“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there “
Opening line from The Go-Between, by L.P. Hartley, 1953.
I had the great good fortune some years ago to study with the late Eugen Weber, one of the most charismatic lecturers I have had the pleasure to hear. Fortunately for us, many of his lectures survive on the internet: I urge you to try just this one as a sample. My introduction to Weber was in a course on modern France: he began the course by intoning dramatically the epigraph that begins this entry in his wonderful accent (which to me is the sound of Mitteleuropa, as if he is a character from The Grand Budapest Hotel ). He elucidated and I understood him to mean that even with those documents of the past whose texts seem clear to the modern reader, one should be cautious about assuming an understanding of the full intent and meaning of the writer; that context is what matters, and that one should refrain from attaching modern morality and ideology to figures and events from the past.
I have traveled to a few countries, most recently to India, but also to Mexico, China, Spain, and Malaysia, to name a few disparate places. They too, by definition, are foreign and require both careful observation and reflection to comprehend what and why things are the way they are and how they got to be that way. I maintain that the local street under my feet that I have traveled many times can be just as foreign, which is why I am just as interested in a milestone in Allston as I am in the Great Wall of China or the Taj Mahal. The streets often feel familiar to me but I am mindful of the fact that this is an illusion, that even the extant artifacts I encounter along the way likely had a different meaning to the eighteenth century traveler for example. I try to walk along these roads with open eyes and also with an open mind, alert to the complexity of the contemporary composition of the areas through which I pass and to the manifold connections to the past represented by each building or river or hill.
Many of the roads in Boston are very old and events have happened along these roads that are long forgotten or are hard to understand. For some the roads were once familiar, but perhaps became unfamiliar over time for many reasons. Friends and family leave, there are fewer reasons to head in this direction, time passes and the area starts to change and feel foreign. The present becomes the past, the participants and even the landmarks change, the past becomes history and is foreign even to those for whom it was once familiar. Also foreign to many is the changing dynamic of neighborhoods that were once familiar. New groups replace the old groups that in turn replaced another group of people and the new people are sometimes both literally and figuratively foreign to the people who once thought they knew the place which the newcomers have now made their own familiar territory. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the disastrous election of Donald Trump. People do not like change, things have changed, some people feel alienated by the change and feel a nostalgia for a time which no longer exists or, in fact, never existed.
As I stand in front of the Whole Foods Market on Washington Street in Brighton, just over the border from Brookline, I am in familiar territory. For many years this was one of the most convenient grocery stores for us to reach on the T (MBTA Green Line C Trolley for those who are unfamiliar with our colloquial name for the transit system in Boston). We had two sets of good friends who lived within a five minute walk from this spot; both have long since decamped to much more distant locations not within the purview of this project. There are also a number of restaurants in the area that we have frequented over the years. I have been on this road many times in the past. It is a part of “my” Boston. However, my life has shifted in a different direction, both literally and figuratively, over the last 25 years and the road seems much less familiar to me than in the past. Some of my touchstones are still here, others have gone, and some I have forgotten.
The fact that the separate town of Brookline (or Cambridge or Somerville) is without question part of my Boston suggests that Boston is a state of mind rather than a geographically limited city. As I have discussed in previous entries, lists of the largest cities in America that have places like Jacksonville, San Antonio, and Indianapolis ranked as larger than Boston drive me to distraction, as they are the product of the types of games Boston and other large Eastern and Midwestern cities played in the nineteenth centuries but had mostly discontinued by the twentieth century. Today’s version is the consolidated city-county government, which merges the city government with the (usually) much larger county in which it located to create a much larger construct both in terms of geography as well as in population. I have speculated about what a city of Boston that had gone even wilder with annexations would look like and how it would rank and have shown that it is very easy to create a very large city by “annexing” only a few towns around Boston that are geographically quite close (Cambridge, Quincy, Brookline, Somerville, Newton and so on).
However, it is as a long-time resident of Boston that I can sense whether a place ‘feels‘ like it is Boston or whether it starts to be a suburb or even an area I would say is not in the Boston orbit. This spot, along Washington Street at Corey Road on the Brookline-Brighton line, is definitely still part of what I think of as the ‘core’ of Boston. The further out I walk, the more tenuous the links will become but the walk described here, from the Brookline line across Brighton, through a small part of Newton, and into Watertown to the bridge over the Charles River in Watertown is still mostly in familiar territory. As always, however, I am also on the lookout for ‘foreign’ elements, geographical, cultural, or historical.
