In the Archives: A Peek Beneath Boston

Black-and-white photo of workers standing inside Sumner Tunnel

“Shield in Final Position.” Here is the Sumner Tunnel tunneling shield in its final position after breaching the Boston Vent Shaft. Presumably, that means it was all set and ready to start digging under Boston Harbor. These men were standing at the back of the shield. You can see how the tunnel was constructed behind it as the shield moved on.

Author: Kayla Allen, Archives Assistant and graduate student in the History MA Program at UMass Boston

Our Sumner Tunnel collection consists of a fascinating set of photographs and papers. It doesn’t only offer us information about the Sumner Tunnel. It gives us a visual understanding of underground and submarine construction work. It shows us the economics and geography considered in the 1930s improvement of Haymarket Square. It lets us peek at the architecture of Boston at the beginning of the twentieth century. Many of these compelling photographs show us extant and extinct buildings, ranging in location from Haymarket Square up to Clark Street. Other photographs give evidence of the different kinds of supports that buildings and streets needed while the tunnel was being constructed beneath them. Still more show Boston’s streets with a bird’s eye view.

My favorite pieces of the collection show the construction of the tunnel and buildings related to its use. When I started writing this blog post, I had no clue how underwater tunnels were created. Through research, I learned that the Sumner Tunnel was created with something called a tunneling shield. This is a cylindrical piece of machinery inspired by a type of boring worm. Mechanical constructions push the large tube through dirt, soil, or sand and create a pathway. Workers mine the dirt that comes in from the holes in the flat shield at the front of the tube and place supporting structures in the tunnel behind the tube as it moves. Compressed air at the front of the tunneling shield helps to make sure that the tunnel doesn’t collapse (1). With our photograph collection, we get a strong idea of how this worked for the creation of the Sumner Tunnel. We’ve included some photographs of the Sumner tunneling shield at the end of this post.

I was also intrigued by the photographs of the construction of above-ground buildings. Our collection shows the origins of the Traffic Tunnel Administration Building at the very end of the tunnel (where they originally started digging) and the North End Sumner Tunnel Ventilation Building between Clark and Fleet Street. The photographs show the process of constructing the Administration Building and give us a peek at the tunnel’s exit. They also show the tunneling shield entering into a large rectangular concrete vent. After the shield moved on towards the Harbor, workers built a structure over that vent that pumps poisonous air out of the tunnel and fresh air in. This building is still in use today, and you can see it as you walk along North Street. 

Be sure to check out the collection and its finding aid. I’m sure that they will inspire you to learn a little bit more about our incredible city! If you’d like to learn more about the Sumner Tunnel as it is today and its upcoming centennial restoration project, click here.

All images shared here are courtesy of the University Archives and Special Collections Department, Joseph P. Healey Library, University of Massachusetts Boston: Sumner Tunnel (Boston): construction photographs.


Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Tunneling shield.” Encyclopedia Britannica, May 11, 2011.

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In the Archives: Transportation, Public Parks, and Community Activism in the Ann Hershfang Papers

aam_c_0To celebrate Archives Month, I will be posting highlights from our collections throughout October. I hope that this will turn into a regular series. To learn more about Archives Month, visit the Society of American Archivists website.

Southwest Corridor Park Grand Opening, May 5, 1990

During the 1960s, a section of Interstate 95 called the “Southwest Expressway” was slotted for construction in Boston. This project spurred massive protests by local residents whose neighborhoods would have been affected by the twelve-lane highway. The protests were successful, and in 1969 Governor Francis W. Sargent cancelled plans for the Southwest Expressway. Highway funds were used to reroute a section of the MBTA’s Orange Line along the course of the proposed highway, and to concurrently create public open green spaces. These green spaces make up the Southwest Corridor Park, a 4.7-mile, 52-acre linear park in Boston that stretches from Back Bay to Forest Hills, and connects the neighborhoods Back Bay, the South End, Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain.

New York Times, October 13, 1988

The New York Times, October 13, 1988

University Archives and Special Collections holds the papers of Ann Hershfang, a long-time resident of the South End who has been involved in community activism in her neighborhood since the late 1960s, primarily with issues relating to highways and transit. She was part of the fight to stop the construction of the Southwest Corridor project. Hershfang’s papers document the resistance to the Southwest Expressway and the creation of the Southwest Corridor Park. The collection also includes materials on WalkBoston (founded by Hershfang), the Massachusetts Port Authority, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Transportation and Construction (now the Massachusetts Department of Transportation), the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, the creation of Titus Sparrow Park, and open space plans in Boston.

I also want to let you know that Ann Hershfang will be speaking as part of a panel on October 28 at the Massachusetts Historical Society, Transforming Boston: From Basket Case to Innovation Hub Program 2—Connecting the Communities Back to the City, 1960–1990. The panel, part of a series for which UMass Boston is serving as a non-profit partner, will feature Langley Keyes, Paul Chan, Ann Hershfang, and Karilyn Crockett, and is moderated by Rep. Byron Rushing. Learn more and RSVP for this event here.

View the finding aid for the Ann Hershfang papers here.

For questions about this collection or to schedule a research appointment, please contact or 617-287-5469.

University Archives & Special Collections in the Joseph P. Healey Library at UMass Boston collects materials related to the university’s history, as well as materials that reflect the institution’s urban mission and strong support of community service, notably in collections of records of urban planning, social welfare, social action, alternative movements, community organizations, and local history related to neighboring communities.

University Archives & Special Collections welcomes inquiries from individuals, organizations, and businesses interested in donating materials of an archival nature that that fit within our collecting policy. These include manuscripts, documents, organizational archives, collections of photographs, unique publications, and audio and video media. For more information about donating to University Archives & Special Collections, click here or email

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