Charlestown is on a peninsula between the Charles and Mystic rivers, across from downtown Boston, and with views of the harbor and the city skyline. Some blocks of the neighborhood evoke small coastal towns like Newburyport or Salem, with a mix of restored historic clapboard houses and Greek Revival brick rowhouses.
One of Boston's oldest neighborhoods. Settled in 1629 – a year before Boston itself – Charlestown is the oldest neighborhood in Boston. Upham's Corner in Dorchester is the next-oldest, settled in 1630. Most of Charlestown's original buildings were burned during the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, and the town was rebuilt shortly thereafter.
That said, the Warren Tavern (2 Pleasant St.), built 1780 (while the Revolution was still ongoing, because democracy can be thirsty work), is one of the oldest in Boston. Also, Paul Revere began his epic ride in Charlestown on April 19, 1775. The neighborhood is part of Boston's Freedom Trail, and the Navy Yard is run by the National Park Service. And some soil from Charlestown occupies a hallowed spot in Paris: the Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834) asked to be buried under soil from Bunker Hill.
Charlestown was featured in Good Will Hunting, where Robin Williams portrayed a professor at Bunker Hill Community College. Notable former residents include Samuel F. B. Morse (1791-1872), inventor of the telegraph and Morse code; John Harvard (1607-1638), for whom a local university was named; author Elizabeth Foster, better known as 'Mother Goose'; and the feminist icon and most famous actress of the 1800s, Charlotte Cushman (1816-1876).
Just north of downtown Boston, Charlestown offers a brisk walk across the Charlestown Bridge to the North End, and the feeling of being in a historic fishing town with clapboard cottages and shingled houses, as well as pockets of Federal brick rowhouses in the gaslamp district. In addition, the Navy Yard – the waterfront of Charlestown – commands some of the highest prices within the neighborhood.
Strong opposition to 'Urban Renewal' preserved most of the neighborhood's historic architecture. During the early 1960s, the city planned to demolish and redevelop more than half of the housing in Charlestown. However, after Boston residents recognized what a mistake the demolition of the West End had been, this galvanized Charlestonians to fight to preserve their neighborhood against this misguided approach. However, over 10% of the neighborhood was still demolished by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, in part for the development of the massive Bunker Hill Public Housing projects.
Charlestown has several distinct sections, including:
Bunker Hill Industrial Park.
Medford Street/The Neck is the northernmost section of the neighborhood, along the Mystic River. This section of Charlestown, like many parts of Boston's waterfront, have been built on or expanded using reclaimed land. The TL;DR version: in order to expand the buildable land, hills were demolished and the stones and dirt used to infill marshes and the waterfront. This method expanded the narrow Charlestown Neck that connected the northwest end of the peninsula to East Somerville. However, reclaimed land often settles over time, and can be more prone to horizontal flooding from storm surges. In addition, if the water table shifts from climate change or additional construction, the wooden pilings driven into the ground can be exposed to air and rot, causing damage to foundations.
Navy Yard, overlooking Boston Harbor, was developed in 1800. Today, the historic conversions and new developments are some of the most expensive properties in Charlestown. Among the many notable people who have had a connection with the neighborhood, one in particular is the pioneering computer programmer, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (1906-1992), whose retirement ceremony was held aboard the USS Constitution (Old Ironsides). Today, the area has shifted from a working waterfront to a recreational one, and there are summer concerts by the Berklee School of Music.
Thirty acres of the Navy Yard are operated by the National Park Service, including the waterfront museums; the remaining area is controlled by the Boston Redevelopment Authority. One of the active community groups is Friends of the Charlestown Navy Yard. The National Park Service (NPS) published an extensive historical study of the Yard in 2010, including cultural landscapes: Charlestown Navy Yard Historic Resource Study (Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3), and the Charlestown Navy Yard Cultural Landscape Report in 2007.
City Square/Thompson Square and the gaslamp district are in the southern part of Charlestown. Thompson Square (where Dexter Row meets Austin, Green, and Main streets) is where Puritan leader John Winthrop built his Great House, only rediscovered recently when the foundations were uncovered during the Big Dig.
Sullivan Square is at the edge of Charlestown and Somerville. Given the rising prices in both Charlestown and Somerville, this currently-industrial area of warehouses is poised for significant redevelopment – particularly since it is served by a station on the Orange Line.
Warren Tavern (2 Pleasant St.) opened in 1780, and was one of the first built after much of the town was destroyed during the Battle of Bunker Hill. The tavern was named for Dr. Joseph Warren, who directed Paul Revere and William Dawes to send the message to Samuel Adams and John Hancock that the British were setting out to raid the town of Concord. Warren was killed in the Battle of Bunker Hill, and friend Captain Eliphelet Newell – one of the Sons of Liberty who took part in the Boston Tea Party – built the tavern and named it after his friend. Notable guests included Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, and it was said to have been a favorite of Paul Revere.
Birthplace of Samuel F.B. Morse. (201 Main St.) Morse was born here, in the Edes house on the site of the current bank building. Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872), is remembered as the inventor of the telegraph and co-creator of Morse code. He attended Phillips Academy in Andover, then Yale, and began his career as a portrait painter – studying under Washington Allston (1779-1843) for whom Allston is named. It is thought that one of the moments that led to the invention of the telegraph was, when he was in Europe, the long delay in hearing the news that his wife had died suddenly. By the time he had returned, she had already been buried. He patented the telegraph in 1837, but was unable to fund a prototype until 1843. Later, he counted among his closest friends the Marquis de Lafayette and novelist James Fenimore Cooper.