“The Roxbury Path… was the great thoroughfare from Boston, passing over the Neck, through Roxbury, Brookline, Newton, and over Mill Bridge, thence westward to New York, and then to the southward, and was for a long time the principal road in the colonies”,
Francis Drake, History of Middlesex County, Vol 2, p. 435.
The walk across Brookline along Washington Street described in the previous entry, from the Muddy River border between Boston and Brookline to the Whole Foods Market on the Brookline-Brighton line covers a distance of 1.7 miles. I started in the city limits of Boston and ended back in the city of Boston. If I had taken this exact walk in 1870, I would have set foot in three separate towns in three separate counties: Boston (Suffolk), Brookline (Norfolk), and Brighton (Middlesex). Today Brighton is part of Boston and Brookline is not, as discussed in the previous entry. In the decade or so after the Civil War, the makeup of the city of Boston and it’s hinterlands was dramatically transformed. As I mentioned in previous entries, Roxbury was for over two centuries a separate town from Boston but was annexed by the expanding city in 1868,while Dorchester was annexed in 1870. The Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, and West Roxbury sections of Roxbury, which had seceded in 1851 from Roxbury, held out for another half dozen years as a separate entity before also being brought into the Boston fold in 1874. Brighton, the subject of this entry, was also annexed to Boston in 1874, but had been a part of Cambridge until 1807 when it became a separate town in its own right, in Middlesex County. The musical chairs played with towns in the latter half of the nineteenth century is a fascinating and confusing topic, and the unique development of Boston as a city both in shape and size is largely the result of these various attempts, both successful and unsuccessful, to annex more territory, a topic given a much more substantial and interesting treatment in Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier.¹
I will now perform an invaluable service to many of my readers, explaining the difference between Allston and Brighton. As I have described in many entries, the road from Roxbury split at Brookline, with one road heading to Harvard Square via today’s Harvard Avenue, while the other followed Washington Street to Watertown. The first road passes through Allston, the second road, today’s walk, passes through Brighton. Both are neighborhoods of Boston and both once together comprised the town of Brighton. Allston is the eastern portion of the Brighton shown in the map below by Hales from 1829 (basically everything to the right of the G in Brighton. Today’s Brighton is the western portion of the old town (everything left of the G in Brighton. Allston was the name given to the station stop of the railroad line that ran through the area from Boston (which continues today as the Commuter Rail line to Worcester). The station is still in existence, serving as a branch of Pizzeria Regina, visible from the MassPike, at the intersection of Harvard Avenue and Cambridge Street, along the old road to Harvard Square. The neighborhood was named for the painter Washington Allston, who lived nearby in Cambridgeport. After the filling in of the Back Bay, development west from Kenmore Square was swift and the area of Allston grew rapidly in the second half of the nineteenth century, eventually taking on it’s own distinct identity. Today it is known as a densely populated student neighborhood but, as is clear from the map below, the area comprised only a very few houses in 1829, although what are now Western Avenue, Brighton Avenue, and Cambridge Street had been completed. Indeed it was the proposal to build Cambridge Street which was the catalyst for Brighton to break free from Cambridge.
Boston’s twisted streets are often said to have been created by cows. Although this is a canard, in the case of Brighton it can be said truthfully that the streets as well as the town were in part the creation of cows. Indeed the origins of Brighton as a settlement date to the 1630s when the area across the Charles River from the village of Cambridge was used as grazing land for cattle.² The area west of Boston and Roxbury and south of the Charles River was, by the early eighteenth century, divided into Brookline, Newton, and what was known as ‘Little Cambridge’, today’s Allston and Brighton. The nineteenth century chronicler of local history, Samuel Francis Drake, summarized the peripatetic history of Brighton succintly in The Memorial History of Boston, saying “that part of ancient Cambridge lying south of Charles River, formerly bearing the various designations of “The south side of the river,” “The third parish,” ” The third precinct,” “ South Cambridge,” or “Little Cambridge,” and afterwards of Brighton, was set off as a separate parish, April 2, 1779; was incorporated as the town of Brighton February 24, 1807; and was annexed to Boston, of which it now constitutes the 25th ward, by an Act of the Legislature approved May 21, 1873, and which took effect January 5, 1874. It is bounded north and east by Watertown and Cambridge, from which it is separated by the Charles River; southeast and south by Brookline; and west by Newton.”³
What Drake does not say in his pithy history is that the very divide of the Charles River was the source of much of the friction which ultimately led to Brighton splitting from Cambridge. In 1775 a cattle market was established in Brighton and became particularly important once George Washington arrived to command the Continental Army as it sought to eject the occupying forces from the town of Boston, which Washington’s troops surrounded. The primary destination of the cattle from Brighton was in Cambridge, where Washington maintained his headquarters.
