Upper Boston Post Road Entry #13 (UBPR #13)
“On fryday morning we set out, and got on 27 miles to Peases, which being a neat good house, and good Beds, we put up for the night.”Abigail Adams, Letter to her sister Mary Smith Crainch, October 13, 1799.
For Whom The Post Horn Sounds…
As I pass the modest yellow house at 32 Main Circle, about three-quarters of a mile into my walk through Shrewsbury from the border with Northborough along the route of the original road west from Boston to New York, it seems hard to believe that here, in this unpretentious building along a quiet side road forty miles from Boston, the death knell for the Upper Boston Post Road was sounded. But first, a little background….
I first started to think about a project involving the Boston Post Road sometime around the year 2000, when I became interested in the milestone near my house; but it was not until about ten years later, on March 1, 2010, that I finally published the first of the entries that would become Walking the Post Road. I spent most of those intervening ten years wandering segments of the old road, visiting local libraries collecting references and maps, and trying to create as clear a map of the route of the Boston Post Road as I could in an era when finding and downloading old maps online was in its nascent stages. I suppose I thought that eventually I would turn my entries into a book, as there had been no book on the Post Road since Stewart Holbrook’s The Old Boston Post Road, published in 1962, a period of almost fifty years. I was not concerned that my languid research style might result in somebody “scooping” me as it was not exactly a hot topic. Then, to my great surprise, after my fifth or sixth entry, by which time I had only managed to reach Roxbury, the first “town” outside of Boston, I discovered that a new book on the Boston Post Road was soon to be published. Needless to say I met the approaching day with some trepidation as I was afraid that my entire project was about to be made redundant. I picked up a copy of The King’s Best Highway: The Lost History of the Boston Post Road, the Route That Made America by Eric Jaffe in June, 2010 and by the end of July I had posted an entry dedicated to a discussion of Jaffe’s book, along with a brief review of the extant literature on the subject.
The first sensation I felt upon reading the book was relief, not because it was a bad book that I could safely ignore; on the contrary, it was a well-written story that was much more expansive than anything I had in mind.1The King’s Best Highway is easily the best of the three main books about the Post Road: the first was Stephen Jenkins The Old Boston Post Road from 1913; the second and easily the worst was Stewart Holbrook’s The Old Post Road from 1962. It might seem that this comparison is damning with faint praise as the competition is weak, but Jaffe’s book is a legitimately good book and is miles ahead of either book in both information and readability. However, if you are interested in quixotic nostalgia and hopelessly outdated prejudices, then the other books are for you! Jaffe’s book was principally about the development of transportation in the United States with a logical focus on the Boston-New York section of the Northeast corridor as the earliest intercity transportation route. His concerns were very different from mine: where Jaffe focused on the four-hundred year evolution of travel between the two cities, my interest was in the actual route of the old road in its earliest incarnations and in the experiences and ordeals of travelers in the colonial era, before the revolution in transportation that accompanied the industrial revolution.
Thus, unlike Jaffe, I had only a passing interest in turnpikes, canals, railroads, and interstate highways except as they impacted the oldest road. I developed a particular distaste for anything involving stagecoaches, as most of the literature about the history of the road indulged in sentimental and nostalgic stories of dubious historical accuracy centered around stagecoaches. I could not escape local histories replete with romantic legends and paeans to the “golden age of the stagecoach,” and became determined to focus on travelers who either preceded or eschewed the stagecoach as a means of transport, whereas Jaffe’s book highlighted the central importance of Levi Pease, the operator of the first successful stagecoach run between Boston and New York, as a key figure in the transformation of the “Old” Boston Post Road into the modern transportation corridor between the two important cities along the Eastern seaboard. Pease also negotiated the first contract with the United States government to carry interstate mail along the Post Road. His dissatisfaction with the poor quality of many sections of the old road led Pease to become a vocal advocate for the construction of newer, straighter “turnpikes,” the development of which ultimately resulted in the demise of the Boston Post Road as the principal transport route between Boston and New York.
I think the key difference between Jaffe’s project and my efforts can be summed up in a phrase Jaffe uses in the Author’s Note at the start of his book: “each precise twist and turn is far less important to grasp than the basic outline.”2Eric Jaffe, The King’s Best Highway: The Lost History of the Boston Post Road, the Route that Made America. (New York: Scribner, 2010), viii. I should also add that later that year we met for a drink after he gave a talk at the Boston Public Library and we agreed that the focus of our projects was quite different. The title of his book also makes it clear that he is interested in a bigger picture: he refers to the Boston Post Road as “The Route that Made America.” I never think of it as a route in the more diffuse sense of the dictionary definition as “a road, course, or way for travel from one place to another,” with its implication that the two endpoints are the central feature and that the actual twists and turns are of less significance. Jaffe’s sense of the Post Road is broader and more inclusive than mine; he is interested in the evolution of the route between Boston and New York while I am interested in rediscovering the route of the original road as closely as possible, specifically seeking to find and follow “each precise twist and turn.”3By original, I mean the road as far back as I can trace it. Obviously I would love to follow the original trails laid down by the Nipmuc and other groups who lived on the land before Europeans arrived but that is complicated by the lack of maps, written descriptions, and other problems inherent in the cultural development of pre-Columbian North America. So I am left trying to trace the oldest version I am able to document.
While not necessarily incompatible, these are two very different ways of looking at the same subject. In some ways my style is that of a dilettante enjoying the journey per se, but I like to think this project is a little more serious than that word implies, with its connotation of superficiality. Indeed I prefer a phrase which a former professor of mine, Carlo Ginzburg, used pejoratively to decribe a certain type of history, “antiquarian,” a term I embrace with more enthusiasm. Perhaps it is my scientific training, but I prefer to let the road unfold and reveal its secrets without approaching it with a predetermined mindset. Alternatively, perhaps it comes from reading too much Simenon.4Another critical difference between my interests and that of Jaffe is that, having published his book, Jaffe moved on to other interesting topics while I am still rummaging in libraries and following trails through the woods, becoming ever more focused on the twists and turns. At the same time I realize that even this superficially constrained topic offers entry points into myriad other topics: the only thing keeping this project from devolving entirely into random topics (religion, war, language and culture, natural history, geology, architecture, sports, music, politics, are some of the topics I covered very cursorily in the previous entry alone!) is the actual tether that is the road. It requires a rigid discipline to keep pushing forward along the path and not drift too far astray from “la diritta via,” in the words of Dante.
As I walk through Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, the latest town in my journey along the Upper Boston Post Road, stagecoaches, turnpikes, and Eric Jaffe’s book are uppermost in my mind because Shrewsbury was the home and final resting place of Levi Pease, the man who probably did more than anyone to accelerate the development of the transportation links between Boston and New York and, by extension, the United States of America. Not only did the stagecoach operated by Pease pass along the Upper Boston Post Road in Shrewsbury, Pease later bought the building housing the tavern at which the original stage stopped and it became the family home. That building, the yellow house at the junction of Main Circle and Walnut Street, is today secreted away along one of those “twist and turns” that are no longer even a part of the main road in town.
Skiing the Post Road.
Who knew that Shrewsbury, Massachusetts is the Switzerland of the Post Road? From my earliest days perusing the route of the Upper Boston Post Road on Google Maps my eyes had been drawn towards the noticeable little patch of color along the road in Shrewsbury, the multi-colored lines indicating ski trails and lifts at what appeared to be a ski resort along the road. Sure enough, as I cross the line between Northborough and Shrewsbury, the most prominent feature of the landscape is a large hill on the south side of the road. In the summer, when I first walked this road, a couple of long plastic slides entice “tubers” downhill along the grassy open slope of the modest establishment known as Ski Ward, which opened for business in 1939. On a second trip in December I see the slope in all its snow-covered glory, with mostly novice skiers bravely making their way down the nearly 200-foot slope. Ward Hill, or Union Hill, as it is called on United States Geological Survey (USGS) topographical maps, reaches 530 feet in elevation, while Hop Brook, which curves around the base of the hill before feeding into the Assabet River in neighboring Northborough, flows here at an elevation of 350 feet above sea level, only slightly lower than the route of the Upper Boston Post Road, which crosses over Hop Brook as it passes the ski slopes on its way through Shrewsbury.
Union Hill (called Maynard Hill on Henry Snow’s 1832 map of Shrewsbury and Tomlin Hill on L.M. Parker’s 1859 map of the town and Ward Hill by the operators of the ski resort) is the first indication that the town of Shrewsbury has a surprisingly complicated topography, easily the most dramatic along the route of the Upper Boston Post Road thus far. Although the road starts at 358 feet above sea level as it enters the town from neighboring Northborough, it climbs over 300 feet before peaking at an elevation of 668 feet at the Shrewsbury Public Library on the corner of Boylston Street and Main Street, the historic center of town.5Astute readers will realize that the library is situated over 100 feet higher than the peak of Union Hill! The road then drops steeply again on the west side of town all the way back to 358 feet above sea level as it threads its way across a bridge over a short creek separating Lake Quinsigamond from smaller Brew’s Lake, before climbing steeply again to 430 feet in the last four hundred yards to reach the border with the city of Worcester. This last segment has an average grade of 6%, which is the the maximum grade allowed for a federally funded road in the United States. It would appear that Levi Pease’s interest in an alternate route west along what became the Worcester Turnpike might have been spurred at least in part by his personal experience traveling along the road in the town he called home. Earlier travelers noted the interesting topography of Shrewsbury, from George Washington, who commented on the “uneven but not bad road” to Timothy Dwight, president of Yale College and author of Travels in New England and New York, who passed through Shrewsbury in 1821 and was more detailed in his description: “[Shrewsbury] lies on a single hill, and its acclivities; commencing at the border of Worcester, and rising gradually, with various interruptions to the centre of the township: whence it descends, also gradually, and regularly, to the bounds of Northborough.”6George Washington Diary, October 23, 1789; Timothy Dwight, Travels in New England and New York. New Haven, 1821. p.369.
