Boston Rambles

Boston Rambles

A Rambler Walks and Talks About the Hub of the Universe

Mile 0, Boston, Massachusetts: The Origin of the Post Road (WTPR#2)

The Old State House Boston, built 1713.

“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people upon us.”

John Winthrop, A Model of Christian Charity

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This is the second entry from my previous project, Walking the Post Road. I have been slowly transferring the entries over to this project for a number of reasons. The first reason is that they are relevant to this project in that the first dozen or so are ‘rambles’ about Boston. Even the entries that are not about Boston are about the Boston Post Road. Indeed, writing about places outside of Boston gives me a fresh perspective which is useful when I am writing about Boston. The main reason, however, is that the previous project was done on Apple’s iweb, which is no longer supported by Apple and, consequently, the website is slowly decaying. I will eventually revisit that project and bring the entire site up to date. In the meantime readers are welcome to comment upon this entry as part of this project. It has been updated and edited slightly from the original version which was published on Tuesday, April 13, 2010, as entry #2, Mile 0.

*****

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to understanding is familiarity. I do not mean by familiarity intimate knowledge but rather that pleasing sense of comprehension owing merely to long acquaintance. So for instance the all too familiar pattern of living in close proximity to a famous monument that in fact one never visits. I once worked at the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown and virtually every day someone would come in and tell me that they had lived in Boston their whole life but this was their first visit to the monument.  We know it so we do not visit and thus, ironically, we do not know it at all.

        The Boston Post Road fits into this category, familiar yet unknown. Many people can tell you where it is and what it means and most of them are wrong. It is not what people think it is, it does not go where people think it goes. Signs for Post Roads abound, especially in New England. The Boston Post Road is in Attleborough, Massachusetts, on the border with Rhode Island. The Boston Post Road is in Marlborough, Massachusetts, 30 miles west of Boston. It is found on the Southern Connecticut coast and in the hills of Northeastern Connecticut and in Hartford. There are two Post Roads in the Bronx. All of these are in fact Boston Post Roads. 

        The Post Road exists in many forms and permutations but there is the original road and it is hidden away; sometimes buried under a strip mall or condo development, sometimes a lost track in the woods. Sometimes it is right under your feet if you are walking in downtown Boston, although it is not called by that name. The original Boston Post Road, in fact, rarely goes by that name. The first Post Road still exists under the clutter of familiarity. Underneath the many layers of more modern roads, like the lost City of Troy, sits the path taken by the Wampanoag and the Narragansett, Pequot and Puritans from Boston to Maine and from Boston to Maryland and beyond, through the dark and dangerous wilderness to the urban oases of New York, Philadelphia, Annapolis, New Haven, Newport, and Charleston.

  *****

        Near the old man in the Red Sox jacket hawking roasted nuts and cold drinks wandered a man dressed in a sort of piratical garb. Only he had reflecting shades and dragon feet sandals and a bunch of signs pasted to his body. One said, “tell me your first name and I can spell your last name-$5” Another said “I know your telephone number, your zip code, your age”.  Occasionally a passing tourist would be curious and ask him to perform his trick. Cocodini, as he was known (although he looked and sounded very much like a Foley or Sullivan) would go into a sort of accountant’s trance, pull out a clipboard and ask a couple of questions sotto voce (so as not to give away his secrets I imagine), write a few things down, stare at the clipboard, make his customers laugh a little, and then show them the clipboard. All I could hear in the transaction was “how did you do that?” and see a look of amazement. Then he would collect $5 and wait for the next customer. I saw him make $30 in an hour. I didn’t want to ask him if he knew what I was doing; I wasn’t sure I knew myself and I was afraid what the answer might be.

        Directly behind the Great Cocodini stands a small red brick structure dwarfed by modern skyscrapers.  This building, now called the Old State House, was formerly called the Town House, and was the seat of colonial government in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Town House was also Mile Zero in Boston, the point from which all distances were measured. This is where the Boston Post Road begins.

