East Boston has long been a gateway for travelers navigating to coastal, northern cities. As early as the 1730s, walking paths from the Shawmut Peninsula, in the North End, to Maverick Square and along Meridian Street, were used by those fording north on horses and carriages when shallow creeks were at low tide.
The East Boston Greenway, a three and one-half-mile-long urban park that bisects Eastie, traces back to the legacy of Noddle’s Island as a natural passageway to the north.
“The Greenway fits into a story of the land as a pathway,” said Chris Marchi, Friends of the East Boston Greenway, comprised of locals who develop open public spaces in the community. “The Greenway is deeply connected to our history.”
When people first settled in Boston, the harbor was surrounded by salt water marshes; and if they desired to visit Gov. John Winthrop on his cattle farm in Winthrop, they would have traveled from the Shawmut Peninsula over five islands: Noddle’s Island, Hog Island, Bird Island, Governor’s Island, and Apple Island.
In the early 1800s, East Boston was pastoral land, and roads were unreliable. Goods and services had been transported over ships and ferries, navigating through New England canals.
“I think it’s fascinating that East Boston’s current traffic problem is associated with the fact that we were always the local, overland route to coastal communities,” said Marchi, a lifelong East Boston resident.
Transportation development lead to the destruction of several East Boston communities, such as the 1933 construction of the Sumner Tunnel, which blighted a produce market on Porter Street, and destroyed 50 businesses and 150 homes. Frederick Law Olmstead’s Wood Island Park, where residents watched fireworks displays and listened to music performed in a hatch shell, was also lost to the expansion of the Boston Municipal Airport.
“Expansion of Boston Municipal Airport, and making Boston available to the North Shore coastal communities by way of car are part of the story that leads to the Greenway,” explained Marchi. “The history of our open spaces becomes intermixed with the history of transportation. There was available land and islands which could be filled in to create land for an airport.”
The destruction of East Boston neighborhoods and parks compelled activism around open spaces, and in the summer of 1968, a group of residents peacefully protested in defense of their environmental rights. The Maverick Street Mothers enraged dump truck drivers and were even struck down by State Police.
“These streets are lined with three-decker households and people were complaining that the rumbling, heavy dump trucks were cracking their foundations and keeping them up all night,” explained Marchi. “They were zealous. It was constant.”
An agreement was eventually reached, and the airport continued its expansion along a service road. In the mid-1980s, a linear, 10-foot wide park was also constructed to defend against the airport’s growth.
In the late 1980s – early 1990s, the owner of the Conrail Railroad Corporation offered the abandoned land that is now the Bremen Street Park, to the community for $1. The current site of the Greenway was once completely occupied by tracks for trains that delivered produce and imports. East Boston’s YMCA had served as a maintenance shed for the locomotives.
“The history and innovations are important because we can use our assets to educate, build, and strengthen the community,” Marchi noted.
Marchi hopes to see a Freedom Trail developed to teach about East Boston’s Revolutionary War history, and a clipper ship museum to train children in boat skills and offer tour rides on masted ships, as well.
Marchi believes that boat rides along the Chelsea Creek could be a tool in teaching about the 1775 Battle of Chelsea Creek, and concurrent Battle of Noddle’s Island. The historic land routes would become Bennington and Meridian Streets. During the British siege over Boston Harbor, Patriots fired at the HMS Diana from both sides of the creek. Remains of the Diana are believed to be located to the left of the Meridian Street Bridge as one heads toward Chelsea.
“The first time there was live fire in Boston was in East Boston. They were shooting up Noddle’s Island to Eagle Hill heading toward Neptune Road. The battle won in East Boston produced the flagpole upon which the first American flag was hung,” described Marchi. “We not only were significantly involved in the Revolutionary War, but also used as a strategic location for the U.S. Army. Our service as a pass through community is a legacy.”
Marchi predicts that as East Boston development continues to expand, so will paths along the Greenway.
“All these big developments need facilities of public accommodation and water usage so we will be able to provide economic opportunities for local people, and fun, educational tourist attractions.”