The bridge over the Charles to Cambridge was largely neglected and was the source of much consternation to the residents of the south side of the river, who frequently complained about the difficulty of travel to Harvard Square to attend church in addition to the difficulty of bringing cattle across a rickety structure. As the ubiquitous Francis Drake tells us, this time in the History of Middlesex County, of which Brighton was a part until its annexation to Boston “We must remember that a portion of North Harvard Street, which now we count so easy and pleasant a walk to the Colleges, was, in the winters of early years, so encumbered with floating ice from the rapid Charles River as to be often dangerous for travel. Many, in going from Market Square on this side, even in light sleighs, preferred the circuitous course by Newton Corner and Watertown to the shorter but obstructed causeway” and quotes from a petition of 1774 to Governor Thomas Hutchinson from the residents of Little Cambridge “we beg leave to inform you that about forty Years Past, the Gospel was first Preached amongst us, it being impracticable when the tides were high, and the Snow and Ice lodged on the Causeway Leading to the Town of Cambridge, to pass and repass.” The latter problem was solved by the establishment of a separate parish for Little Cambridge in 1779.
Once independent from Great Britain, The United States from the earliest days embarked upon a major infrastructure boom and Boston was in the vanguard. A bridge connecting Boston and Cambridge directly, the West Boston Bridge (roughly today’s Longfellow Bridge), was built in 1793, shortening the circuitous route through Brookline and Allston-Brighton by several miles, and reducing the importance of Brighton to the greater part of Cambridge on the other side of the river, particularly as the population of East Cambridge rapidly expanded. In an effort to revive business, the residents of Little Cambridge proposed construction of what is today Cambridge Street, in order to provide a more direct route for people, cattle, and provisions to reach the large population of Boston. This was rejected by the majority of the population on the Cambridge side and the town of Brighton took this as their cue to petition for separation, which was achieved in 1807 (Marchione, pp.28-9).
At the intersection of Washington Street and Commonwealth Avenue I reach a high point on the road from Boston to Watertown. As the gradual incline through Brookline levels off here, there is a fine view over the Boston Basin from this vantage point of almost 160 feet above sea level. There is also a view over the Charles River basin as I continue across Commonwealth Avenue in Brighton. Again I am very conscious of the topography as I walk. As Boston is at sea level and is essentially in a bowl, any road leading out would inevitably hit a hill of some sort. This road passed through Corey and Aspinwall Hill to reach this plateau, but as is apparent as I walk on I will soon head sharply downhill to reach Brighton Center. Crossing Commonwealth Avenue also represents the crossing of a boundary of sorts for me. Although I have been to Brighton a few times over the years, this area is outside my normal range and so represents ‘foreign’ territory to me.
Washington Street from Commonwealth Avenue down the hill a half mile to Cambridge Street has a split personality. On the left hand side is a collection of modest, primarily twentieth century houses, while on the right hand side are a series of large institutional campuses. The first observation I can make about this part of Brighton based on the modest apartment buildings on the left and the larger apartment buildings on the right owned by the Boston Housing Authority is that it is obviously not as well to do as Brookline. According to a report recently published by the Boston Development and Planning Agency entitled Boston in Context: Neighborhoods, Brighton’s population of about 48,000 residents has a per capita income of $31,210 compared to Brookline’s roughly $63,000 per capita for it’s nearly 60,000 inhabitants. Household income is similarly divergent: whereas the median household income in Brighton is about $50,000, in Brookline it is over $90,000. This disparity holds even for the least wealthy areas of Brookline: for example, the areas through which I just passed from the Boston line all the way across Brookline to Corey Street are the neighborhoods with the lowest per capita income in the town and the range is from $47,000 to $60,000.
Brighton is a neighborhood of new and old: two-thirds of the residents are White (Not Hispanic), and three quarters were born in the United States, but over a quarter were born abroad and one in eight is not a US Citizen. Although the Black population is a modest 4% of the population, the Hispanic population is over 10% and the Asian population is over 15%, a higher than average number for a Boston neighborhood, and much higher than the numbers for the state or the nation (5% US, 6% MA, 9% Boston).
