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Union Square before the War.—(Il)

By Charles D. Elliot.
In the paper which I read last year upon Union Square, I made mention, as well as I could remember, of the people living there and in the regions adjacent about the year 1846, of their descendants, and of the locations of their residences and estates. I referred by name to more than 175 of our citizens or their children who lived at or near the Square, and whose Mecca it was; from their homes all roads led to Union Square, as in ancient Limes they did to Rome. That I did not attempt to write the virtues of these early Somerville people by no means indicates that they were undeserving in fact, they were a model community, as a whole, honest, industrious, unostentatious, and neighborly. Unpleasant episodes occasionally varied the even tenor of their days, but I now recall but little that occurred to mar the pleasant memories of those people and times.

And now I wish to speak of the topography, or ‘lay of the land,’ as old people used to say, of Union Square and the adjacent region. Many changes have been made in that section of Somerville since 1846. Nature originally made a peninsula of the Square and its vicinity.

In the earlier days a stream started from a little pond on the westerly side of Walnut Street, about where the Somerville Journal building now is,—known later as Geldowsky's Pond,— thence it ran across Walnut Street (an ancient rangeway), which in wet seasons it flooded, across Robert Sanborn's, Deacon Robert Vinal's, and the Stone properties to about where the Wellington-Wild coal office now is, on the northeasterly side of Union Square, and then under the Square to the southerly side, where the culvert emptied into Miller's River, which then ran along the edge of the Square.

Another stream had its source near the Home for the Aged on Highland Avenue, about opposite the new armory, and ran southerly, crossing Central Street not far from Berkeley Street; thence along the valley between Spring and Central Hills to School Street, which it crossed near Summer Street, [33] passing through Robert Vinal's land, and crossing Bow Street and Somerville Avenue near Drouet's block, into and across the Guy C. Hawkins estate, and emptying into Miller's River a little way west of the present Washington-Street bridge. Later a small reservoir was built in this brook, just on the easterly side of School Street, and roofed in and a pump log aqueduct laid to Cambridgeport, a considerable section of which was for many years partially supplied with water from this source, and from another log aqueduct which ran from the foot of Prospect Hill above, and through what is now Homer Square, and which still continues to furnish some of the people near there with cool and delectable nectar. The rights, such as they were, of the proprietors of this aqueduct passed many years ago into the custody of the city of Cambridge, but as a source of water supply to any part of that city it was long ago abandoned.

Miller's River, into which these two brooks ran, had its source in Cambridge, only a short distance from the Somerville line, and just south of Kirkland Street which is the extension of Washington Street, Somerville; thence it crossed Kirkland Street to the north, and crossing diagonally what was recently the site of the Shady Hill Nurseries, it passed under Beacon Street, and meandered across the intervening lands to and under the Fitchburg Railroad, across the Bleachery property, and under Park Street, through the Frost and Hawkins estates, under the railroad again, under Washington Street just west of the bridge, thence in a circuit to and under the railroad a third time, and crossing Webster Avenue near where the Parochial School now is, it skirted along the southerly side of the Square through a marshy meadow, under Prospect Street, near its junction with Newton Street, formerly Brick Yard Lane, at what was in Revolutionary times known as Bullard's Bridge, thence through marshy lands to and under the railroad a fourth time, widening on the south side of the railroad into a large tidal estuary, known previous to 1872 as ‘the Upper Basin,’ and thence under Medford Street and on to its mouth at Charles River.

The Miller's River of 1850 and before was a limpid stream, [34] whose waters rose and fell with the tide, and it was well stocked with fish, the smelt, flounder, and tomcod being the most numerous. Where the river crossed the railroad the fourth time, east of Prospect Street, the culvert was a structure of large dimensions, popularly known as ‘the box,’ and here could often be seen in summer the bathers, in winter the skaters, and fishermen both seasons.

Previous to 1860 there was a rope walk east of Prospect Street, owned and operated by Hiram Allen, and furnished with water power from the river, which was raised by a dam at that point. A hundred or more years ago there was a public watering place where Miller's River crossed Prospect Street; this street was laid out about 1804, and was early known as Pine Street, but Newton Street, previously called Brick Yard Lane, was a century or so ago called ‘the way by Bullard's Bridge.’ Miller's River had one other branch, which commenced not far from the junction of Newton and Springfield Streets, and running easterly through wet and almost swampy lands, entered the river just in the rear of the present glasshouse. This swampy territory extended approximately from Newton Street to Oak Street and beyond; it was in the early fifties covered with a rank growth of grasses, weeds, and underbrush, among which were denizened the red-winged blackbird, the robin, cow bunting, and other plumed warblers of the air. And speaking of birds, what a variety there seemed to be in those days of half a century ago compared with what there are at present. Besides the blackbirds, two kinds or more, the cow buntings, also called blackbirds, though they were a smoke color, we had the yellowbirds, bluebirds, robins, orioles, golden robins, swallows, sandmartins, chickadees, wrens, chippers or chipbirds, kingbirds, bluejays, woodpeckers, crows, and others, occasionally hawks, and in the winter the plump little snowbirds, while around our clay pits and water shores came peep, snipes, and other water birds.

