by Rev. Elias Nason, M.A.
Somerville is a beautiful, prosperous and growing city in the southeast section of Middlesex County, three miles northwest of Boston. Through it run the Boston and Maine Railroad and its divisions, the Eastern and the Boston and Lowell; the Fitchburg Railroad; and the Grand Junction Branch of the Boston and Albany Railroad. Street railroads through the Charlestown district, and through Cambridge, also connect it with the metropolis. Sloops approach it by the Mystic on the northeast, and by Miller's River on the southeast. The boundaries are Medford on the northeast, Charlestown on the east, Cambridge on the south and southwest, and Arlington on the northwest. The length of the territory is about four miles northwest and southeast; and its width varies from about 500 feet near Charlestown to two miles for the most part of the eastern section. The assessed area is 1,900 acres. About seven eighths of this has a soil of clay or of clayey gravel, and the remainder is sand.
The surface is remarkably varied and picturesque. There are no less than seven beautiful eminences, all of which are associated with the events of the Revolution, and command magnificent prospects of Boston and vicinity. These are Walnut, now usually called College, Hill, on which stand the buildings of Tufts College, partly in Somerville and partly in Medford; Winter Hill, on which may be traced the remains of a line of breastworks thrown up by the Continental army, but now crowned with elegant mansions; Ten-hill Farm, on which the left wing of the Continental army rested for a season; Mount Benedict (formerly known as "Ploughed Hill"), from which cannon-balls thrown by the British are occasionally exhumed, and on which stand the ruins of the burned Ursuline Convent; Prospect Hill, which was occupied as an encampment for troops before the battle of Bunker Hill, and on which was lighted the first signal-fire to apprise the minute-men of the neighborhood that British troops were crossing Charles River on the memorable morning of the 19th of April, 1775; Spring Hill, on whose summit the line of the American intrenchments may still be seen; Cobble Hill, a beautiful swell of land, where Gen. Israel Putnam planted his cannon during the siege of Boston; but where now stand the large and interesting buildings of the McLean Asylum for the Insane; and Central Hill, so named because it stands encircled by the other eminences, and whose summit is a public park. Broadway Park, the larger of the two, and containing 16 acres, is situated in the northerly part of the city, and is beautifully laid out and shaded. These charming elevation's afford eligible sites for building, and are already, to a great extent, covered with new and tasteful residences and public buildings or institutions. The old Powder House, standing on a rocky elevation a little to the west of the Willow Bridge Station on the Boston and Lowell Railroad, is a relic of ante-Revolutionary days, having been constructed before 1720, as a windmill for grain. From it General Gage, in 1774, seized 250 half-barrels of powder. It consists of a round tower of rough slate-stone surmounted by a conical roof, from the peak of which now rises a flagstaff.
Though this place was sparsely occupied until within the memory of the present generation, there are along the streets many noble trees, mostly English and American elms; and not many large areas are now left unfilled by residences business houses or manufactories. Only 288 acres, according to the State census of 1885, were at that time devoted to general agricultural uses. These were divided amongst 26 farms; whose aggregate product had the value of $97,582. The proportion of vegetables and nursery products was unusually large, the latter reaching the sum of $23,875. Among the earliest manufactures were bricks, brass and copper tubes, bolts, spikes, etc., a glass factory, and dyeing and bleaching establishments. These have increased; and in addition there are now manufactures of calicoes and delaines, straw and rubber goods, carpetings, hats, boots and shoes, furniture, leather, harnesses, jewelry, toys and games, paper boxes, cordage, coopers' ware, wrought stone, earthenware, soap, pickles and preserves, confectionery, and other food preparations, including dressed and packed meats. The last employ about 200 persons; and the value of the product in 1885 was the great sum of $2l,241,589. The aggregate value of all goods made was $23,791,932. There is here one savings bank, carrying deposits, at the close of last year, to the amount of $91,273.; and a co-operative bank, whose volume of business was embraced in the figures $145,206. Large numbers of the residents have their daily occupation in Boston. The population, by the census of 1885, was 29,971, of whom 6,656 were legal voters. The valuation in 1888 was $28,765.400, with a tax-rate of $14 on $1,000. There were 5,941 taxed dwelling-houses.
The public schools are in three grades, culminating in an excellent high school; and the 21 school buildings are valued at some $400,000. There are also several private schools, one of which is St. Joseph's Parochial School, having a large and well-furnished school building. The public library has an apartment in the conspicuous town-hall, and contains about 15,000 volumes. There are also high school, medical and hospital libraries. Three or more printing offices find occupation; from one of which the well-known "Somerville Journal " is issued; and from another, the "Sentinel." The churches are four Congregationalist, two Unitarian, four Methodist, three Baptist, a Free Baptist, two Episcopalian, two Roman Catholic and two Universalist. "Somerville" is the post-office, the city having carrier delivery. The villages, or more densely occupied localities, are known as Milk Row, Prospect Street, East, North and West Somerville, Willow Bridge and Winter Hill. It has a good water-supply from Mystic Lake, is well paved, lighted, and has an efficient fire department.
In 1637, Charlestown purchased from the Pawtucket Indians the land now occupied by Somerville, paying 30 shillings down, and two years later, making a farther payment of 21 coats, 19 fathoms of wampum and 3 bushels of corn. This land was generally taken up by settlers, and for two hundred years it remained a part of Charlestown. It was detached, and incorporated as a town under its present name on March 3, 1842. It had less than 200 houses, and a population of 1,013. On April 14, 1871, it was chartered as a city. John McLean, a liberal merchant who gave and bequeathed altogether about $115,000 to the McLean Asylum, also $100,000 to the Massachusetts General Hospital, was born in this place in 1759, and died in October, 1823.