Birthplace of Charlotte Cushman. (327 Main St.) The most famous actress of the 1800s and the first American actress to become internationally known, feminist icon Charlotte Cushman (1816-1876), lived here as a young woman. She was known for playing both female and male roles, including notable turns as Romeo and Hamlet. In the 1850s, she set up a feminist household in Rome, which attracted both straight and gay artists, as well as the intellectual and society leaders of the day. Her retirement from the stage (well, one of them; she returned a few times) was described as 'the most spectacular in the history of the American theatre' and included a candlelit procession through the streets of New York City. There is a school named for her in the North End, as well.
The western edge of the neighborhood is served by several Orange Line stops, including Sullivan Square and Community College. Those in the southeastern part of the neighborhood can walk across the bridge to North Station, with orange and green line connections. And there is also water taxi service to Boston.
However, the central and northern parts of the neighborhood are rather distant from subway connections.
Charlestown is one of the northernmost neighborhoods of Boston, with East Cambridge to the south; Inner Belt, East Somerville, and Assembly Square neighborhoods of Somerville to the west; and the North End, Waterfront, and East Boston across the harbor.
The land which became Charlestown was called Mishawum by the Massachusett tribe.
The first English settlers, Thomas (c.1599-1666) and Jane Walford, arrived in 1624. They received a grant from Sir Robert Gorges, with whom they had settled Weymouth in September 1623. Walford, a blacksmith who also enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the region's furs, had built an English thatched cottage behind a palisade wall. When colonial governor John Endicott asked him to serve as interpreter for a team of settlers looking to establish what would become Charlestown, he had no idea that his Episcopalian beliefs would cause him to be banished from Massachusetts within three years. He settled in Strawbery Banke, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Similarly, William Blackstone (1595-1675), the first European settler of Beacon Hill, also found the Puritans difficult and severe, and moved to Rhode Island to avoid them.
Endicott's team, with the guidance of the Walfords, laid the groundwork for John Winthrop's settlement in 1629. That year, engineer Thomas Graves, one of its early settlers, laid out an elliptical urban plan for Charlestown that followed the contour of a hill near the harbor. Charlestown was the first capital of the colony, until it moved to Boston in 1632.
Although today it is a one square-mile neighborhood within the city of Boston, Charlestown originally included what is now Melrose, Malden, Stoneham, Somerville, Medford, Everett, Woburn, Burlington, and parts of Arlington and Cambridge. These gradually split off to form independent towns. Meanwhile, Charlestown became a city in 1848 and was annexed to Boston on January 5, 1874.
However, when the Puritans led by John Winthrop (c.1587-1649) found Charlestown to be without clean drinking water, they received an invitation to move into Boston from its first European settler, William Blackstone, who lived alone on Beacon Hill with a significant library and an extensive flock of sheep. Three thousand miles from England, and in what was then the New World, school ties nevertheless connected the two settlements: Blackstone and Winthrop had been classmates at Cambridge. However, he had little patience for the Puritans, and soon after they arrived, he left Boston to become one of the first European settlers of Rhode Island.
Revolutionary War. On April 19, 1775, Paul Revere began his celebrated 'midnight ride' here, to warn of the British march to seize the colonists' gunpowder and weapons at Concord. Months later, the Battle of Bunker Hill took place on June 17, 1775 (although much of the battle actually took place on Breed's Hill). Most of the colonial-era buildings were destroyed in the battle, changing the look of the town. The Bunker Hill Monument was erected 1827-1843 using granite from Quincy.
Charlestown Navy Yard. Charlestown was also home to the first dry dock in America, built in 1678. In 1800, the government established an 87-acre Navy Yard along the waterfront. During the Civil War, the navy yard built some of the most celebrated vessels of the conflict, including the Hartford, the Merrimack, and the Monadnock. In addition, over 26,000 soldiers joined the Union effort here during the Civil War. Today, it is home to the USS Constitution (Old Ironsides), built in 1797 and the oldest warship in the world still afloat. It was one of six ships built by order of President George Washington. The retirement ceremony for the pioneering technologist, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (1906-1992) – whose thinking led to the creation of COBOL – was held on Old Ironsides, in 1986.
Organized crime. Charlestown has a history of organized crime, particularly from the 1960s to the 1990s. In the 60s, the Charlestown organization, led by the McLaughlin brothers, frequently clashed with
Somerville's Winter Hill Gang led by Whitey Bulger. Charlestown has been the setting for a number of related films, including Monument Ave. (1998), Townies, and The Town (2010).
Thomas Dalton (1794–1883), and his wife Lucy, African American abolitionists and education activists
Samuel Dexter (1761–1816), prominent lawyer and cabinet member under John Adams
John Harvard (1607–1638), English benefactor and namesake of Harvard University ... Forget about Cambridge. Both the carpenter who constructed the first building of Harvard College (later Harvard University) and John Harvard himself lived in Charlestown. Not long after being named assistant pastor to the First Church of Charlestown, Harvard contracted and died of tuberculosis at the age of 30. He is buried in the Phipps Street Burying Ground.
Robert Sedgwick (c.1611–1656), English merchant, first major general of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and first governor General of Jamaica
Daniel C. Stillson (1830–1899), inventor of the Stillson pipe wrench