But where are they? Certainly not in Union Square, though armies of birds throng the trees there, as everywhere else, regiments, brigades, and divisions of that strenuous exotic, that little [35] pinch of feathers and beak, disputative, pugnacious, and fearfully aggressive, the English sparrow, before whom all self-respecting birds have fled.

On the easterly side of Prospect Street, before coming to the Cambridge line, was a pine grove, and on the westerly side, too, extending, if I remember rightly, nearly to Cambridge Street, and in Revolutionary days this grove extended, I think, nearly, if not quite, down to East Cambridge.

The lands around Union Square, adjacent and outlying, were little mines of prosperity to their owners half a century ago, and could one of our opulent chevaliers of finance and finesse of the present day have appeared and promoted the great sand and clay deposits of this vicinity under some such alluring and persuasive name as the ‘Consolidated Aluminum and Silica Trust’ —which certainly sounds better than Brick Company—who knows but that millions might have been wrung from tile venture. It seems to be a curious fact that wherever clay is found here, sand is found near it; on the northerly side of Miller's River were sand hills or lands in profusion, while on the southerly side were largely fields of clay, which were early in the last century the sites of brick yards, and so continued, I think, until after the Civil War. Here, as in other parts of the town, the clay lands were burrowed with pits, having narrow dykes between them, which until excavated to required depth were kept pumped out, but then abandoned and allowed to become stagnant ponds, of varying depths, along the borders of which were luxuriant growths of cat-o-nine-tails, and in whose waters flourished myriads of hornpout, which is the catfish or sucker of the South and West. How cane these hornpouts and almost no other fish in these pits, in all of them? This is a question that has puzzled me for half a century—it is an enigma, which I doubt if the sphinx even could solve.

Before shifting this landscape scene, I must say a word about Prospect Hill. Before the war it was an eminence very steep towards Union Square, and some twenty or more feet higher than at present. Its steep southerly side was covered with barberry bushes, with scattering pear and other trees, and had grassgrown [36] pits all along it, circular and some ten feet or so in diameter. These were said by older people to have been ‘tent holes’ of the Revolutionary army, and when it is considered that they were on the sunny slope of the hill, and also on the side away from the British artillery fire from Bunker Hill, I think without question that they were the relics of the Revolutionary encampment.

Prospect Hill, as you all probably know, was dug down in 1872 or 1873 to fill Miller's River basins; the top of the knoll on which the memorial tower stands was about its original height.

I have spoken about the birds and fishes with which most of the younger people around Union Square were familiar in the “forties and ” fifties, which suggests that the amusements of gunning and fishing were common then; almost every boy owned a gun and was a huntsman. Rifle and pistol practice were also common, especially on the brick yards, and I well recall some of the more noted of our marksmen near the Square, among then Nathaniel Blair, Isaac Barker, Frederick Kinsley, brother of Willard C. Kinsley, after whom the Somerville G. A. R. post is named, and who was himself a colonel in the army. The Messrs. Whittemore were also good shots, as they ought to have been, for they were in the rifle manufacturing business here in Somerville, and made the best.

Among other amusements in those days was bowling at the alley of Thomas Goodhue, whose alley and residence were on the westerly side of Bow Street, just north of the present Hill Building.

May-day parties covered our hills previous to the war, and are occasionally seen nowadays, but then they turned out in larger numbers, and presented a very gay appearance, with natural and artificial floral adornments. But May-day was not always a day of mirth and jollity; seeds of jealousy and hatred had many years before been sown in Cambridge and Charlestown, which germinated and bore real ‘passion flowers’ every May-day. The boys of Charlestown and Somerville were in those days known as ‘Charlestown pigs’ by the East Cambridge boys, who in their turn were called ‘pointers.’ The ‘pigs’ and s [37] ‘pointers’ met on May-day on the renowned (not then, but now) Prospect Hill, and there on the former tented field they met in war's grim struggle and settled, or tried to, their long-pent feuds; but these were bloodless fields, where a few stone bruises or fistic contusions constituted the losses on either side.

Picnicking was a recreation of the days before the war; people from Union Square and its neighborhood found health and amusement in the sylvan retreats of Norton's or of Palfrey's groves, or in excursions to the grounds and groves of Fresh and Spy Ponds.

