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The old Medford Turnpike

by John F. Ayer.
The good roads movement has acquired too much momentum in these first days of the twentieth century, is too well appreciated by all sorts and conditions of travelers, for us, here and now, to criticise either the cost of construction or the great and lasting benefits accruing from the gradual introduction of these scientifically constructed,—the so-called sand-papered roads. The state, the county, the city, and the town seemingly vie with each other in their efforts to improve the highways, and so facilitate the transportation of merchandise from point to point. Not so in the early years of the past century; ‘any old thing’ of a road was thought good enough for the farmers, although at that time the hauling was all practically done by this class of the community.

You know about the time of the chartering of the Boston & Lowell railroad, the officials of the old Middlesex Canal went upon record as stating, that no railroad, no corporation could compete with the farmer in this teaming business, because the farmer, having the necessary paraphernalia which he used in his business as an agriculturist upon his farm and in moving his crops and supplies, could team goods over the roads cheaper than anyone else, and it was useless to think he couldn't. The farmers did starve out the old canal company; it would seem by the above statement that its officials were willing to acknowledge themselves beaten by the yeomen from the back towns. There were some individuals, however, away back in the beginning of the century, some progressive men, who began to agitate for better roads. There were few settlers in the villages, the country was sparsely settled, the towns small and poor; the appropriations for roads, little in amount, had to be spread out very thin; consequently, [8] the highways were rough, stony, sandy, full of steep grades, slough-holes, stumps. No wonder the live men of the period should desire better roads, highways of easier grades, better constructed, free from boulders and stumps, and slough-holes and ruts.

This desire, perhaps, was the first dawning, the first dream of what the past century might accomplish in the way of easier communication, a more rapid transit, a more economical handling of the products of the farm, the forest, the mill.

Let us take a look at the country about this time.

The one outlet from Boston on the north was by way of the new Charlestown bridge. This bridge, built in 1786, was the marvel of the times, a sort of a seven days wonder to the people of that time. It was longer than the celebrated London bridge over the Thames, and as a triumph of engineering skill was not surpassed by any other in existence. It was planned and built by Lemuel Cox, of Medford, a shipwright. This same man, in 1787, built Malden bridge, and later, the old Essex bridge at Salem. On the completion of the structure a great celebration occurred in Charlestown, ‘a vast feast was given’; this took place on the 17th of June, and was a grand gala occasion. Poetry and song entered into the programme. Here is a specimen of the verses:—

I sing the day in which the bridge
     Is finish-ed and done.
Boston and Charlestown lads, rejoice!
     And fire your cannon guns!

The bridge is finished now, I say,
     Each other bridge outvies,
For London bridge, compared with ours,
     Appears in dim disguise.

Now Boston, Charlestown, nobly join,
     And roast a fatted ox.
On noted Bunker Hill combine
     To toast our patriot, Cox.

[9] At the Neck, Milk Row road turned off towards Cambridge, connecting with the new West Boston bridge, built in 1793; it was the first road built out from Charlestown.

Two of the original logs used in the construction of the corduroy road over Charlestown Neck may now be seen at the Historical Society's headquarters. Then the Winter Hill road, through to the ‘Ford of the Mistick,’ was built, a country road, steep over the hill, and trying to both team and driver; gradually it had been pushed further back into the wilderness, accommodating at this time a community of farmers, whose crops and wood and supplies were slowly and tediously hauled over the route to and from the growing metropolis of New England, as had been the method for a hundred and fifty years or so.

The sturdy farmer drove his own ox-wagon in those early times; two or three miles an hour was ‘good doing.’ A trip to Boston occupied several days, albeit the distance might be less than twenty-five miles. It was the era of horseback-riding, of the saddle-bag and pillion. At every store stood many saddle-horses. Nearly all vehicles were of the heavy styles known as freighters or farm wagons. But little traveling was indulged in; the well-to-do farmer might have a spring wagon,—possibly a ‘shay,’—to take his wife about in. Such things were considered luxuries, however, which only the few could afford.

