City of Roxbury
Roxbury is one of six villages founded by English colonists in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. The town — literally named for the area’s prominent stones and rocky features — grew from the very spot on which the UUUM campus is located, with early settlers making their homes within close proximity to the meetinghouse and then spreading outwards as the town grew. First Church in Roxbury is the fifth meetinghouse built on this site.
Roxbury’s original boundaries included present-day Roxbury and the neighborhoods of Mission Hill, Roslindale, Jamaica Plain, West Roxbury, the South End and much of Back Bay. The town was located where Boston connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus, called “Roxbury Neck.” Roxbury Neck eventually disappeared under the massive landfill efforts that shaped modern Boston.
Roxbury provided the colonists with many resources important to their survival in the new land: good farmland; materials for building, such as timber and stone; and the Stony Brook for waterpower. Because of its location on Roxbury Neck, the only land route into Boston, Roxbury became important economically and militarily. The town became known for its Roxbury puddingstone, which has been used in the foundations of many buildings and homes throughout the Boston area.
In 1632, the colonists built their first meetinghouse in John Eliot Square, and there has been a church on this site continuously ever since. John Eliot Square served as the town center, and many of the colonists’ early roads still define the area’s topology: Washington St., Dudley St., Centre St., Roxbury St. and Warren St. all date back to the first years of settlement.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Roxbury’s primary economic activity was farming. The town was known for its orchards, with Roxbury farmers developing several notable varieties, including both the Roxbury Russet and Williams apples.
Because of its high elevation and location as the gateway to Boston, Roxbury became strategically important during the Revolutionary War. In 1775, the colonists built Fort Hill at Roxbury Neck to fortify the only land route into and out of Boston on the Shawmut Peninsula. Fort Hill was comprised of simple earthworks — there was no stone fort, and no tower was built. The fort became part of the Siege of Boston, which was the opening phase of the American Revolutionary War in which New England militiamen (and then the Continental Army) surrounded Boston to prevent the British Army from spreading out into the countryside.
By the time of the Revolutionary War, the town of Roxbury had built its fourth meetinghouse on this site. First Church in Roxbury housed soldiers and served as a signal station and, therefore, became a target for British canon fire. By the end of the war, a great deal of property around the meetinghouse had been destroyed, and soldiers had cut down much of Roxbury’s trees, including many of the orchards the town was known for. One of the town’s priorities was to build a new meetinghouse, which would be the fifth church to be constructed on the site of the original 1632 meetinghouse in John Eliot Square. Completed in 1804, this fifth meetinghouse is the present First Church in Roxbury.
In the first generations after the Revolutionary War, American society went through many changes as cities grew and industries developed. This process included a new ideal of “the good life.” Instead of living near their work in the city, people wanted to live in free-standing, single-family houses with yards and trees.
Roxbury was close enough to Boston to be a good choice for those pursuing this suburban dream. The first developments took place in the 1820s, when a horse-drawn bus line was established along Washington Street, linking Roxbury to Boston for commuters; and in 1835, when the railroad from Boston to Providence was sited along the Stony Brook Valley.
Soon, farmland began to be subdivided for single-family dwellings, and Roxbury began its transition to a leafy Boston suburb. When electric trolley service began in 1887, more and more families poured into the neighborhood, creating a market for rowhouses and triple-deckers as well as single-family homes.
Growth created the need for more municipal services, so the citizens of Roxbury voted first to incorporate as a city in 1846 and then to become annexed to Boston in 1868. The demand for services was responsible for public works projects such as the Eustis Street Fire Station and the Cochituate Stand Pipe.
From Roxbury’s earliest days, commerce centered at Dudley Station, where Washington, Warren, and Dudley streets cross. By the turn of the 20th century, the area was a bustling mix of department stores, residential hotels, silent movie theaters, banks, and even a bowling alley, all designed by prominent Boston architects in a rich mixture of revival styles. Dudley Station itself opened in 1901 as the southern terminus of the Boston Elevated Railway, which ran to Sullivan Square in Charlestown and later became part of the Orange Line of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.
In 1885, Roxbury built the 527-acre Franklin Park, the largest park in Boston. Designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Franklin Park is the final jewel of the Emerald Necklace – the seven-mile stretch of public parks land that begins at Boston Common.
Until about 1900, Roxbury was a community of English, Irish, and German immigrants and their descendants. In the early 20th century, Roxbury became more diverse with the establishment of a Jewish community in the Grove Hall are along Blue Hill Avenue. Following a massive migration from the South to northern cities in the 1940s and 1950s, Roxbury became the center of the African-American community in Boston.