As if on cue the road begins to ascend immediately after I cross Hop Brook. Although the topography is challenging in Shrewsbury, the route of the Upper Boston Post Road is actually pretty easy to follow, with few of the deviations and “twists and turns” that were a regular feature of the road as it frequently turned away from the straighter stretches of US Route 20, which for the most part followed the course of the Upper Boston Post Road before veering south away from the Post Road, a little over a mile east back in Northborough. A map of Shrewsbury, surveyed by Silas Keyes and dated March 12, 1795, shows only a single road traversing Shrewsbury, the “County Road” from Northborough in the east to Worcester in the west. There have been few subsequent changes to the course of the road over the centuries. The only notable deviation of the original route of the Upper Boston Post Road from today’s Main Street in Shrewsbury occurs just 1000 feet beyond Hop Brook, where the path of the original road turns left and follows the course of Main Circle for half a mile before rejoining Main Street for the remaining 3.6 miles in Shrewsbury. Otherwise Main Street and the “County Road” from Keyes’s map are essentially the same road.
The somewhat jarring sight of a ski slope along the route of the Upper Boston Post Road in Shrewsbury momentarily distracts me from the more prosaic road itself, particularly as it is relatively flat for the first few hundred yards over the line from Northborough.7This “prosaic” section of road includes the house of William Maynard at 1017 Main Street in Shrewsbury, the first house over the line from Northborough in Shrewsbury. Maynard’s property extended over the border and included what is today the barn converted into a house at 536 West Main Street in Northborough. In 1884, while digging a trench near the barn to drain his wet meadows into Hop Brook, the teeth and tusk of a mastodon were discovered only a “few rods” north of the road. I discussed this in the previous entry on the town of Northborough. However, the overall initial impression is that Shrewsbury appears even more rural than the western edge of the previous town through which I passed along the road. The few houses, all along the north side of the road as Ward/Union/Maynard/Tomlin Hill and the meadows surrounding Hop Brook take up the south side of the road, mostly appear to be renovated nineteenth-century farmhouses, with a few newer buildings beginning to fill in some of the old surrounding farmland. One particularly nice old house sits on a small hill at 945 Main Street, immediately opposite the split where Main Circle begins. The “picturesque white colonial began in 1749 as the home of settler Ross Wyman,” according to an article from 2015 in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. The “Wyman farm” is visible on all nineteenth century maps of Shrewsbury. Later the building served “as the Tally Ho Inn, where many women’s clubs met for afternoon tea,” and today it is a private home (see photo above; the house it at the bottom of the hill).8Melissa McKeon, Worcester Telegram & Gazette, December 21, 2015. Then and Now: 945 Main Street, Shrewsbury. Erik Larson of the Shrewsbury Historical Society contributed to this story. There is a lovely undated photo of the house on the Historic New England website which shows the road as well. The half-mile straight section of Main Street from this point until the reunion with Main Circle does not appear on maps of the area until 1943, so it was likely constructed in the same burst of road-straightening in the 1920s and 1930s that gave us so many short and interesting deviations along the Upper Boston Post Road in all the previous towns I have walked through thus far.
This twist and turn away from the straight road also has a little gift to offer for my efforts. I turn left onto Main Circle and pass an old stone water trough turned planter and wonder if this was for the load-bearing horses that had to begin a steep climb here to reach the center of Shrewsbury. Main Circle climbs sharply before leveling off at about 460 feet. One or two old houses dot a road lined mostly with houses built since the end of the Second World War. Then I reach the junction of Main Circle and Walnut and the relatively modest house at #32, the Farrar tavern and later the Pease tavern and family home.
La Via Più Diritta.
It is ironic that the site of the house of Levi Pease at 32 Main Circle is on a now-bypassed segment of the original road in Shrewsbury as Pease is probably the individual most responsible for the decline of the Boston Post Road as the main road from Boston to New York. He was the man who pushed for faster and faster trip times, eventually bypassing his own house in favor of a hotel in Worcester he also operated. Eventually he was one of the men who pushed for a new road to bypass the Boston Post Road entirely, the road that became the Boston to Worcester Turnpike.
It is curious that the town that has the most straightforward section of the Boston Post Road thus far would be the place that saw the beginning of the end of the road. That the road is straightforward on a map does not mean it is straightforward in reality for the one thing that is difficult to see on a map is that the topography in Shrewsbury is very hilly and the inclines along the road are relatively steep compared to the road east of Shrewsbury. Despite the relatively difficult path the Upper Boston Post Road took through the hilly landscape of Shrewsbury, Pease’s earliest efforts at road improvement were focused not on Shrewsbury, but further west, in what are today the towns of Palmer and Warren (called Western before 1834).
For all the topographical difficulties encountered by somebody walking or indeed, driving a stagecoach, along the route of the Upper Boston Post Road in Shrewsbury, the roads west of Worcester on the way to Springfield were another matter entirely. John Quincy Adams, traveling from New York to Boston in 1785, describes to his mother Abigail Adams, in a letter from an unmentioned tavern “only 42 miles from Boston,” his experience of travel in Massachusetts from Springfield to Shrewsbury: “the roads in this State, are much rougher, and more disagreeable than the greatest part of those in Connecticut.” In his diary entry for August 23, 1785, he writes of this segment of the journey “Hills and rocks seem to have been the only things we have this day come across. I cannot recommend the roads of Massachusetts as a model.” He is, however, optimistic in his letter about the road from Shrewsbury to Boston as he “hope(s) to get there to-morrow; as we are told the roads are upon the whole pretty good.”9John Quincy Adams, Letter to Abigail Adams, August 1785, can be found here at Founders Online. It is very likely that Adams was writing from Shrewsbury and perhaps Adams stayed at the same tavern his mother visited in 1799, or perhaps he stayed at another tavern in Shrewsbury as he reports the distance as 42 miles, which is closer to the center of town, perhaps Furnasses (or Furnace’s as Adams spelled it) tavern where his father stayed in 1771, as we shall see.
Similarly George Washington, on his tour of New England in 1789, has mixed opinions of the road from Springfield to Boston: “From Palmer to Brookfield, to one Hitchcock’s, is 15 miles, part of which is pretty good, and part (crossing the Hills) very bad… A good part of the Road from Spencer to Worcester is Hilly, and except a little nearest the latter, very stoney. From Worcester to Marlborough the road is uneven but not bad—and from Marlboro to Weston it is leveller, with more sand. Between Worcester and Marlborough the Town of Shrewsbury is passed and between Marlborough and Weston you go through Sudbury. The Country about Worcester and onwards towards Boston is better improved and the lands of better quality than we travelled through yesterday.”10Diary of George Washington, pp. 30-32. Stephen Jenkins claims in his book The Old Boston Post Road that Washington stayed at Farrar’s tavern, later to become Pease’s tavern and home, in 1789 but no mention is made in his diary of that visit.
Levi Pease began his stagecoach career in 1783, not from Shrewsbury but from Boston. Originally from Connecticut, Pease ran a tavern in Somers, Connecticut which was initially a transfer point for riders from Boston to switch to the coach run by Pease’s partner Reuben Sikes, who then carried passengers to New Haven. Eventually the route was extended to New York and Pease shifted operations to the Lamb tavern in Boston. Farrar’s in Shrewsbury became an early overnight stop along the road. Farrar died in 1793 and by 1794 Pease had installed his family at Farrar’s tavern, which Abigail Adams complimented as “a neat good house, and good Beds” when she stayed there in 1799. 11For more detail on the development of the stagecoach run from Boston to New York and the life of Levi Pease, see Jaffe, The King’s Best Highway, pp. 77-94.
The stagecoach run from Boston to New York initially took a week to travel, but the time of the arduous journey was continually reduced: the initial overnight stop from Boston was at Martin’s in Northborugh, six months later Pease had extended it to Farrar’s in Shrewsbury, and by November 1784 Worcester had become the first overnight stop on the stage. The French journalist and later Revolutionary Jacques Pierre Brissot (also known as Brissot de Warville) traveled the “four day” journey of “some two hundred and fifty miles” to New York from Boston in August, 1788 on one of Pease’s “public stages,” stopping the first night in Worcester. His opinion of Pease’s operation was mixed: “The tavern, where we had a good American dinner, is a charming house of wood, well ornamented; it is kept by Mr. Pease, one of the proprietors of the Boston stage. He has much merit for his activity and industry; but it is to be hoped he will change the present plan, so far as it respects his horses: they are over-done with the length and difficulty of the courses, which ruin them in a short time, besides retarding very much the progress.”12Jacques Pierre Brissot de Warville, New Travels in the United States of America, Performed in 1788. Dublin: Printed by W. Corbet, 1792. p. 123.
Apparently Pease paid no heed to the recommendation of Brissot de Warville because, by 1801, according to Frederic Wood in his book Turnpikes of New England, “the running time had been reduced to thirty-nine hours, due doubtless to running all night instead of stopping for sleep at taverns by the way….All this before the turnpikes had become factors of influence.”13Wood Turnpikes p. 22. In an effort to reduce the running time further, Pease advocated the construction of the first turnpike in Massachusetts: “by many Pease is hailed as ‘the father of the turnpikes’ and ‘the father of the stagecoach,’ and there is no disposition here to dispute his claim to either title…he was one of thirty one solid citizens named in the first Massachusetts act of incorporation for a turnpike company which was approved by Governor Samuel Adams on the eleventh day of June, 1796. As customary in those days, the act commenced with a preamble which read as follows; ‘Whereas the highway leading through the towns of Palmer and Western is circuitous, rocky, and mountainous, and there is much travelling over the same etc. etc.’ “14Wood pp. 30-32.
This first turnpike, located between Worcester and Springfield, will be the subject of a later entry. Suffice to say, although the construction of a turnpike in the relative wilds west of Worcester was a happy development for Pease and his stagecoach company, it was clear that the “propositions to connect such cities as Boston and Providence, Worcester, Hartford etc. may have seemed to stand in a separate class and to hold hopes of remunerative business.”15Wood p. 30. Pease clearly had his eye on the route between Boston and Worcester and by 1806 the Worcester Turnpike Corporation had been formed.