The only public conveyance was the stage-coach, usually a four-horse vehicle with an egg-shaped body suspended on thorough-braces, which gave the stage a comparatively easy rocking motion. These carried the mails, and their arrival and departure were marked incidents in the daily life of every village, while the country tavern flourished in those days. As a poet of the time puts it:—

Long ago at the end of the route,
The stage pulled up and the folks stepped out.
They have all passed in by the tavern door,
The youth and his bride and the gray three-score. [10]
Their eyes were weary with dust and gleam,
The day had gone like an empty dream.
Soft may they slumber and trouble no more,
For their eager journey with its jolt is o'er.

All the carrying being done by ox or horse power, these establishments were well filled every night. As a boy I remember seeing the crowds of heavy teams which put up at the six or eight taverns in Charlestown, the Russell house at the Neck and the old ‘Middlesex’ at Reed's Corner being particularly remembered. It was, therefore, in such a country with these primitive customs in vogue that we find ourselves at the beginning of the 19th century.

The argument was to shorten the route to Charlestown bridge, which served now as the inlet of the whole northern country to Boston—to open a direct, level and thoroughly constructed road from Medford to connect with this highway,—to connect also with Milk Row road and the new Cambridge bridge.

As in the case of the Middlesex Canal, so in the movement which resulted in the building of the turnpike, Medford people were prominent. Three of the five incorporators of the turnpike corporation, Benjamin Hall, John Brooks, and Ebenezer Hall, were also among the petitioners for an act to incorporate the Canal company ten years previous (1793). On the 2nd of March, 1803, the charter declared that the above-named with Fitch Hall and Samuel Buel and all such persons as are or shall be associated with them and their successors shall be a corporation by the name of ‘The Medford Turnpike Corporation’; and shall by that name sue and be sued, and enjoy all the privileges and powers which are by law incident to corporations, for the purpose of laying out and making a turnpike road from the easterly side of the road nearly opposite to Dr. Luther Stearns' house in Medford, and running easterly of Winter hill and ‘Ploughed Hill’ to the east side of the road opposite to Page's Tavern, near the Neck in Charlestown, and for keeping the same in repair. [11]

Provided, that if the said corporation shall neglect to complete the said turnpike road for the space of three years after the passing of this act the same shall be void. Provided, however, that if the said road should be laid out across any grounds, the privileges of which have been heretofore granted to the proprietors of the Middlesex Canal for the purpose of cutting a canal, the proprietors of the said Medford Turnpike shall be obliged to make any extra bridge or bridges across the canal or extra sluices which shall be rendered necessary by the formation of said turnpike road, and to keep the same in repair. The said turnpike road shall be laid out not less than three rods wide on the upland, nor more than six rods wide on the marsh, and the path to be traveled shall be not less than twenty-four feet wide in any place. When the said road shall be sufficiently made and approved, then the turnpike corporation shall be and is hereby authorized to erect a turnpike gate or gates in some convenient place or places on said road for collecting the tolls; such locations as shall be determined by said corporation and approved by the county commissioners, and shall be entitled to receive for each passenger or traveler the following rate of toll, to wit: For every coach, chariot, phaeton, or other four-wheeled vehicle for the conveyance of persons, drawn by not more than two horses, ten cents; if more than two horses two cents for each added horse. For every cart, wagon, sleigh or sled, or other carriage of burden, drawn by not more than three cattle, six cents; if by more than three, two cents for each added horse or ox. For every curricle, eight cents For every cart drawn by one horse, four cents. For sleigh for the conveyance of persons, drawn by two horses, six cents; if by more than two horses, two cents for each additional horse. For one-horse sleigh or sled, four cents. For every chaise, chair, or other two-wheeled carriage, drawn by one horse, six cents. For every man and horse, two cents. For all oxen, horses, or cattle, led or driven besides those in the carriage, or team, one-half cent. For all sheep or swine, two cents by the dozen, and in same proportion for greater or less number. [12]

Provided, that nothing in this act shall authorize said corporation to demand toll of any person who shall be passing with his horse or carriage to or from his usual place of public worship, or with his horse, team, or cattle, to or from the common labors of his farm. When no toll-gatherer shall be present at said gate to receive toll, the said gate shall be left open and travelers be permitted to pass freely.