Brighton is also a neighborhood with a large numbers of students. Almost 5,000 residents are students in graduate programs while nearly 9,000 are undergraduates. Unsurprisingly, it is a highly educated population, with over 61% of residents in possession of a bachelor’s degree or higher (compared to a rate of 30% for the US, 40% for Massachusetts, and 45% for the city of Boston), and over 75% of the properties in Brighton are renter occupied (compared to only 36% for a neighborhood like West Roxbury).
Brighton was not always a place for students and new arrivals. Until the Civil War it was primarily a town of farms and gardens along with the cattle market. Indeed, as principally an agricultural area, the population remained small for over two centuries. In 1688, according to Drake (Memorial History, p. 523), a mere 28 families (about 125 individuals) resided in ‘Little Cambridge’, while a century later, at the time of the first US Census in 1790 the population totaled a mere 350 souls. The expansion of Boston, particularly the filling of the Back Bay and the rapid increase in the immigrant population, particularly the Irish, brought increased population pressure to bear on the bucolic areas west of Boston. According to William Marchione, in 1860 over 60% of the land in Brighton was devoted to farming but by 1870 this number had declined to 21% of the land in the town (Marchione, p.68). Conversely, the population, already expanding in the decades prior to the Civil War, increased dramatically in the decade from 1860 to 1870, from 3375 to 4970 residents, a 50% increase. By 1930 the number of residents in Allston-Brighton exceeded 30,000 and today, if Allston, until annexation a part of Brighton, is included, the population exceeds 66,000 residents.
Where was I? Oh yes, the view from the heights of this area is quite impressive. Or it would be if there were not so many buildings in the way. After I pass the apartment buildings, red brick early twentieth century ones on the left, mostly rentals, some condo buildings with units ranging from 400-700 square feet (pretty small!) the ones on the right serving as public housing for the City of Boston, I reach an area with more modest houses on the left, most of which are owned by families whose last names are mainly of Chinese origin (according to my analysis of assessment records). On the right is an old house (probably dating from the late nineteenth century based on my examination of old maps of the area) now serving as a synagogue. I learn from a bit of research that the congregation is in the process of tearing down the two modest buildings on the property to the right and replacing it with a large development , consisting of 73 residential apartments as well as a new synagogue and another religious structure called a ‘mikvah‘, which is apparently some form of bathing facility used for ritual immersion. The drawings of the proposed buildings appear to fill the entire property, which will add to the wall of buildings I have just passed.
But there is even more development in store further along Washington Street. I pass another apartment building, the St Gabriel School and Allston-Brighton ABCD Head Start, and reach Monastery Road. To the right is a verdant area through which a drive leads to a lovely abandoned building which was once a monastery. On Hales’ 1829 map of the Boston area, the word Pomeroy is written in large letters on the area to the right of Washington Street. This is a reference to Samuel Pomeroy, the owner at the time of the large estate that occupied most of the land on the hill to the right of Washington Street from Monastery Road down the hill to Brighton Square. The original estate dated to before 1750 and changed hands a number of times until ultimately, after the death of the last owner, the widow of David Nevins, the mansion was abandoned and the property acquired by the Catholic Church. It turns out that Archbishop (and later Cardinal) William O’Connell was pretty impressed with the view as well, and purchased the property, part of which was used for the creation of St. Gabriel’s Monastery. Viewed from the air, in a Google Earth view for instance, the property represents one of the few remaining green spaces in this area of the city. The monastery closed in 2006, and plans are currently afoot to develop the rest of the property, with plans for over 600 residential units and 400 parking spaces, thus building over one of the few large open spaces in Boston remaining from the Colonial era. The grounds of the monastery were developed by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted, and at the center sits the shuttered Mission Revival style monastery building from 1909, a truly unique building in Boston. The plans of the new development appear to retain the Monastery building as well as a portion of the Olmsted landscape bordering Washington Street, which would be welcome as the property, abandoned and abused as it is, is still quite lovely.
Hopefully the Monastery property will avoid the fate of the remaining part of the estate at the base of the hill, which is covered by the expansive campus of St Elizabeth’s Hospital, whose origins in Brighton also date from the early decades of the twentieth century and also involve the Catholic Church. Today the hospital, which moved in 1914 from the South End, takes up virtually every square foot of space from the monastery property to the intersection of Washington and Cambridge Streets.