Standing in front of the old Pease tavern on Main Circle, if I take a left and pass along the west side of the house, and follow Walnut Street south, I will arrive in 1.3 miles at Route 9, called Boston Turnpike in Shrewsbury, the new road opened as the Worcester Turnpike sometime after 1806. Today it is a busy highway lined with shopping malls and commercial development as well as an increasing number of residential developments. The most prominent feature of the turnpike as it winds its way out from Boston through Brookline and on to Worcester is that it is remarkably straight. The “straight-line” distance from the original site of the Worcester Courthouse to the Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill is 39 miles, while the distance from the Courthouse to the State House along Route 9 and its later extension in Boston across the Back Bay is 40 miles. The route from the Old State House in Boston to the Worcester Courthouse along the route of the Upper Boston Post Road is nearly 47 miles; thus the turnpike shaved almost seven miles off the trip from Boston to Worcester. Incidentally, Shrewsbury is the first town since Brookline in which the original road from Boston to Worcester and the Boston to Worcester Turnpike are physically located in the same town: as the Post road began its southwestern swing around Assabet Hill in Northborough it began to slowly close the distance between the newer road and the original road, a gap I discussed in a previous entry.
The idea that a straighter road would be a faster and easier road to travel is a theoretically sound one. Unfortunately, much like the physics problems one encounters in high school that assume that there is no friction, the turnpike developers apparently assumed that the road was in a Euclidian plane, which Woods referred to in his book as “the fallacy of straight-line locations.”16Wood, p. 141. There were two major problems with the “straight-line” strategy in the development of turnpikes in general and, more specifically, the construction of the Worcester Turnpike. The first was the not inconsequential body of water called Lake Quinsigamond that stretches for four miles along the border between Worcester and Shrewsbury. The developers decided to build a “floating bridge” across the 300 yard width of the lake. This structure failed fairly quickly and was followed by an expensively built bridge with piers sunk into the seventy foot deep lake bed; this bridge lasted until 1817, when it collapsed. Another floating bridge was built that lasted a few years longer, but not before the turnpike itself became irrelevant. I am put in mind of the guards scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail…”but the fourth one stayed up…”
The second problem with the straight-line strategy is that it failed to solve the initial problem of how to avoid hills. The main reason for the circuitous path of the Upper Boston Post Road was that it evolved to avoid difficult climbs and treacherous crossings of rivers and other large bodies of water. In Shrewsbury the old road circumvented Lake Quinsigamond by passing over a narrow channel connecting two parts of the larger lake complex. It was difficult, however, to avoid the hills around Worcester, but at least the climbs are gradual for the most part. The builders of the turnpike essentially ignored the problem; to give one example, the road shoots straight uphill beyond Lake Quinsigamond and crests at almost 680 feet above sea level 1.5 miles west at the summit of Chandler Hill, with a 9% grade in the last quarter mile, before plummeting back downhill to reach Main Street in Worcester at 460 feet above sea level. The relative change in elevation between the Upper Boston Post Road and the Worcester Turnpike in Shrewsbury is no different but the grade of the climb is generally much steeper along the turnpike.
Edward Baker presented a paper to the Brookline Historical Society on the centenary of the turnpike in 1907, in which he exposed the problem succinctly: “It was supposed that this turnpike would give the maximum speed in the minimum time because it was laid out on the simple mathematical principle that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points. The turnpike engineers paid little attention to grades, and seemingly forgot that the actual distance travelled may be as long over a hill as around its base, to say nothing of the greater effort to the traveler climbing up one side and holding back when going down on the other.” Similarly William Lincoln, in his History of Worcester, seems unimpressed by the logic of the straight line; “On this plan, the turnpike to Boston, going out from the north end of the village, went through a considerable eminence by a deep cutting, passed a deep valley on a lofty embankment, ascended the steep slope of Millstone hill, crossed Quinsigamond by a floating bridge, and climbed to some of the highest elevations of the country it traversed, when an inconsiderable circuit would have furnished a better and less costly route.”17William Lincoln, History of Worcester. Worcester: Charles Hersey publisher, 1862. p. 282
The road was not free, which also diminished its potential use and the avoidance of the tolls on the turnpike, a practice called “shunpiking,” contributed to the financial failure of not just the Worcester Turnpike, but almost every one of the dozens of turnpikes built in the forty year turnpike-building frenzy after the establishment of the United States of America. By the 1820s the corporation “now made earnest efforts to be rid of the burden….before the days of the railroad the old turnpike was ready to give up the struggle.”18Wood, p. 146. Pease himself struggled financially as a result of the failure of the turnpikes to recoup their costs. However, by the time of his death in 1824, the travel landscape had changed dramatically in the forty years since his initial foray into commercial transportation.
Before Pease and the stagecoach, travelers from Boston always stopped en route to Worcester: Samuel Sewall, John, Abigail, and John Quincy Adams, George Washington, the spies John Brown and Henry DeBerniere and many others stayed variously in Weston, Wayland, Framingham, Sudbury, Northborough, Marlborough, and Shrewsbury before continuing on to Worcester and beyond. By 1788 Brissot de Warville traveled in one long day on a stagecoach run by Levi Pease and arrived the same evening for dinner in Worcester. By 1824 the trip to Worcester had been reduced to seven hours from Boston. Baker, while critical of the logic of the turnpike in his address to the Brookline Historical Society, nonetheless identified the impact the new road had on travel west from Boston: “For over one hundred and fifty years the ‘great road’ (the Upper Boston Post Road) was the trunk line to Worcester, but the zenith of its glory was reached just one hundred years ago, when, so far as ‘rapid transit’ was concerned, it was rendered quite out of date by the building of the Worcester Turnpike in 1806 and 1807.”
Stagecoaches made their imminent arrival known by sounding a “post horn,” which alerted tavern keepers and people interested in collecting packages from the stage driver. Ironically, the post horn also sounded the death knell of the old taverns along the Post Road as the rate of travel increased and taverns were increasingly bypassed in the interest of speed, while the construction of the turnpikes, which also generally avoided the center of towns along the route, were the final nails in the coffin of the old road. However, the sound of the railroad whistle, which was first heard in 1835 along the newly built Boston to Worcester railroad in turn marked the end of the turnpike. The train ride reduced the travel time from Boston to Worcester from seven hours to a little over three hours.19Nearly two centuries later the fastest trip time on the commuter rail is one hour and twenty five minutes, a reduction of barely 50% in time over the intervening 190 years. The railroad passes around the southern end of Lake Quinsigamond and weaves between the hills guarding the entrance to Worcester from the east; On a recent journey I recorded a distance along the train route of 44 miles, four miles longer than the more direct Route 9, but a little faster. It seems to me that an average speed of 30 mph from Boston to Worcester in 2024 is embarrassing. Incidentally, travel along the current fastest route, the Massachusetts Turnpike (I-90), then either via I-495 and I-290, or along Route 146, takes about an hour. A drive along Route 9, lined with shopping malls and traffic lights, takes about two hours on a good day. Not until the arrival of the automobile in the twentieth century did the fortunes of the turnpike revive. The advent of the automobile allowed consumers to travel longer distances and malls, amusement parks, movie theaters, and restaurants sprang up along the once tranquil back road that the Worcester Turnpike had become. Today Route 9 is a crowded, developed road, mainly lined with strip malls and increasingly, with residential complexes. I discussed the evolution of the old turnpike in my entry on Framingham.
Until I initiated this project I had little idea that there was once another main road through Shrewsbury, as my knowledge of the town was exclusively limited to traveling along Route 9. I was an undergraduate at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the early 1980s and the cheapest way to get from Boston to Worcester was to drive Route 9 (which had no tolls ironically) or to take the bus from South Station, which stopped in Framingham as it made its way along Route 9. The White City Cinema in Shrewsbury was also a place I frequented along the road, as was the now long-gone cheap goods store called Spags, both a steep but quick ten-minute drive up and over the hills along Route 9 from the college.
Another memory of the Worcester Turnpike is slightly more humiliating to recall as I got into a fistfight over the upcoming election in 1984 with a Reagan supporter at a college party. We were both ejected from the party to continue our fight outside (this ridiculous story, embarrassing at the time, to this day makes me feel ashamed and stupid, deepest apologies to our hosts Brenda and Michelle). Our “seconds” correctly suggested that we were in fact idiots for fighting and so, in true male fashion, we bonded and drunkenly headed out on a long walk to the all-night diner up at the top of the hill along Route 9, where we had a meal and spent the night chatting in a more amicable manner, returning home as the sun rose over the valley in which Worcester is located. Thus are my memories of how steep the hill was along the turnpike.
From the Pease tavern house at the junction with Walnut Street it is less than 250 yards further along Main Circle to rejoin Main Street, which is the route of the Upper Boston Post Road for the remaining 3.6 miles in Shrewsbury. That short distance was apparently sufficient for Stewart Holbrook, author of the previous book about the Post Road before the more recent one by Eric Jaffe, to manage to miss seeing Farrar’s tavern. Holbrook writes “in Shrewsbury I hoped to see a historical marker about Farrar’s Tavern, which I knew Levi Pease, the Stagecoach King, had bought when he retired from the business (incorrect); but failed to find it among the many older buildings.”20Stewart Holbrook, The Old Post Road, p. 112. It is true that there is no plaque commemorating the history of the house, but it is not a difficult building to locate with any effort. Stephen Jenkins, fifty years earlier, managed to visit and write about the house in his book about the Post Road, and Jaffe writes about his visit to the gravestone of Levi Pease in Mountain View Cemetery behind the church in the center of Shrewsbury, which I shall reach shortly on this walk (see photo above).21Jaffe, pp. 257-8. Holbrook’s account is the most breezy, the least reliable, and the one filled with the most fanciful nostalgia, and he does not hide the fact that he is zipping along in his car through the towns along the road in his book; his is easily the worst of the three principal books published about the Boston Post Road in the last century. Fortunately I seem to have found a new punching bag to replace the “straw man” I lost in Northborough, when Route 20 diverged away from the original route of the Upper Boston Post Road.