Union Square, like all other communities, had of course from time to, time its little excitements, and occasionally larger ones. Among the latter was the great tidal wave which destroyed Minot's Ledge lighthouse; this wave swept inland, inundating all low lands in Boston and along the coast. It came up the Charles and Miller's Rivers, flooding all the lands along them nearly to or beyond the Brass Tube Works; where the Parochial School is, there was that day a lake of sea water several hundred feet wide, covering Webster Avenue and shutting off all communication south of Union Square till the tide fell. The whole territory east of Webster Avenue and the glasshouse, from the Fitchburg Railroad into Cambridge, was one vast inland sea, where upon the ebbing of the tide were seen coops, small buildings, and other objects sailing gracefully out to the harbor. It was a sight ever to be remembered.

The visit of the Prince of Wales, now Edward VII., in 1860 was another event worth recalling; his Royal Highness, whose visit to Canada and the United States was the great international event of the time, on October 19 made a flying trip to Mt. Auburn and Cambridge, at which latter place he was received and entertained with great cordiality by the faculty and students of Harvard College. He returned to Boston by the way of Washington Street, Somerville, through Union Square, where, sitting in his barouche, he saluted with royal grace the people gathered in the Square to see him, among whom was the writer. The Prince was a fine-looking young man of nineteen, slim and graceful; he arrived in Boston from New York on October 17, [38] and left for Portland, Me., on October 20, 1860. His coming was one of the great social events of Boston of the last century. He was received by Governor Banks and suite, and all the great people, political and social, vied in showing him attentions and attracting his. On his arrival in Boston he was escorted by a grand military procession of infantry and dragoons to the Revere House in Bowdoin Square, which was then the great hostelry of Boston, and which for three days thereafter was a Royal palace. A general holiday was made by proclamation on the eighteenth. Stores closed and business suspended; balls and receptions were tile order of the day. Among the latter was that at the State House by the Governor and other officials sand distinguished guests, among whom was the Hon. Edward Everett. In the afternoon the royal party visited Music Hall, where they were given a musical reception by the school children of the city.

It may not be out of place to quote here a few lines from a humorous poem written upon the occasion of the Prince's visit. Its introduction begins:—

Sound the trumpets, beat the drums,
The princely heir of England comes.
Years of hateful anger past,
A softer feeling rules at last,
And George's great-grandson shall find
A greeting warm, a welcome kind.
Erect the arches! Deck the walls!
Charge all the guns! Subscribe for balls!
Burnish the bayonets! Buy new dresses!
Drill the children! Write addresses!
Let the Common Council all
Beflag and deck the City Hall!
Hang out the banners! Light the groves!
Hire coaches! Purchase gloves!
Adjourn the courts! Postpone the sessions!
Buy Roman candles! Form processions!
For hark! the trumpets! hark! the drums!
The princely heir of England comes!


At last he arrives at Boston, and the poem says:—

But the following day they made matters worse,
They took hint to Boston, that city perverse,
And showed him the “Hub of the Universe.”

Here they gave him the regular Union thing,
For he heard our great foreign artists sing
With genuine true Teutonic ring

The national air inspiriting:—

Tis der sthar shbankled panner!
     Und lonk may she vave
O'er der lant ob der vree
     Und der home ob der prave!

From royalty to religion may or may not be a long stride; however it may be, I am going to take it. The first religious services of which I have any record were held, if I remember aright, and this I only know from others, in the hall of the old wooden engine house, corner of Prospect and Washington Streets, in 1842, conducted by Miss Elizabeth P. Whitridge, then a teacher in our schools. From this, which was a Sabbath school only, grew the present Unitarian society. There were also many Universalists living near Union Square in 1846 and later, who used to attend church at Cambridgeport; a mile or more distant, walking forth and back every Sabbath. This was not always a pleasant journey for the boys, as the feuds existing as already mentioned between the Cambridge and Somerville youths, sometimes brought on personal conflicts, not conducive to piety. But about 185: the Universalists began services of their own in the old schoolhouse which then stood on the corner Between Medford, Shawmut and Cross Streets, under the guidance of Rev. George H. Emerson. These meetings were the commencement of the present First Universalist society.

The Methodists of Union Square and neighborhood first held meetings in Franklin Hall, Union Square (of which hall I shall speak again), in 1855. The first minister appointed by the New England Conference was the Rev. Charles Baker. ‘Father’ Baker, as we all called him, at that time about sixty [40] years old, had then been thirty-seven years in the ministry, having filled over twenty appointments to pulpits in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. He was a zealous preacher, much respected by all who knew him, and under his guidance the church prospered, and succeeded in building a new and commodious edifice on Webster Avenue, which building is now the Parochial School. ‘Father’ Baker pursued other callings to eke out a livelihood; it was said of him that although his salary was increased from year to year, he never at the highest received over $600 per annum during his life. What a poor pittance for piety were these few ‘Peter-pence!’ Mrs. Baker, whom we knew as ‘Mother’ Baker, was an exemplary Christian, well worthy to be the consort and companion of so good a man as ‘Father’ Baker.