A section provides against delay or hindrance at the gate of any person; also against taking more than the above rates.

The corporation was held for damage that might happen to any person, also for damage because of lack of repair on the road. It should be also liable to presentment by the grand jury for not keeping the road in repair.

The penalty for evading payment of tolls was not over fifty dollars nor less than ten dollars, or three times the regular rates if the gates were flanked. The General Court could dissolve the corporation when the income should have compensated for the cost, care, and twelve per cent. dividend, when the property would become the state's. Persons were allowed to pay a lump sum instead of the established rates upon agreement with the corporation. The corporation could hold other real estate to the amount of six thousand dollars.

The one hundred shares in the corporation represented the cost of the road and buildings; all the property of every name and nature was returned to the state as of the value of four hundred and forty thousand dollars.

The turnpike was expected to facilitate greatly the transportation of farm and forest products on the one hand and the store goods and family supplies on the other. This looked well on paper, it sounded well as it was talked. It was theoretically correct, but who ever knew the average Yankee farmer to adopt a method of travel which incurred an outlay of money (tolls) when, by pulling his cattle or horses the harder, he could save the moiety of money demanded for the passing along level ways and over a well-made and shorter route, even if by so doing, wear [13] and tear and time enough to more than offset the tolls were saved many times over? To patronize the turnpike was considered by him much in the same light as owning a spring vehicle, a spinet, or a carpet for the best room,—well enough if one could afford it, but rather beyond the average farmer.

The turnpike was kept open for upward of sixty years, but it was not a success financially. When built, there were almost no occupants of the land along the route. Later Colonel Jaques and the Cutters at the Medford line were the only intermediate dwellers on the line. The Ursuline Convent grounds bordered it, but had their outlet on the Winter Hill road, and so would have no occasion to patronize the turnpike, while the original outlet of the Ten Hills farm was by way of Temple street to Winter Hill road. To Medford and the back towns, therefore, together with such other business as might spring up along the route — it must depend for patronage; upon a community largely farmers and with the peculiar financial ideas of such hard-fisted people. No reports are on file at the State House showing the earnings of the corporation from year to year. But in 1864 of the one hundred shares of stock, Daniel Lawrence, of ‘Old Medford Rum’ fame, owned twenty-eight; Dudley Hall, seventeen; J. O. Curtis, thirteen; E. H. Derby, eleven; John Goodnow, six; William Rogers, six. J. O. Curtis as treasurer reported the cash market value of the shares three dollars each. In 1865 he reported the shares as of no value, with a list of the holders. In 1866 he reported the capital stock nothing, with no assets of any kind.

Four hundred and forty thousand dollars and the earnings of sixty odd years represent in a way the financial loss of this enterprise; represent, perhaps, the folly of building a road with no foundation to build upon. When the turnpike was completed, it had every appearance of being a solid and substantial structure; in reality, it was built upon no foundation whatever, only upon the spongy marshes of the Mystic. The settling process began at once; the action of heat and cold and storm and the constant friction of travel caused many a seam to open, many a defect to [14] become manifest. Repairs were necessary, repairs here, there, everywhere, to-day, to-morrow, with no let-up. The more surfacing material put on meant the more weight of the structure, and still deeper settling of the roadway. The chip-stone and gravel simply dropped through and the marsh mud came to the surface. It was clearly a case of pouring money into a hole. We shrink from the contemplation of ‘16 to 1’ from a monetary and business point of view, but how, think you, did the stockholders regard the drop from four hundred and forty thousand dollars to nothing? What a slump that was, to be sure!

