Records relating to Harvard's interest in the Charlestown ferry
- Harvard University. Corporation (Organization)
Extent.34 cubic feet (1 volume and 1 half-legal document box)
The documents reflect Harvard's role as an academic institution attempting to maintain perpetual funding and, essentially, as commercial owners of a river ferry. The collection offers a resource for studying the College's financial and legal history, and, more broadly, the development of transportation and infrastructure in 17th and 18th century Boston.
The General Court had first authorized a ferry in 1630 to cross the mouth of the Charles River and provide the shortest route between Boston and Charlestown and Cambridge. Following difficulty finding a trustworthy ferryman, on October 7, 1640, the Massachusetts General Court ordered "The ferry between Boston & Charlestowne is granted to the colledge." The arrangement relieved the colony of having to manage the ferry, and the College negotiated annual rents from the ferrymen. In its first year, the annual rent was £40 and by 1709, it had risen to £72. In 1695, the Harvard Treasurer also added a "fine" for renewing the lease, and beginning in 1702, the ferrymen were required to give a bond on their rent secured by wealthier citizens in the area. The College relied on the ferry as one of its only consistent forms of income and often used the money to help pay Tutor salaries.
In managing the Charlestown ferry, the Harvard Corporation and College Treasurer encountered many complications. In its early years, the College struggled with income limited by the use of nearly worthless wampum shells to pay fares, and occasional requests from the ferrymen to reduce their rents due to decreased ferry use. In April 1752, for instance, the ferrymen requested the Corporation reduce their annual rent because ice on the Charles River prevented ferry passages during the previous winter, and a small pox epidemic in Boston had created a "two thirds deficiency of passengers." During the Revolutionary War, the ferry fell into the hands of the British troops and the ferry shed was damaged in the British evacuation of Boston; the Corporation petitioned the General Court in 1781 to help pay for the repairs.
The threat of bridges, though, represented the largest concern for the College. The need for income from the ferry put the College in direct opposition to investors interested in building bridges across the Charles. In the early 1660s, when the Cambridge Bridge between Old Cambridge and Brighton was built, fare income decreased and the ferrymen petitioned the General Court to reduce the annual rent owed to the College. Consequently, in the 1730s, the Corporation petitioned the General Court against proposals to build a bridge from Boston to Lechmere Point in Cambridge. The Corporation's June 26, 1738 petition argued that a bridge would decrease the ferry's revenue, while increasing visitors to Cambridge and consequently, "scholars will be in danger of being too much interrupted in their studies & hurt in their morals.”
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Harvard Corporation created committees to protect the College's financial interests and drafted multiple petitions in their efforts to protect the financial interests represented in the Charlestown ferry, and Corporation members Professor Eliphalet Pearson and Judge John Davis were often asked to represent the College before the General Court. In March 1785, despite active lobbying by Harvard, the General Court granted a charter for the Charles River Bridge to be built from Boston to Charlestown "in the place where the ferry was then kept." In compensation for divesting the College of the income from the ferry, the General Court ordered the bridge proprietors to pay the College £300 annually for forty years, when the bridge was to become the property of the State.
The success of the Charles River Bridge propelled the formation of the proprietors of the West Boston Bridge, led by Judge Francis Dana (Harvard AB 1762). Despite petitions from the Corporation, the West Boston Bridge was chartered by the General Court in 1792. In allowing for the West Boston Bridge, the state also extended the charter for the Charles River Bridge, and changed the College's annuity to £200 annually for seventy years. The West Boston Bridge (spanning from Beacon Hill to Cambridgeport) was opened in November 1793.
In 1828 and 1836, the General Court passed two acts creating a free bridge, which devastated the tolls collected by the Charles River Bridge. When the proprietors of the Charles River Bridge declared bankruptcy in 1828, Harvard's annuity ceased. Finally in 1846, the State granted the College $3,333.30 as a final payment on the Charlestown ferry grant first provided in 1640.
- Charlestown ferry bound volume, 1707-1806
- Loose documents related to Harvard's interest in the Charlestown ferry, 1646-1785
- Foster, Margery Somers. "Out of Smalle Beginings...” An economic history of Harvard College in the Puritan period (1636 to 1712). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1962.
- Haglund, Karl. Inventing the Charles River.Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2003.
- Morison, Samuel E. Three Centuries of Harvard, 1636-1936.Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1936.
- Quincy, Josiah. The History of Harvard University. Cambridge, Mass.: John Owen, 1840.
This finding aid was created by Diann Benti in July 2011.
Preservation and description of the records relating to Harvard's interest in the Charlestown ferry was supported by the Arcadia-funded project Harvard in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.
- Harvard University. Corporation. Records relating to Harvard's interest in the Charlestown ferry, 1646-1806: an inventory
- EAD ID
Part of the Harvard University Archives Repository
Holding nearly four centuries of materials, the Harvard University Archives is the principal repository for the institutional records of Harvard University and the personal archives of Harvard faculty, as well as collections related to students, alumni, Harvard-affiliates and other associated topics. The collections document the intellectual, cultural, administrative and social life of Harvard and the influence of the University as it emerged across the globe.
Cambridge MA 02138 USA