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Not The Zero Mile Stone

        Even this part of the story of the Post Road is muddled. For many years a myth has existed concerning a certain stone in the Blackstone Block, on the way to the North End of Boston, about a quarter mile from The Old State House. This stone, embedded in a wall of a building on Marshall Street, is often referred to as the Boston Stone or the zero milestone and is often mistaken for the starting point from which distances from Boston are measured. In fact, it is not, nor has it ever been used for that purpose. George Weston, in Boston Ways believes it to be a grinding stone for paint brought from England in 1700, which was later placed there by the owner of the establishment.1George F. Weston, Boston Ways, 3rd Edition (Boston: Beacon Press, 1974), 49.  Charles Bahne, in The Complete Guide to the Freedom Trail, states that “the stone was forgotten until a tavern owner found it on his property. He named it the Boston Stone, and set it in front of his tavern as an advertisement. It has been there ever since”.2Charles Bahne, The Complete Guide to the Freedom Trail (Cambridge: Newtowne Press, 1985), 30. The present origin point of the distances one sees on signs indicating the distance from Boston (for instance on I-95) is the State House on Beacon Hill (the “New” State House, built by Bulfinch in 1797 ). In Colonial Boston, the starting point for all distances measured to and from Boston was the Town House, at the intersection of State (formerly Great, then King) Street and Washington (formerly Cornhill, Marlborough, Newbury, and Orange Streets) Street, which was and remains the heart of Boston.

Site of the Boston Massacre, directly in front of the Old State House, a more likely candidate.

*****

         In order to understand the origins of what became known as the Old Post Road, or Boston Post Road, it helps to understand the geography of New England, the history of settlement by Europeans, and the lives of the people living here at the time of contact by the English who eventually came to control the colony they formed. All of this will unfold as I walk the Post Road and contribute entries to this blog. For our purpose today I need only tell the reader that at the time of the foundation of Boston in 1630, the town was contained entirely on what was called the Shawmut peninsula, surrounded on almost every side by water with the exception of a small spit of land called “the Neck”, which provided the sole means of entry by foot into Boston. The main thoroughfare in and out of Boston, now called Washington Street, ran from the Town House in a southwesterly direction for one and a quarter miles to the Neck.

        Boston began as and remains an important seaport. From the largest of the wharves, known as Long Wharf, ran Great (later King, now State) Street to the Town House. As Walter Muir Whitehill, in A Topographical History of Boston, emphasizes about the importance of the source of the town’s prosperity “this broad half mile (King Street) was the obvious avenue to Boston from the part of the world that really mattered”.3Walter Muir Whitehill, Boston: A Topographical History, 2nd Edition (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968), 21. The Town House was thus situated at the intersection of the main roads leading into the town by land and by sea.

Boston, c. 1643. From Samuel Adams Drake, Old Boston Taverns, 1917, page 98. Note the main road leading out toward the Neck on the left side of the map. The Town House, not yet built, would be at the site marked as ‘Market Place’. Note that you can expand the image by clicking on it. The print is very small.

*****

Standing in front of the Old State House I can see down State Street to Boston Harbor. The most important and imposing building in its day, the Old State House now is dwarfed by towers of commerce. It is the second building on the site, replacing a wooden structure built in 1657 which burned in 1711. The seat of government in colonial Massachusetts, the building was also the commercial center of Boston in colonial days as the focal point of traffic from land and from sea. All visitors to Boston would have occasion to pass this building. As we shall see, this building and the surrounding area, the starting point of the Post Road, has played an important role in the evolution of the United States of America. Turning away from the sea, I take a step toward the Old State House. My journey on the Post Road has begun.

View down State Street from Old State House. Long Wharf and Boston Harbor are just beyond the last office towers.
Old State House, formerly Old Town House, built 1713.

Update April 7, 2022. This entry, the introductory essay for my original walk from Boston to New York, is one of 65 entries which comprise the Walking The Post Road series. For that walk I traveled south-west through Roxbury to Dedham, then continued south through Massachusetts, meandered across Rhode Island, and followed the road west along the Connecticut coast. I have recently begun to publish entries for a new walk along another of the ‘Post Roads’ mentioned above and these entries are part of the Upper Boston Post Road series. This series of entries follow a walk west from Boston, through Watertown, Worcester, and Springfield, then south along the Connecticut River valley to Hartford and on to New Haven, where the two ‘Post Roads’ join and continue as one to New York.

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