Place

Long Wharf, Boston

Print from Harbor looking out onto Long Wharf and Boston waterfront.
A view of the Town of Boston in New England and British ships of war landing their troops, 1768.

Boston Public Library

Quick Facts

Located at the base of today's State Street, Long Wharf served as the nucleus of Boston's maritime trade. By the end of the 1700s, it reigned pre-eminent amongst Boston's 80 wharves, handling both international and coastal trade. Regaining its prominence as a commercial center, Long Wharf remains one of the city's most well-known wharves today.1 

Acting upon the suggestion of Henry Deering in 1707, the Selectmen of Boston granted permission to a private group of men (headed by Capt. Oliver Noyes) for the construction of a wharf at the base of King Street. Constructed around 1710-1721, the new wharf extended half a mile into the harbor and became known as "Long Wharf." Early maps show that it was by far the most ambitious undertaking on Boston's waterfront.

An immediate success, Long Wharf's site at the base of King Street allowed direct access to the heart of the town—the intersection of King and Cornhill Streets (now State and Washington Streets). Its extreme length of 1,586 feet allowed up to 50 vessels to dock and unload directly into warehouses without the use of lighters or boats. With its site and length, the wharf soon became central to the commercial trade of Boston.

Supported by powerful New England merchant families, commercial trade in Boston grew substantially as the town became integrated into the Atlantic trading empire.2 Due to its location, Boston served as an ideal location as a port of call for ships traveling across the Atlantic ocean. Boston, and Long Wharf in particular, became immersed in the Mid-Atlantic slave trade and what is known as the Middle Passage. Newspaper advertisements in the 1700s document that some ships docked at Long Wharf held enslaved Africans; merchants and captains also sold them alongside their other imports.3

In addition to its economic role in the Atlantic trading empire, Long Wharf played a part in the early military history of Boston. In 1758, victors from the pivotal Battle of Louisbourg during the Seven Years' War landed here to gun salutes and cheering citizens. The arrival of British troops via Long Wharf just over a decade later received a different response, as they came to enforce the King's rights in 1770 (ultimately ending in the Boston Massacre). As part of the Intolerable Acts, British Parliament shut down the port of Boston in 1774, therefore closing Long Wharf stores and docks. According to Frothingham's History of the Siege of Boston, some of the British forces at Bunker Hill arrived from Long Wharf.4 Wounded from both sides of the Battle of Bunker Hill were brought back across the harbor to Long Wharf in June of 1775. At the end of the Siege of Boston, the British evacuated Boston from Long Wharf in March 1776. In July 1776, the ship that brought word of the Declaration of Independence from Philadelphia landed at Long Wharf. John Adams sailed from it to secure European financial and military support for the Revolutionary War. During this time, privateers and blockade runners sailed from Long Wharf and military stores were kept in its warehouses. Decades later, during the War of 1812, USS Constitution ("Old Ironsides") docked at Long Wharf.

After the wars, trade resumed its dominant position on the wharf. Two new buildings, the Custom House Block and the Chart House, joined the Wharf's landscape. The Chart House dates from the 1830s with perhaps some colonial sections. Built in 1848, the Custom House Block provides an example of the monumental granite structures that lined Boston's docks during the height of its commercial prosperity. Both of these buildings help Long Wharf maintain its historic character today.

The city of Boston achieved its acme of commercial prosperity in the 1840s-1850s. While trade with Europe continued throughout this period, Boston merchant houses thrived on the China and East Indies trade—silks, madras, and cashmere were transported to Long Wharf warehouses.

During this time, Long Wharf also witnessed flashpoints in the city's abolitionist history. In 1851, local authorities marched captured freedom seeker Thomas Sims down Long Wharf to board him on the brig Acorn, which took him back to slavery in Savannah, Georgia. About a hundred abolitionists protested this rendition, as result of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. Opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law grew rapidly three years later when another freedom seeker, Anthony Burns, faced the same fate. After a short trial and a failed rescue attempt, hundreds of federal troops marched Anthony Burns down State Street to Long Wharf as 50,000 people lined the streets to protest.5

After the Civil War, trade declined in Boston and so did the importance of Long Wharf. The primary business of the wharf shifted from international trade to coastal trade and fishing. Atlantic Avenue was built to enlarge the waterfront just at the point when Boston's great maritime era was closing. In 1914, major fish dealers moved to the completed Fish Pier in South Boston. Schooners and coastal steamers gradually disappeared.

As is the nature of a utilitarian site, Long Wharf has remained in constant change, reflecting the prosperity and priorities of American shipping and trade. Although these changes have altered the shape and the use of Long Wharf, the portion that remains and the buildings on it retain a strong commemorative value. 

On November 13, 1966, Boston's Long Wharf received the designation of National Historic Landmark. Read the full nomination.

Learn more about the National Historic Landmark program.


Footnotes

  1. Original language derives from the 'Historical Background" section of the National Historic Landmark application. This page has since been updated to include additional scholarship.
  2. Learn more about Boston's role in the Atlantic trading Empire through the story of Boston merchant Peter Faneuil: "The Atlantic Empire of Peter Faneuil."
  3. Middle Passage Port Marker on Long Wharf, The Port Marker – Boston Middle Passage Project.
  4. Richard Frothingham,  History of the Siege of Boston (Boston: C. C. Little and J. Borwn, 1851), 130-131.
  5. To learn about Boston's role in abolition, please visit Boston: An Underground Railroad Hub.

Boston National Historical Park, Boston African American National Historic Site

Last updated: February 28, 2022