Boston Rambles

Boston Rambles

A Rambler Walks and Talks About the Hub of the Universe

Across the Muddy River

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The Muddy River at Washington Street Brookline. This humble stream marks the boundary between Boston and Brookline. Prior to the development of the Emerald Necklace in the late nineteenth century, this river would have flown relatively freely from Jamaica Pond and, at this point, began to widen as it emptied into what used to be the large marsh known as the Fens. This was the first point sufficiently narrow enough to cross the water separating Boston from the western hinterlands, and a bridge was built here before 1640. Fenway Park is built on landfill of what once was the Fens, hence the name.

The Muddy River at Washington Street in Brookline is unimpressive. Water from Leverett Pond on the south passes through a culvert under the street and drains into a small, almost unnoticeable creek on the north side, to continue to eventually to the Charles River.  And yet, merely by crossing the narrow ‘stream’ below the latest in a long series of bridges at this spot dating to the late 1630s, (see reference 1 below) I have entered a new town in a new county. This entry of Boston Rambles begins by leaving Boston. As I explained in the previous entry, the focus of the next few entries will be on the routes out of town in Colonial Boston, specifically the routes that led west out of Boston into interior Massachusetts.  As all the nearby towns are part of the Boston Metropolitan Area, I am not yet straying beyond the borders of my defined parameters. However, that may change in future entries as I embrace the larger meaning of the title of this project and “ramble” about subjects less directly associated with the actual physical boundaries of the city and its satellite towns.

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Detail of Henry Pelham’s 1777 Map of Boston area showing the road from Roxbury (at bottom) crossing the Muddy River, after which the road splits, with one fork leading to Newton (at left). The road to the right forks again, the right-hand road leading to Cambridge (top right) and the left-hand road leading to Watertown (top left). Also note Sewal’s (sic) farm at center right, mentioned in the entry Exit Timing. Today, the road from Roxbury is Huntington Avenue, the Road to Watertown is Washington Street, the road to Cambridge is Harvard Street, and the road to Newton is Walnut Street. Also note the spelling of the town of Brookline at the time.

The number of roads that connected the town of Boston to the surrounding towns in the eighteenth century was so limited that it is possible to describe all the roads leading to virtually every town to the west and south of Boston in this paragraph. The single road out of Boston down Boston Neck split into three in Roxbury, two heading to Milton and beyond, and the third leading to Dedham and Cambridge. Taking the third road, the road to the right, we shortly come to another fork, with the left hand road leading to Dedham and eventually to New York and beyond. The road to the right also lead eventually to New York but followed an interior course west to Springfield, and then south down the Connecticut River valley where it joined the above road from Dedham at New Haven, Connecticut. If one followed the right-hand road (at this junction referred to as the road to Cambridge) it lead out of Roxbury, across the Muddy River, and into Brookline (see adjacent map), where the road split twice in swift succession. At the first junction, the road to the left was the original road leading to Newton, now known as Walnut Street, and will be examined in due course.  Again taking the road to the right at the first intersection, we come to the intersection where our walk to Watertown truly begins. The focus of this entry and the following entry will be on the road to the left at this final intersection, shown in the photograph above, the 4.5 miles historic path from Brookline Village leading to the bridge over the Charles at Watertown. The route to Cambridge (the road to the right in the photograph) was covered in a previous entry, as were all the other roads I have mentioned above.

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Brookline Village. The road to the left is Washington Street, the old Watertown Road. The road to the right is Harvard Street, the old Cambridge Road. This entry and the next follow Washington Street through Brookline, Brighton, and Newton, to the bridge over the Charles River at Watertown.

