Arts & Culture

HCL maps set in stone

3 min read

Harvard’s Boston maps grace Freedom Trail

Three years ago, Big Dig officials approached David Cobb and his staff in the Harvard Map Collection with a request: Help them design a map for the North End parks that would illustrate how Boston had changed in the centuries since its founding. When the parks officially opened in November 2007, not one but seven maps from the Map Collection came to occupy the new parks.

While researching the project, Cobb, curator of maps and head of the Harvard Map Collection of the Harvard College Library (HCL), dug deep into the collection and came back with maps tracing Boston’s topography from Colonial-era 1630 to present-day Boston. “The idea,” he says, “was to show the varying shape of Boston over a period of time.”

Of the seven maps, one stands out for being slightly larger and carved into a piece of granite embedded at the feet of passersby on the Freedom Trail. This map, comparing the city in 1775 with Boston in 2005, perhaps captures the historical imagination best because it refers to Boston at the time of the Revolutionary War. Nearby, another six maps, carved on top of raised stone blocks mixed in among stone benches, portray the city in the 17th, 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries.

The maps highlight in particular the city’s shoreline — including its many wharves — which is substantially different from its original shape because much of coastal Boston is famously built on made land.

“Much of the filled-in land that Boston is known for was created in the middle of the 19th century because railroads could be employed to transport the fill,” says Cobb. “Much of it came from Beacon Hill, Dorchester Heights, Quincy, and as far away as Waltham and Watertown. That’s when Boston really began to expand, and in the maps of Boston you can see lots of individual fillings around the shoreline. As early as the 1600s, work began to extend the docks and to fill in areas around them.”

To put the maps into historical perspective, the Map Collection first had to scan and georeference them. Georeferencing allows maps to be accurately oriented so that they line up with other maps. “It brings them into the real world,” says Cobb, “and puts them in the right context geographically. By correctly orienting the maps, you create a meaningful relationship. In the case of the Boston maps, for instance, Long Wharf lines up with Long Wharf and the old Boston Neck lines up with Tremont Street. Once the geospatial relationships are correct, you can then start talking about how things have changed.”

The Map Collection staff ultimately removed a substantial amount of information from the maps, taking out individual streets, for instance, because there was so much information that it made the map too busy to reproduce, especially on stone. They also consulted with urban archaeologist Nancy Seasholes, a research fellow at Boston University who is an expert on the development of Boston’s shorelines.

The maps are located near the Haymarket and Aquarium T stations. The larger 1775 map lies near where the Freedom Trail crosses Hanover Street. The others are located near where visitors cross from the Faneuil Hall/Haymarket Square area to the North End.