A map of Brighton from 1875 shows that most of the area was still owned by a very few landowners, all with classic old New England White Anglo-Saxon (and almost certainly Protestant) names like David Nevins, Samuel Learned, James Dana, Horace Pierce, George Livermore, Cyrus Curtis and so on. Many of the large estates were slowly broken up and developed into the smaller houses and apartment buildings we see today, and the ownership transferred to people with names like O’Toole and Flaherty, reflecting the rise of the Irish population, while most of the property to the east of Washington Street was owned until recently by the Catholic Church. Today many of the houses and small buildings are owned by people named Najjar, Cuervo, Yee, Chin, and Polyhronopoulus, and the larger buildings are mostly owned by developers with bland corporate names like Washington Associates LLC, as well as being home to a city-owned housing project and a synagogue.
I find this development fascinating, especially in light of the history of Brighton. As the number of immigrants surged in the mid-nineteenth century, hostility to their presence also increased, giving rise to a political movement called the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, widely known as the ‘Know-Nothings’. Massachusetts was a hotbed of anti-immigrant sentiment, and in the election of 1854 the party took control of the state legislature and elected a prominent anti-immigrant leader from Dorchester named Henry J. Gardner as Governor of the Commonwealth.
The ‘Know-Nothings’, so-named for their secrecy, were popular in Brighton, according to William Marchione (p. 65); Gardner took 60% of the Brighton vote in 1854 in a field of four candidates. The movement was quite successful for a short period in the mid-1850s but began to wane almost as quickly as it arose; by 1857 Gardner finished second in a three candidate field with only 35% of the vote. In an ironic twist, the most prominent estate of the 1850s, the Bellevue property of David Nevins, which encompassed virtually the entire hill on the right hand side of Washington Street from Monastery Road to the intersection with Cambridge Street in Brighton Center, was purchased by the Archdiocese of Boston under the direction of Archbishop O’Connell, in the early twentieth century. Nevins, according to William Marchione in his History of Allston-Brighton, “was so fervently nativist in his sentiments that he refused to employ Irish as servants or laborers in any capacity. Once, when the roof of his mansion was leaking, and no Yankee workman could be found to make repairs, he chose to allow the rain to pour in rather than employ an Irish carpenter.” (p.64)
The parallels between Brighton in the 1850s and large swathes of White America in 2016 are striking. The appeals to religious and cultural antipathy are all too clear: in 1854 anti-Catholicism and anti-Irish and German sentiments were high as perceptions of immigrant hordes with a deviant culture were taking over America. Today, we are witnessing a paroxysm of anti-Muslim fervor and a backlash against the rapidly increasing Hispanic population. Hopefully this spasm of bile will subside as quickly as the nativist upheaval of the 1850s. Many of the ancestors of the very people who want to ‘Make America Great Again’ are the very people who were not wanted in the 1850s. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The walk down the hill on Washington Street from Commonwealth Avenue is about a half-mile in length. At the bottom of the hill, at the intersection of Washington and Cambridge Street, is the main entrance to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Cambridge Street is the road we mentioned earlier which led to the creation of the town of Brighton in 1807. Here Washington Street turns sharply left and we enter the much more developed commercial center of Brighton. Were I to turn right onto Cambridge Street, it is almost exactly one mile to the intersection with Harvard Avenue in Allston which continues into Harvard Square and is the alternative land route out of Boston to reach points west. The road from Boston, as discussed in previous entries, split into two roads at Brookline Village, which is exactly two miles from the intersection where I currently stand. The two roads, which have been slowly diverging from each other in a V-shape, now sharply diverge at this point, the road I am on heading due west while Harvard Avenue heads northeast to cross the Charles River over the Anderson Memorial Bridge. The two roads then reconnect at Watertown Square. The little ‘triangle’ I described, consisting of Cambridge Street, Washington Street, and Harvard Avenue has 2 sides that are about two miles in length and the ‘base’ is one mile in length; The large loop created by the remaining segments of each road to Watertown Square is almost 9 miles in length. In my mind this forms a giant ice cream cone, with the triangle forming the cone and the loop forming the scoop of ice cream.
