Fort Washington Park History

George Washington’s three-gun battery has been preserved by the efforts of generations of concerned citizens.

Fort Washington 1905 copy

After the Revolution, the fort lay abandoned on its lonely peninsula below Central Square.  Well into the 19th century, this was an isolated tract of pasture, pine forest, and salt marsh, far from any habitation.

Most of the land on Cambridge Neck was owned by Judge Francis Dana, the first Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.  The Judge and his descendants actively participated in the development of Cambridgeport, but until the construction of the Cottage Farm (Boston University) Bridge in 1851 there was little activity off the main road to Boston.

In 1853, the Danas asked Alexander Wadsworth, the surveyor of Mt. Auburn Cemetery, to lay out streets and house lots at the end of the neck.  Wadsworth imagined the fort as an oval park called Washington Square, surrounded by handsome homes and protected by restrictions against “nauseous or offensive trades.”  The isolation of “Pine Grove” proved daunting, however, and only a few houses were built before the construction of the Grand Junction Railroad in 1853.  The embankment cut off the marshes from the tides of the Back Bay, and gradually new land was created on both side of the tracks.

In 1857, the Dana hearts deeded the fort to the City of Cambridge to be “enclosed and adorned” in perpetuity . The City erected a flagpole and a monumental fence designed to commemorate the fort’s role in the Revolution.  The Secretary of War donated three 18-pound guns from Fort Warren in Boston Harbor, and the Secretary of the Navy provided the gun carriages.  The Commonwealth contributed one-third of the overall cost of the improvements.  When the work was done, the Cambridge Chronicle reported, “We are glad to see one more of the spots in Cambridge haloed with glorious memories, thus secured as a green spot for future time.”

But with only a small residential population to use and enjoy it, the park’s future was still far from secure.  By 1900, the neighborhood was known as “Greasy Village” for the soap factory across the street, and the iron fence was a constant casualty of its surroundings.  The Daughters of the American Revolution led a restoration drive in 1903, but this and further work in 1928 and 1966 did not address the fundamental causes of the deterioration.

Reardon Soap Factory, 1896

Reardon Soap Factory, 1896

Beginning in the 1940s, the entire surroundings of the park were acquired by a trucking company.  Allston Street, which was the park’s only link to residential Cambridgeport, was closed.  Maneuvering trucks daily assaulted the park’s unprotected fence.  By 1975, not a single section was left intact, the trees were dead or dying, and erosion had exposed soft mash soil within the earthworks.

The United States Bicentennial in 1976 brought the money and the motivation to begin the rescue of this Revolutionary landmark.  With funds from the National Park Service, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,  the Polaroid Corporation, and the Colonial Dames of America, the Cambridge Historical Commission completed the first phase of the restoration in 1978.  One side of the fence was restored, curbs and sidewalks were built, and new treat were planted to replace the American Elms that had succumbed to disease.  An archeological survey confirmed origin of the earthworks, and the cannon were restored.  In 1986, a new citizens’ group, the Friends of Fort Washington, was formed to press for complete restoration of the park.  Funds that were raised by the Friends stimulated additional investment by the City and the restoration was completed in 1993.

Fort Washington Park and its immediate environs are now protected by a historic district administered by the Cambridge Historical Commission.

(Taken from memorial plaque in Fort Washington Park)


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