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The oldest road in Cambridge.

Rev. Theodore F. Wright.
When a visitor to the classic shades stands in front of the Hemenway Gymnasium and looks down Kirkland street, bordered with its elms, quiet, retired, homelike, he little realizes that he is looking upon the oldest street in Cambridge and upon one of warlike associations. The spacious houses with their well shaded lawns, and the extreme beauty of Divinity avenue, do not suggest this, but it is even so. The quietest street in Cambridge has longest felt the movement of busy and even of hurrying feet.

The “Path from Charlestown to Watertown” was the first name of this road, and that was in its very earliest days before Cambridge was founded. Charlestown was settled in 1628 and Watertown soon after; thus the connecting path antedates the planting of Cambridge in 1630, as the date is given on the city seal, but the first houses seem to have been built in 1631 in what was then Newetowne. This Charlestown path came over Washington street in Somerville and through Union Square, followed the line of Kirkland street to where the Common now is, crossed to the line of Brattle street, and then went on to Watertown in the course of the present Mount Auburn street. Of course this whole way was of equal age, but, as only a part of what is now Brattle street belonged to it, there is reason for calling Kirkland street the oldest way in Cambridge, because its whole length lies on the Charlestown path. [14]

The original Cambridge lay to the south of Kirkland street. When the little hamlet began at the river and extended northwards to the point now known as Harvard Square, the districts east, north and west were wildernesses. The tracts nearest to the river were known as “marshes” --“Windmill Marsh, Ox Marsh, Ship Marsh, Common Marsh, and Long Marsh,” as they were named in order, as we go from a point near the hospital eastward to the Brookline bridge. All the lower Port was then known as the “Great Marsh.” The higher ground outside the “pales” or palisades, with which the settlement was at first surrounded, was used as pasture-ground, that to the northwest being known as the “Cow common,” and that to the northeast being called the “Ox-pasture.” At first this was south of the Charlestown Path, but later a tract was added to the north of it. The “pales” ran along a little north of where Gore Hall stands, and the ground outside of them we may think of as covered with forest consisting of oaks, pines and walnuts, as Dr. Holmes says, with a narrow wood-road finding its way among them.

This road was first called “The Charlestown Path,” and was variously designated in deeds as “The Highway from Watertown to Charlestown,” “The road that leads from Cambridge to Charlestown,” “The Charlestown road” and “The great County road” ; and it lacked a personal name until the selectmen, about 1830, gave it that of “Kirkland,” after the president of the University from 1810 to 1828. Certainly the street was worthy of that noble name, if the good old “Charlestown road” must be given up.

It may be deemed significant that all attempts to make the old street conform to modern habits have failed, for the tracks laid down for street-cars became [15] useless after a few years' trial and their removal has now been ordered by the city government, so that the avenue may return to its dignified quiet, reminding us of the remark of Dr. Abiel Holmes, “It is generally conceded that this town eminently combines the tranquillity of philosophic solitude with the choicest pleasures and advantages of refined society.”

This quotation reminds one of the valuable sketch of Cambridge by his son, Mr. John Holmes, in the History of Middlesex County. With flashes of wit which strongly remind his readers of his brother, the poet, Mr. Holmes gives his own recollections of Cambridge in the past. He says that the houses on Kirkland street were erected about 1821, and that east of the Delta, now occupied by Memorial Hall, was a swamp extending to the higher ground and there terminating in the forest. He says that he himself has seen. Indian corn growing where the Scientific School now stands, and that, in his early recollections, but one house stood on Kirkland street, “a dilapidated, untenantable Foxcroft house,” of which more presently.

The fact must not be omitted that the troops destined to participate in the Battle of Bunker Hill took their way over the Charlestown Road, which had no part in the route of the troops in April. One British detachment then passed north of it by what was called Milk Row, now Beacon street, Somerville; the second detachment left Boston by way of the Neck, came over the Brighton Bridge and went on through North avenue. Returning, the harassed redcoats came down that avenue and again went by Milk Row homeward. But, before Bunker Hill, the Committee of Safety held a session in the house at the head of Kirkland street, then the headquarters [16] of General Ward and later the home of the Holmes family, and thence issued the order for the troops to march over that road on the night of June 16, 1775, to fortify the hill at Charlestown. It was down this road that General Warren hurried to the battle. Back over it came the troops after the battle; and by this road were brought the wounded to the hospitals, chief among these being Colonel Thomas Gardner of Cambridge, commanding the first Middlesex regiment, who died July 3. Thus the old road has been glorious in war.

A plan of Cambridge in 1635 shows the allotments of ground extending from the river as far north as “Cow-yard Lane” which ran east and west about in the line of Dane Hall; nothing appears north of that lane, probably because the Charlestown Path was outside of the “pallysadoes” and had no inhabitants.

