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[p. 45]

The meridian monument

AMONG the interesting objects to be seen in the woods and fields and on the hills of Medford is the old cairn that bore the meridian mark of the observatory at Harvard College.

It was erected many years ago, but is comparatively little known, and because of its location in a sparsely settled section, and of the contour of the hill on which it stands, is rarely seen by the numerous passers. The Register presents the view and preserves this account of it; all the more timely and important, as its demolition in the near future seems possible.

With one exception (the article by the present writer in the Boston Globe and copied by the Medford Mercury, to which latter, thanks are due for our illustration) no view of it is ever known to have been in public print.

This monument measures seven by thirteen feet at its base, tapering to about three and nine at its top, and about nine feet high; in form, a truncated pyramid. It is composed of quarried stone and boulders, with a single block of dressed granite at the top of the southern face. This cap-stone is smoothly dressed on its face and top side, with three circular projections of three-fourths of an inch on the former, the central one being slightly smaller than the other two. All are smoothly dressed, being formed in the cutting of the stone. Whether this stone was thus shaped for this particular use, or was one removed from some demolished building, cannot now be ascertained, but the latter seems probable, as no remains of paint can now be traced on the projecting portions. As the rough masonry is not carried up behind this granite, there may have been a similar cap-stone on the northern face, at some time removed.

Among the smaller field stones that compose its interior, is solidly embedded a stick of native red cedar, broken at the top. This may have been a flag-staff or signal pole, and its fracture must have required an enormous outlay of force—which may have caused the loosening [p. 46] and fall of the apparently missing cap-stone. From the known durability and strength, and the present state of preservation of the enclosed stick of cedar, the breakage scarcely seems possible to have been caused by natural causes.

No inscription of any kind is upon it and nothing to indicate its purpose save the cedar stick, or possibly the projecting portions of the granite cap-stone.

To the interested observer, the loosened mortar of its joints and the weather-beaten stones plainly indicate that its builders have long since passed on, leaving its story untold or forgotten.

When after over thirty years residence in Medford the writer by accident first saw it and made inquiry, he found information not easily obtainable, as its few immediate neighbors were recent comers. Men who had been town officers and perambulators of town lines were ignorant of its existence. At last one old resident was found that thought ‘it was the college's north point.’

Acting on this clue to the apparent mystery, the writer made inquiry of Professors Shaler and Pickering of Harvard College. Their replies were to the effect that about 1850 a stone cairn was erected as a meridian mark for the adjustment of the transit circle in the east wing of the observatory. Also that ‘it supported a simple board spiked to the masonry, on which was a mark that could be seen from the observatory.’

The Middlesex (Southern) Registry of Deeds shows a record of conveyance of land by Benjamin F. Parker to the President and Fellows of Harvard College in August, 1847, for the named consideration of fifty dollars. The premises adjoined no street, but a right of way was conveyed, and the boundary line began at a pine sapling, extended west, north, east and south in unequal lines, enclosed a tract of some ten thousand square feet and ended at the point of beginning—at the pine sapling.

The monument served its purpose for twenty years or [p. 47] more, when the instrument in the observatory was, in 1870, superseded by another and the use of the cairn as a meridian mark was discontinued.

Mr. Parker died in 1862 and was survived by his widow as late as 1896, when to her the college corporation conveyed the ground for the named consideration of ninety dollars.

No mention of the monument was made in the deed, unless ‘the rights, easements and appurtenances’ of its wording covered it, and the original description of boundary was followed—the ‘stake and stones’ at each of three corners and the ‘sapling pine’ at point begun at.

Several pitch pine trees are now near the old cairn, probably seedlings from the one mentioned, as it is hardly probable that in 1847 that one ceased growing or was endowed with perpetual youth.

The location is (by air line) about three and three-quarters miles from the observatory. (The land was later sold by Mrs. Parker to E. S. Randall et al., and still later to another.)

More recent inquiry reveals the fact that a similar monument was built southward at Jamaica Plain; also, that in 1870 a building was erected at Tufts College (probably West Hall) that obstructed the view of this northern one. In Vol. 8, Observatory Annals, we find that the erection of a temporary mark near this one was the cause of some anxiety to the adjoining landholder and a small sum was paid ‘in compensation for the anxiety occasioned by the supposed encroachment.’

This may account for the larger sum named in the second deed, rather than any rise in valuation.

Evidently the three ‘stakes and stones’ and the pine sapling were not discernible in 1870, and the observatory claimed one hundred and twenty feet (the first-named boundary) from the pine sapling, which must have been at the eastern corner near the monument which was ‘opposite to the Transit Circle.’ One hundred and twenty feet is the length of the observatory and the meridian circle is in the west wing. [p. 48]

The split stones that form the angles of the cairn are from the old quarries in the Fells; and some of them are of interest to geologists, ‘the brown diabase having streaks of white quartz running across’ them.

One of these in his scientific wanderings came upon this cairn and spoke of it as ‘a stone tower once used as a survey signal,’ his judgment thus approximating to its actual use and purpose of erection. As one has remarked, ‘It doesn't cost much to keep a pile of rocks in repair. Why can't they let it remain?’ For its use in scientific work and old-time association it is a valuable asset to any locality, especially a residential one, and its removal would be a source of regret.

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