Rather than repeat the history of Brighton on this stretch of the walk through Brighton Center I point the reader to the excellent article found on the website of the Brighton Allston Historical Society (BAHS) about the history of Brighton Center, replete with lots of great historical images. I will instead focus on what the road looks like today. It certainly is much more bustling than the previous stretch of Washington Street; I remember being pleasantly surprised at the vitality of this neighborhood center the first time I visited the area many years ago as I had an image of Brighton as a sedate residential neighborhood frankly out in the sticks!
I will borrow one image from the BAHS for this article as it has relevance to the road. At the corner of Cambridge Street and Washington Street, opposite St. Elizabeth’s Hospital is the current Allston-Brighton (District 14) Station of the Boston Police Department, built in the 1890s. On Hale’s 1829 map above, at dead center is the word Winship, which refers to the estate of Jonathan Winship II, built in 1820. The Winships were the founders of the aforementioned Cattle Market and the image of their mansion above, the site of the Police Station today, is a testament to the market’s profitability.
The Cattle Market is long gone; today Brighton’s main claims to fame are the headquarters of New Balance Company and WGBH, Boston’s Public Television Station (For those who watched ‘Zoom’ in the 1970s-they moved a few years ago to Brighton, zip code 02135 from Allston, zip code 02134). Both are off to the right along Market Street to the right as I reach the historic crossroads of Brighton Center, the junction of Market Street, Washington Street, and Chestnut Hill Avenue. Hale’s map shows the Cattle Fair and Agricultural Hall which was the site of the Brighton Fair and Cattle Show until the 1830s. The building labelled Agricultural Hall on the map appears to be off the main road somewhat; that is because the building was moved to the southeast corner of Chestnut Hill Avenue and Washington Street in 1844 and became a hotel. This building, which dates to 1818, still exists and is the oldest structure in Brighton’s commercial area, according to the Bostonian Society plaque affixed to the building.
There is much I could say about this area but I will need to save it for a walk around Brighton in a future entry. I pass Foster Street (named for the first minister of the Brighton Parish, John Foster, whose wife Hannah was the author of The Coquette, one of the most popular literary works of the day), the road begins to head downhill again as I enter what appears to be a narrow valley, with hills looming up on all sides of the road. After a few minutes I reach Oak Square passing en route a mixed neighborhood of modest housing, including triple-deckers, and businesses much more reflective of what one might expect to see in multicultural and diverse Boston: Dr Wong Traditional Chinese medicine, Pierikos Friends Soccer Club (presumably Greek), Teresa Market which sells burritos, two sushi places, Queen Bee Nails and Spa.
Oak Square is the other major intersection shown on Hale’s map; Faneuil Street comes in from the northeast, Nonantum Street heads southwest, and Washington Street comes in from the southeast and heads northwest. Oak Square is, unsurprisingly, named for a large oak tree, apparently the largest in Massachusetts at one time, that stood at the crossroads until the mid-nineteenth century. The area until the early 1900s was primarily horticultural in character, with a few estates on the higher reaches of the surrounding slopes. Nonantum Hill is also famous as the area where the Reverend John Eliot preached to the Indians in the 1640s, a very interesting story, but again one that will have to wait. The Brighton Allston Historical Society also has a very good web page dedicated to Oak Square that covers many interesting topics that would make this essay even longer. Another excellent page about Oak Square can be found here.
Although Nonantum Street is described as an old Indian path, the old ‘Post Road’ (Washington Street) heads straight up a hill. I have puzzled over this for quite some time as, in my experience, the old roads generally follow the path of least resistance and a road already existed. Washington Street, originally laid out in the middle of the seventeenth century as “the Roxbury Path, by which Roxbury people went to the grist-mill at Watertown”(Drake p.290), seems to disregard that tenet by heading directly up a fairly steep hill, instead of following Nonantum Street and then Waverly Street to reach Washington Street again near Newton Corner. However, Nonantum Street still reaches the same elevation, around 130 feet above sea level, that Washington Street reaches at the summit of Hunnewell Hill. Since the distance is about a half mile shorter along Washington Street than by Nonantum Street and then Waverley Avenue, it seems that the decision to build the ‘new’ road might have been simply to make a more direct path to the falls at Watertown. Evidence that Washington Street over Hunnewell Hill may in fact be the ‘proper Post Road’ can be seen on a survey map from 1775 shown below of the Boston area made by a pair of British army spies, Captain William Browne and Ensign Henry DeBerniere. In this section showing the ‘Watertown Post Road’ from Brookline through Little Cambridge (today’s Brighton), to Watertown, the road clearly passes over a hill en route, after passing the road to the Faneuil Estate, which would be today’s Faneuil Street, the street leading into Oak Square. As there are no other hills after the one I am on before I reach the Watertown Bridge, I have to conclude that the road indeed has always gone over the hill and not around it.