The turnpike was abandoned this same year, 1866. No tolls were collected later than March 1st of that year. On May 26, 1866, the legislature passed an act to authorize the county commissioners to lay out and establish the turnpike as a highway provided the corporation should file their assent with a waiver for all claims for damages, and to apportion the expense thereof upon the county and the towns through which said road passes.

At the Charlestown end of the turnpike stood the house now known as the Perkins house, on a lot just east of Austin street. It appears much the same that it did fifty or seventy-five years ago. The toll-house, a small detached building, stood on the same lot between the house and the roadway. This and the turnpike gate disappeared years ago. At the time of the burning of the Convent building, this house was occupied by one Kidder, who was toll-keeper at the time. Afterward Mr. Perkins bought it; he was the last toll-taker on the turnpike. He died about 1881. This house is the only building standing in Somerville, if not in Medford, that stood along the turnpike originally. It is still owned by members of the Perkins family.

Concerning the old mill which had been operated by George Cutter for some years, Wilson Quint had bought the property a short time before this. I knew him well. Up to the time of the purchase Mr. Quint had never run a tide-mill, and had little idea of the amount of unseasonable and uncomfortable labor attending it. The mill was in bad shape; he spent much money in repairing [15] the property. The sawing of mahogany logs was on the decline; other mills, steam-mills, were being started nearer to or in the city, obviating the necessity of rafting the logs from below bridges to the mill two miles or more. Evidently that side of the mill added nothing to the profits of the establishment. Probably Cutter was tired of it. It was, therefore, upon the gristmill that Quint must rely for his living. There were two runs of stone, and the grinding was good. Farmers and storekeepers brought the corn, wheat, oats, etc., to the mill, and waited for the product. It was a busy place. He kept seven horses and employed five men, which would indicate that independently of the business brought to his mill by the farmers and others, he hauled to and from much grain with his own teams for the wholesale dealers in Boston, who received grain by vessel chiefly in those days, elevators being unknown. Then came an unexpected and stunning blow from none other than the county commissioners. From being a private way the turnpike was to develop into a county road. It must be improved, in fact, rebuilt, and the work was begun. The way was closed to all travel; only for a short period was Quint able to pass even over the private way known as ‘Gypsy lane,’ which left the turnpike at a point nearly opposite the mill, and opened on to Main streeet, Medford, where the entrance to Combination Park is now; after that he was completely isolated; all business was cut off. He was fenced out, frozen out, starved out. Financially it resulted in a dismal failure, and Quint was obliged to find other business. He could get no redress and finally after the avenue was opened he sold the property to a man, a neighbor, for an entirely different use; the purchaser, as Quint informed me, cheated him outrageously, so that taking it all in all Quint had a hard experience on the turnpike.

I recall a scene that happened at Ben Fisk's house one spring morning in ‘65. Fisk, big, ruddy, somewhat gray, lived in a little one-story house just off the turnpike on ‘Gypsy Lane’ on the borders of the old canal just about at the easterly end of the Combination Park property; the site is still visible; in fact, a portion [16] of the old house, the first floor, is still there, also the ruins of the barn near by. His brickyard adjoined the premises. I was driving in from Medford; having a little business there, I drove across from the turnpike to his dooryard; it was yet early; Fisk in his shirt sleeves, evidently had left the breakfast-table to talk with me just outside his door. While thus engaged one of his men, his coat off, no hat on his head, rushed around the easterly end of the house, throwing his arms wildly about his head, his face white as a sheet, and his eyes bulging with excitement, and shouted, ‘My God! they have killed the President! Abe Lincoln's dead! Shot!’ He ran all the way from Temple street, near Broadway, across lots to tell the sad news. He nearly collapsed after delivering his message. The excitement about that little house was intense, the family, the brickmakers, the teamsters all crowded about us, and stood dazed by the awful intelligence. All day I could hear that terrible cry ringing in my ears. It was the most tragic of anything I ever experienced, and something I can never forget.