On the north side of the junction of the two roads is lovely Dean Park, where I spend a little while looking for birds, during the course of which I unexpectedly discover something I was not anticipating at the western entrance to the park, about 300 yards west along Main Street. Easily overlooked, as it is partially obscured by bushes and sits on the opposite side of the street from the one truly “big ticket item” in Shrewsbury along the Upper Boston Post Road, is a milestone (see photo above) with an inscription reading “Boston 35, Springfield 65, Albany 165.” It is a simple stone with no date and its location here is, like other stones I have encountered along the road, a little suspect. Elizabeth Ward, in her 1892 book Old Times in Shrewsbury notes that here “stood the old mile stone, now prostrate, proclaiming, by its white letters upon a black surface, that Boston was thirty-six miles away.”22Elizabeth Ward, Old Times in Shrewsbury. New York: McGeorge Printing Company, 1892, pp. 67-68. Ward, a descendant of Artemas Ward, lived in the house and helped preserve its contents. She is, however, a bit fanciful in her description of both the adjacent Baldwin tavern as well as the milestone, no longer prostrate and stating Boston 35 miles. According to the map I have created which shows each mile along the route of the Upper Boston Post Road, the distance to this point from the Old State House in Boston is about 39.7 miles, almost five miles further along than the distance indicated by the stone. Although I have not been able to discover much about the stone, my working hypothesis is that this stone was located originally along the Worcester Turnpike but has been moved. A logical location for the stone would be at the intersection of Route 9 (Boston Turnpike in Shrewsbury) and Grafton Street (Route 140), which is the main cross street leading into the center of Shrewsbury. The distance along the the Worcester Turnpike to the State House in Boston from the putative original location of the aforementioned milestone would be almost exactly 35 miles. As the intersection in question along Route 9 is today a busy commercial junction, it would not be surprising that local preservationists might have wanted to remove the milestone to a safer and more prominent and attractive location, in a park opposite a historic building along the quieter former main road, much as another stone along the road has been moved to a more prominent location in the center of town from its previous location as we shall soon see.
The Original Commander in Chief
Behind the milestone runs a creek that leads into Dean Park Pond. The pond is a twentieth century creation as all maps of the area dating to 1908 or earlier show the creek curving around the base of the rise on the west side of the park as it does today and continuing north and east to join Hop Brook. On L.M. Parker’s map of Shrewsbury from 1859 a house sits near the creek, roughly where a covered picnic pavilion on the rise behind the creek is located today. The same property, shown as the property of “J Bullard,” is also shown on of the map by Henry Snow from 1832. This house, which was sold to Samuel Bullard, the father of Jason Bullard, in 1802, was known as the “Baldwin place,” according to Andrew Ward in his History of Shrewsbury.23Andrew H. Ward, History of the Town of Shrewsbury from its Settlement in 1717 to 1829. Boston: Samuel Drake, 1847, p. 251. In 1756, Henry Baldwin purchased the house and “kept a public house.”24Ward, p. 246. This house was originally built by Nahum Ward, one of the original settlers of Shrewsbury and Andrew Ward’s great-grandfather.25Stephen Jenkins gets a little confused here, stating that, of the inns and taverns in Shrewsbury “Baldwin’s was probably the oldest, for in it, on November 27, 1727, Artemas Ward was born.” Jenkins,The Old Boston Post Road, p. 346. It is one of the oldest taverns and Ward was born in the house (see below), but it was Nahum Ward’s house and tavern first.
The location of the house of Nahum Ward is of particular interest to this project as there is a tavern listed in Shrewsbury in Thomas Prince’s Vade mecum of 1732 called Ward’s, located 4 miles from “Agar’s,” the previous tavern in Westborough (James Eager’s place in Northborough, which was part of Westborough until 1766). The distance between the site of Ward’s house and the site of Eager’s house in Northborough is about 3.4 miles, although Prince likely made a mistake with the location of Eager’s house as I discussed in the previous entry. More importantly, the Vade mecum lists Ward’s as 39 miles from Boston; as I discussed above, this spot is 39.7 miles from Boston along the closest approximation of the original route of the Boston Post Road that I have managed to create, remarkably close to the distance listed in a travel guide published almost three hundred years ago. Although I find no mention of Nahum Ward running a tavern in the histories of Shrewsbury, various pieces of evidence lead me to hypothesize that this picnic pavilion in Dean Park was the site of the tavern called Ward’s in the 1732 Vade mecum: Nahum Ward was a prominent citizen living along the road in roughly the expected location, there were few other people named Ward living in the town in 1732, and finally, the fact that Henry Baldwin ran a public house here after purchasing the house upon the death of Nahum Ward (he died in 1754), implies that the house was set up to be run as a tavern.
Of course, running a tavern is not something likely to generate enough enthusiasm in a descendant to write a history of the town and its prominent families, particularly if your family is likely the most prominent one in town. Perhaps that is why the spotlight shines more brightly on another house built by but not lived in by Nahum Ward, the house sitting directly opposite from the original site of the Nahum Ward house. This impressive estate with its fine mansion and astonishingly large barn was the home of another more famous member of the family, the son of Nahum Ward and the original commander of the troops of the nascent Continental Army, General Artemas Ward.
Artemas Ward was born in 1727 in the house once located in Dean Park and died in 1800 across the street in his own rambling house, but led a remarkably varied life in between which him took him from Shrewsbury to Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York, to Boston, to Philadelphia, and to points in-between. Ward is principally remembered today as second in command of the Continental Army to George Washington, a post he relinquished in 1777 owing to poor health. Prior to the formation of the Continental Army, Ward commanded the forces comprised of militiamen from the towns surrounding Boston in the aftermath of the fight at Lexington and Concord and lead them in the siege of Boston, beginning with the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775.
Ward’s leadership is often unfavorably compared to that of his successor, and the two men had a somewhat difficult relationship, but the fact that Ward was chosen for such a position in the first place and the fact that Ward held many important political offices before and after the Revolution, indicates the esteem in which he was held by his colleagues. He was a member of the Governor’s Council both before and after the outbreak of hostilities between the local militias and the troops of the British Army, he served in the first three Provincial Congresses and was a member of the Continental Congress for 1780 and 1781, he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1782, serving as Speaker of the House in 1785, he was chief justice of the Worcester County Court, a position for which Ward achieved a measure of fame during the events known as Shays’s Rebellion (about which more in the next entry), and he served two terms in Congress from 1791-1795, finally retiring from public life in 1795.26For more on Ward’s interesting life, see the website of the Ward House Museum, as well as Charles Martyn’s somewhat hagiographical but nonetheless interesting biography of Ward, published in 1921 by Ward’s great-grandson Artemas Ward. Reference cited below. Timothy Dwight who “knew General Ward well” was fulsome in his praise, quoting from no less than the Roman lyric poet Horace: “I have known no person, to whom might be applied the “justum et tenacem propositi virum” of Horace with more propriety, or whose firm mind would be less shaken by the “civium ardor, prava jubentium” or the “vultus instantis Tyranni.”27 Dwight, Travels, p. 371. For those of us whose Latin has gotten a little rusty, I submit Byron’s translation of Horace’s Odes, Book III, Ode III “The man of firm and noble soul No factious clamours can control; No threat’ning tyrant’s darkling brow Can swerve him from his just intent.” The Loeb Classical library translation is more prosaic but gets to the point: ““The man tenacious of his purpose in a righteous cause is not shaken from his firm resolve by the frenzy of his fellow-citizens bidding what is wrong.”28Horace: The Odes and Epodes, Loeb Classical Library [rev. ed.; Cambridge, Mass., 1968], pp. 178–79. This quote was common and widely understood in early America. Thomas Jefferson used it in a letter to James Madison in 1789, to give one example.
The house and its contents have been remarkably well-preserved by the Ward family over the centuries and the fine set of buildings that comprise the estate is now a museum run by Harvard University that even Stewart Holbrook managed to stop and visit on his way through Shrewsbury in 1962.29Holbrook, pp. 110-111. I had the good fortune of being able to visit the house one cold January morning and the enthusiasm with which I looked forward to my visit was exceeded only by the enthusiastic reception I received from my host Paula Lupton, who has been involved with the house for eighteen years. The number and quality of artifacts in the house is remarkable and numerous tours would be necessary to truly appreciate the richness of the holdings, but more than an hour in the main house led by a knowledgeable and energetic guide like Paula at least gave me a taste of the depth and quality of the collection. Of particular note, although the museum is ostensibly dedicated to the life of General Artemas Ward, the collection is more expansive and considers the lives and the artifacts of many generations of Ward family members who made the house their own; it is truly a museum about the lives of eighteenth and nineteenth century men and women living in small town New England who happen to have a famous ancestor. I think this makes for a richer experience, and it is visits to places like this that are one of the great pleasures I have had as I make my along the road.
Although the house itself is a truly interesting building so too are the other buildings on the property, including the impossible to miss barn (see above photo), which is comprised of three separate barns that have been combined into one large building, easily the most impressive farm building I have encountered thus far along the road. Personally, the most interesting artifact I encountered on my visit and perhaps the most impressive artifact related to the Post Road I have run across to date, is located in the carriage house behind the main house. On August 5, 1795, perhaps as a retirement present to himself, Artemas Ward bought, for $57, a one-horse chaise from Timothy and John Minot, “Coach and Chaise Makers” of Water Street in Boston (quite close to the Old State House), a chaise which still exists in excellent condition here at the Ward House Museum. We know the date and the cost of the vehicle (shown above), as well as the fact that Ward paid $3 in excise tax on the vehicle on September 1, 1800, two months before his death on October 28, 1800, because the museum also has copies of the receipts!
Unlike a post chaise, which was a larger vehicle with four wheels and usually had a closed body, what many people think of as a stagecoach, a chaise is an open vehicle designed for one or two people. Large and comfortable as it appears, the leather straps that hold up the body and the lack of springs or any type of shock absorption capacity do not inspire confidence that the ride would have been comfortable, particularly on the roads described as “very stoney” by Ward’s one time boss, George Washington.30This image of an overturned gig also does not make me want to rely upon one for transportation Nonetheless, a chaise was likely preferable to riding on horseback or to walking, particularly as there is at least some protection from the elements.
