the 1873 annexation of Brighton to the City of Boston
The business leaders who masterminded the transformation of Brighton in the 1870 to 1873 period—beginning with the abattoir scheme—were well-to-do men who had made their fortunes, either directly or indirectly, from the town’s cattle and slaughtering trades—Benjamin Franklin Ricker, Horace Jordan, and Horace Baxter—all slaughterhouse proprietors, State Senator William Wirt Warren, an experienced legislator and the favorite lawyer of the slaughterhouse proprietors, and George Wilson, a hotel keeper. All of these men owned substantial real estate which they expected would appreciate in value as a result of the measures they supported.
Prior to filing the legislation that created the abattoir corporation, this same group of businessmen—later referred to as “The Brighton Ring”—seized control of Brighton’s Board of Selectmen and Board of Health. In the four years that followed, they succeeded in dominating the political life of the town.
The transformation of Brighton from an industrial town to commuter suburb was accomplished in three broad steps between 1870 and 1873: First, the town’s slaughterhouses were closed down and its butchers forced into the abattoir, thus opening previously fouled acreage to suburban development.
Then, a massive program public works program was inaugurated with the object of making Brighton more attractive to would-be commuters. In the four years leading up to its annexation vote Brighton spent some $500,000 on improved roads, curbings, sidewalks, sewers and street lighting. Additional sums were also spent on public facilities, including a new public library, a handsome grammar school, and several new firehouses.
The central motif of the newly adopted Brighton Town Seal, dating from the late 1860s, was horticulture (the second most important industry in the town) rather than the previously dominant slaughtering industry.
The “Brighton Ring” also used its control of town meetings for private profit, frequently selling the town parcels of land at greatly inflated prices.
The impact of this orgy of spending on the town’s finances was intentionally staggering. Brighton’s income in the four years under consideration totalled only $438,000, but it level of spending reached an incredible $1,560,000, four times what it received in revenue. The difference could be made up only one way—by heavy borrowing. In the 1870 to 1873 period, Brighton’s town debt increased by 800 percent! If Brighton had remained an independent town after 1873, its residents would have been obliged to pay substantially higher taxes.
Typifying the high cost public facilities the town constructed in the early 1870s was its elaborate new public library on Chestnut Hill Avenue, completed in 1874.
Members of “The Ring” meanwhile filed the legislation that authorized Brighton’s annexation to Boston. In building up the town’s huge debt, the leaders of this ring laid the groundwork for the annexation decision of October 7, 1873. Allow Boston to annex Brighton, its members advised its taxpayers, and the metropolis would automatically absorb the town’s potentially crippling debt.
As the debt rose in the 1870 to 1873 period, the opposition to annexation, which had been fairly strong in 1870, steadily eroded. As early as December 1872, nearly a year before the annexation vote, a majority of those attending a town meeting approved instructing Brighton’s representatives in the state legislature to “use their utmost efforts in behalf of annexation.” A rising tax rate, coupled with a prospect of further sharp increases, had reconciled the great majority of Brighton’s voters to union with Boston.
Thus when the question was finally put to the voters in the fall of 1873, Brighton embraced annexation by an overwhelming vote of 622 to 133.