A City So Grand: The Rise of an American Metropolis: Boston 1850-1900by Stephen Puleo
Once upon a time, "Boston Town" was an insulated New England township. But the community was destined for greatness. Between 1850 and 1900, Boston underwent a stunning metamorphosis to emerge as one of the world's great metropolises-one that achieved national and international prominence in politics, medicine, education, science, social activism, literature, commerce, and transportation.
Long before the frustrations of our modern era, in which the notion of accomplishing great things often appears overwhelming or even impossible, Boston distinguished itself in the last half of the nineteenth century by proving it could tackle and overcome the most arduous of challenges and obstacles with repeated-and often resounding-success, becoming a city of vision and daring.
In A City So Grand, Stephen Puleo chronicles this remarkable period in Boston's history, in his trademark page-turning style. Our journey begins with the ferocity of the abolitionist movement of the 1850s and ends with the glorious opening of America's first subway station, in 1897. In between we witness the thirty-five-year engineering and city-planning feat of the Back Bay project, Boston's explosion in size through immigration and annexation, the devastating Great Fire of 1872 and subsequent rebuilding of downtown, and Alexander Graham Bell's first telephone utterance in 1876 from his lab at Exeter Place.
These lively stories and many more paint an extraordinary portrait of a half century of progress, leadership, and influence that turned a New England town into a world-class city, giving us the Boston we know today.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Read an Excerpt
I think we must get rid of slavery, or we must get rid of freedom.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1856
Tuesday, April 8, 1851. The conspirators would wait one more
day, and then strike under cover of darkness.
They knew full well the risks—arrests, fines, perhaps prison—but
the justness of their cause outweighed any personal consequences,
and the timing of events made delay impossible. Though hastily conceived,
their plan withstood scrutiny; sound in concept, its brazenness
was equaled only by its simplicity.
The men stood clustered in a tight circle, their voices low, their
demeanor somber, unaffected by the disbanding crowd, which still
buzzed with excitement. The boisterous meeting had ended, but
those who attended would long remember the thunderous speeches
delivered inside the Tremont Temple this day, ten hours of addresses
that represented more than rhetoric to the small band of abolitionists
who now gathered in one corner of Boston’s downtown meetinghouse.
To them, the day’s oratory cried out for justice and demanded
Led by the fiery Unitarian minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson,
these men saw their mission in the clearest of terms: free the
imprisoned runaway slave Thomas Sims and convey him to a stop
along the Underground Railroad for eventual safe passage to Canada.
If they failed, Sims would be hauled back to Georgia to face punishment
from his former owner and resume a pitiful existence in slavery’s
shackles, a life he had fled when he stowed away on a brig that left
Savannah in late February.
The twenty-three-year-old Sims had already overcome daunting
odds on his journey to freedom, making his current confinement
all the more tragic. For two weeks during the vessel’s wintry northern
voyage he had escaped detection, avoiding the crew and providing
for himself. Then, on March 6, with Boston’s lights in sight, the
brig’s mate discovered the stowaway. “Sims was cursed at, struck, and
brought before the captain,” according to one newspaper account, and
then locked in a cabin while the ship lay anchored outside Boston
Harbor. But the crew had failed to take his pocketknife. That night,
Sims jimmied the lock, lowered one of the ship’s lifeboats into the
water, and rowed toward freedom. He landed in South Boston and
“took lodging in a colored seaman’s boardinghouse, and while in the
city, made no effort to conceal himself.”
But then Sims made a grave mistake. Destitute and hoping to arrange
for funds to bring his free wife and children to Boston, he wired
to Savannah for money—and the telegram included his return address.
Somehow, Sims’s whereabouts reached one James Potter, who
claimed that Sims was his property. One week later, Potter’s agent,
John Bacon, arrived in Boston seeking Thomas Sims as a fugitive
slave. Bacon secured a warrant for Sims’s arrest on the morning of
April 3, and Boston police cornered the runaway slave on the street
that evening. Fighting for his freedom, Sims stabbed officer Asa Butman
in the thigh with his pocketknife, snapping the knife in two.
Police then overpowered Sims, tossed him into a carriage, and drove
him to the courthouse; witnesses heard him cry, “I’m in the hands of
Now, five days later, a plan had emerged to disentangle him from
Only a handful of men would know details of the plot, and fewer
still would take part in the actual breakout. This had less to do with
the need for secrecy than with the reticence of the larger abolitionist
community to act boldly, a stance that had prevailed during the
gathering to discuss the fugitive slave’s case. In a hall that one account
described as “packed almost to suffocation” with an excited and angry
audience, Higginson had delivered a spellbinding speech calling for
decisive action, even force, to save Sims, during which the assembly
“trembled” and the community “was brought to the eve of revolution.”
But the speaker who followed Higginson, influential attorney
Charles Mayo Ellis, protested the clergyman’s combative tone, issued
a plea for calm, and, Higginson despaired, “threw cold water upon
all action.” Instead, the group adopted resolves condemning the Fugitive
Slave Law—which forced Northern states to return runaways
to bondage—and the proceedings against Sims. “The law and order
men prevailed,” one abolitionist reported. Higginson concluded: “It
was evident that if anything was done, it must be done by a very few.”
He wasted no time. Immediately following Ellis’s address, Higginson
gathered a small group of men who were inclined to do more
than pass resolutions, men who “seemed to me to show more fighting
quality than the rest.”
Meet the Author
Stephen Puleo is author of the Boston Globe best seller The Boston Italians and the critically acclaimedDark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. A former award-winning newspaper reporter and contributor to American History magazine, he holds a master's degree in history and wrote his thesis on Italian immigration and the settlement of Boston's North End. He donates a portion of his book proceeds to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), the leading charitable funder and advocate of juvenile (Type 1) diabetes research. He and his wife, Kate, live in Weymouth, Massachusetts.
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