George Washington passed directly by Artemas Ward’s house during his “Northern tour” of 1789, traveling 42 miles in one long day from Spencer to Weston along the Upper Boston Post Road on October 23, with a stop in Worcester for a large reception in his honor. However, he mentions in his diary only that he “passed through Shrewsbury” and makes no mention of his former colleague. Ward, for his part, “was not there to greet him, nor had he taken any part in the Worcester reception—so deep-seated and lasting had proved the estrangement of the two men,” according to Charles Martyn, author of a biography published by another Artemas Ward, a great-grandson of the General, and the man who donated the house and its contents to Harvard University.31Charles Martyn, The Life of Artemas Ward. New York: Artemas Ward, 1921. p. 301. The Ward family created a little “history” cottage industry in the town of Shrewsbury: Not only did Andrew Ward and Elizabeth Ward write histories of Shrewsbury, Artemas Ward commissioned a book on his great-grandfather General Artemas Ward and donated the house and its contents to Harvard University for use as a museum. However, I think J.L. Bell is overstating it when he says of the promotion of Ward by his family that “otherwise, I think he’d be a footnote.” Frankly, he is probably less well-known than he should be and perhaps his role in the formation of early American political society has been neglected precisely because his military prowess is often contrasted with that of Washington. Perhaps a wider view of his life is necessary to appreciate his overall contributions. It is easy to forget that the founding fathers were humans like the rest of us, riven by personal animosity, jealousy, and anger. I cannot help but wish I were here along the road at this site on the afternoon of October 23, 1789, when George Washington snubbed his old second in command as he himself had been snubbed earlier in the day by the man he replaced as head of what eventually became the United States Army. Did the curtains part briefly or did Ward just pretend nothing interesting was happening as the party accompanying Washington rumbled past the house? Surely many of the people at the reception were also friends or acquaintances of Ward. What did they think as they passed? This brief moment in time here along the Post Road has the dramatic potential to rival anything by Shakespeare.
High Plains Drifter.
The walk through Shrewsbury from the border with Northborough to the border with Worcester along the route of the Upper Boston Post Road is 4.6 miles in length. As I leave the Ward House and begin my climb to the center of Shrewsbury I realize that I have only walked 1.1 miles in Shrewsbury thus far, leaving three quarters of the town yet to be walked and discussed. At this rate I am on track to produce my longest entry yet. However, the process of discovery along the road is stochastic, and there are often long stretches of road with little of interest. It tends to even out in the end as some parts of the road will elicit more discussion and other sections will be summarized in the briefest manner. Shrewsbury has certainly started with a couple of heavy hitters, but let’s see what the road ahead has to offer. I suspect that it will be a close call whether I can get to Worcester before this entry becomes the most verbose yet.
One noticeable aspect of the road is that it has begun its ascent to the nearly 700-foot high plain in the center of town, although the walk is not particularly difficult as there are short climbs followed by walks along a more level surface before a new short climb brings me to the next high point, unlike the route of the turnpike which has an alarming tendency to shoot straight up a hill side. To offer a sense of perspective about the topographical change, although it does not feel like I have gone up the side of a ski slope, when I reach the intersection with South Street, only 0.3 miles west of the Ward House, I am standing at 550 feet above sea level, which is higher than the top of the ski slope I discussed earlier in the entry.
A cluster of interesting houses near the intersection of Main Street with South Street also marks the beginning of a more densely populated residential area, and an eclectic assortment of residential architecture continues nearly unabated for the next half-mile into the center of Shrewsbury, with the highlights (for me) of the pleasant uphill walk being the clearly eighteenth-century little red house at #675 Main Street, known as the “Little House” (see photo), the “Calvin Howe” House (c.1800) at #685 Main Street, and the “George Allen” House (c.1825) next door to the Shrewsbury Public Library at #621 Main Street.
After a bit of research in the library I head back out to drift around the charming historic center of Shrewsbury, even venturing a few yards off the “Post Road” to take in the interesting sites a little north of the road. The most prominent building in the center of Shrewsbury, as is usually the case in the center of every town through which I have passed along the road, is the church. In the case of Shrewsbury, the First Church Congregational of Shrewsbury, which commands a view over Shrewsbury Common, is a particularly fine example. This particular building, with the date 1723 prominently displayed on its facade, is a renovated version of the meeting house that was rebuilt in 1766 using wood from the disassembled original meeting house. A steeple was added to the Federal style building in 1807 and the building was later moved fifty feet back from Main Street and reoriented 90 degrees to face south over the road. Dudley Woodbridge, who kept a diary of his trip west in 1728, uses the meeting house as a metonym for the town: “At five miles we came to Shrewsbury Meeting House standing on the right hand on a shrubby uninhabited Plain…”32Diary of Dudley Woodbridge, entry for October 2, 1728. Massachusetts Historical Society.
Fifty years later the “shrubby uninhabited plain” was transformed into a “fine open cultivated country” in the words of Ensign DeBerniere as he and Captain William Browne “passed through Shrewsbury” on their way to Worcester on Saturday, February 25, 1775. Timothy Dwight, passing through in 1821, was more effusive in his description of the high plain at the center of the town from which “a very extensive prospect opens from the summit over the adjacent country. The soil of Shrewsbury is strong grazing ground; almost everywhere productive; and covered extensively, like most other settlements in New-England, with flourishing orchards. The inhabitants are almost all farmers. The houses are generally good farmer’s houses; and some of them, particularly in a small village near the Church, of a still better appearance.”33Dwight, Travels, p. 370.
One or two of the houses Dwight no doubt had in mind still stand near the church. Directly across Boylston Street is the impressive Jonas Stone House, which was built in 1822 (and likely did not yet exist when Dwight visited), while on the triangular property nearby where Boylston Street and Prospect Street split sits the impressive Samuel Haven house from 1816 (MACRIS #SRW.4). Haven ran a tavern started by Job Cushing, the son of the first minister of Shrewsbury, also named Job Cushing, at the corner of Main and Boylston Streets where the library is located today, visible on Snow’s map of 1832. That this was a small town is illustrated by the fact that Jonas Stone married the daughter of Job Cushing the tavern keeper.
More interesting houses can be found on both both Prospect and Boylston Streets but I am beginning to drift too far away from the main road. I cannot however leave the area without visiting Mountain View Cemetery, behind the church and directly across the street from the Haven house. An unusual but accurate name for an old burying ground in Massachusetts (normally they have names like “the old burying ground”), the location of the cemetery on this high plain affords a view over the country side north to Mount Wachusett fifteen miles away. The impressive stone entrance is actually a monument to the Ward family and the gravestones of both Nahum Ward and his son Artemas Ward have been embedded in the massive gate posts. Just inside the entrance is another monument to the Ward family, as well as a nearby stone monument with a plaque commemorating Levi Pease; a bit further along I find the gravestone of John Farrar, the original tavern keeper at what became the Pease family home. Along with the majestic view, the bluebirds fluttering between the grand oaks and maples that tower over the interesting gravestones strewn across the landscape in the unkempt fashion typical of an old New England burying ground, all conspire to delay my return to the task at hand, namely walking the Upper Boston Post Road.
Reluctantly, I leave the cemetery, pass the meeting house and the Shrewsbury Historical Society housed in a building dating to 1830, and drift back to the grassy, tree-lined common to examine the many plaques and monuments facing the main road. Of particular relevance to this project is another of the Knox memorial trail markers, commemorating the route followed by the men under Colonel Henry Knox, who transported the train of artillery captured from Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York across Massachusetts in the winter of 1775-1776, ultimately to be placed on the hills surrounding Boston, which forced the evacuation of Boston by British troops on March 17, 1776. These markers have been a consistent feature in each town along the road thus far along with a plaque commemorating the route George Washington followed in 1775 when traveling to Cambridge to take command of the newly-formed Continental Army, as well as the route he followed on his tour of New England in 1789, when he passed the house of Artemas Ward and the two former colleagues failed to meet. The plaque in Shrewsbury is located across Boylston Street, in front of the Shrewsbury Public Library at the site of the Cushing-Haven Tavern, which still existed in 1832 as indicated by its appearance on the map of Shrewsbury by Henry Snow.
The stone of most interest to me is a large stone that appears to be made of granite with the words 43 miles to Boston inscribed in a relatively small font on the flat face. The distance from this spot, directly in front of the church in Shrewsbury Center, was recorded as 41 miles to Boston on the map of the town produced by Silas Keyes dated March 12, 1795. The two-mile discrepancy is easily solved in this case as this stone was moved from a different location along the Upper Boston Post Road. According to the Shrewsbury Historical Society, “In 2016, milestone #43 was moved from the West Main Street on-ramp of Route 290 East to the Shrewsbury Town Common to protect the marker and give it a home where all could appreciate it.” According to my mile by mile map of the original route of the Upper Boston Post Road, the 43 mile location would actually be slightly west of the on-ramp to I-290 West and not the on-ramp to I-290 East, but this is only a difference of 0.2 miles, an acceptable difference when accounting for possible error in calculation.
Although the stone does not have a date or any indication of who was responsible for carving and placing the stone, nor does it have the large letters typically found on the older milestones, it does actually indicate the correct distance along the route of the Upper Boston Post Road (in its original location), unlike the “35 milestone” at the Ward House. I am certain that the residents of Shrewsbury could subtract 43 from 35 and realize eight miles was not the distance between the two stones (it is actually only three miles), thus providing more evidence that the milestone at the Ward House is not in its original location or that it was placed there at a later date. One other hypothesis to explain the discrepancy is that the “35 milestone” represents the route traveled from Boston via the Worcester turnpike and then continuing up Walnut Street past Levi Pease’s house (the math works, just, in this scenario). Perhaps it was placed there or nearby by Levi Pease himself! Although fanciful, this is a more likely explanation than that it is a milestone from the Colonial era. I also doubt that either stone is a “Franklin Milestone,” a topic I covered in the previous entry and will return to in a future entry specifically about milestones. The “43 milestone” is the most likely of the three milestones I have encountered along the route of the Upper Boston Post Road from Watertown to this spot in Shrewsbury to date to the Colonial era and is the most likely to have been passed by the likes of Washington, Adams, Browne and DeBerniere, or Levi Pease in the early days of his career running a stage coach through what later became his hometown.