‘Father’ Baker died in Somerville August 7, 1864, aged sixty-seven years, and his wife died here December 20, 1885, aged eighty-seven years.

I have spoken of Franklin Hall. It stood where the new engine house in Union Square now stands, between Somerville Avenue, then Mil Street, and Washington Street; it was built sometime previous to 1852 by Deacon Robert Vinal. The main building was used by D. A. & S. H. Marrett as a grain and grocery store, and for a considerable time the post-office was kept there by them, on the easterly Milk Street corner of the building. Our chief of police, Mr. Parkhurst, was at one time a clerk in the Messrs. Marrett's store. In the second story was the hall used for all kinds of meetings and entertainments,—as a church, as a drill room for the Somerville Light Infantry, a hall for political gatherings and harangues, for fairs, for concerts, colored minstrel and sleight-of-hand performers, and for the meetings of the Franklin Institute.

The Franklin Institute was a library and debating association. Its first meeting was held December 3, 1852, at which James S. Tuttle was temporary chairman, and Thomas Gooding secretary. Upon the permanent organization, Quincy A. Vinal was elected president, and J. Manly Clark and Thomas Gooding vice-presidents, and Charles F. Stevens secretary. It had about [41] fifty members, among whom, besides those named, were William L. Burt, Isaiah W. Tuttle, E. A. Norris, editor of the Olive Branch, Charles Williams, Jr., Robert A. Vinal, John W. Vinal, N. Carleton Hawkins, Charles S. Lincoln, Emery H. Munroe, Phineas W. Blodgett, John Runey, Francis Tufts, William and Edwin Mills, Clark Bennett. R. W. Keyes, Edwin C. Bennett, Charles H. Hudson, J. Q. Twonibly, and many others, including the writer.

The later presidents were J. Manly Clark, Robert A. Vinal, I. W. Tuttle, and R. W. Keyes; and secretaries, Charles Williams, Jr., Edward E. Vinal, George E. Bennett, I. B. Giles, Edwin Mills, and myself.

Quite a library was gathered, which, however, was scattered on the dissolution of the society. Among the subjects for debate were the following, viz.:—

‘Is phrenology a humbug?’ Decided it was not.

‘Would the annexation of the Sandwich Islands to the United States be beneficial to this country?’ Decided it would.

‘Ought Cuba to be annexed to the United States?’ Decided yes.

‘Ought a Pacific railroad to be built by the United States government?’ Decided yes.

‘Ought America to assist the oppressed nations of Europe in gaining their independence?’ Decided no.

‘Would reciprocity of trade between the British Provinces and the United States be beneficial to the United States?’ Decided yes.

‘Do school masters do more good in the world than ministers?’ Decided yes.

Numerous other questions were from time to time discussed.

Lectures and similar entertainments were also given, among them the following, viz.:—

January 17, 1853, by Hon. George S. Boutwell.

February 10, 1853, by Dr. Luther V. Bell.

March 28, 1853, by Colonel J. D. Greene, of Cambridge.

May 9, 1853; by Charles H. Hudson, Esq., and poem by Charles S. Lincoln, Esq. [42]

October 30, 1854, by J. Manly Clark, Esq.

March 26, 1855, by Hon. N. P. Banks, Jr.

November 19, 1855, by Charles S. Lincoln, Esq.; subject: ‘True Merit.’

December 17, 1855, by Charles H. Hudson, Esq., dramatic readings.

February 11, 1856, by John C. Cleur, Esq., on the ‘Scotch Poets,’ and an address by William L. Burt, Esq.

The dissolution of the society occurred March 31, 1856, at which meeting it was voted to sell its library.

There is much more I should like to and might say about Union Square, about other citizens not mentioned in my first paper, who came to that vicinity after 1846, but before the war, and built up its industries and contributed to its prosperity; of the various artisans who established themselves there; of such manufacturing enterprises as the Brass Tube Works, the Glass Works, Pump Works, etc.

Nor have I said anything about the Somerville Light Infantry, of which in the fifties Francis Tufts, still living, and George O. Brastow were commanders, and which did such valiant service in the Civil War. And the fire department has received no mention, from whose members, however, were recruited a large number of the Somerville soldiers of the Rebellion, and whose experience in fighting fires at home helped to render them efficient as fighters of the fire of the Rebellion.

A volume could be written about Union Square, as it could about almost any other community; what with gossip, tradition, and local history, each little community furnishes an interesting topic for narrative; and that we can look back for nearly sixty years and find but little to say against the people and village which we have known so long is a cause for satisfaction.

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