When Somerville, in 1842, was incorporated, the names of these brickmakers appear on the assessors' books as in business, presumably upon the turnpike: Edward Cutter, Fitch Cutter, Benjamin Hadley, and Silas Kinsley. There are also recorded that same year as residents of the town, these names that later developed into brickmakers along the same road: Gardner T. Ring, Joseph P. Sanborn, John Sanborn, David Washburn, Benjamin Fisk, Chauncey Holt and William Jaques, so that our sketch in great measure, has to do with some of the originals of Somerville. Sturdy men they were and contributed not a little to the upbuilding of the town.

For many years brickmaking was the great industry along the turnpike. It is estimated that at least twenty million bricks per year were made between the Charlestown line and the Cutter mill. Ten thousand cords of wood alone were teamed over the turnpike yearly, to say nothing of great quantities of sand. Most of the wood was landed from schooners below Malden bridge; [17] this was spruce and hemlock,—round wood. After being thrown on to the wharf men were employed to split it, it being considered profitable to buy it ‘round’ and split it afterward; it would measure more. The sand came largely from the Simpson farm in West Somerville, and from beyond Alewife brook in Arlington, although some was found near by. Of course the entire quantity of manufactured brick was teamed over the turnpike as well, so that taken together the brick industry contributed no mean proportion of the receipts from tolls of the old turnpike. Who did the work? In the earlier days the workmen were Yankees from the back country, from the New Hampshire and Maine farms largely. They were paid twelve dollars a month and board, working from sunrise till the stars appeared in the evening. Afterward the Irish, green from the bogs, were employed. These after a time gave way to the bluenoses from Nova Scotia, while all these later years French Canadians have monopolized the business of making bricks. They received from twenty-six to thirty dollars a month and board. In the early days when Yankees did the work the clay was dug out by hand; as the pit increased in depth the clay had to be shoveled over two or three times before it reached the surface, which is very different from the methods of to-day, where steam-shovels and cars do the work in many modern yards. Some of the brickmakers owned the land where they operated, the others bought the clay of the Jaques people; 50 to 75 cents per thousand bricks brought in quite a goodly income, if the digging the clay out did leave the landscape marred and broken.

For a few years the Massachusetts Brick company made brick by machinery at their yard nearly opposite Temple street. Such bricks were not a success, however, and the company soon retired from business. Hand-made bricks, somehow, like handmade pottery, are hard to improve upon. Every year brought green hands to the yards; the older had a way of guying the fresh arrivals; for instance, when the kilns were set ready to burn, the entire outside must be plastered over with clay to keep in the [18] heat; this was done by wetting up portions of clay and daubing it on with the hands until the whole surface was covered. This was generally a rainy-day job. When ready for this work the green hand was sent to the next yard to borrow a ‘daubing-iron’ for the purpose. The hands at the other yard understood the situation, and while admitting the existence of the tool concluded that the next yard beyond had borrowed it of them, and he would have to go there for it; and so the new arrival was sent from yard to yard until it dawned upon him that he was being fooled, and he would return only to be laughed at.

Sometimes a proprietor would drive a sharp trade with a fresh arrival, would offer him a smaller rate per month than was being paid, but tell him he might divide the ashes after the several burnings with two or three other green hands like himself just hired. Knowing that in his country wood-ashes had a value, he would accept the terms, only to find when the first kiln was burned that there were no ashes remaining. In burning bricks complete combustion occurs; at all events, no ashes are found.