All Downhill From Here.
As I head west along Main Street away from the milestone on Shrewsbury Common towards the original location of the milestone two miles further down the road, I see the hills of Worcester in the distance for the first time and reflect that my orientation has changed. As I headed uphill to reach the elevated plain upon which the “village” of Shrewsbury sits I still thought in terms of how far away I was from Boston. As I begin the long descent to the bridge crossing Lake Quinsigamond I have begun to think about the distance to Worcester, the second largest city in New England and the focal point of Central Massachusetts, which is comprised primarily of Worcester County. Silas Keyes accurately places the meeting house in Shrewsbury a distance of 41 miles from Boston on his 1795 map of the town, as the map of my walk along the Upper Boston Post Road puts the church at 40.8 miles from the Old State House in Boston. Keyes also accurately lists the distance to “Worcester Courthouse” on Main Street in Worcester as six miles, and this is now the principal figure that I contemplate as I walk the road west.
Most of the buildings from Shrewsbury Common to the busy junction of Main Street and Maple Avenue are commercial buildings of little interest, with the exception of the Chiampa funeral home which faces the Common on its west flank, originally built as a home in 1797 for Joseph Sumner, who was minister of the church from 1762 until his death in 1824. The first two ministers of the Shrewsbury congregation together served for almost exactly a century: Job Cushing for 36 years and 8 months, and Joseph Sumner for 62 years 5 months, an astounding combined 99 years and a month! To even out the averages, Samuel Ingersoll, the next minister, preached one Sabbath and died four weeks later, while the following minister, Samuel Whipple, lasted a little over a year before succumbing to an illness in 1822, nearly two years before Joseph Sumner, the man who had asked to be replaced owing to his age and failing health.34Andrew Ward, History of Shrewsbury, p. 182.
Most of the commercial activity, as well as the town hall, police station, and the post office, follows Maple Avenue southwest towards Route 9, while beyond the triangular intersection with its charming clock from 1908, Main Street west of Maple Avenue is lined with older houses. The first one at 535 Main Street, known as the Dr. Franklin W. Brigham House, was built in 1822 by Calvin Stone and appears on Snow’s 1832 map as the house of “C. Stone,” and on an 1870 map as the house of “Dr. F.W. Brigham.”35More information about this building, as well as many others in the center of Shrewsbury, can be found at the website of the Shrewsbury Historical Society, which also has interesting audio clips with descriptions of various events and homes in the town. The clips were designed for third-graders but I found them interesting all the same! In front of the neighboring house at 529 Main Street, an elegant Federal-style house built for Joseph Stone in 1806, a large stone sits on the grass between the sidewalk and the curb. At first glance I am momentarily convinced it is another milestone, but closer inspection reveals there are no markings on the large stone, which appears instead to be a hitching post for horses.36See Macris Report (SRW.66) for more details. Click the link and, when the map appears, type the search ID for the house in question into the box and it should pop up on the map, then click the dot on the map for a report to open in a new window. In 1832 the house is listed as owned by “A. Stone.” By 1859 (and 1870) “S. DeWitt” is the owner.
L.M. Parker placed concentric rings on his 1859 map of Shrewsbury at half-mile intervals from the center of town at the junction of Main Street and Boylston Street. Main Street west of the center of town on Parker’s map is densely lined with houses, including the ones described above, almost to the first half-mile line. Many of these houses still exist today, including the Hapgood House at 520 Main Street, the Maynard House at 506 Main Street, and the house at 515 Main Street with a sign attached to the front proclaiming it as the “Joel Nurse” house from 1825. A “J. Nurse” is listed as the owner of one of the houses along this row of buildings on the 1832 map of Shrewsbury by Henry Snow; incidentally “H. Snow” is listed as the owner of the next house along the road after Nurse.
Somewhere along Main Street west of the common was once a tavern operated by Benjamin Furnace (sometimes spelled Furness, Furnass, or Furnis) who, according to Andrew Ward “as late as 1774 was licensed to keep a public house, where Joseph Nurse lives now.”37Andrew Ward, History of Shrewsbury, p. 279. Snow has two “J. Nurse” houses listed on his 1832 map of Shrewsbury west of the common; the aforementioned house at 515 Main Street and a second house down the hill about one mile west at 307 Main Street which is listed in the Massachusetts Cultural Resources Information System (MACRIS #SRW.52) as also belonging to Joel Nurse, but there is some evidence to suggest one of these is incorrect as we shall soon see.
In any event, the “Furnace” Tavern was one of two taverns along this stretch of road which John Adams visited and left a record of in his diary. On April 25, 1771 Adams “lodged at Furnace’s in Shrewsbury” after traveling from Buckminster’s in Framingham and dining at Brigham’s in Southborough along the route of what I have termed the Framingham diversion, before continuing on to Worcester and beyond. Adams did not record a stop on his return journey a week later, but did travel west again at the end of May when he “oated [his horse], and drank tea at Furnace’s” on May 31, 1771.
Fifteen years earlier Adams was living in Worcester where he had gone after graduating from Harvard in 1755 to teach (in August 1756, he began to study law, also in Worcester). In an early entry, dated May 20, 1756, in the diary which Adams began in November, 1755 and kept intermittently for the next 25 years, he writes “after school, rode to Shrewsbury, went to Capt[ain] Hows, to see Dr. Flynt, spent an hour…” Elizabeth Ward, in her 1892 book Old Times in Shrewsbury, tells us that “a mile beyond Cushing’s Tavern, later called Haven’s, was the tavern in early times kept by Daniel How and, a mile further on, the one kept by Jotham How, afterward by George Slocum and later the residence of Judge Cobb.”38Elizabeth Ward, Old Times in Shrewsbury, p. 57. Dudley Woodbridge, records in his diary entry for October 2, 1728, after passing the meeting house in Shrewsbury center “at one mile we came to How’s; tarried for 1/4 hour and refreshed ourselves and our horses..” D. Hamilton Hurd, in his History of Worcester County from 1889, locates the tavern of Daniel How who “usually went by the name Captain How…on the Great Road, where the poor-house formerly stood, on land now belonging to George H. Harlow….”39D. Hamilton Hurd, The History of Worcester County. Philadelphia: J.L. Lewis, 1889. Volume 1, p. 785.
Is the building which housed the Daniel How tavern still present along the Upper Boston Post Road in Shrewsbury? This intriguing possibility was tantalizingly implied by a somewhat confusing 2008 article in the Worcester Telegram by Linda Davis and Bill Yeomans, respectively the curator and the past president of the Shrewsbury Historical Society. In this article about a mansion called Iristhorpe, part of the 138-acre estate of Dr. Homer Gage and his wife Mabel (Knowles) Gage of Worcester, the authors discuss the renovation of the house the couple found on the property known as Flint Farm when they purchased it in 1909 for use as a summer home. The original intention was to knock the old house down but the couple decided to move the house fifty feet away from the road and turn it to face north to gain an unobstructed view of Mount Wachusett, as the house is still on the plain, over 600 feet above sea level, and the road has yet to make its descent.
The authors discuss the history of the house, which they first say was “built around 1752 by Gotham Howe on land owned by Daniel Howe [who] owned the land on both sides of West Main Street, from the center of town to the bottom of the hill at St. John’s High School. In the mid-18th century, Dr. Edward Flint married Gotham’s daughter, Mary Howe. After Daniel Howe died in 1768, Flint and his wife, Mary, moved into the family home, living and practicing medicine there. The house soon became known as Dr. Flint’s house or Flint Farm, as it continues to be known today. After the Gages purchased Flint Farm, it was named Iristhorpe.”
There is a lot to unpack here and some of it seems inaccurate. Mary Howe, who was born in 1738, is actually Gotham (also spelled Jotham) Howe’s sister, not his daughter (he was born in 1728).40Ward, History of Shrewsbury, p. 312. Mary did marry Dr. Edward Flint of Concord, who arrived in 1755 to take the place of Joshua Smith, the previous physician in the town and is clearly the “Dr. Flynt” Adams visited in 1756.41Ward, pp. 275-276. Whether he and Adams were friends, relatives, or had some previous connection I have been unable to ascertain but it seems likely as Adams seems to have come specifically to see Flynt. If indeed Edward Flint and Mary (Howe) Flint moved in to the “family home” after the death of Daniel Howe on November 22, 1768, it seems likely to have been the Daniel Howe house rather than a house built by Jotham Howe, who kept a tavern a mile further west, as noted by Elizabeth Ward.
Maps of the area are of some use in helping us get closer to an answer. Snow’s 1832 map shows Flint Farm as the next house along past the cluster of houses west of the common, while also showing the “Town Farm” further west along the “Stage Road.” Incidentally the map also shows “Slocumb’s Tavern” further west, close to Lake Quinsigamond and roughly at the former site of the 43 milestone where today Interstate 290 crosses over Main Street. This is reputedly the tavern originally run by Jotham Howe, according to Elizabeth Ward. After the F.W. Bigelow House, located today at 491 Main Street, as the road slowly begins to descend, the space between the properties increases and there fewer houses along what Parker calls “the Old Post Road” on his 1859 map. Parker’s map shows the property after Bigelow’s about 0.7 miles along the road from the center as owned by “Flint Heirs,” while the next property along, the town farm on Snow’s map, is now called the “Infirmary,” and Slocumb’s Tavern has now become the property of “A.G. Cobb,” presumably the “Judge Cobb” described by Elizabeth Ward. There is still some distance between the densely built-up area west of the common and the Flint farmhouse. Both Snow and Parker show the property sitting on the plain; the sharp descent to West Brook does not begin until after the Town Farm/Infirmary. Incidentally, Andrew Ward, writing in 1847, says of Gideon Howe, another son of Daniel Howe, that he “lived on the place now improved for the support of the town’s poor,” which supports the notion that the Howe family owned a large amount of the land along the road in this area.42Ward, p. 313.