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The landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace forms much of the modern boundary between Brookline and Boston, but it is, in this area, the same Muddy River that has always been here. The old road leading out of Boston and Roxbury is today’s Huntington Avenue at this boundary.  Also called Route 9, the heavily-trafficked road passes under a bridge and becomes Washington Street in Brookline after noisily bisecting the tranquil park. The area to the south of this busy road, beginning at Leverett Pond and leading to Jamaica Pond, is bordered on the Boston side by the Jamaicaway, while Olmsted’s park to the north is bounded by a continuation of the same road, now called the Riverway until the old Sears Building is reached, where the road then continues as the well-known Fenway of baseball fame (the park is named for the area not vice-versa).(2)

Pelham’s map of 1777 above shows the road to Brookline crossing a river leading from Jamaica Pond and flowing into the Back Bay. Olmsted transformed what is still called the Muddy River into a verdant park in the late nineteenth century, filling in much of the marshy area to north and east side of the old road (today’s Riverway and Fenway). A quick glance at the intersection of the Muddy River and the road to Brookline on DeCosta’s map of 1775 (in the previous entry) is one of the clearest illustrations of the reason the old road from Boston to Cambridge is so seemingly circuitous. The negotiation of easy water crossings, not the paths created by meandering cows as is often mooted, is one of the primary reasons for the often tortuous routes the old roads followed.

The walk described in this and the following entry is the pink line on the Boston Rambles map. The green line is the road to Cambridge previously described. All the other roads shown above have also been described in previous entries.

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Washington Street curves to the right away from the Worcester Turnpike, today’s Boylston Street, or Route 9. The old road to Newton, today’s Walnut Street, splits off to the left here (out of view of the photo), and leads to the earliest area of settlement in what was originally Muddy River. The building at center is the Brookline Savings Bank Building dating to the 1920s. Today it serves as a ‘medical marijuana’ dispensary.

If the sign indicating that we have entered Brookline were missing, it would be difficult to know that we have now left the city limits of Boston and entered not only a new town but also a new county entirely, as Brookline is curiously located in Norfolk County, miles from any other town in the county such as Quincy, Dedham, or Wellesley. Indeed, to reach any other town in Norfolk County, the resident of Brookline is required to pass through either Suffolk County or Middlesex County. This quirk is the result of a decision in 1873 taken by the residents of Brookline not to be annexed by the expanding city of Boston. Kenneth Jackson, in his book Crabgrass Frontier,  explains that Brookline was one of the first towns in the country to reject the trend toward annexation by the larger nearby city and led to others around the country in a ‘suburbanization’ movement.(3)  The towns of Roxbury, Dorchester, and West Roxbury (including Jamaica Plain and Roslindale) were a part of Norfolk County until annexation to Boston (Suffolk County) in 1868, 1870, and 1874 respectively. The town of Newton was part of Middlesex County, and so Brookline became a town physically isolated from the rest of its county (see also Curtis, pp 279-283, reference 4 below).

The earliest settlement of  what was called Muddy River was largely comprised of farms run by landlords who primarily resided in the town of Boston and rented the land to landless farmers. Such an arrangement existed for Judge Samuel Sewall, who often describes visiting his farm while en route to another town to hear a sermon or in his capacity as a justice ‘riding the circuit’. Muddy River formally became the town of Brookline in 1705, but remained an agricultural community throughout the eighteenth century. In 1796 the total number of houses in the town numbered 72 (Little p.14). The population at the first Census in 1790 listed 484 residents, increasing to a mere 605 inhabitants in 1800. By contrast the Census Bureau estimate for the population of the town of Brookline in 2015 is 59,195 inhabitants, almost one hundred times the 1800 population.

As the population of Boston increased rapidly in the mid-nineteenth century, many wealthier residents moved out of the increasingly crowded city and into the nearby bucolic areas such as Jamaica Plain and Brookline. The continued expansion of the population of the city eventually impacted even the separatist residents of Brookline. Nina Fletcher Little, in Some Old Brookline Houses  notes that by 1948 “The north end of Brookline …changed more than any other part of the town. In the thriving business sections of the village and Coolidge Corner most of the old landmarks have been obliterated, although Washington and Harvard Streets are among the oldest thoroughfares.”(p.137).

It is hard to imagine today that Washington Street leading into Brookline Village was once a country lane, frequented mostly by travelers heading in or out of Boston. Large office buildings line the road to the right and a large apartment complex takes up the first block past Olmsted’s park on the left hand side of the street. As early as 1800 many speculators saw money to be made by improving the roads leading into and out of Boston and today’s Route 9 here is an example of one of the earliest of the new ‘turnpikes’ that were built to shorten the distance between Boston and other regions. Today’s busy Route 9 was originally the Worcester Turnpike, and I will come back to this spot in a future entry to talk about the development of these new roads. But fortunately Washington Street curves to the right away from the heavily trafficked road into the busy but much more pleasant Brookline Village.

