Though the highway-like Rutherford Avenue runs through it today, the old Charlestown Potato Sheds were once as much a part of the Town’s culture as the Monument is today.
Nothing remains of the sheds today, after being taken by a horrendous fire in 1962, though a smart-looking monument with a sculpture of potatoes and a nice plaque honoring the tradition now side in no man’s land alongside the entrance ramp to the Mystic/Tobin Bridge.
On the plaque, it explains what many older residents in the Town remember.
“In this area between the mid-1800s and the (1960s), millions and millions of potatoes were off-loaded into storage sheds along the sidings of the Boston and Maine Railroad,” it reads. “The transportation infrastructure that dominated the Miller’s River Basin during this era included a vast landscape of rail yards and wholesale storage warehouses extending from Prison Point (now the site of Bunker Hill Community College) to the Charles River. Many residents of the Charlestown neighborhood regularly came to the Miller’s River Potato Sheds to purchase their weekly supplies. Long-standing community members have firsthand memories of their trips to the sheds. The potato storage sheds burned in the mid-(1960s) and were not replaced.”
The Potato Sheds existed because the trains would bring the potatoes down from the gigantic farms in Maine, coming to the end of the line in Charlestown. There, Charlestown residents worked in unloading the potatoes from the trains to the storage sheds. Charlestown residents also would make their way down to the sheds to get their stock of potatoes.
It was a regular thing.
“All the boys would take their little red wagons down to the sheds to get 50 pound bags of potatoes,” said Angela Callahan, who lived on Washington Street abutting the sheds. “My front door was on Washington Street and my back door faced the trains. The freight trains would come in at 10 p.m. every night and I always got used to that noise. After the fire, when the trains stopped coming in, I could still feel like I heard them. Quite a few people did go down there for the potatoes. I didn’t go down. That was my brother’s job, not mine. Everyone had a job to do.”
Patriot-Bridge columnist Sal Giarratani said he had a real connection to the sheds, as his uncle Jim worked in the sheds as a young man while going to Bentley College to get his business degree. He said Jim worked in the F.J. Ward Produce Company, the second shed from the Prison Point Bridge.
“As a kid, my brother and I used to play cowboys while my parents were inside the office of my uncle’s place,” he recalled. “The sheds were all attached and wooden and ran from the bridge down to the old YMCA at City Square. The whole area looked like a western town and therefore I named Mr. Ward, Frank James, after Jesse James’ older brother. I always liked going down to the rail yards. They were so cool. My uncle’s place was about 80 feet from the entrance to Old Sully’s over the wall on Lynde Street.”
Giarratani said that, like many old staples of the neighborhood that were lost to time, the value of the sheds to residents will probably be forgotten, but that the monument at the onramp could help if more knew of it.
“I am sure as time goes by people will never know where those Potato Sheds were or imagine how valuable a neighborhood resource it served hiring so many Townies down there,” he said. “Trying to pinpoint the sheds isn’t easy today. The sheds were right across from Old Sully’s on the same level. Today, my uncle’s place would have been in the middle of Rutherford Avenue by the Somerville-bound side of the Austin Street underpass.”
Callahan said she remembered very well the day the sheds went away, when a giant fire broke out in May 1962.
“The smoke was unreal,” she said. “We had a hydrant out in front of our house and they dragged a hose from the hydrant, through the house and out the back door to where the sheds were.”
Many properties were damaged in the fire, and Old Sully’s suffered some major damage which was only recently uncovered in that properties re-development this winter.
The fire was the end of the sheds, and they were never rebuilt. Soon after, Rutherford Avenue was built and the entire rail infrastructure there removed.
Still, the memories of potatoes lingers somewhat – and even some other fun things.
Callahan said that, aside from the potatoes, the circus used to arrive on the same tracks every May. They would come off the trains in the morning and perform a little parade for the kids of Charlestown as they headed across the North Washington Street Bridge and to the Boston Garden.
“That was also a big thing about the trains,” she said. “We’d site on the steps and watch the elephants and all the animals go by. It was a fun time.”