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Why Mystic?

THE earliest mention of our river is said to have been made by some of the Plymouth Pilgrims in September, 1621, who said,
Within this bay the salvages say there are two rivers: one whereof we saw having a fair entrance but we had no time to discover it.

Later comes Johnson, who in his Wonder-Working Providence in describing Charlestown, tells of ‘the pleasant and navigable river of Mistick,’ using the name that Governor Winthrop wrote in his diary under date of June 17, 1630,

We went up Mystick River about six miles.

Dudley, in his letter to the Countess of Lincoln on March 28, 1631, tells of settlers at Watertown, on the Charles river, and

some of us upon Mistick, which we called Meadford.

And again Winthrop tells—

The Governor and others went over Mistic River at Medford two or three miles among the rocks to a very great pond which they called Spot Pond.

In these three instances, the earliest known, the river is called by name, the name the aboriginal dwellers gave it, Missi-tuk, abbreviated and modified a little to suit the English lips. The Indian name of the Charles river was Quinobequin, the adjective quin meaning long, and certainly appropriate.

Trumbull gives the origin of Mistick thus—

Tuk in Indian denotes a river whose waters are driven in waves by the tides or winds. With the adjective missi, great, it forms Missi-tuk, the name of the great river of Boston Bay.

[p. 50]

Even a cursory glance at the early maps, and especially at one of latest survey on which the ancient lines are drawn,1 will show the fitness of the aboriginal names, for of the two rivers the ‘salvages’ told the Pilgrim scouts of, one was the long river and the other the great wave—and wind-driven river of Boston bay.

But perhaps someone asks, ‘Why Mystic river?’ We reply, The river has nothing mystical or mysterious, and the name as spelled, Mystic, is a misnomer. It has come to be thus commonly spelled because of the identical sound of the letters i and y, and the dropping of the k, which in time was superfluous to the c which the English had introduced. (Note also Merrimack—Merrimac.)

The ancient maps show it as Mistick and Medford river, but as late as 1885 Mr. Usher felt called upon to state, on page 18, History of Medford,

More probably the fact that the current in this stream flows sometimes in one direction, and sometimes in the opposite, may have seemed, to those who first witnessed the phenomena, something mysterious, and have suggested the name.

We venture the query, Was the Missi-tuk or Mistick any different from any other tidal stream? and add the above to our list of ‘Medford myths.’

Incidentally we may add another recently told us—

Some of the early settlers intending to go up the Charles to Cambridge came up this river by mistake, and so the river got its name.

Another myth—or else a mystic mistake.

Where did Winthrop's six-mile journey begin? Naturally, we reply, at the mouth of the river, the ‘fair entrance’ of the Pilgrim narrative, where is now the Chelsea bridge. There has been a lot said and written about Winthrop being the founder of Medford—well enough in a way, as he was the colonial governor—but the earliest Medford was Cradock's farm, and lay entirely on the opposite side of the river from Winthrop's. It has been written that ‘The first exploration of the river [p. 51] carried probably as far as Medford lines,’ and that ‘the English eyes in that boat were the first eyes of settlers that looked upon the fields on which we now live.’ Naturally we ask, What was the scene they beheld? Mr. Brooks answered that in 1855 by saying, ‘We apprehend it is very much today what it was two hundred years ago.’ In some respects correct. The marshes would of themselves change but little. But the earliest Medford had comparatively little marshland. What it had, began nearly two miles up-stream and practically ended below Gravelly brook, as there was but little beyond the ‘Ford at Mistick.’

We know not how those ‘six miles’ were computed, and doubt whether Winthrop's company reached the farther Medford lines, or even Mistick pond or the Indian ‘weare.’ The sinuous course of the river (that doubled up at Labor-in-vain, and thrice again alongside Winthrop's farm), and his failure to mention the ponds, makes it improbable. But six miles would take the voyagers by the Ten-hills farm, the ford and to the scarred promontory of Rock hill. From the ford onward, the sylvan scene must have been enchanting, as the Medford Pasture hill with its wooded slopes rose abruptly from the plain beside Gravelly brook, but more gently from the river. Then came the brooks before and beyond Rock Hill, those later to be known as Meeting-house and Whitmore, and then the long encircling reach of the river to the Indian weare and fording place.

Surely the Cradock farm was beautiful for situation, ‘four miles along the river and a mile back in all places.’

