Seven Hills Park, behind the Davis Square Red Line stop, was completed in 1990. Like much of the Community Path that runs through Somerville, the park was built on property formerly occupied by the railroads. The park commemorates, on large, weathervane-like structures, the Seven Hills of Somerville – named in homage to the legendary Seven Hills of Rome.
Moving west from the Davis T station, the Walnut Hill sculpture, a clock announcing the name of the park, is the first encountered. The hill has also gone by the name “College Hill” and was chosen by the Universalist Church in 1854 as the site for Tufts University. It was selected in part because of its close proximity to Boston. The land had previously been owned by Boston businessman Charles Tufts, who donated twenty acres of land to the Church. He would later increase his gift to 100 acres of land around Walnut Hill in Somerville and Medford.
In the early and mid 1600s, much of Somerville was an open pasture where Charlestown settlers brought their cattle to graze and was known as the “Stinted Pasture” or “Cow Commons.” Dairy farmers traveled over Spring Hill along the “Milk Row” back to Charlestown and Boston. This road still exists today as Somerville Ave. The city remained a pasture until the 1680s, when the land was split into lots with rangeways running between the divided parcels (today, these rangeways persist as the streets of Franklin, Cross, Walnut, School, Central, Lowell, Cedar, Willow, Curtis and North – the first east of McGrath Hwy., the last west of Tufts University). Spring Hill began to develop as a residential area in 1843, after the Fitchburg Railroad extended passenger service through the area. In the park, the hill’s agricultural past is commemorated by a cow sculpture.
Of Somerville’s seven hills, two: Cobble and Ploughed have been carved away. Cobble Hill is represented in the park by the Joseph Barrell House, which was demolished in 1925. Barrell was a Boston merchant and exporter and moved to Cobble Hill (which he called “Pleasant Hill”) in 1792. Barrell died in 1804 and in 1816 his vacant home (designed by Charles Bulfinch, who also designed the Massachusetts State House and made significant modifications to the US Capitol Building) was purchased by the Massachusetts General Hospital and repurposed as an asylum (later to be known as “The McLean Asylum for the Insane” and today called “McLean Hospital”). In the asylum’s early days, before the waterways separating Lechmere’s Point and Charlestown were filled in with land, Cobble Hill looked out over the Charles River with the Massachusetts General Hospital visible across the water. The asylum relocated to Belmont, Mass. in 1875. After the hospital vacated, the railroad companies moved in and built a freight terminus around the former asylum grounds. Cobble Hill has also been called “Asylum Hill” after its most famous structure and “Miller’s Hill” after Thomas Miller, who owned the land at one point.
For much of the city’s history, Clarendon Hill was agricultural land. On April 13th, 1861, just a day after the start of the American Civil War, US troops were organized around the hill in Cambridge and Somerville. Their quarters on Clarendon Hill were named “Camp Cameron” in honor of President Lincoln’s Secretary of War Simon Cameron. The encampment grounds extended from Clarendon Ave. to Shea Rd. in one direction and from Massachusetts Ave. to Holland St. in the other (140 acres in all). The camp was only used until 1862 and residential homes were built on the land in the 1870s after the Lexington and Arlington Railroad opened a station nearby. To celebrate the hill’s involvement with the war, several streets in this area are named for Civil War battles (including Glendale, Fair Oaks, Yorktown, Malvern and Seven Pines). Cameron Ave. runs through the middle of the former encampment. Clarendon Hill extends to Alewife Brook and is represented by an alewife fish in Seven Hills Park.
Of Somerville’s many hills, Prospect Hill is its best known and appears in the city’s seal. The hill is not only important in the history of Somerville, but the history of America: home to a revolutionary fort (known as “The Citadel”), Prospect Hill flew the first flag of the American colonies on January 1st, 1776. A replica of that flag, which displayed the thirteen red and white stripes of the modern flag but with the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew in place of today’s stars, still flies over the hill. Somerville’s independence from Charlestown was also forged on Prospect Hill when, on March 3rd, 1842, the town elected its first officials as a separate municipality. The tower, which represents the hill in Seven Hills Park, was constructed in 1903 as a memory to soldiers who had fought in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. The hill has also been known as “Mount Pisgah,” a biblical reference used by British soldiers to mock the rebels who could see, but not enter, Boston from the hill much like Moses who viewed an inaccessible promised land from the biblical mountain. This name has fallen out of use, particularly as large parts of the hill have been removed to fill in Miller’s River, which once ran through Somerville.
Paul Revere, on his famous midnight ride from Boston to Lexington, passed through Winter Hill along Broadway (which has also been known as “Winter Hill Road” and the “Road to Medford”). Today, a stone slab at the corner of Broadway and Main St. marks Revere’s path. Like the neighboring Prospect Hill, Winter Hill became heavily fortified after the Battle of Bunker Hill. In October of 1777, a group of German Hessian mercenaries, hired by the British army, were captured in Saratoga, N. Y. and brought to the Winter Hill Fort where they were detained for about a year before being relocated to Rutland, Mass. and later Virginia. The prisoners’ departure would mark the end of Somerville’s involvement in the war. Winter Hill is represented by an apple tree in memory of a large orchard which previously occupied the region.
Ploughed Hill, like Cobble Hill no longer exists. It was known as Ploughed Hill because of the way the fields surrounding the hill were ploughed in large circles around the summit. The hill has also gone by the names “Mount Benedict” and “Convent Hill” after the Ursuline Convent, which also represents Ploughed Hill in the park. In 1828, Catholic, French-Canadian nuns of the Ursuline order built a convent and boarding school on the hill. During its seven years of existence, the convent was not welcomed by the largely Protestant community. Rumors, fueled by a rising anti-Catholic sentiment in the region, that students were being mistreated and that nuns were being held against their will spread around town. On August 4th, 1834, men began to gather outside the convent grounds. They proceeded to force their way into the building and eventually set the structure on fire. The rioters had previously announced their intentions to destroy the convent on that night, however they were not met with much resistance from town officials. Similarly, while fire engines appeared on the scene, there is no record that they attempted to extinguish the fire. Of the many rioters, thirteen were arrested and tried. Only one, a seventeen year old boy, was convicted of any crime. He served seven months in prison. No nuns or students died in the incident as the women fled the building once their gates were torn down. Church leaders sought restitution from the government for their losses but their proposals were turned away several times. After the riots, the Ursulines relocated to Roxbury, where they continued to meet resistance. Eventually, the Ursulines left Boston – most returned to Quebec or joined another order in New Orleans. The ruins of the convent continued to stand on the hill for nearly fifty years.