History of Brighton, MA
Brighton Center Circa 1920
A Short History of Allston-Brighton
by William P. Marchione
Allston-Brighton has a long and distinguished history. For its first 160 years it formed part of Cambridge.
In 1646, the Reverend John Eliot, the “Apostle to the Indians,” converted the local natives to Christianity and established a “Praying Indian” village, Nonantum, on the present Newton-Brighton boundary. The first English to locate here permanently—the families of Richard Champney, Richard Dana, and Nathaniel Sparhawk—crossed the Charles River from Cambridge a short time later, establishing the community of Little Cambridge, as Allston-Brighton was known before 1807.
Before the Revolution Little Cambridge was a prosperous farming community of fewer than 300 residents. Its inhabitants included such distinguished figures as Nathaniel Cunningham, Benjamin Faneuil and Charles Apthorp. Cunningham and Faneuil were wealthy Boston merchants. Apthorp was paymaster of British land forces in North America. All three maintained elaborate country estates here in the 1740 to 1775 period. Little Cambridge contributed Colonel Thomas Gardner to the Revolutionary cause. An important political figure in the years just before the Revolution, Gardner was fatally wounded at the Battle of Bunker Hill. The City of Gardner, Massachusetts was named in his memory.
The establishment in 1775 in Little Cambridge of a cattle market to supply the Continental Army, then headquartered across the Charles River in Cambridge proper, was a key event in the history of Allston-Brighton. Jonathan Winship I and II, father and son, initiated the enterprise. The cattle trade experienced rapid growth in the post-war period. By 1790, the Winships were the biggest meat packers in Massachusetts.
When Cambridge’s town government failed to repair the Great Bridge that linked Little Cabridge to the parent community and points north, and made other decisions that threatenedthe well-being of the local cattle industry, the residents of Little Cambridge resolved to secede. They won legislative approval of separation in 1807, choosing the name Brighton for the new corporate entity.
In the decades that followed Brighton became a commercial center of the first magnitude. In 1819, the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture established its exhibition hall and fair grounds on Agricultural Hill in Brighton Center. For the next decade and a half Brighton was the site of the largest agricultural fair and cattle show in Massachusetts, held every October.
In 1820 another key industry was introduced into the town—hortiulture. This industry also flourished. By the 1840s, Brighton was one of the most important horticultural and market gardening centers in the Boston area. A partial list of local nurseries includes Winship’s Gardens in North Brighton, Nonantum Vale Gardens at the corner of Lake and Washington Streets, Breck’s Gardens in Oak Square, and Horace Gray’s grapery on Nonantum Hill.
A huge hotel–the Cattle Fair–and elaborate stockyard facilities were constructed on the north side of Brighton Center in 1832. The Cattle Fair was the largest hotel outside of Boston, containing 100 rooms. The construction of the Boston & Worcester Railroad through the town in 1834 reinforced the community’s hold on the cattle trade. By 1847, Brighton’s cattle traders were doing almost $2 million of business a year. By 1866, the town also contained 41 slaughterhouses.
With the growth of Boston in the 1850 to 1875 period, Brighton’s landowners saw greater opportunities for profit making in residential development. the groundwork for the transformation of Brighton into a streetcar suburb was laid in the 1870s and 1880s.
In 1872 all slaughtering activities in the town were consolidated into a single facility, the Brighton Abattoir, situated on the banks of the Charles River in North Brighton, thus freeing up valuable land in the central part of the town for house construction. In 1884 the Brighton Stockyards moved from the grounds of the Cattle Fair Hotel in Brighton Center to North Brighton.
Most decisively, the town’s leaders convinced the people that annexation to Boston would foster desirable growth, and in 1874 Brighton was absorbed into the City of Boston, thereby losing local self-determination. The introduction of electric-powered streetcars in 1889 spurred suburban development here.
Allston-Brighton’s population grew tremendously in the next half century, rising from 6,000 in 1875 to 47,000 by 1925. Much of the development of these years was of extremely high quality.
Turn-of-the-century Allston-Brighton contained many prestige neighborhoods.The post-World War II period was a time of great crisis for Allston-Brighton. A variety of factors generated mounting frustration–an increase in the number of motor vehicles, the intrusion of institutions into the neighborhood and the pressures they exerted on local housing stock, the flight of many long-term residents to the outer suburbs, high density/ low quality development, and especially (in the absence of political self-determination) the inability to control undesirable development.
While Allston-Brighton has not solved all of these problems, or even very many of them, it has learned to speak out for itself much more effectively. The Brighton-Allston Historical Society, which was founded in 1968, is proud to be in the vanguard of the local organizations that are struggling, with increasing success, to protect and promote the quality of life in this historically and culturally rich Boston neighborhood.