From the Brookline-Boston border to the split of the two old roads is only 0.3 miles, after which the road to Watertown continues uninterrupted as Washington Street through Brookline and Brighton to Newton Corner 3.8 miles further on. What remains of the historic road and the old structures that once lined the road as it wound through the countryside? The earliest record of the road dates to 1657 when records of town meeting in Muddy River, Cambridge, and Watertown record the decision to lay out a highway to the mill at Watertown (Curtis, p. 36). It is highly likely the ‘highway’ existed long before it was officially created as a path to the first set of waterfalls on the Charles, where evidence of Indian fish weirs has been documented. Nonetheless, the official ‘highway’ to Watertown, four rods (66 feet) wide, came into being in the spring of 1657.

As late as 1844 fewer than two dozen structures can be seen along Washington Street on Woodward’s map of Brookline, including two churches and the Town House. The majority of these structures are to be found on the quarter mile stretch from the split with Harvard Street to the intersection with Cypress and School Street, and even today this is one of the main centers of activity in Brookline. On the right are the Town Hall (in the same spot it is found on Woodward’s map of 1844) and the Library, while on the left is the Police and Fire Station and on both sides before and after these civic buildings are many shops and restaurants. The original commercial center of Brookline into the nineteenth century, the Village today is still a center of civic importance but the commercial center has long since shifted to Coolidge Corner. That the road was important for local merchants is illustrated by the fact that the town sent a petition of protest to the Massachusetts General Court in 1792 in response to the plan to build a bridge from West Boston to Cambridge across the Charles River.(2) The bridge was built and is today’s Longfellow Bridge.

1844 Brookline Woodward detail

Detail from map of Brookline by E.F. Woodward. The map shows both the road to Cambridge and the road to Watertown. Also shown are the Mill Dam road, now Brookline Avenue, Walnut Street, and Boylston Street, better known as the Worcester Turnpike or Route 9. Brookline is remarkably empty even at this late date.

Brookline today remains a wealthy town, with a highly respected School system and concomitantly high real estate prices. My wife and I got so used to our friends and neighbors moving to Brookline to take advantage of the schools that we would jokingly say “start the five year clock” whenever one of them was expecting a baby, in anticipation of a move to Brookline timed with the aforementioned baby’s entry into first grade. The many small boutiques and restaurants lining the streets of the village center are a reflection of the relative wealth of the residents of the area, in stark contrast to the scenery I have passed while walking along the previous four miles of the old road.

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Replica of the mansion of John Hancock which once stood on what are today the grounds of the State House on Beacon Hill overlooking Boston Common.

After passing through Brookline Village, the road gradually heads uphill, passing a notable variety of residential buildings spanning the late-nineteenth to the early twenty-first centuries. Remarkably though, there is scant evidence of any buildings from the Colonial period, unlike the old roads I have previously traveled.  The most interesting house along the mile or so walk along Washington Street to the intersection of Beacon Street is a replica of the mansion of John Hancock which once stood on what is now the grounds of the State House on Beacon Hill.

Fifteen minutes walk from the center of Brookline Village brings me to Washington Square, another small commercial area with more than a few pricey restaurants. Crossing busy Beacon Street, Washington Street continues to wind slowly upwards through the ‘pass’ between Aspinwall and Corey Hill. Once again I am reminded that it is by walking that I truly appreciate the topography of the city and understand why the oldest roads evolved as they did. Boston is situated in a low basin and any route out of the city at some point requires an uphill climb. All the routes I have covered have a similar pattern of winding through the path providing the least amount of climbing, but climbing is unavoidable. Perhaps the slightly longer route through Cambridge was preferred by some, as I mentioned in the previous entry, for the reason that it is the sole path that has little elevation change, as it follows the original contours of the Back Bay.