Winthrop's farm was in Charlestown (he was not a Medfordite at all), and extended from just below the ford down stream below the slope of Winter hill. There was a lot of marsh land even in the Ten-hills farm. But it was on the lower end of this farm that the Blessing of the Bay was built.

The governor seems to have liked the old Indian name of Missi-tuk or Mistuck, or Mistick, Misticke or Mystycke, [p. 52] as he tells of his house and farm at Mistick in a perfectly natural way, and with no mysticism or mystery at all. But in 1754 the little four-mile town of Meadford needed more room, and ancient Charlestown was too encircling, so the portion of Winthrop's farm and some more of Charlestown from the top of Winter hill following some pasture lines over Walnut-tree hill to the river, a triangular plat next Woburn, and the Charlestown wood lots next Malden, were annexed to Medford.

While this placed the entire width of the river, with two tributaries,2in Medford for over two miles, yet Charlestown still had another mile, with its cow pastures and the ‘line field,’ through which flowed the Menotomy river, below the Indian weare and fording place. Fifty years later she surrendered the line field to the new town of West Cambridge, and a century later all her remaining territory outside the peninsula became the town of Somerville.

Winthrop and his companions saw the red man's Missituk in its primitive solitude, fordable at the Indian trails, its broad marshes where is now Chelsea and Everett, its upper reaches bordered with wooded hills and level plains. He knew nothing of its tributary streams, nor yet of the territory through which they flowed, but his contemporaries soon learned something of it.

Johnson, whom we have already quoted, describes Woburn (Charlestown village) thus, as

the highest of the yet peopled land neere upon the head springs of many confiderable rivers or their branches, as the first rise of ipswitch river, and the rife of Shashin river, one of the confiderable branches of the Merrimeck, as also the first rife of Mistick river and ponds.

Evidently this ancient historian, settler and man of affairs, considered the Aberjona the main stream, and its head waters away up in Wilmington the ‘first rife of the Mistick.’ But another has its source away on the hills in Woburn near Lexington line, and coming down [p. 53] through the picturesque Shaker glen, receives the tributaries, lingers a while in Horn pond (Lake Innitou) and Wedge Pond (Echo Lake), and joins the Aberjona in Winchester. Still another in Stoneham reaches the main stream two miles farther up in Montvale.

On the Aberjona, Edward Converse built one of the earliest grist mills in the colony, and only recently has the power ceased to be used. Still, the fall remains, but as an ornamental feature. There were as many as fourteen mill privileges on this Aberjona and its tributaries.

Two other brooks contribute to the flow of the Mistick pond, the Squa Sachem and Sucker brook. The latter rises in Lexington, and in its course turned the wheels of nine mills, the lowest of which is still in use.

On the Mistick itself there have been six water mills at various times, two undisputably within the most ancient Medford bounds and the other four on the opposite bank. The earliest was the Broughton mill in ‘Minnottomies field’ in 1656,3 and over its dam the road from Cambridge led to Woburn via present Grove street. Another, at a later date, was just above present Harvard avenue, and remains of the same came to light but a few years ago.4 The old tide-mill at the lumber yard on Ship street, discontinued twenty-five years ago, the Cutter mill on the turnpike, and the Woods mill near Wear bridge have all been mentioned in the Register. The sixth was the Tufts mill in Charlestown, a tide-mill just below Sullivan square.

But with the coming of the white man the Missi-tuk solitude and quiet was broken. The woodman's axe rang among the locust trees of the Ten-hills farm, and ere long the Blessing of the Bay took her initial plunge into the Mistick, the forerunner of the hundreds that were later to follow. But this was not in Medford, as has been so often said, but rather in ancient Charlestown.

Along with and following the governor in those early [p. 54] years came some eighteen hundred settlers, some of whom found homes across the river where now is Wellington, and at Mystic-side or Maiden. To accommodate these a ferry was established, and the Missi-tuk began to be a highway, and later began to be utilized for power when mills were erected. Next came the bridge built near the ford, which, during the ship-building period, was reconstructed with a draw, and finally succeeded by the present double-arched granite structure. Next was built the Wear bridge, and these two continued to be the only bridges until the Maiden bridge was built at the Penny-ferry in Charlestown.

