Book Review: Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston by Michael Rawson

Author: Michael Rawson
Title: Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston
Publication Info: Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, c2010.
ISBN: 9780674048416

This wonderfully researched and well-written history, explores the making of Boston by focusing on the social and environmental factors that shaped the city, its human ecology.  There are five sections of the book:

1. Enclosing the Common – the effort of prosperous Bostonians to enclose Boston Common, changing it from a place of work (pasturing cows and digging up turf) to a place of recreation.

2. Constructing water – the contentious development of a public waterworks, a means by which reformers hoped to improve both the health and morality of the populace, but a process that also forever changed the role of municipal government.

3. Inventing the suburbs – people move from the city, seeking pastoral cities and escape taxation, but they also miss the public works that the city provides.  Some suburbs are annexed by Boston (willingly or otherwise) while some become cities in their own right.

4. Making the harbor – the modern Boston Harbor is human-made not natural, and the processes of landmaking, dredging, damming, et al that modified it so much were a contentious issue in the 19th century when many mariners thought the harbor would be lost with natural water movement.

5. Recreating the wilderness – suburban green spaces such as the Middlesex Fells and the Blue Hills are created as a connection to the colonial forbears and the lost wilderness.

This book is a terrific means of grasping the process of urbanism for modern cities and a unique approach to the history of Boston. It pairs well with Walter Muir Whitehill’s classic Boston: A Topographical History.
Favorite Passages:

“What made that agenda so contentious was that reformers wanted to expand the role of government to achieve it.  Since government had never played a serious role in structuring how Bostonians interacted with their water supply, transferring responsibility for finding adequate water from the individual to the city seemed to some like a radical and potentially dangerous move.  Instead, early experiments in municipal water like Boston’s would prove to be the leading edge of a wave of change in municipal government.  As the century progressed, cities would expand their power to fund larger public works, often through borrowing, and they would pay the cost through general taxes rather than special assessments.  Event the cost of smaller projects that did not require bond issues would increasingly be spread out among all residents of a city.  Public water would encourage urban residents, in Boston and elsewhere, to expand their vision of the public good.” – p. 104

“The Fells and Blue Hills were designed to store information about colonial people and events and prompt visitors to recall the collected stories.  The existence of such places implies a relationship of permanence, lest the memories disappear with the monument…” – p. 269

Recommended books: Boston: A Topographical History by Walter Muir Whitehill, A City So Grand: The Rise of an American Metropolis, Boston 1850-1900 by Stephen Puleo, Boston’s Back Bay by William Newman & Wilferd E. Holton and Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston by Nancy S. Seasholes
Rating: ****

Book Review: How the States Got Their Shapes by Mark Stein

How the States Got Their Shapes (2008) by Mark Stein is exactly what the title says it is: a state-by-state description of how the borders of the fifty states were laid out (even Hawaii, which is more complicated than it looks).  Some general observations show how the US government tried to create all states of equal size.  The east coast states don’t count because they were laid out by kings and English charters.  That the rest of the states are not of equal size is due to a variety of factors: topographical borders that make more sense, confliciting land claims, land awarded to states for land lost to other states (seemingly an endless cycle), and sometimes just plain bad surveying that held up.

Still the efforts of the government can be seen in the borders.  The parrallel at 36°30′, which originated in error as the border between Virginia and North Carolina spreads across many states as far west as the Texas panhandle because it become the barrier between slave & free states after the Missouri Compromise in 1820.  The government also created tiers of states with equal height (North & South Dakota, Nebraska, & Kansas) or equal width (Washington, Oregon, North & South Dakota, Wyoming, & Colorado) that create some shared qualities even if there’s not equality of square mileage.

Some of my favorite facts learned from this book:

  • New Hampshire gained land from Massachusetts because the king wanted to reward good Anglicans at the expense of the Puritans
  • There’s a little piece of Delaware across the Delaware Bay attached to New Jersey!
  • The easternmost counties of West Virginia actually wished to remain part of the Confederacy but they were occupied by Union troops and attached to the counties that seceded from Virginia
  • The corner cut-off from Utah is due to a mountain range that makes a right angle at that point and thus would have made the valley it surrounds inaccessible from the rest of Utah
  • The Great Lakes states had the borders modified and adjusted several times mostly to allow all the states to have a window on the lakes
  • There are islands in the Hawaiian chain that are not part of the state (including Midway) even though islands to their east & west are part of Hawaii

Unfortunately, the writing is a bit dry.  There are some good stories to be told about the colorful characters who influenced the creation of the state borders, but Stein sticks with just the facts. It also suffers from repetition and overuse of rhetorical questions (“So why does the northern border have a chunk missing?”).  Each chapter also ends with kind of morality lesson about what the particular state’s borders can tell us, and its pretty corny.  This book may work better as a reference book than as something to read cover to cover.  On the other hand, as a nerdy ten-year old I would have ate this up, so it may be good for kids too.

This book has inspired an idea though, based on my childhood home state Connecticut and its claims of land from sea-to-sea.  I think it would be great to travel across the United States only within the boundaries of land once claimed by Connecticut.  One could visit some interesting landmarks such as the New York oblong, the site of the Yankee-Pennamite Wars in Pennsylvania, and Case Western Reserve college in Ohio.  West of there I guess one would have to look for evidence of Nutmeggers in in westward expansion.

Author Stein, Mark, 1951-
Title How the states got their shapes / Mark Stein.
Publication Info. New York : Smithsonian Books/Collins, 2008.
Description xv, 332 p. : maps, 24 cm.