By 1870, the Flint property is now owned by “G.H. Harlow,” although it appears a second, larger house has been built a little closer to the cluster of houses near the common. What appears to be the original house on Flint Farm is still visible on the map between the bigger house and a building labeled “T.P. House” which I translate as “The Poor House,” the building previously known as the Infirmary and the Town Farm. By 1898 the G.H. Harlow house close to the other houses on the west side is still shown but the house at the site of Flint Farm seems to be missing. Perhaps the Flint Farm/ Daniel Howe house was not placed on the map of 1898 by accident as that is where the author placed the “MAIN” of Main Street on the map. The “Poor House” is listed on the 1898 map as the property of “F.C. Pratt,” while “Misses M.S. & C.E. Cobb are now the owners of the reputed Jotham Howe Tavern near Lake Quinsigamond.
The house purchased by the Gage’s in 1909 was moved away from the road as described above and now faces north-west about 0.55 miles west of Shrewsbury Centre at 449 Main Street (see photo above). The older section of the house certainly appears to be an eighteenth century house and the architects involved in the renovation showed remarkable restraint in changes they made to the building; the result is a house that is pleasing to the eye and has an almost natural appearance that older New England buildings often acquire when successive generations add onto a preexisting structure. If indeed it is the original Daniel Howe house and tavern, it has certainly been a survivor. The Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information Service (MACRIS) report on the house (SRW.62) states that it was moved not 50 feet as the article in the Worcester Telegram states, but 250 feet further away from the road; however, looking at it from the road, it is clearly not that far away and a quick check on Google maps measures the actual distance from the road as 93 feet, which supports the version in the Worcester Telegram article. The MACRIS report also cites the confusing story from the Worcester Telegram and adds even more conflicting information: “according to the Old Houses in Shrewsbury, Daniel Howe constructed the original portion of the house circa 1719, and the Flint family enlarged the house circa 1752. Finally according to Remodeled Farmhouses, the house was constructed in 1760.”
As Dr. Flint did not show up in Shrewsbury until 1755 at the earliest and he did not marry Mary Howe until 1758, it seems unlikely they renovated the house in 1752. It is difficult to say from this information when the house was built except that it is quite old and was most likely built in the Colonial era. A further inconsistency is that on the 1832 and 1859 maps the Flint Farm appears to be at least 0.7 miles along the road which is closer to the “one mile past Shrewsbury Centre” of Dudley Woodbridge and closer to the site of the “Poor House,” which Hurd states is the area where How’s Tavern was located. I realize the discrepancy is only about 250-300 yards but it is still significant; is it possible the house was actually moved slightly up the hill along the road at the time it was moved away from the road?
Captain Howe himself died in 1768, and if Dr. Flint and his wife took over the house and used it for his medical practice as well as the family home, it is unsurprising that John Adams stayed instead at nearby Furnace’s tavern in 1771. Perhaps, however, Furnace himself took over the operation of the Howe tavern for a few years prior to the occupation of the house by Dr. Flint and his wife, as Ward notes he was licensed as late as 1774. Whatever the case Furnace (Furness/Furnis) at the very least operated a tavern in the vicinity of what was once the Daniel Howe tavern, a tavern Adams patronized in preference to the tavern purportedly run by Daniel Howe’s son Jotham Howe a little further west or the tavern less than a mile east in the center of town run by Cushing. Adams does not mention Flint again in his diary, so the earlier mystery of their interaction in 1756 remains. Edward Flint died in 1818, and his son Josiah, the owner of the house in 1832, was still living when Ward published his history of the town in 1847. By 1859 the “Flint heirs” were the property owners. After the death of Mabel Gage in 1948 (Homer Gage died in 1938), the 138-acre property was sold and seventy ranch style homes were built on the south side of west Main Street along what are now Westmont Road, Westmont Circle, and Gage Lane. According to the MACRIS report “there has only been limited residential subdivision on the north side of Main Street, behind the stone wall that borders the original estate.”
The stone wall still borders the sidewalk along Main Street beginnning at 491 Main Street and continuing for 0.3 miles almost to 427 Main Street. There is some development today behind the wall in the area surrounding “Iristhorpe” along the north side of the street but it is more spaced out than the relatively dense housing along the south side of Main Street. A little beyond Gage Lane and directly across the street from the end of the long stone wall lining the north side of Main Street is a modern ecclesiastical building housing the Trinity Episcopal Church Shrewsbury which, surprisingly, was founded only in 1954. Their first services were conducted in the auditorium of the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology before they purchased the property here in 1955. The Worcester Foundation, which was located on Maple Avenue and has now been absorbed by the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is another interesting Shrewsbury topic but it is not directly on or related to the Post Road, so in this instance I will refrain from again drifting off the road.
That the Worcester Foundation was located not in the city of Worcester but in the town of Shrewsbury speaks volumes about the development of the town in the period following the Second World War. Shrewsbury for most of its history was an agricultural town, as evidenced by Flint Farm, which was still farmland when Homer and Mabel Gage purchased it in 1909. As late as 1889, D. Hamilton Hurd wrote in his History of Worcester County “agriculture has always been the leading industry of the people of Shrewsbury.”43Hurd, Worcester County, Volume 1, p. 802. The Gages lived in Worcester and used the house as their summer retreat, but for many people Shrewsbury increasingly became a year round home as the suburbs around Worcester expanded dramatically. In 1790 there were only 963 residents in the town, and the number had not even doubled in the intervening century when the population reached 1,626 inhabitants in the 1900 census. However, by 1950 the population had increased more than six-fold to 10,594 residents and has steadily increased in the decades since to reach a population of 38,325 inhabitants according to the 2020 census.
An illustrative example of the suburbanization of Shrewsbury is the fate of the land on both sides of the street down the hill for the next half-mile beyond Trinity Church, which is now mostly the property of Saint John’s High School. The school was founded in Worcester in 1894 on Temple Street, adjacent to St. John’s Church, the first Catholic Church in the area. By the 1950s, the church and the school were increasingly surrounded by emptying warehouses and closing factories near the railroad tracks behind Union Station; as the jobs left the population in Worcester also began a precipitous decline as families moved en masse out of the center of the city to surrounding suburbs. The school soon followed the families according to the website of Saint John’s High School when “In 1955, with the financial support of Bishop Wright, the Brothers purchased ‘Dunmorlan‘, the former Clifford B. Sweet estate on West Main Street, Shrewsbury. The architectural gem of this property was a Spanish-style stone structure built in 1914 that housed the Xaverian community until the Brothers’ residence was completed in the early sixties. The acquisition of the property was the first step in the development of St. John‘s into a regional high school, serving Worcester County and Central Massachusetts.” By 1962, the students had all been moved to Shrewsbury and in 1977 the original school building on Temple Street was demolished. Although St John’s Church still serves the neighborhood, today it is surrounded on three sides by large parking lots and backs on to railroad tracks. Unfortunately the area is in pretty rough shape but is slowly improving as new businesses, including Polar Park, the home of the Woo-Sox, as the AAA affiliate of the Boston Red Sox is called these days, the Worcester Ice Center, and the Worcester Public Market, have moved into the area. I will be writing about my journey through Worcester in the next few entries at which time I will discuss the evolution of downtown Worcester in more detail.
The campus of Saint John’s High School is nice enough but is not exceptionally interesting. The hill begins a steep descent just before the entrance to the main campus opposite Westview Road, dropping from over 620 feet in elevation to 430 feet in the half mile from Trinity Church to the western edge of the Saint John High School athletic fields, the same elevation drop as the ski slope of Ward Hill! Of greater interest, just beyond the school property along the valley around West Brook, are a few survivors from the days when Shrewsbury had yet to become a suburb of Worcester and was still principally an agricultural community. The house at #307 Main Street (MACRIS SRW.52) is found on the 1832 Snow map, as is the Hye Meadow Farm at Westbrook, as the charming sign in front calls the lovely property at #285 Main Street (MACRIS SRW.51), a sign which also claims that the house dates to c.1776. The building appears on Snow’s 1832 Map as the house of S(olomon) T. Fay and as the property of Dolly Bond by 1859. Andrew Ward notes that Solomon T. Fay “came here from Westboro’, say in 1826, with his wife, Ascah, and lived a few years on the Jennison Place, a short distance west of where Joseph Nurse lives, and then returned.”44Andrew Ward, History of Shrewsbury, p. 281. Samuel Jennison married Mary Heywood in 1755 and “lived in the house and on the farm next west of Joseph Nurse” until his death in 1804 at the age of 81.45Ward, p. 337 Jennison is not mentioned in the MACRIS report, which dates the house to “before 1830,” but this evidence points to Jennison as an owner of the house in the eighteenth century, supporting the claims on the sign.
Although the MACRIS report (SRW.52) states that the house at #307 Main Street was built by Joel Nurse in 1806, Andrew Ward’s statements lend credence to the idea that the house, listed as belonging to “J. Nurse” on Snow’s map of 1832, was actually the house of Joseph Nurse, not of Joel Nurse, who more likely lived at 515 Main Street, in the house that today has a sign on it stating that it was the house of Joel Nurse from 1825. Joel Nurse died in 1830, while Joseph Nurse was still alive in 1847 when Andrew Ward wrote his History of Shrewsbury, in which he refers to Joseph Nurse in the present tense and uses his house to identify the locations of other nearby houses as illustrated above. It stands to reason Ward would know where a contemporary resident of the town lived and hence, I put my faith in Ward that the house at #307 Main Street was the house of Joseph Nurse and thus may have been the Furnace tavern which Adams visited in 1771.
