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Friday, October 26

     Welcome to the Wannaskan Almanac for Friday.

     On this day in 1609, William Sprague was born in the village of Upwey in Dorset, England. His claim to fame is as co-founder of the town of Charlestown, Massachusetts with his brothers Ralph and Richard in 1634.  I don't have much else on Sprague other than that he left Charlestown two years after founding it for the South Shore town of Hingham, where he was a planter, constable, and fence inspector. I would have passed on, but when I saw that Sprague died on his birthday in 1675, I decided this coincidence earned him a place in the Wannaskan Almanac.
     Now back to Charlestown where the real meat lies. Charlestown is part of the City of Boston and lies directly across the Charles River from downtown Boston. When the first Puritan settlers arrived from England in the 1620s, they relied on Thomas Walford to help them negotiate for land with the local Indians. Walford had a monopoly in the fur trade from the Crown, but helped the settlers any way he could. Three years later the Puritans banished Walford to New Hampshire because he was an Episcopalian. Within another three years, most of the Indians were dead from smallpox. The town was named after King Charles the First who was beheaded.
     Charlestown was originally gigantic, but over the years several towns, including Somerville and Malden, split off leaving Charlestown with it's current area of 1.4 square miles. After William Sprague moved on, Charlestown grew into a prosperous town of wooden buildings, wharves, and dockyards. They all burned on June 17, 1775 as collateral damage during the battle of Bunker Hill.      The battle actually took place on Breeds Hill just to the south of Bunker Hill, and the subsequent monument, completed in 1843, is also on Breed's Hill, but for some reason it's always been called the Battle of Bunker Hill. That makes some sense; bunkers sounding more warlike than breeding.
      The site of the battle was preserved for posterity, but most of it had to be sold off to pay for the monument on the summit. The nation's first commercial railroad was built to haul the granite for the monument from Quincy, MA. There is no admission charge to climb the 292 steps to the top. Well worth it.
     The navy established a shipyard in Charlestown in 1801. The USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned naval vessel in the world, has been berthed there since 1934. The navy still owns the Constitution, but the shipyard has become a museum.
     In the 1860s, Irish immigrants began arriving in Charlestown, escaping famine and poverty at home. By the 1960s, an Irish mob had established itself, composed of graduates of the Charlestown penitentiary (closed 1955). The mob provided such services as protection, loan-sharking,  and the fixing of horse races. There was another mob in neighboring Somerville and the two mobs coexisted peacefully, until a Charlestown mobster made a move on the girlfriend of a Somerville mobster. Then it was the Trojan War all over again, with mob members dying unpoetically all over town. Imagine being gunned down at a bus stop!
     Also in the '60s, the City of Boston wanted to tear down 60% of the housing stock in Charlestown for renewal. The residents had seen what a disaster that had been in another part of the city and protested vehemently. The city relented and only tore down 13% of the buildings. The getrifiers who arrived in the '90s for the water views and short commute to downtown were grateful to the protesters for saving the cool brick rowhouses. The 13% became low-income housing, so poor people can still afford to live in Charlestown.
     Many famous people have come from Charleston: Daniel Stillson, inventor of the pipe wrench was born there, as was Howie Long, who used to give fits to the Patriots football team as a defensive end for the Raiders. And let's not forget Robin Williams, who taught psychology at Bunker Hill Community College while helping young Matt Damon get his head screwed on straight in Good Will Hunting.
Once you find a parking spot in Charlestown, never let it go.



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