The colony and province days had been a quarter century gone ere the Mistick was bridged again, this time by a more massive structure, strong enough to carry, not a highway, but a waterway, with its superincumbent weight, the aqueduct of the Middlesex canal. This in 1802. Thirty-two years more and the canal was to have a rival, and Lowell railroad bridge was built nearby, the Winthrop bridge in 1855, and the Usher bridge in 1857. In 1863 the Charlestown Water-works bridge, and in 1873 the Canal bridge on the old aqueduct piers, connected West Medford with Somerville territory, and another at Auburn street the same year. Meanwhile the Middlesex-avenue bridge, with a draw, had been erected, and in earlier years (down stream, and not in Medford bounds) Chelsea bridge and those of the Eastern, and Boston and Maine railroads. In recent years the Canal, Armory, Auburn street-Parkway, and Metropolitan pipe bridge, and just now the Boston Elevated to Everett, complete the list of fourteen now in use and two discontinued and removed.

It had been our purpose to present views of all these, but conditions forbid. We can only refer our readers to the engineer's report (September 21, 1904) on the ‘Improvement of Upper Mystic River’ for the twelve then existing, and also to various reports of the Metropolitan Park Commission, for subsequent improvements. [p. 55]

From the hill slopes of forty-five square miles the rains and melting snows reach our river and swell its current above the ancient ford. The ever-recurring tides ebbed and flowed therein until, in 1908, in the interest of public welfare, engineering skill erected a barrier which says, ‘Thus far but no farther.’ Cradock bridge, its extension, the lock with its electrically operated gates, the dam with its automatic tidal valves, and the four hundred feet of over-fall, is in marked contrast with the earliest structure, the bone of contention of those early days. Without these the beautiful parkway would have been impossible.

Along the river's banks have been scenes of activity in days now long gone, for

Here rested the noble ships,
     Keel, frame and towering spar,
And where the horizon dips,
     They sailed and vanished afar.

and of the final fate of five hundred and sixty-seven of them little is known. Up stream

The rent wharf wasted away

until the steam dredge removed islands, deepened the channel, eliminated some of the serpentine courses and bordered the stream with the valley parkway. Beneath the river cross water-mains and sewers, while on its surface numerous pleasure craft make their way or find moorings. We have heard of no Mystic submarines in the waters, but winged ships of the air have flown up its course and over its tributary, Menotomy.

After the Civil War the project was broached of dredging and widening our river and making a storage basin of the lower lake for the monitors of the navy. But a few years before there had been built the dam at the ‘Partings,’ and the upper lake had become the Charlestown water supply. Seven additional drawbridges would have added nothing to the beauty of the scene, and as the monitors soon became obsolete, it was well the project [p. 56] was abandoned and the lower lake did not become a floating junk-yard.

Another project that failed was, in 1876, the Mystic Valley railroad that began to fill an embankment requiring a bridge across the old course of the Aberjona at the upper end of the lake. This, the upper reach of the Mystic (and sometimes called Symmes' river) had been crossed by the long wooden aqueduct of the canal in 1802, replaced by the substantial stone structure of 1827, removed in 1865, as was also the Symmes dam and waterpower the same year.

If we trace the stream farther up we go beyond old Medford bounds and out of Upper Medford, as it used to be called. We will find that our neighboring town of Winchester has improved its flow through her territory, making it permanently ornamental, adding much to its attractiveness.

And now we come back to our caption query, Why Mystic? and answer, Mystic it is not, except by common usage. Missi-tuk, the Indians called it. The early settlers adopted the Indian name, spelling it various ways, and later, almost discarding it, called it often Medford river and Medford pond or ponds, and latterly Mystic, which, we repeat, is a misnomer.

Since the preparation of this article there came to us in an exchange an interesting article concerning the name of the upper river that the earliest historian, Johnson, called ‘the first rise of the Mistick,’ which we reproduce as pertinent to this subject. We do not, however, think that the Indians of this valley or locality, the ab-originis or aborigines, were acquainted with the Latin language, and as yet are unaware of the meaning of the word Aberginians, if indeed it was an Indian (or aboriginal) word, as was Missi-tuk.

M. W. M.

1 Cambridge Historical Society Publication VII.

2 Winter and Two-penny brooks.

3 See Register, Vol. XIII, p. 7.

4 See Register, Vol. XVII, p. 15.

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