Powder Alarm

Powder Alarm of September 1 1774

In the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party, British Parliament tasked General Gage, Royal governor of Massachusetts, with enforcing the Intolerable Acts. Gage desperately wanted to avoid further escalation of violence. He tried in his own way to balance and keep the peace between the independence-minded Whigs (Patriots) and staunchly loyal Tories. 

As part of the defenses of the colonies, powder and ammunition was stored in armories or powder houses in the community for use by the military and militias. General Gage decided that if he quietly seized these stores, there would be less available munitions for violence on either side. Because he was the governor, and because the powder belonged to the military, he was within his rights to remove it, however, he knew if he did not do so secretly, that he risked groups like the Sons of Liberty relocating it.

The morning of September 1, 1774, more than 250 British soldiers disembarked from boats on the Mystic River at Ten Hills Farm and marched up what is now Broadway to the Powder House, where they seized 240-250 half barrels of gunpowder and transported it to their fortifications at Castle Island in the harbor. The aggressive action triggered a strong reaction from the local committees of correspondence, an organization of town governments that acted like a shadow government by the Whigs in response to Britain’s actions in taking over the Colonial Government in Massachusetts. Militias from surrounding towns turned out for the defense of the community, prepared to take up arms against the British if necessary. 

In a certain sense, General Gage’s concerns were well founded. Due to all the happenings in the years preceding this, from the Boston Massacre to the Tea Party and more, some of the Patriots, especially Sons of Liberty suspected that there may be a need for confrontation, and they quietly relocated about half of the stores to Concord. Many historians view this event as sort of a practice drill for the events of April 19th, 1775, the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

History of the Powder House in Somerville’s Powder House Square

The Powder House – the stone tower that one can see as one drives through Powder House Square did not start out as a powder house. Originally a French Huguenot (Protestant) by the name of John Mallet owned the land and built the structure in 1703 as a wind powered gristmill. The structure is made from the bluestone quarried on the property (aptly called Quarry Hill) and it is the oldest stone structure still standing in Massachusetts. Mallet, as well as his sons after him, ground corn and grain for local farmers there until 1747. At that point, the sons sold it to the Province of Massachusetts, and the government converted it to an armory and powder house for storing gunpowder and munitions in case of the need to defend the region. It served as a powder magazine for the Province of Massachusetts until 1774, then served as a munitions store for the Continental Army during the Siege of Boston 1775-1776.

In 1818, the state of Massachusetts sold the land to Peter Tufts. It was inherited by Nathan Tufts, and the land was known as Powderhouse Farms. The famous Powder House even stored pickles at one point! Which is a vast departure from it’s past as a site that helped to set the stage for the beginnings of the American Revolution. In 1898 the City of Somerville purchased the land for a tiny sum and named the current park after Nathan Tufts. The Powder House still stands in Somerville today, and I would just love to know what it looks like inside–if anyone has been inside, we would love to see photos.