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More about the turnpike

There has recently come into the possession of the Medford Historical Society the record book of the Medford Turnpike Corporation. Of its two hundred and sixty-eight pages, one hundred and forty-one are occupied with the act of incorporation, passed March 2, 1803, the records of various contracts, and of stockholders' and directors' meetings, closing with that of January 24, 1866. Its unruled pages are enclosed in stiff board covers, eight by thirteen inches in size. These were once covered with two layers of leather, shown by fragments remaining and folded over the edges, and fly-leaves securely pasted over them. On the first of the latter, in the upper left-hand, appears (in pencil), ‘3 Qr. $1.50.’

Following the transcript of the charter is a copy of advertisement in the Centinel, calling the first meeting to be held on April 11, 1803, at the tavern of Hezekiah Blanchard, Jr. Benjamin Hall was its moderator, and Luther Stearns clerk, continuing as such until 1821.

This is the book referred to by Mr. Hooper in this issue. Since his article was written there has been published a work entitled, ‘The Turnpikes of New England.’ Its author, a civil engineer, in preparing a report on some public utility, ventured (as he says) into the historical side of the matter. Search in an extensive library, under the head of turnpikes, yielded him nothing but in one instance, and that a work of fiction. Nothing daunted, he began to gather authentic facts, with a magazine article in prospect. The work grew in his hands, until now after twelve years of remarkable research, a volume of over four hundred pages is the result.

Among the fine illustrations are eight views in Medford. [p. 11] One hundred and fifty pages are devoted to ‘Turnpikes of Massachusetts,’ some seventy in number. If the author could have seen this old record book he would have found some of his deductions relative to Medford turnpike (which he reached by sound reasoning rather than by any real evidence) well sustained, and they were contrary to those expressed in history of Medford. With data therefrom, his very readable Medford page might have been quadrupled.

The first thirty years of the nineteenth century was the era of canal and turnpike development. In whose brain the idea of a level road to Charlestown, in two unbroken straight lines, originated, we cannot say; probably that of Benjamin Hall, then the leading business man of Medford, who took one-tenth of its capital stock.

Medford was, in 1803, a town of but twelve hundred inhabitants, its only direct route to Boston being the old road over the top of Winter hill, through Charlestown to the Charles river bridge but fourteen years built. It was a long, hard pull up and over the hill, not only for the local teams, but for the much greater volume of traffic and the stages from northern Middlesex and New Hampshire. So this new, shorter, and level route was apparently a feasible, practical and desirable investment. Steam travel was then thirty years in the future, electric power unheard of, and the automobile undreamed of.

There were no serious engineering problems to cope with. It crossed but two water-courses, Two-penny and Winter brooks, both insignificant, though Captain Adams was very early inquiring about their ‘culvits,’ the sluices the charter required. More expensive to build and maintain was the bridge by which it crossed the Middlesex canal near its terminal in Charlestown.

Only at one other point were they two close neighbors —where they crossed the town line. The canal, only the previous year, had used about all the available space in the base of the ledgy hill for its course, and the turnpike company had to build a ‘river wall’ for some distance [p. 12] to sustain its road. In 1840 this was rebuilt by Messrs. Ackerman & Co. for a dozen rods for $351.00. This locality was commonly known as the ‘Rock,’1 and was the place where the adroit stage-drivers, in passing, sprinkled a few drops of Concord river water from the canal into the salt Mystic with their whip-lashes to the passengers' amusement.

For the greater part of its length of three and a half miles its mode of construction was simple. The marsh mud dug from a dozen feet on each edge of the six-rod lay-out was piled upon the central space, and the embankment thus formed surfaced with gravel, hauled on by the ‘two yoke of oxen’ in a ‘broad-wheeled wagon,’ the record mentions.

At our present reading, and considering the wages paid a century ago, it seems as if the company paid big money for some of its land, and much more for construction, to have expended $44,000.00 thereon, to say nothing of the continual resurfacing required.

Once entered upon this road, the traveler was compelled to follow its course, as the ditch on either side was either filled by tidewater or would mire him if he attempted to cross to the public road before reaching the toll-gate. Though there were a few bridges across the intervening canal, they were private property, and their approaches closed.

