What is now a teeming industrial harbor, started out as a marshy shoreline with reeds and grasses. The first European settlement in this area took place in 1624 in a place called Winnisimmet with a fort erected by Samuel Maverick. This was just four years after Plimoth Plantation was founded to the south and the first site on what is now known as Boston Harbor. Over the centuries maritime transportation, industrial development and waves of immigration shaped this neighborhood, but it all began with the key site of Winnisimmet.
Winnisimmet was the area of Chelsea roughly from present day Chelsea Square to the waterfront. It had long been an important site for Native people because of the natural spring here and its geographic importance as a key access by water from areas throughout the north shore and those on the other side of the Mystic River. The water route avoided a 20 mile long journey around marshland through present day via Malden and Medford to the neck linking Somerville and Charlestown.
In 1630/1631 the first ferry service from Chelsea to Boston was begun by Thomas (Theodore?) Williams. Colonial records report he "hath undertaken to set up a ferry betwixt Winnisimmet and Charlestown." Williams died soon after establishing his ferry. His widow married William Stitson and they continued the operation under a grant from Richard Bellingham.
Shortly after, a second ferry operated by Samuel Maverick was permitted by colonial authorities. In 1624 Governor Bellingham bought the land of Winnisimmet and the control of the ferry from Maverick.
Broadway and Winnisimmet Street with their strong trajectories across the city to the waterfront are lasting records of the pathways over the centuries to ferries and bridges carrying people and goods, linking areas north and south. Indeed, it was early in colonial history in 1641 that the First County Road was built between the ferry in Winnisimet and Salem.
A vital means of transport, the Massachusetts Court regulated the ferry's fares and schedules and enforced safety protocols. The occasional perils of this water route are described in the diary of Cotton Mather (1681-1724): ‘A fearful hurricane and thunderstorm overtook us, just as we got out of Winnisimet Ferryboat (a ferry three miles wide), which, had it overtaken us four or five minutes earlier, we had unquestionably perished in ye waters.’
The Winnisimmet Ferry had already been in continuous operation for 144 years by the time of the American Revolution. For nearly three centuries the ferry moved passengers, animals and goods (with some limitations) back and forth between Boston’s North End and Chelsea, and was a hugely important lifeline to Boston and the surrounding cities.
In 1831 the Steam Ferry began operating this route, providing safer and faster transport.
By the late 1700s, the limitations of the Winnisimmet Ferry had become too restricting for the bulky cargo and animals being transported. The first Chelsea Bridge linking lower Broadway to Boston was built across the harbor in 1802. The tollhouse for that bridge, which still stands, was built in 1790. The original bridge was replaced by the first Chelsea North Bridge, a wooden drawbridge. (The bridge was called North because of the addition of a southern span linking Chelsea and East Boston.)
The last passenger of the Winnsimmet Ferry disembarked in 1917.
The wooden Chelsea North Bridge was rebuilt as a metal pivot bridge in 1935 and then replaced in 1950 by the Tobin Bridge and its regional highway.
Pepper Fee contributed to the research and writing for this article.