As the “Hub of the Universe” Boston touts many firsts. The first public library, the first subway system, the first swimming school and pool in America, the first public secondary school and the first public park in America – the Boston Common.
For a list of Boston firsts visit: http://www.cityofboston.gov/visitors/about/firsts.asp.
Whether Boston Common is the first public park in America is open to interpretation. Other parks, including Bushnell Park in Hartford, Connecticut (the first city in America to spend public funds to build a public park), Central Park in New York City (America’s first major park intended solely for public use), Wilkes-Barre River Common in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania (the first waterfront park in America located in the first town to design a park into its layout from the onset and recognize it as a park by any form of government) and Plaza de la Constitucion in St. Augustine, Florida (a plaza established by Spanish Royal Ordinances in 1573), lay claim to the title.
Forty-eight acres in size, the Boston Common was purchased in 1634 from Reverend William Blackstone, Boston’s first known European settler. Blackstone lived on the western slope of the Shawmut (Boston) peninsular, opposite the mouth of the Charles River where, records indicate, he planted an orchard and lived in happy isolation until joined by other early settlers who were unable to locate drinking water across the river in Charlestown.
Commons are central organizing elements in New England towns where, aside from serving as a location to graze livestock, they were used to train militia, hold outdoor religious assemblies, hang thieves, murderers, pirates and witches and more benignly, upon occasion, to plant communal crops.
A detail of the Boston Common from a 1728 map by William Burgis shown below highlights the site’s original natural features. While a row of trees is visible on the Tremont Street edge, an early example of the tree-lined malls which would eventually be planted, much of the Common at this time remained virtually treeless. Irregular in shape, the Common ended in the “Roxbury Flats.” Approximately one hundred years later the Public Garden would be developed in this area. To view this map in its entirety, as well as other maps of Boston, visit the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library: maps.bpl.org. For information about the Ancient Fishweir Project visit: www.fishweir.org/.
In 1756 the Central Burying Ground was established on the Boylston Street edge of the property.
For over two hundred years the Boston Common was used mainly for utilitarian purposes, a somewhat scruffy landscape, with few distinguishing natural features. According to the Boston Common Management Plan, completed in 1991, the first walkway was created on the Common in 1675.
The Common’s evolution from a working landscape, where cows were pastured, rugs were beaten, and festivals with unsavory vendors (including those who sold alcohol) to an environment suited to genteel pastimes parallels the development of Beacon Hill into a neighborhood inhabited by Boston’s elite families.
The history of the Common, including an overview of the great debate about cows, is well documented in Eden on the Charles The Making of Boston, by Michael Rawson. In 1830 cows were banished from the Common setting in motion a series of projects that transformed the Common into a park, a space that no longer was used as a working landscape but instead solely for pleasure.
As part of that transformation exterior malls for promenading and interior cross paths were added. The Beacon Street Mall was laid out in 1815 followed by the Charles Street Mall in 1823.
A series of projects also altered the Common’s physical environment. Today only one of the four original hills and one of the three ponds on the site remain.