Long Wharf, Boston

Drawing of Long Wharf in Boston Harbor, surrounded by ships. By Paul Revere.
A view of the Town of Boston in New England and British ships of war landing their troops, 1768.

Based on an engraving by Paul Revere, 1768. Boston Public Library collections. Long Wharf is shown.

Quick Facts
Long Wharf, located at the foot of State Street in Boston, MA is significant for its association with the early mercantile history of the United States. From the construction of Long Wharf in 1710-21 until 1756, Boston was the largest colonial American port and was surpassed by only New York and Philadelphia during the rest of the 1700s.

Long Wharf was 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. Two buildings, the Custom House Block and the Chart House, help the wharf maintain its historic character today. The Custom House Block dates from 1848 and provides an example of the monumental granite structures that lined Boston's docks during the zenith of its commercial prosperity; the Chart House, dating from the 1830's with perhaps some colonial sections, provides an example of the earlier form of warehouses on the wharf.

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 St. The new wharf extended half a mile into the harbor and came to be known as "Long Wharf." Early maps show that it was by far the most ambitious undertaking on Boston's waterfront.

Long Wharf was an immediate success. Its site at the base of King Street allowed direct access to the intersection of King and Cornhill Streets (now State and Washington Streets) which was the heart of town. Its extreme length allowed ships to dock and unload directly into warehouses without the use of lighters or boats. With its site and its length, the wharf soon became central to the commercial concerns of Boston—goods could be easily and quickly brought into town. It is no accident that the financial district of Boston was concentrated at the head of Long Wharf. It should also be noted that because the wharf served not only the private merchants but also the public, the public could buy directly from the warehouses and stores on the wharf. Thus the wharf functioned as a marketplace as well as a dock long before Boston's Faneuil Hall (Quincy Market) was built in the 1820's.

In addition to its economic importance, Long Wharf soon played a part in the military history of Boston. Victors from the Battle of Louisbourg landed here to gun salutes and cheering citizens in 1758. English troops landed here in 1770 to enforce the King's rights (which ultimately ended in the Boston Massacre). Wounded from the Battle of Bunker Hill -- English and American -- were brought back across the harbor to Long Wharf in June of 1775. 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 the Revolution privateers and blockade runners sailed from Long Wharf and military stores were kept in its warehouses. During the War of 1812, Constitution ("Old Ironsides") docked at Long Wharf.

After the wars, trade resumed its dominant position on the wharf. The city of Boston achieved its acme of commercial prosperity in the decade beginning with the year 1844. Boston merchant houses throve on the China and East Indies trade—silks, madras, and cashmere were transported to Long Wharf warehouses. Trade with Europe continued throughout this period; in fact, the first locomotive to arrive in America was brought from England and landed at Long Wharf in 1830.

Ironically, the arrival of this machine signaled the demise of sea-trade based economies. 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. Major fish dealers moved away in 1914 when the Fish Pier was completed in South Boston. Schooners and coastal steamers gradually disappeared.

As is the nature of a utilitarian site, Long Wharf was 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. Long Wharf played an active role in American history from colonial times through the nineteenth century. As sea trade was the economic basis for the colonies and the new nation, Long Wharf's position as the pre-eminent wharf in a major port makes it especially significant.

Boston's Long Wharf was designated a National Historic Landmark on November 13, 1966.

Read the full nomination.

Learn more about the National Historic Landmark program.

Last updated: December 3, 2019