It would be safe to state, perhaps, that of all the brickmakers along the turnpike, Mark Fisk made himself felt more than the others; financially stronger, perhaps, than the others, he was looked up to by the smaller makers, some of whom were in his debt and carried on the business with the aid of Fisk's money. He owned twenty-two acres of land,—clay land and ledge,—was more progressive than the others, for it was Mark Fisk and Gardner Ring who bought of the patentees the sole right to make and sell in Eastern Massachusetts glazed bricks, tiles, etc. This was in 1839. Unlike the white enamelled brick of to-day, such as we see in the subway, their process put a gloss on the common red bricks; but the movement was too soon by a generation, and few, if any, were ever put upon the market. Next in importance among the brickmakers was David Washburn. A part of the years he operated two yards. The older residents of Somerville will remember him; he was a very large man, had a slight impediment [19] in his speech, a man of great energy and business ability. His two sons are now carrying on the business that he established, being located in Everett, Mass. On the site of the Broadway Park, William Jaques, a son of the original colonel, had a yard, not, as I remember it, a very large one, but still big enough to enable him to be remembered among the manufacturers of the times. Samuel Littlefield, afterwards a storekeeper at the corner of Temple street and Broadway, was also a successful maker of bricks.

His yard was located on Broadway Park along the banks of the canal at one time, and later he made bricks opposite Temple street. At the yard located on the park, at a point near what is now Chauncey avenue, a foot-bridge crossed the canal, and a spring of pure water bubbled up just by the bridge. Some of you may remember it. Mr. Littlefield was a California pioneer and began brickmaking about 1857. I have said that many of the brickmakers bought the clay of Colonel Jaques; the latter used to refer to the former as his ‘tenants,’ and every year when cherries were ripe would invite them to come on a certain day and pick and eat cherries to their hearts' content. It was a red letter day for the brickmakers.

There was a brickmaker, Chauncey Holt, who lived on Broadway (the big elm standing now in the middle of the road was just by the front or street end of his house), for whom Chauncey avenue was named. There was Albert Kenneson, also, who lived nearly opposite Holt, another of the turnpike brickmakers. Both were quite successful in business and owned considerable real estate in their respective locations. Benjamin Parker was also one of the number; in fact, I think, one of the originals on the turnpike, older than any I have mentioned. He lived on Perkins street, on land now occupied in part by the Davidson Rubber company, in an old-fashioned square house. He was a genial old gentleman as I recall him, the father of the late Captain Benjamin F. Parker of the Somerville company in the Civil war. His hospitality was very marked, and many of the last generation could [20] testify to the genuineness of his greeting and the abundance of his table. In addition to these, there were the late Edward Cutter, whose residence is still standing near Cross street, and known as the Wyman place, Calvin Kinsley, John Sanborn, James Shute, Godfrey B. Albee, Benjamin Hadley, and George Foster, who did business on the turnpike. The last two are the only living representatives of the original brickmakers on the ‘Ten Hills Farm.’

Joseph P. Sanborn manufactured near the corner of Austin street and the turnpike, being the nearest yard to the toll-house. His son, William A. Sanborn, succeeded to the business of his father, and has the distinction of being the last maker of bricks, not only along the turnpike, but anywhere in Somerville. His yard has but just been cleared up, and with it the brick industry vanishes from our midst. Yes, true it is that what was, twenty years ago, a leading industry in Somerville has gone forever. The brickyards, too valuable to be worked as such, have given way to the march of improvement and are mostly occupied for other uses, or have furnished room for the homes of our ever-increasing population. The old smoking kiln-houses, the unsightly grinding-mills, the woodpiles, the workmen in their abbreviated costumes, the slop of the yard, and the half-dried bricks have slipped away from us, but the clay of ‘Ten Hills Farm,’ purified by fire, is still much in evidence in the great city yonder, and, in fact, all about us. The brickmakers have this at least to their credit, that out of it all, out of the digging and the grinding, and the striking and the carrying-off, and the haking — up process, out of the labor by day, and the vigils around and about the burning kilns by night, resulting at last in the perfect brick, they have been instrumental somehow in building up a great metropolis, and have literally and permanently painted that metropolis red.

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