Boston in the Civil War Era Presentation Held at Deane Winthrop House

In an 1860 photograph of Tremont Street, Boston, King’s Chapel and the fence along the burial ground can be seen, as well as the Tremont Temple, one of the first integrated churches in America, the Park Street Church, and a row of gas lamps lining the front of The Tremont House, famous for being the first modern hotel. Historian, Geoffrey Michael, displayed this image and others during his Feb. 6 presentation, “Boston in the Civil War Era: 1860-1865,” at the Winthrop Improvement at Historical Association’s (WIHA) Deane Winthrop House.

“Boston in 1860 was a modern city for its time,” said Michael, creator of a Civil War-era Boston guided tour.

The Tremont House, built in the 19th century, was exceptionally unique. The hotel featured indoor plumbing, including eight water-closets on the first floor and baths in the basement. It included a reception area, and a ladies’ ordinary, a dining room specifically dedicated to women. The Tremont House introduced the first modern bellboys to carry luggage to guests’ rooms that each had their own keys.

“This idea was revolutionary. It was adopted from Europe,” said Michael, a new WIHA member. “Most hotels and inns in the 19th century had shared rooms and even shared beds. Depending on how crowded the hotel was, you may be sharing a room and a bed with a complete stranger.”

The cost for a one-family house to be connected to Boston’s water system in 1860 was $6 a year ($8 for a two-family, and $10 for a three-family).

“Boston had a modern water system installed in the late 1840s,” explained Michael. “At that time, it included a reservoir that stood where the addition of the back of the State House stands. The reservoir could hold about 2.7 million gallons of water.”

Boston had a professional police department and eight police stations, with one having been built in 1862 during the Civil War. The building still exists today in Beacon Hill and is used as office space. The city also had a professional fire department, which was unusual for the time because most fire departments consisted of volunteers until long after the Civil War.

“Boston was the first city in the world to have a fire telegraph system,” Michael said. “Red boxes were established in different places around the city and they had a central control area where the fire department could see which boxes had been rung. They saved an extraordinary amount of time.”

Transportation in Boston was also very modern and residents could travel anywhere in the Greater Boston area by either boarding the Boston and Maine Railroad or horse-drawn street cars.

“The idea of community first became really popular here,” Michael said. “Some of the railroads started encouraging people tao live further out of the city because it was cheaper.”

Boston was a center of the maritime industry; however, during the Civil War, the USS Constitution was docked in Annapolis, Maryland, and was used as a training ship for a naval academy. In addition, there was a vast war industry across Eastern Massachusetts. Manufacturers in East Boston produced ironclads, and in South Boston, ammunition was made. The Revere Copper Company cast over 400 cannons which were distributed to the Union Army and Navy.

“One of the things that I thought was interesting about the Union Navy, as opposed to the Union Army at the beginning of the Civil War, was the Union Navy would accept African Americans,” explained Michael. “The crew was more integrated than you would see in the army for a long time.”

Learn more interesting historical facts on Geoffrey Michael’s blog by visiting

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