Before the 1820′s, the City of Boston was a relatively modest-sized port town on just a small plot of land called the Shawmut Peninsula. This Peninsula extended south from Boston and narrowed into the “Boston Neck,” a thin stretch of land connecting Boston to Brookline and other outlying towns. The Back Bay at this time was literally the salt water bay on the western shore of the Shawmut Peninsula and the Boston Neck. By the 1800′s, the success of Boston’s shipping and manufacturing industries had quickly transformed the city into an overcrowded area. Developers looked toward the Back Bay.
In the 1820′s, The Roxbury and Boston Mill Company built a dam across the Back Bay to draw power for its mills. The dam ran from the Boston Common all the way to Brookline. The mill companies also built railroad lines across the Back Bay, cutting off the basin’s ability to flush out debris and toxic waste from the City of Boston.
In 1856, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts decided to fill in the Back Bay and to construct a new neighborhood on top of the wasteland. By using new steam engine technology, land was hauled into the Back Bay from Needham, 25 miles outside of Boston. After nearly 25 years of land moving, the entire Back Bay was filled from the Public Garden to Kenmore Square.
The new Back Bay neighborhood quickly developed into Boston’s premier arts and culture center. Copley Square (originally Art Square) housed the original Museum of Fine Arts and the original campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In 1895, construction of the Boston Public Library, the nation’s first branch library, was completed.