anonymous contribution
May 12, 2001
[Just a clarification on the many descriptions of the Fort Hill tower
which I've read in the Lyman family stories on this web site

Fort Hill tower

The fort on Fort Hill was part of the Siege of Boston during the Revolution. The British troops were in the town and Gen. Washington's troops were deployed at various high spots surrounding Boston, to keep the Brits from coming out into the countryside. The fortifications at Fort Hill were simple earthworks — there was no stone fort, and no tower was built. Fort Hill commanded the only land exit from Boston — the narrow Roxbury Neck. Dorchester Heights was the primary fort of the seige and became more famous in history.

The Siege ended when Gen Henry Knox brought up large cannons captured at Fort Ticonderoga NY — his troops had dragged them all the way across New England in the snow. March 17 is still celebrated as Evacuation Day, when the British, seeing the cannons emplaced on Dorchester Heights, decided to leave town.

Roxbury was a separate town until the late 1860's — a leafy summer retreat for Boston businessmen. But gradually there came the demand that Roxbury merge with Boston. Real estate speculators were among those leading the campaign. One of the chief advantages of a merger would be access to Boston's municipal water system, rather than the wells the Roxburyites were using. The merger was voted through, and Roxbury became a neighborhood of Boston, as did other independent towns like Brighton.

One of the first signs of Roxbury's new status was the building of a water tank atop Fort Hill, by the Cochichuate Water Company. The tank, situated on the area's highest point, gave gravitational pressure to the system. Most towns today have water towers, and they look like... water towers. But in the ornate fashion of Victorian times, this one was disguised as some sort of medieval tower or minaret. There were iron stairs inside which spiraled around the water tank. You could climb up, and go out onto a balcony and get a splendid view of Boston.

Eventually the water tank was no longer needed, but people liked the tower, and it remained as a monument to the seige. A suitable brass plaque commemorated Washington's fort, and led many people to believe that Washington had built the tower (an engineering feat well beyond the means of the Continental Army). Some thought the tower was the fort. But it was really just a beautiful ex-water tower.

The tower fell into disrepair in the 1960's. The rusty door was padlocked. The white paint peeled away to reveal brick. The cast iron balcony became unsafe and was torn down, leaving a naked tower for much of the 1970's. Sometime around 1980 the City of Boston did a massive restoration project, replaced the balcony and spiffed things up.

[This was from research I did many years ago, mostly at the Boston Public Library. There was a book about the history of the town of Roxbury, up until its inclusion in Boston, The Town of Roxbury by Francis S. Drake (1878). I don't remember the other sources. By the way, William Lloyd Garrison (the abolitionist) lived about one street over from Fort Hill.

Just from the bits I found, it's possible that the original standpipe had no balcony or "observation deck" -- this may have been added on around 1900, when Olmstead was landscaping the park. The join may not have been perfect, explaining why the deck came down 60 or 70 years later. I am not much of a civil engineer, so I can't explain the use of standpipes, water towers, etc. But at the time the tower was built, Boston was drawing its water from Lake Cochituate in Natick. Hence the name Cochituate Stand Pipe.

I remember the height of the structure as being 120 feet. Fort Hill is one of a group that includes Mission Hill and Parker Hill. The tower is a striking sight when seen from those hills. I'd say that in the 60's young people were attracted to the neighborhood by both the low cost housing and by otherworldly appearance of the tower.

Note: After the annexation, Roxbury was sometimes called Boston Highlands, and the park around the tower was called Highland Park. Also, there was another Fort Hill, in Boston proper. It was long ago leveled, but the area is still sometimes called that.]

from Roxbury history online:

Growth created the need for more municipal services, so the citizens of Roxbury voted first to incorporate as a city in 1846 and then to become annexed to Boston in 1868. The demand for services was responsible for public works projects such as the Eustis Street Fire Station and the Cochituate Stand Pipe... The Cochituate Standpipe, designed by architect Nathaniel J. Bradlee and built in 1869, modernized Roxbury's water system. It is located on the site of the Revolutionary War fort in Highland Park.

1869: Cochituate Stand Pipe is constructed on Fort Hill for water storage. Fort Hill is the site of an impressive defensive fort during the Siege of Boston in 1776. In 1895, Frederick Law Olmsted designs a park around the structure which becomes an observation tower in 1906.

Elsie and Friend

from the collection of Kathryn P.B. Fenton, "taken from the front yard of 53 Fort Avenue, [Roxbury] ca. 1900, by a member of the Henry Noonan family who then lived at that address, depicting Henry's daughter (Kathryn's paternal grandmother), Lillian Elsie Noonan Barnes (on right), and an unnamed friend."

Faintly visible in the left background is the Fort Hill tower.


Fort Hill tower as described in some of the articles

Michael Kindman
My Odyssey Through the Underground Press
A Little Piece of History in the Front Yard
(1993) pp. 392

Fort Hill is named for the Roxbury High Fort that stood there during the American Revolution (the "first American revolution," as the current residents called it, anticipating, as they were, an imminent second one).
A significant battle had been fought there, a victory for the colonial army, with the colonists on Fort Hill and the British across a small valley that now contained several major thoroughfares, on Mission Hill in Jamaica Plain. In commemoration of this mostly forgotten event, there was now a tall and mysterious-looking memorial, a brick water storage tower with a roof that looked like a witch's hat, built during the Civil War era and itself now an ancient and unused relic. Around this tower was a small and little-maintained city park, and around that were rows of ramshackle houses and small apartment buildings, facing the tower from several adjoining streets.

David Felton
The Lyman Family's Holy Siege of America
Rolling Stone #98-99 (1971-72)

It can be seen from all over Boston: a tower, an ancient brick watchtower that rises needlelike from a secluded hill - Fort Hill - in the center of Roxbury. A relic from the original American Revolution, the structure stands some 70 feet above an abandoned city park. The stone tablet commemorating it is itself nearly 100 years old and starting to crumble around these words:

On this eminence stood ROXBURY HIGH FORT, a strong earthwork planned by Henry Knox and Josiah Waters and erected by the American Army June 1775 - crowning the famous Roxbury lines of investment at THE SIEGE OF BOSTON.

We cut across the weedy little park that skirts the base of the Fort Hill tower, as Anna ... told me everything she knew about the historic structure: that it was the highest point in Boston, maybe, and was full of pigeon shit.

Paul Mills
An American Avatar: Mel Lyman
Fusion No. 54, April 16, 1971

During the Revolutionary War, a tower had been built atop the highest point of land in Boston, overlooking the city and hundreds of miles beyond. The tower still stands on the top of Fort Hill in the middle of Roxbury, Boston's black ghetto. There is a small park there, for the tourists, and a number of old Victorian mansions. It was here that Mel moved his family, to the houses on Fort Hill Terrace.

Matt Carroll
Mel Lyman: A mind-control guru or a leader deserving respect and love?
The Boston Herald, p.12 Sunday, November 24, 1985
But pressed for room, the center of activity moved in 1966 to a row of ramshackle houses in a section of Roxbury, Fort Hill. Under the shadow of the massive white tower built on the remains of a Revolutionary War fort that guarded the approach to Boston, Lyman slowly built his Family.

Dave O'Brian
Mark Frechette: A Manipulated Life
The Boston Phoenix, p.9, 12, October 7, 1975
He went to live with a friend in Roxbury, eventually taking his own apartment on Fort Hill, which rises up in the center of the ghetto and is topped by an odd, Eastern European tower, a relic of the Revolutionary War.

Mel Lyman