Eleven Little-Known Facts of Cambridge History

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 to be the capital of Massachusetts.

    In 1630, the leaders of several Massachusetts Bay settlements could not agree which should be the capital. Meeting in Watertown on the last day of the year, they spotted a hill near the Charles River, just downstream, and named it Newtowne.

  • #2. The village of Newtowne was the first in New England laid out on a grid plan, with straight streets meeting at right angles.

    Today these grid streets are John F. Kennedy and Dunster streets running north-south, and Mt. Auburn, Winthrop, and South streets running east-west.

    Reconstructed map of the village of Old Cambridge ca 1635
    The village of Newtowne (Harvard Square, Cambridge) in 1635, with the Great Bridge of 1660. 

  • #3. Harvard was our consolation prize.

    In 1634 the Governor and his assistants moved the capital to Boston, eliminating the entire rationale for Newtowne's existence. Two years later, they chose the nearly-empty village on the Charles instead of the port town of Salem as the site of a college to train ministers for the colony. Newtowne then changed its name to Cambridge, after the university town in England.

    View of Harvard College c 1764 by Du Simitiere
    Harvard College ca. 1764 (Drawing by Pierre Eugene Du Simitiere. The Library Company of Philadelphia).

  • #4. 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 that is now the Longfellow House - Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site. Popular legend holds that he took command under a particular elm on Cambridge Common, but 20th century historians have pretty well debunked this idea.

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

  • #5. Cambridge used to be ten miles from Boston.

    The village center was ten miles distant by a road that crossed the Charles on the Great Bridge of 1662 and passed through Brookline and Roxbury; alternatively, travelers could take 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 a little over three miles.

  • #6. Cambridge comprised four physically separate, 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. North Cambridge was just a wide spot in the road until the railroad arrived in 1842, when it became a cattle-trading center and a commuter suburb. The original village around Harvard Square then became known as Old Cambridge.

  • #7. Cambridgeport really was a port.

    Promoters dug canals through the marshland on both sides of Main Street, and Congress designated Cambridge as a 'port of delivery' in 1805. The Broad Canal near Kendall Square is a remnant of this system; its last cargo of fuel oil arrived about 1990.

    photo of the Broad Canal in 1951
    The Broad Canal, November 29, 1951 (Cambridge Electric Light Company Collection).

  • #8. Cambridge was the Innovation City long before M.I.T. arrived in 1916.

    Charles Davenport opened a factory on Main Street in 1842 to produce the first railroad passenger cars with a central aisle. He retired and sold the factory to the Walworth Company, a manufacturer of steam heating apparatus, one of whose machinists invented the Stillson wrench. Walworth had a telegraph connection to its office in Boston, which Alexander Graham Bell used to demonstrate 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 complex houses a biotechnology company.

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

  • #9. 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. Luckily, Cambridge found a different path than Detroit.

    1897 advertisement for Curtis Davis and Co. soap
    Curtis Davis advertisement (Cambridge City Directory, 1897)

  • #10. Cambridge has an ethnically diverse population attracted by its many industries.

    For more than a century, beginning in the 1820s, immigrants from England, Scotland, Germany, Ireland, Canada, Italy, Portugal, Poland, Czarist Russia, Barbados, and Haiti flocked to Cambridge, as did thousands of Americans from rural New England and the southern states. Today more than sixty languages are represented among students at the city's high school.

    Photo of Irish immigrant business, McCaffrey's Harness Shop
    McCaffrey's Harness shop, 945 Cambridge Street, 1891 (Gift of Margaret McCaffrey)

  • #11. Cambridge was once ruled by a woman.

    Squaw Sachem, a survivor of epidemics that wiped out Native American tribes in the 17th century, sold land that included Cambridge to English colonists in 1639. The first printing press in the colonies was brought by a widow, Elizabeth Glover, who married the first president of Harvard College, Henry Dunster. Anne Bradstreet became the first published poet in America in 1650. Margaret Fuller was the first American to write a book about gender equality, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). In 1889 Maria Baldwin became the first African American woman principal of a public school in Massachusetts. Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon, and Cecelia Helena Payne Gaposchkin made numerous discoveries at the Harvard Observatory in the early 20th century. Sara Mae Berman was among the first women to compete in the Boston Marathon beginning with her run in 1969, though women were not officially allowed to register until 1972. Barbara Ackerman became 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.

    Maria L Baldwin photo
    Maria L. Baldwin (Cambridge Public Library).