By Bill Durette
There is a common belief that the Bunker Hill Housing Projects were built for Charlestown WWI veterans.
This is partially true; the main purpose was to provide quality affordable housing. The actual funding for the Bunker Hill Housing Projects came into existence through the passage of the Housing Act of 1937, which helped fund what was called “slum clearance.” This program came into existence around the country to clear out dilapidated housing and create new affordable public housing. The current area of the Projects in Charlestown was identified and hence began the construction. About 90 houses were razed by the City of Boston to make way for the Projects which began in 1939. Today we see the Projects in the opposite role.
Prior to the construction in 1938, as WWII loomed in Europe, the importance of the Bunker Hill Projects took a more prominent role. That year in preparation for war, President Roosevelt declared a limited national emergency, which directed measures to strengthen the national defense. This declaration poured money into the defense industry. Housing planners worried about the influx of workers into areas that had defense plants and Navy Yards. Conveniently, as the Bunker Hill development was nearing completion in 1940 it would provide the housing needed for the Charlestown Navy Yard workers. Those workers certainly could not complain about the commute. That year in 1940, the first 100 families moved in. They were mostly families that had their houses demolished to make way for the Projects and families of Navy Yard workers. When the US entered WWII, the Projects also became home to many families that had someone serving in the military or merchant marines. I can attest to this because my Grandparents, Eileen and Edward Strout, moved into 105 Walford Way in 1940-my grandfather having served in WWII. Sadly, 14 of those men would lose their life during the war and never return home.
During the construction planning of the Projects several streets where eliminated and several new streets where formed. Streets like Sprague, Marion, Princeton, Stone and Bainbridge were eliminated and new streets and courts created. The new streets and courts were named after notable persons of prominence that lived in Charlestown, something we have no shortage of. Samuel Morse Way is the easiest one to identify, having been the inventor of the telegraph and Morse code. O’Brien Court was named after Lt Colonel James F. O’Brien who served with the 48th Infantry and was killed during the Civil War. O’Meara Court was named after police commissioner Stephen O’Meara who became the first police commissioner of Boston in 1906. O’Reilly Way was named after Irish born Charles B. O’Reilly, poet, writer and journalist. Carney Court was named after Lt. Daniel Carney who served with the 26th Yankee Division. He was the first person from Charlestown killed in WWI. McNulty Court was named after William McNulty, another person killed in WWI. Tufts Street is named after Peter Tufts who was an early settler of Charlestown and whose family founded Tufts University. Other streets like Walford Way were named after Thomas and Jane Walford who also were Charlestown early settlers. Thomas Moulton was also an early settler for which Moulton Street is named. Starr King court was named after Thomas Starr King, a minster who preached in his Father’s church in Charlestown. He was made famous by Abraham Lincoln as the one person that prevented California from succeeding from the Union. He is sometimes referred to as “the orator who saved the nation. A mountain in the White Mountains is named after him and a peak in Yosemite National Park bears his name. The corner of Polk and O’Reilly Way is dedicated to Lt. Michael Quinn who lost his life serving with the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam.
As the Bunker Hill Projects now see the beginning of the end, today we look for the new development to carry on that same spirit for which the projects where built, providing affordable housing for veterans and working class families, this along with retaining our current dedications. The Boston Housing Authority and the developer, Leggat McCall Properties and Joseph Corcoran Company, have recognized the importance of all this and have committed to retaining all the Street and court names. Pamela Jonah of the development team stated, “We are committed in keeping intact the historical dedications that are part of the Bunker Hill Redevelopment.”
In the case where a court is physically eliminated an alternate dedication that is agreed upon by the Charlestown Historical Society and the Charlestown Veterans Partnership program will be put in place. Julie Hall from the Charlestown Historical Society states, “We are relieved in knowing our history will not get lost with the development and Leggat McCall has been a willing partner in helping with this important piece.”
As we will see the old brick buildings torn down, we can take comfort in knowing our people history will not be erased, for they are what define Charlestown.