A plan of Cambridge “about 1750” shows some extension of the settlement, and here we find “The way to Charlestown” set down, with the “Coledge” on the south side of it and a single house on the north side marked “Mr. Foxcroft's house.”

Francis Foxcroft belonged to an old English family whose seat was at Leeds, in Yorkshire, near Kirkstall Abbey, whose magnificent ruins many Americans have visited. His father, Daniel, was mayor of Leeds in 1665. The son came to Boston in 1679. He, therefore, cannot be reckoned among the first settlers, but his education, abilities and wealth seem to have made him an important character from the first. In 1682 he married Elizabeth, daughter of Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth, and so connected himself with a truly great name. Mr. Danforth during his long life (born in England 1622, died 1699) was Selectman of Cambridge [17] twenty-seven years, Town Clerk twenty-four years, Assistant (or Councillor) to Governor twenty years, and Deputy Governor ten years; he was also Treasurer of Harvard College nineteen years; and held other important offices, all of which he discharged with the utmost fidelity. In 1643 he had married Mary Withington of Dorchester, and in 1652 he had sold his house which had been his father's and was on “Back Lane,” and had built a house at a point on the Charlestown road a little way east of Oxford street. He had here about one hundred and twenty acres of land on both sides of Kirkland street, extending from the Somerville line to Gore Hall and including the Delta and lands east of it.

Mr. Danforth had a large family, but nearly all died before him, some of them from consumption, so that his real estate in Cambridge went to his daughter, Mrs. Foxcroft. In his description of his estate we have a realistic picture of the district in 1699: “My new dwelling house in Cambridge, with all the offices and buildings belonging thereto, together with my two orchards lying near to the same and all other my lands, swamps, medows, pastures, corn lands, adjoining thereto, the whole being by estimation about one hundred acres more or less, and is all fenced round about.”

Judge Foxcroft thus became a resident of Cambridge about 1700. At that time no bridges directly connected it with Boston and the place retained its colonial character. Besides the group of buildings near the river, it is said that there was only one at East Cambridge, only four in Cambridgeport, and some seven west of Harvard Square, all these being large estates with fine mansions and the appointments of wealth.

The Danforth or Foxcroft estate was the only one [18] in the vicinity of the Delta. It included the Norton estate, the site of the Museums and Divinity Hall, the grounds of the New-Church Theological School, and of course “Professor's Row.” Some of the old trees at Professor Norton's and the oaks seen near the upper end of Cambridge street and Broadway no doubt belong to that day of Foxcroft grandeur. Would that we might still see the famous pear tree which apparently was the northwesterly bound of the estate and thus probably stood near the corner of Quincy and Kirkland Streets! In a deed of Nov. 27, 1764, we read of the “Warden pear tree” (a hard winter pear, called Warden because it would keep a long time) from which the line ran eastward and so around to “the forementioned pear tree.” The estate was nearly equally divided by the Charlestown road. Foxcroft street was laid out in the southerly part, but its name was changed to Cambridge street, at a later day.

The first Francis Foxcroft was Judge of Common Pleas from 1707 to 1719, and Judge of Probate 1708 -1725. Tutor Flint in an obituary discourse said of him that “he was a gentleman by birth, was bred a merchant, was expert and skilful as well as just and upright. His natural powers were extraordinary, his acquired knowledge of various kinds was so too. His temper indeed was sudden, but this was his burden and lamentation. He was a person of grave and austere countenance and conversation, mixed with much of the gentleman and the Christian.” He died at seventy. It should be recited in his honor that he was wholly opposed to the witchcraft trials and boldly so declared himself; but in vain, as popular clamor demanded them.

His two sons were Francis, born 1695, graduated at Harvard 1712, died 1768; and Thomas, born [19] 1697, graduated 1714, died 1769. Thomas became pastor of the First Church in Boston in 1717 and was an excellent minister.

Francis, after the English plan, succeeded his father. He occupied the ancestral estate, and spent the most of his life in the public service. He was Register of Probate for Middlesex from 1709 to 1731, so that for many years the father was Judge and the son Register. He was Register of Deeds forty-five years, a member of the Council twenty-six years, and a Justice for twenty-seven years, until his resignation from reasons of age in 1764. He died in the family mansion to which he was brought as an infant. His wife was Mehitable Coney, and, as his brother married Anna Coney, the brothers may have married sisters, perhaps the daughters of John Coney of Boston. Francis and Mehitable had fifteen children, most of whom died young, making tihe parents' lives full of sorrow, we read.

