George Washington under the Washington Elm

10 Little-Known Facts about Cambridge

Everybody knows Cambridge as the home of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Few know that Cambridge is a diverse community with a complex history in which the universities played a relatively small part.

    1. Cambridge was founded as the capital of Massachusetts.
      In 1630, the leaders of several Massachusetts Bay settlements could not agree which should be the capital of the colony. On the last day of the year, they spotted a hill near the Charles River and named it Newtowne. It was the first village in New England laid out on a grid plan, and not by wandering cows.
    2. Harvard University was a consolation prize.
      In 1634, the Governor moved the capital to Boston, eliminating the rationale for Newtowne’s existence.

      Havard College
      Harvard College, ca. 1764 (Drawing by Pierre Eugène Du Simitière. The Library Company of Philadelphia).

      Two years later, the nearly empty Newtowne was chosen over Salem as the site of a new college to train ministers for the colony. Newtowne then changed its name to Cambridge, after the university town in England.

    3. George Washington slept here, but the Washington Elm is only a tree.
      General Washington arrived in Cambridge as leader of the American Army on July 2, 1775, and took up residence in an abandoned Tory home (today the Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site).

      George Washington taking command on July 3, 1775 (Courtesy of Fleet Bank).

      A popular legend claimed that Washington took command under a particular tree on Cambridge Common, but 20th century historians have substantially debunked this notion.

    4. Cambridge used to be 10 miles from Boston.
      The trip was 10 miles by a road that crossed the Charles on the Great Bridge of 1662 and passed through Brookline and Roxbury; alternatively, travelers could walk to Charlestown and take a ferry to the North End.The first bridge to Boston, on the site of today’s Longfellow Bridge, opened in 1793 and reduced the distance to three miles.
    5. Cambridge comprised four rival villages before it became a city in 1846.
      Cambridgeport grew up along the new road to Boston. East Cambridge became an industrial village and county seat after Craigie’s Bridge opened in 1809.When the railroad arrived in 1842, North Cambridge developed as a cattle-trading center and commuter suburb.The original village around Harvard Square became known as Old Cambridge. Not until about 1900 did streets and houses fill the fields between the villages.
    6. Cambridgeport really was a port.
      Promoters dug canals through the marshland on both sides of Main Street and built wharves, and the U.S. Congress designated Cambridge as a ”port of delivery” in 1805. The Broad Canal near Kendall Square is a remnant of this system.

      The Broad Canal, November 29, 1951 (Cambridge Electric Light Company Collection).
    7. Cambridge was an innovation city from early on.
      Charles Davenport opened a factory on Main Street in 1842 that produced the first railroad passenger cars with a central aisle. He sold the factory to the Walworth Company, a manufacturer of steam heating apparatus; a machinist there invented the Stillson wrench in 1869.

      Walworth Company, 706 Main Street in 1876 (Some Industries of New England, 1923).

      Walworth had a telegraph connection to its Boston office, which Alexander Graham Bell used to make the first long-distance telephone call in 1878.

      In the 1940s, Edwin Land of the Polaroid Corporation invented self-developing film there, and today the same complex houses a biotechnology company.

    8. Cambridge was once ranked with akron, ohio, and detroit, michigan, as an emerging industrial powerhouse.
      In the 1920s, Cambridge traded places with Worcester as the second most industrialized city in Massachusetts.The city was home to steel fabricators, rubber factories, candy makers, a Model T assembly plant and the main U.S. factory of Lever Brothers, the soap maker; many of these industries began to close in the 1930s.

      Curtis Davis advertisement (Cambridge City Directory 1897).

      Cambridge firms had pioneered in electronics during World War I, and beginning in the 1950s, high-tech and biotech enterprises became the city’s economic engine.

    9. Cambridge’s many industries have attracted an ethnically diverse population.
      Beginning in the 1820s, immigrants from England, Scotland, Germany, Ireland, Canada, Italy, Portugal, Poland, Russia, Barbados and Haiti flocked to Cambridge, as did thousands of Americans from rural New England and the southern states. Today, students from over 20 countries of origin attend the city’s high school.
    10. Cambridge was once ruled by a woman.
      In 1639, Squaw Sachem, a survivor of epidemics that had wiped out most Native Americans in the 17th century, sold land that included Cambridge to English colonists.

Other significant history involving Cambridge women includes:

      • The first printing press in the colonies was brought by the widow Elizabeth Glover, who married the first president of Harvard College, Henry Dunster.
      • Anne Bradstreet became the first published American poet in 1650.
      • In 1845, Margaret Fuller was the first American to write a book about gender equality, Woman in the Nineteenth Century.
      • In 1889, Maria Baldwin became the first African American woman principal of a public school in Massachusetts.

        Maria Baldwin (Cambridge Public Library)
      • In the early 20th century, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon and Cecelia Helena Payne Gaposchkin made numerous discoveries at Harvard Observatory.
      • In 1969 Sara Mae Berman became the first woman to compete in the Boston Marathon (although women were not allowed to register until 1972).
      • Barbara Ackermann was elected the city’s first woman mayor in 1972, and E. Denise Simmons became the first openly lesbian African American mayor in the country in 2008.

All Images (and content) Courtesy of the Cambridge Historical Commission

Published by

Lee Gianetti

Director of Communications and Community Relations

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.