Taking in a slice of Dorchester history from an SUV ride on the Expressway

When they hear that I’m from Dorchester, new acquaintances tell me they know they are in my neighborhood when they see the painted gas tank as they drive along the Southeast Expressway. This shallow impression of Dorchester feels nearly as much of an insult as the frequency of crime news in Dorchester even when the address identified is clearly in Roxbury or the South End. But when life gives me lemons, I know how to make lemonade. So let’s jump into the SUV and view Dorchester history from the landmarks along the Expressway.

Dorchester, with three exits going south on the Expressway and four going north, is the largest of Boston’s neighborhoods. Some state capitals have fewer exits. Of course, we have to decide what Dorchester includes. Statisticians refer to North Dorchester, South Dorchester, and Mattapan. All three of these were part of the town of Dorchester when it was annexed to Boston on January, 1, 1870. The same territory is divided into five zip codes -- 02121, 02122, 02124, 02125, and 02126, and its 127,000 residents who live in 23,000 buildings are represented by many city councilors and numerous state representatives. The area is very diverse in all categories of age, gender, and ethnic origin. If Dorchester were a separate city it would be New England’s sixth most populous exceeding even New Haven in Connecticut. Portland, Maine, comes in at about only 64,000 residents, Concord, New Hampshire at about only 40,700.

Traveling south through Boston, coming out of the tunnel we first begin to rise to the crest of the highway. Looking off to the left after the huge parking garage we can see a white tower on top of a hill called Dorchester Heights, reminding us that South Boston was part of Dorchester until the major piece of it broke off in 1804 and Washington Village followed in 1854. The monument commemorates the fortification of Dorchester Heights when the Neck (South Boston) was still part of Dorchester. The action scared the Brits so much they decided to scurry off to Nova Scotia, leaving us to celebrate Evacuation Day (St. Patrick’s Day).

When the highway begins to descend back to ground level, we notice the low flat area that was once Boston’s South Bay, a tidal inlet that has disappeared under the T bus garages and the South Bay Shopping Center on the west. Dorchester, on the southern border of the old South Bay, once had a coastline/waterfront stretching from Mill Brook Creek, separating Roxbury and Dorchester at the southern end of the South Bay, around Dorchester Neck (South Boston), the Calf Pasture (Columbia Point), Savin Hill, Commercial Point and Port Norfolk where the Neponset separated Dorchester from its southern neighbors Quincy and Milton, the latter of which was once part of Dorchester. In its early years Dorchester had a number of water-powered mills, both river mills and tide mills. To operate a tide mill, the miller created a dam with gates in an inlet. When the tide came in, the gates would swing inward to allow the flow to fill the pond. When the tide turned, the force of the water would close the gates, and the miller could use the water in the pond to power his mill.

The new building of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters sitting on the west side of the highway is a reminder that Dorchester is home to many labor union locals and other employee organizations. Then we can see the steeple of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta Parish. In recent years the church, which was formerly St. Margaret’s, took in the parishioners of St. William’s and acquired its new name, becoming another instance of the consolidation of Catholic churches in the face of declining attendance. The first Catholics in Dorchester faced a great deal of opposition in the mid-nineteenth century at Lower Mills before they could build St. Gregory’s church and parish. Their first attempt to construct a church was set on fire in July of 1854 and burned to the ground. Speculation was that the church was blown up by the “Know-Nothings,” the political arm of the nativist or anti-immigrant movement. Lower Mills was not without previous connections to religious controversy. In 1812, Congregationalist conservatives and those with Unitarian leanings at Second Church in Codman Square were so angry with each other that they both tried to occupy the church for services on Sundays. Reverend John Codman settled the matter by buying out the Unitarians who took their money to Lower Mills, establishing Dorchester’s third church under Reverend Richmond. They began at Richmond Hall on Washington Street (where Lincoln later gave a speech in support of presidential candidate Zachary Taylor) but graduated to a church designed by Asher Benjamin located where the CVS store is located today.

The entrance ramp from Columbia Road comes in abruptly on the west side of the highway in front of an old brick building, once the home of the Skinner Organ company and more recently one the buildings of the Boston Collegiate Charter School. The Bayside Expo property and the Boston Globe on the east are the beginnings of Columbia Point, home to the Massachusetts Archives, UMass Boston, Boston College High School, and the Kennedy Library. Columbia Point was a calf pasture in early colonial days, but it later became the key to Dorchester’s annexation to Boston. The city was looking for a route to the sea for its sewage, and Dorchester was looking for city services. The happy marriage occurred on the first day of 1870, and Boston’s sewage was piped to the pumping station on Columbia Point and out to Boston Harbor. Columbia Point also served to house Italian prisoners of war in World War II.

After the overpass at Savin Hill Avenue, the three-deckers across from the Savin Hill T station look as if their streets will fall over any minute into the traffic. The three-decker is so ubiquitous in Dorchester that we might argue that the form began here. Savin Hill is where the first English settlers “landed.” Actually they put ashore at Nantasket and came overland, but why spoil the story? The hill was the site of an early fort to protect the young settlement from the French and others who might arrive in from the sea.

The Mather School is way up on the hill to the west, the oldest school in the country continuously supported by public taxes. The electrician union’s windmill and lighted billboard are a little closer (did I mention labor unions?), while the Dorchester Yacht Club is off to the east, with the Savin Hill Yacht Club and UMass way out over my left shoulder. The gas tank with Corita Kent’s painting, certainly a Dorchester landmark, is located in an area called Commercial Point, formerly a mixed residential/commercial area where whaling ships were built and where some of the well-to-do who were engaged in shipping built fashionable mansions in the nineteenth century. The Old Colony Yacht Club is located beside the gas tank, and a small park nicknamed Troy’s Folly is located on the coast. District Court Judge Jerome Troy, who owned the land, apparently thought he could expand by dropping in fill material but he forgot about the environmental authorities. The judge’s forfeiture was Dorchester’s gain.

 Port Norfolk on the east is now the home of yet another yacht club (the Port Norfolk), the Venezia Restaurant, and the Boston Winery, but in the past it housed the Putnam Nail Company, manufacturer of horseshoe nails, whose buildings were later used by the Lawley & Sons shipyard, builders of luxury yachts, who turned to wartime production of boats for the US Navy in both world wars. Seymour Ice Cream was an even later business in the same location.

The Expressway rounds a curve, and Pope Paul II Park appears on the left. A former dump and later the location of a drive-in movie theater, the park on the bank of the Neponset River is a tremendous success for residents of a very dense urban section of Boston. In previous centuries the river provided the power for various mills, not least of which was the Walter Baker Chocolate company. Dorchester mills have produced chocolate, flour, textiles, spices, gunpowder, starch, and paper.
While the whole story cannot be told from a ride on the Expressway, at least we can begin to show some of Dorchester’s quirky history without leaving the comfort of our SUV.

 Earl Taylor is president of the Dorchester Historical Society.