Hunnewell Hill is likely named for the estate of Jonathan Hunnewell shown on Hale’s Map of 1829. Even in the late nineteenth century, as a map of the area from 1874 shows, only a handful of large mansions and some horticultural concerns were to be found in the area, although on the map some of the land has been subdivided in anticipation of a building boom which soon changed the character of the neighborhood. Indeed, like the Nevin Estate and St. Gabriel’s Monastery, it seems the arrival of the Catholic Church, in the form of Our Lady of the Presentation Church(1913-1921), precipitated a rapid growth in the population of Oak Square and Hunnewell Hill. As most of the Catholic population of Boston consisted of immigrant populations, particularly from Ireland and Italy, and their descendants, the newcomers comprised many of the same types of people that a majority of voters in Brighton had tried to keep out merely 50 years before. A map of the hill in 1899 shows that most of the land from Oak Square to the Brighton-Newton border on the north side of Washington Street was owned by either the Newton Land and Improvement Company or the Atlantic Improvement Company and had been subdivided into small lots, upon some of which houses had already been built.
At the summit of the hill, just past the church, I pass into the City of Newton. A sign informs me that I have entered Newton Corner, a Village of Newton. As I head down the hill I pass through a quiet and leafy residential area with quite a few very large houses at the top of the hill. Just beyond Waverley Street I encounter a plaque stating that “near this spot was built the first house in Nonantum, now Newton, by Deacon John Jackson, 1639.” Newton, like Brighton, was originally part of Cambridge. As Drake tells us “The dividing line between Brighton and Newton was established in 1662 substantially as at present, in consequence of a petition of the inhabitants of Cambridge Village (Newton) to be released from paying church rates to Cambridge, they having built a house of worship for themselves on account of their great distance from that at Cambridge. In 1688 they were set off and made an independent town.” (Drake, Memorial History, p. 449).
A short distance past the plaque I pass a house which claims to date to 1760. It turns out to be the Samuel Jackson Jr. House and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Jackson, according to Francis Jackson in his History of the Early Settlement of Newton, died in 1806 and had no children, thus rendering extinct the male line of descendants of Edward Jackson, one of the early notables of Newton. Francis Jackson also informs us that “Capt. Samuel inherited a large property. He pulled down the old mansion, built by Edward, Sen., and built a splendid house for that day, (the same recently possessed by Jonathan Hunnewell, Esq.) He was indolent and intemperate, and the ancient and beautiful homestead passed out of the hands of the Jacksons’, and himself and wife were finally supported in part by the town.” (p.353). If indeed this is the house of Samuel Jackson, it is the house labelled Hon. Jon. A. Hunnewell on Hales’ Map of 1829 above, just over the Newton line from Brighton. Hunnewell himself is a character of some interest, from his participation in the Boston Tea Party at the age of 14 in 1773, to his profession of ‘bricklayer’ which, to judge from his estate and his associations, was not as pedestrian a profession as it might sound. Indeed, in a book on the family by one of his descendants, James Frothingham Hunnewell, he co-founded the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association with Paul Revere and six others, served as President of said organization, and was responsible for the construction of Bulfinch’s Massachusetts State Prison in 1805 (also known as the Charlestown Prison) and “his splendid entertainments at…his beautiful retreat (his country seat in Newton) were long remembered” (p. 40)
Hunnewell’s estate is shown on a map of Newton from 1831, although by that time the area was less a retreat and increasingly a center of traffic, as the Boston & Albany Railroad was in the process of being built in the area behind Hunnewell’s estate and a station established at what was then called Angier’s Corner but is today Newton Corner. The rail line, still in existence as the Worcester Commuter Rail Line, was the path chosen to build the Massachusetts Turnpike in the 1950s. Today Newton Corner is a complicated snarl of on-ramps and off-ramps, with traffic swirling through a dangerous circular intersection with many streets spinning off of the ‘rotary’. To many who travel through this complicated and dangerous intersection, it is known as the ‘circle of death’. I agree with this assessment as I often passed through this intersection when I worked at a nearby school for a couple of years. It is also very difficult to negotiate on foot, as there are at least six roads to cross to get through the intersection, including an on ramp and an exit ramp of the Massachusetts Turnpike, where cars are less likely to drive slowly.
