There’s an obvious problem that confronts anyone who tries to write about Benjamin Franklin’s boyhood in Boston in the early 1700s. Sadly, the townscape in which Franklin grew up has vanished almost entirely, obliterated by fires, by railroad tracks, by huge landfills and drainage projects, and by developers.
I take this sort of thing as a challenge. I want to know how Boston looked to Benjamin Franklin, as a child or as a teenager. And with a bit of imagination and ingenuity (now there’s a word!), it’s possible to get there, just about.
Here’s where we start. Milk Street, opposite the Old South Meeting House, and the site of Franklin’s birthplace. Not to mention “Sir Speedy.”
Here stood the little wooden house where Franklin was born. It disappeared in 1810, burned to the ground – but let’s not, at the first sign of difficulty, abandon our quest for his youthful environment. Milk Street has a gradient. And so, when you trudge up the sloping sidewalk, you can still feel beneath your feet in Milk Street the undulations of the Shawmut Peninsula: which the Puritans chose as the site of Boston, their “city on a hill” (or to be more precise, several hills).
In Benjamin Franklin’s tender years the hills were still a feature. And so was water. Lots of it. So off we go to the watery North End of Boston to find the site of the house to which the Franklins moved in 1712, when Benjamin was just six years old. Here’s a map.
The Mill Pond was a huge lagoon, shallow and salty, connected to the Charles River. The Franklins lived within a few hundred yards of the pond, at the corner of Hanover and Union Streets. Just north of the modern day Union Oyster House. Below is the site of the Mill Pond today, looking north across Sudbury Street from the site of the Franklin residence.
Try to think the buildings away, and to imagine the presence of the Mill Pond, filled with water and stretching away towards the horizon, as Franklin would have seen it as a child: the pond frozen solid in the winter, and covered with ducks and geese after the thaw set in. And steaming in the summertime, when he swam.
Below is a photograph of the site of the house where Benjamin Franklin spent most of his boyhood. Believe it or not, dear reader, the street corner at which you are gazing is indeed the location of the Franklin house on Hanover and Union.
There’s no plaque, statue, memorial, or commemorative feature of any kind to mark the spot where he lived.
Even so, if you do some homework in the history books and then go exploring in the streets nearby you can still find vestiges of the Boston Franklin knew. In the next two pictures, for example.
A short walk from the site of his home, this is the corner of Hanover and Marshall Street – names the young Franklin would have been familiar with. Beneath it is a picture of nearby Creek Square. It had acquired that name by 1708 because it led down to the creek through which the Mill Pond drained into Boston Harbor. The layout of the streets is much as Franklin knew it.
Some of the brick buildings hereabouts date back to the 1760s, when John Hancock bought most of the land around the square. To see the place as Franklin experienced it as a boy, please mentally substitute wood for brick and bear in mind that with the creek running past the bottom of the street, there were wharves and a little dock nearby, so that the neighborhood would have been filled with sailors and longshoremen.
Suggested reading: a local classic, first published in 1925, Annie H. Thwing’s painstaking reconstruction of the colonial town titled “The Crooked and Narrow Streets of Boston.” I try to have it with me whenever I’m there. And also the superb book by Nancy S. Seasholes, “Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston,” from 2003.