There was one, however, beyond the ‘Rock,’ that gave trouble, and special legislation was secured to protect the company from the ‘Shunpikers’ that made a practice of evading toll by using General Derby's lane across Ten Hills farm to present Broadway. Between this and ‘Ploughed hill’ (later known as Mt. Benedict) was the ‘dyked marsh’ and clay land, with numerous brickyards. The site of some of these later became a nuisance, abated by the city of Somerville in the early seventies by the making of its park and widening of Broadway. [p. 13]

On the summit of Ploughed hill was, in 1826, erected the convent of St. Ursula, burned by a mob from Boston on the night of August 1, 1834. It is said that the courage of the rioters was largely increased by the ‘arrival of a barrel of rum from Medford.’ Of this we cannot with certainty say, but the blackened ruins of the walls stood, witnessing to the disgraceful proceeding, for more than thirty-four years, when the hill began to be reduced to the present grade.

As the toll-gate and keeper's house was at the base of Ploughed hill, quite near the southern end, it is evident that the Shunpikers were inward bound.

The question is naturally asked, ‘Was the turnpike a paying proposition?’ Major Wood in his work says,

Of course no turnpike was a gilt-edged security, but the Medford must have been one of the best and a moderate dividend payer.

From the record book it is difficult to say just when its first was paid. Under date of January 6, 1810,is—


That instead of making a dividend for the quarter which ended on the first day of the present month that the Treasurer be authorized to purchase one acre of gravel land adjoining the turnpike and canal at or under three hundred dollars and that previously to his making the payment that he be requested to be satisfyed with the title and to have a deed in the name of the Medford Turnpike Corporation and have the same immediately put on record

This vote is in the elegant handwriting of George L. Stearns, son of the clerk. It alludes to the continual repair that was needful.

The first recorded dividend is of date January 1, 1812, $4.00; the second recorded, July 5, 1813, $4.00. There may have been dividends paid prior to the above, as by the record of October 12, 1804, it was voted

That the first dividend of the toll shall be made by the standing committee on the first day of January 1805 and that dividends shall be made quarterly ever afterwards

Doctor Stearns died suddenly in 1820, and was succeeded [p. 14] by 'Squire Abner Bartlett, who served for twenty-one years, and his record, clear and explicit, in good black ink in characters as formidable as the turnpike gates, makes no mention whatever of dividends. James O. Curtis succeeded him in 1841, and on June 29, 1842, Recorded—

Voted to make a dividend of two dollars on a share from the funds in the treasury, it being the 108 dividend

After ten years George Curtis succeeded to the office of clerk and served thirteen years. He recorded the remaining dividends, the last, September 15, 1860. The two preceding had resulted from the sale of gravel land purchased from the canal company at its closure, and the last (the 129th) from the sale of the toll-house, $6.00 to each of the one hundred shares.

Unlike its unfortunate neighbor, the canal, the turnpike now had no available or salable holdings, and for six years held its annual meetings, elected officers, voted a compensation of $15.00 to its agent and $5.00 to the clerk. Its last record, January 24, 1866, tells its pathetic story,

That the Directors be directed to petition the Legislature to abandon the Medford Turnpike

Voted, to dissolve.

A pencilled line follows—

Petition presented in House Jan 27 ‘66

After sixty-three years the original stockholders had passed on and their shares were held by their heirs or assigns by purchase in its better days. To them there was nothing coming.

It would be of interest to know just what was realized in dividends for the use of the $440.00 per share invested in 1803-4. The Middlesex canal, on ceasing to pay dividends in 1843 had returned to its stockholders 1.39 per cent. on their investment, but had the proceeds of its property to distribute at the last. It was styled financially a dismal failure. [p. 15]

We have not the data by which to make such a computation of the turnpike as was made by the canal agent in 1843. We fear that could such be obtained, if ever the treasurer's books reappear, the Medford turnpike will make a more dismal showing.

M. W. M.

1 See register, Vol. XIII, p. 79.

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