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View of Washington Street in Brookline Village from the steps of the Town Library. In this block, as recently as 1948, stood two eighteenth century houses

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One of the many fine houses along Washington Street from Brookline Village to Wahington Square.

After only a quarter of a mile, a mere five minutes walk from Washington Square, I reach the boundary between Brookline and Brighton, demarcated by a Whole Foods Market, which is, unsurprisingly, located in Brighton and not in Brookline. This last section of the walk has a distinctly different feel from the previous section of the walk. Besides the grocery store and gas station just over the town line, the apartment buildings are more modest than the quite luxurious houses and apartment buildings along the road from Brookline Village to Washington Square. However, here in the mundane last few blocks of the town lies the one true treasure of the walk.

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View up Washington towards Washington Square.

Nina Fletcher Little published an interesting book that is exactly the kind of treasure I often find in local libraries, books with detailed descriptions of landmarks and roads from a previous era. This particular gift to people like myself who take an interest in peeling back the layers of history has the crystal clear title  Some Old Brookline Houses Built in This Massachusetts Town before 1825 and Still Standing in 1948 (Brookline Historical Society, 1949) and contains a map of all the houses mentioned in the title. Four houses are marked on the map along the route of today’s walk. Two of them were in Brookline Village proper: The Jonas Tolman House (1796) has, since the publication of Little’s book, been replaced by a center for war veterans, while the Samuel Croft House (1765) stood where the Police Station is now located. A third house, the Enos Withington House (1794) is also no more. However, as I approach Corey Road, the street marking the end of Brookline, I spy, modestly perched above the sidewalk on the left side of the road at 808 Washington Street, a lovely mansion dating to 1806. The Timothy Corey House is the sole remaining architectural legacy along this route of the Brookline that existed at the tail end of the era before the turnpikes and bridges, the railroads and the interstate highways made the old road to Watertown obsolete as a ‘highway’ to the west. The Corey family had a large farm in this area, hence the many geographical references to Corey and the house is clearly labeled on Woodward’s map above, although there were at the time four Corey houses, of which the last house in the row is the sole survivor.

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Timothy Corey House, a bucolic reminder of a time when Washington Street was a lightly populated but heavily traveled highway leading west out of Boston.

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Timothy Corey house, dating to about 1806, although modified greatly since that time, remains the only architectural legacy of the the historic highway to Watertown in the town of Brookline.

Brighton is of course a neighborhood of Boston and hence is in Suffolk County. Thus this walk has gone from Suffolk County through Norfolk County and back into Suffolk County and I will pick up in Brighton in the next entry. What if Brookline, which is surrounded on three sides by its bigger neighbor, had become part of Boston? What would Boston look like if the town of Brookline became a neighborhood of Boston today?  Boston would grow to 726,332 inhabitants, moving from 23rd to 18th in the putative largest city rankings (a list I have discussed in detail in previous entries). Boston would also be whiter, as Brookline is 73% White non-Hispanic to Boston’s 47%, according to the Census Bureau. It would also be wealthier: Brookline’s median income is close to $94,000 compared to $54,000 for Boston. Most interestingly, Boston would be at least as liberal as it already is, as Brookline gave Barack Obama 77.4% of the vote while in Boston Obama took 78.9%. The map of Boston would be neater, but then Boston and its geography has never been particularly neat. Brookline may not be a physical part of Boston, but the home of the owners of the Red Sox and the Patriots is, like Cambridge and Somerville and other adjacent towns, part of the larger idea of Boston that is at the heart of these rambles.

1. Muddy River and Town of Brookline Records Boston: J.E. Farrell & Co., 1875, p.29

2. For a detailed description of Olmsted’s project as well as an in depth study of the various reclamation projects in Boston see Nancy S. Seasholes, Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston, Boston: MIT Press, 2003.

3. Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

4. John Gould Curtis, History of the Town of Brookline, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1933.

5. Nina Fletcher Little,  Some Old Brookline Houses Built in This Massachusetts Town before 1825 and Still Standing in 1948, Brookline Historical Society, 1949.

 

Brookline Walk: distance from Muddy River to Brighton line 1.6 miles
 

 

 

 

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