Once I pass the Hunnewell/Jackson house the quiet of the residential neighborhood is almost immediately replaced by the chaos of Newton Corner. After I negotiate the stressful passage through Newton Corner, I can finally look around. Most of the area is commercial but not pedestrian friendly as one might surmise. The web page of Historic Newton tells us “The area that is now Newton was part of a tract of land taken from Watertown and given to Cambridge in 1633. Soon after, a handful of families settled near the Newton-Brighton line, and the first cartways set the pattern for what would become the main highways. These converged a short distance south of the Watertown bridge and a small community developed at the intersection. There were at least two shops there by 1726, and shortly afterwards a tavern was opened by Oakes Angier. He ran it long enough for the hamlet to become known as “Angier’s Corner.” From the beginning of the nineteenth century, stage coaches to the west passed through the Corner, and from 1834 the Boston and Worcester Railroad did likewise. When commuter service was inaugurated ten years later, the local station became known as Newton Corner.” Incidentally, Angier’s Corner can be seen on both the DeBerniere and Browne map of 1775 and Hales’ map of 1829. An 1852 map of the area refers to it as Newton Corner.
Washington Street continues west through Newton Corner and I now follow Centre Street in Newton for only a few hundred feet before I reach the Watertown line, where the name of the road again changes, now to Galen Street. Watertown was granted these 88 acres on the south bank of the Charles River in the seventeenth century and the area is easy to pick out on Hales’ map above. The scenery is little different from the overbuilt commercial area in Newton Corner until the road descends sharply in the final few hundred yards to reach the Charles River. Here is the Watertown Bridge, the earliest crossing of the Charles River. I plan to devote a short entry to the various bridges across the Charles River so this seems like a good place to stop.
As I began this entry in a familiar area, I end it near Newton Corner, another familiar area to me. In between, I crossed through Brighton, most of which is foreign territory to me. As I cross the river I begin to enter territory that is increasingly foreign to me. After I retrace the alternative route to Watertown through Charlestown, Somerville, and Cambridge, the various roads leading to this historic spot merge into one, Drake’s ‘Great Thoroughfare to the West’, where slowly I will leave Boston behind.
Distances covered in each town along the road variously known as the ‘Watertown Post Road’ or ‘Roxbury Path’ or ‘Way to the Mill at Watertown’, but today known as Washington Street in Brookline, Brighton, and Newton, and Galen Street in Watertown.
Brookline : distance from Muddy River to Brighton line 1.6 miles
Brighton: Whole Foods (Corey Street) to Elmhurst (Nonantum) 2.1 miles
Newton : Washington Street @ Elmhurst to Centre Street at Williams Street 0.7 miles
Watertown: Newton line to Watertown Square over the bridge via Galen Street 0.4 miles
Total: 4.8 miles from Muddy River line to Watertown Square.
¹Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985). Indeed, Jackson has this to say about the hypothetical results if annexation in Boston had continued : “If the earlier pattern had continued, Boston would probably encompass the entire area circumscribed by Route 128..”(p.141).
²William Marchione, The Bull in the Garden: A History of Allston-Brighton (Boston: Trustees of the Boston Public Library, 1986), p.2.
³Justin Winsor ed., History of Boston, Including Suffolk County, Massachusetts, 1630-1880, in 4 Volumes (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1882)., Volume 1, p.439.
4 Samuel Francis Drake, ed., The History of Middlesex County in two Volumes (Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1880), Volume I, p. 281.
5 J.P.C. Winship, Historical Brighton, Volume I; An Illustrated History of Brighton and its Citizens (Boston: George A. Warren, 1899
6 Brighton Allston Historical Society: http://www.bahistory.org/
7. S.F. Smith, History of Newton Massachusetts: From its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, 1630-1880 (Boston: The American Logotype Company, 1880).
8. Francis Jackson, History of the Early Settlement of Newton From 1639 to 1800 (Boston: Stacy and Richardson, 1854)
The more things change….
So, is the Know Nothing party a precursor to the teabaggers? (yeah,they started calling themselves that before they realized it wasn’t a good idea) Can we call the party running Washington now the “Know Nothings”? It just seems appropriate.
As for cows forming the roads, well that just seems like perfect fodder for Gary Larson.Permalink