Belmont, Massachusetts. You’ve written it so many times on tests that it’s become automatic. It’s on your drivers’ license. It’s in your Instagram bio. But have you ever thought about what it means?
You may have learned in elementary school that the town of Belmont was founded in 1859. That’s true, yet somewhat misleading; the area was settled significantly earlier, but it didn’t have a high enough population density to warrant its own government. In the mid-1800s, however, a new railroad made it easy for wealthy Bostonians to access estates in the area. The now-increased population got tired of traveling on horseback to Watertown, Waltham and West Cambridge (now Arlington) for official meetings and decided to form their own town.
Of course, Watertown, Waltham and West Cambridge didn’t care for that idea because it meant that they would lose land and taxpayer money, but they eventually gave up, largely due to the efforts of businessman John Perkins Cushing. Cushing ardently supported the new town and promised to pay its entire incorporation fee provided it was named after his estate, Bellmont. On March 18, 1859, the town of Belmont was formed out of lands taken from all three of its neighbors. (Why its name lost an “L” appears to be lost to history.)
Cushing was Belmont’s most influential citizen at the time of its founding. He was a skilled merchant and businessman who spent his career managing Boston’s trade with China (mainly fur and opium). In 1830, he returned from China and in the following decade settled down on a 200-acre estate, building himself a beautiful Greek Revival-style house and surrounding it with beautiful natural scenery. The mansion was finished in 1855, and Cushing lived there until his death in 1862. (If you’re guessing that he was the namesake of Cushing Square, you’re correct: around the turn of the twentieth century, as the square grew due to its convenient location on the border of Belmont and Watertown, it was named for Cushing, whose mansion still stood just down the street.)
That’s why the town is called Belmont, but the name itself has a much longer history. If you have knowledge of a Romance language, you can probably guess what it means—it comes from the Old French beu mont, meaning “beautiful mountain.” The name came to England after William of Normandy’s 1066 conquest, and was first used as a last name by Robert de Beaumont, who adopted it from his grandfather’s estate in Normandy (in that era, last names were mainly used to identify the place that someone came from). The Belmont family (including many spelling variations) has had a rich history in England since the eleventh century, including no less than twenty-three different coats of arms. (John Perkins Cushing chose the name in reference to a hill in the middle of his property that offered scenic views of the surrounding area.
During the years when Cushing lived at Bellmont, he rarely left, traveling only briefly for official meetings and events in nearby towns. He invited many visitors to his property, both to his house and to the impressive collection of plants on his property, which ranged from large fruit trees and shrubs to full flower gardens and no less than five greenhouses. (The greenhouses were actually open to the public, and they became something of a local attraction.) However, in the years after his death, his four children sold the property, which was soon divided up into smaller plots. Cushing’s mansion was eventually demolished in 1929, after having been repurposed several times. (At one point it was a dormitory for a boys’ school!) The land is now residential neighborhoods, located near Chenery Middle School, Cambridge Reservoir and Payson Park.
Everything in the present has its roots in the past, often well into the past, and the things we take for granted are no exception. The name of the place we live might not be eye-catching or unique, but knowing its past means understanding its present just a little bit more—and I think that’s worth something. So next time you hear “Belmont” or “Cushing Square,” take a moment and remember the man, the townspeople and the house that made our town into what it is today.