There are many mentions of the second Foxcroft in Paige's invaluable History of Cambridge. For instance, when the “Meeting-house” was built in 1756, the Foxcroft subscription was a handsome one. In 1744 the second Francis was named first on a committee of five appointed by the town a School Committee, “to inspect the Grammer School and inquire (at such times as they shall think meet) what proficiency the youth and children make in their learning.”

As to the house first erected by Danforth and so long used by the Foxcrofts that it was known as the Foxcroft house, there is a seeming disagreement between the Rev. Lucius R. Paige and Mr. John Holmes. The former says that the house was burned in 1777, the latter that it was standing in his youth, “dilapidated and untenantable.” Mr. [20] Holmes would mean about the year 1820. Both are probably correct. There were undoubtedly several buildings connected with so large an estate. A portion may have been burned, leaving another portion of the buildings remaining, and this is probably what Mr. Holmes remembers.

Judge Foxcroft the second had strongly requested his heirs to retain the estate entire, and this was apparently done for a time from respect for his wishes, although they did not renew and mainrain the mansion house. It may be well to follow the family a little further.

John, son of Francis second, seemed likely to follow the line exactly, for he became Register of Deeds and Justice of the Peace; but he lost office through his Royalist tendencies, had American troops quartered upon him, and became a man of leisure. He gained the whole estate by purchase of the rights of the other heirs, occupied the mansion until it was burned, and then moved to Dunster street. The present family seems to have descended from Francis, a brother of John and third of that name, who was a physician in Brookfield and had a large family. It was this removal of the family which caused the breaking up of the estate. Fortunately the preservation of the Norton Woods permits us to see a bit of it unchanged, and the taking of that ground for a park will ensure the preservation of the grove.

The second Foxcroft, after giving up his public duties, seems to have revived his earlier associations by compiling a catalogue of the Harvard graduates down to 1763. The kindness of Mr. Frank Foxcroft, now residing in Cambridge, furnishes several details regarding this useful work, of which the compiler said, in presenting it to the [21] Overseers,--“I have taken as fair a copy of it as my poor state of health and hands would admit of; and the same is, with the utmost respect, presented to you for your acceptance, by your, once, for many years, brother; but now hearty well wisher and most humble servant, Fra: Foxcroft.”

This touch of his style may lead some readers to desire to see the plreamble of his Will, which he signed Oct. 29, 1765, two years and a half before his death:--“I, Francis Foxcroft, of Cambridge in the County of Middlesex, within the Province of Massachusetts Bay in New England, Esquire, being mindful of my Mortallity and sensible of the frailty and weakness of my Body, however, Thanks be to God for it, of sound and disposing mind and memory, do make and ordain what follows to be my last Will and Testament. I heartily wish well to all Mankind; and for that end that Christianity in the purity and perfection of it may be advanced and flourish among them; that the Potentates of the earth may exhibit the brightest examples of piety to their people and glory in nothing more than being the obedient subjects of the Majesty of Heaven, and in the applause of their people for the happy fruits and effects of their care and good government and that our Sovereign and all under his Dominion may be mutual Blessings to each other. I desire the Blessing of God for all my friends, his Pardon for my Enemies, and an ample Reward for all my Benefactors. I desire thankfully to acknowledge all God's favors, heartily to repent of all my Sins and implore His tender Mercy in the forgiveness of them for Christ's sake; and humbly intreat that by the continued Influences of the Divine Spirit I may be wrought up to a fitness for the Society of Heaven and finally Translated to it [22] through the Merits of my Prevalent Intercessor. I gratefully return back my Body to my Mother Earth, therein to be decently buried, but free from any pageantry or show, nothing doubting of its Resurrection at the last day, and would devoutly resign my Spirit to God who gave it. As for that worldly estate which God has been pleased to bestow upon me (whereof that I have made no better improvement, I humbly beg pardon both for myself and for such as have been employed by me). I do hereby declare my mind and intent to be,” etc.

After this preamble he provided for his wife and children and added, “Inasmuch as I am extremely desirous, if it be the will of God, that the estate I am in possession of should be continued in the posterity of that ancient and honored gentleman Thomas Danforth, Esquire, my grandfather and an excellent Patriot of this Country (of whom that there is so little said by those who have writ the history of it I am heartily sorry), from whom the bulk of it descended, I now do will and ordain that, in case either of my said sons should be inclined or necessitated to dispose of the whole or any part of what estate is so granted and set off to him, he shall tender the same to his brother or some of my family for refusal.”

Perhaps if the worthy man could look now upon the happy homes and useful institutions which lie upon his estate, he might say with Plautus, “I know that many good things have happened to many when least expected,” and with Virgil, “Time and the varying movements of changing years have bettered many things” --

Multa Dies variusque labor mutabilis aevi
Retulit in melius.
[23] [24]

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