The most prominent building along the road in the valley is a red brick building at the junction with Old Mill Road that turns out to be on the National Register of Historic Places. Called Schoolhouse #5 (MACRIS SRW.13), the building dates to 1828 and is listed as such on Snow’s 1832 map. At #239 West Main Street (SRW.50) is the Zebediah Johnson House which, despite outward appearances, apparently dates to 1732, one of the oldest houses along the Upper Boston Post Road in Shrewsbury. It is shown as the Oliver Lothrop house on the 1832 map by Snow and on Parker’s map of 1859 as the property of H. Learned. A small burial mound on the south side of the road opposite the house has a handful of graves of Johnson family members, including the grave of Zebadiah Johnson who “departed this life September the 7th 1795 in the 87th year of his Age,” which supports the idea that the house indeed is quite old.
The Zebadiah Johnson house and the family plot across the street are the last remnants of the “old” Shrewsbury before I begin the transition to “modern” Shrewsbury and Worcester because, although I cannot see it from the cemetery, I can sense that the intersection with Interstate 290 is not far away. The “rural vibe” of the last few hundred yards is slowly replaced in the next few hundred yards by more modern commercial and residential development, the road starts to widen and the traffic increases. Just before I reach the site of the old 43 milestone, now replaced by the massive infrastructure of a highway interchange, I pass a building that represents the new Shrewsbury, the modern suburb of Worcester and Boston. At 152 Main Street, a few yards from the highway is the new Community Center for the India Society of Worcester. Founded in 1963, the society originated as an opportunity for the few (about 25 or so members in the earliest days) Indian professionals in Worcester to get together. Today the Worcester area is home to thousands of people of Indian background and Shrewsbury alone, according to the most recent census, is home to nearly 10,000 residents who claim Asian descent, a significant portion of whom have a connection to India, according to a 2017 article from the Worcester Telegram. To put these numbers into perspective, the entire population of Shrewsbury in 1950 barely eclipsed 10,000 residents, the overwhelming majority (98%+) of whom were White according to the census; this was an era when more than 98% of the population of Worcester County identified as White and Anthony “Spags” Borgatti was the type of name at the leading edge of diversity in the suburbs of Worcester and Boston. In 2010 Shrewsbury was 77% White but by 2020 that number had dropped to 63% White with the number of residents identifying as Asian doubling in the same ten years, a pattern that will undoubtedly continue in the next census. I have said it before about other towns along the Upper Boston Post Road road and repeat it here: Shrewsbury, like Sudbury or Waltham or Northborough or Watertown, is where America is now, and it is a good deal more intersting and promising than the bizarre fever dreams of some who promise a return to the bygone halcyon days that never existed in the first place.
Last Exit to Worcester
The milestone on Shrewsbury Common indicating “43 miles to Boston” once stood a little past the India Society Community Center in the area now taken up by the imposing bulk of the Interstate 290 interchange. This complex of on-ramps and off-ramps takes up almost 0.3 miles of the old road, and eliminated the former split where the “road to Rutland” diverged north away from the “road to Worcester” that is visible on the map of Shrewsbury from 1795 of Silas Keyes (see the map at the beginning of the entry). The restructured straight four-lane Main Street in this area bears little resemblance to the old route of the Upper Boston Post Road, which followed an S-curve before it reached the bridge crossing over Lake Quinsigamond (see the black line on the map I created of the road at the end of this entry). The original road once deviated north from Main Street at what is today the I-290 West on-ramp and followed a now obliterated 100-yard section of what is today Shirley Road. The old route of the Upper Boston Post Road then split from Shirley Road and followed a 100-yard line northwest behind 5 Shirley Road, crossing between two houses, 8 Shirley Road and an older-looking house on Holden Street which is intriguingly numbered 81 Main Street, despite the fact that it is not located on today’s Main Street. Finally, the short and walkable 200-yard section of Holden Street in Shrewsbury between Shirley Road and the bridge across Lake Quinsigamond is the last vestige of the original route of the Upper Boston Post Road in the area around the interstate.
In the same way that I knew I was getting close to the Interstate Highway I can “feel” that I am approaching Lake Quinsigamond on a hot day in June because a breeze wafts over me between the cemetery and the India Society Community Center, about half a mile from the lake as the crow flies. The air around the lake is noticeably cooler even around the highway ramps, which are usually one of the hottest parts of any of my walks, and it becomes noticeably warmer only when I reach the border with Worcester on the western shore of the lake. Dudley Woodbridge, passing through in 1728, was impressed with what he called “Worcester Pond, the largest yet I have ever seen,” and Timothy Dwight, traveling through Shrewsbury in 1821, described the prospect more eloquently than I can: “At the entrance to the this township from Worcester, lies a beautiful lake called Quinsigamond, about one acre of which is comprised within the bounds of Worcester, and the rest of those in Shrewsbury. The lake is about four miles long, and from one hundred rods to a mile broad; and is the largest, and handsomest piece of water seen from the Great Road in this County. Its form is a crescent. From the high ground in Shrewsbury it furnishes a fine feature of the landscape; and exhibits to the eye the appearance of a noble river.”46Dwight, Travels, p. 369.
The most obvious practical impact of the lake is that it presented a problem for travelers from east to west and thus the shape of the Upper Boston Post Road to Worcester was determined in large part by the more than four-mile north to south barrier of water that blocked the route west in the middle of Massachusetts. The solution was to cross over a narrow channel separating the main body of water from smaller lakes to the north. A bridge at the north end of the lake near what is today Gauch Park has been present since the road has existed and was likely a fording place even before Europeans traveled this path. In a report from 1993 on MACRIS (SRW.902) S.J. Roper, a “historic bridge specialist,” concluded of the most recent version of the bridge dating to the 1930s that it was “a somewhat deteriorated and not very impressive example of a modern 20th century bridge/culvert structural type.” Unsurprisingly, a not particularly impressive new bridge replaced the “not very impressive” bridge in the same year and, fortunately, it does not appear to have deteriorated.
This bridge, although underwhelming architecturally, is an important location historically along the road and is clearly the place described in 1775 by the spy Ensign Henry DeBerniere in his report to General Gage: “we came into a pass about four miles from Worcester, where we were obliged to stop and sketch.”47Report to General Gage, p.8. The two spies would travel through here on February 25 and again on February 27, 1775. The “pass” is located about 3.5 miles from the site of the Worcester County Courthouse in the center of Worcester, and the narrowness of the bridge and the exposure of the road as it climbs up from the lake made it exactly the type of area that the spies were explicitly sent out to examine and record as the Instructions from Gage made clear: “You will go through the counties of Suffolk and Worcester, taking a sketch of the country as you pass…all passes must be particularly laid down, noticing the length and breadth of them, the entrance in and going out of them, and whether to be avoided by taking other routes.”48General Thomas Gage’s Instructions, February 22, 1775. Unfortunately, none of DeBerniere’s sketches beyond Wayland and Sudbury seem to have survived.
The lake itself, unlike the bridge, is not at all underwhelming. It is one of the half dozen largest natural lakes in the state of Massachusetts and, because it curves slightly and is so long, its true size cannot be appreciated from the bridge. Although I have promised to be disciplined about drifting away from the road, I can’t resist an anecdote about me literally drifting, on this lake as it happens. Nearly forty years ago, in my senior year at Worcester Polytechnic Institute I took a class called Limnology, which is the study of inland aquatic systems, as opposed to Oceanography. This class was led by a great teacher, Ron Cheetham (who was also my academic advisor), and began by the four or five students in the class hopping into a boat and rowing out onto Lake Quinsigamond, stopping at various points around the lake and dropping nets and sample vials to collect water, organisms, and soil samples from the shore and from various depths from the surface to the bottom of the lake where possible, which we then took back to the lab for analysis. As a person who grew up on the ocean I disdained fresh water, and I rarely set foot in or near a lake and had, if memory serves, never before been on a lake in a boat. The first time I truly appreciated a body of fresh water occurred while drifting peacefully on this large and beautiful lake. Reading the glowing reports of the lake from the likes of Timothy Dwight I can’t help but agree from personal experience that Lake Quinsigamond is a special place.
Only from the heights above the lake does it become clear how big the lake is, as in the photo above showing the view from along the Upper Boston Post Road at the border, where the road changes from Main Street in Shrewsbury to Lincoln Street in Worcester, about 430 feet above sea level and about 70 feet above the bridge. Although maps show the road changing from Main Street to Lincoln Street immediately after crossing the bridge, the Upper Boston Post Road actually continues as Main Street for another quarter of a mile after crossing the small bridge over the narrow channel separating Lake Quinsigamond from the smaller bodies of water to the north. Almost the entirety of Lake Quinsigamond is located in Shrewsbury and the City of Worcester does not officially begin until the western shoreline of the lake. A diagonal line leading northwest from the top of Lake Quinsigamond demarcates the border north of the lake between Worcester and the town of Shrewsbury. Thus the steep 500-yard walk uphill from the bridge is entirely in Shrewsbury as are all the various bodies of water connected to Lake Quinsigamond north of the bridge.
The simple explanation for this apparent anomaly is that the modern road leading away from the bridge is called Lincoln Street but the old route of the Upper Boston Post Road offers one last twist and turn along the road in Shrewsbury before it crosses the border into Worcester. Less than 200 yards west of the bridge, at Oakland Avenue, a small side road appears next to the busy road; this side road is actually Main Street, as the mailboxes along the road attest. This short road curves uphill at a slightly gentler angle than the modern straight road, before the two merge again right at the border between Shrewsbury and Worcester, marked by a metal pole with the names of the two towns, tucked away on a small rise just off the edge of the sidewalk in a copse of trees.49A look at a closeup of Google maps at the site shows the road name alternating between Lincoln Steet and Main Street. While it is true that the first 200 yards of the two roads overlap, Main Street is actually the narrow curved road to the south of Lincoln Street for the last few hundred yards in Shrewsbury and Lincoln Street is the modern four-lane road. The road ahead looks busy and somewhat unappealing, so I take one long last look at the lovely view over Lake Quinsigamond from this tranquil high spot along Main Street, the last twist and turn in Shrewsbury. Have I said before that I really like the twists and turns along the route? Fortified by the small frisson of pleasure from finding one more “lost” bit of the old Post Road, I screw up my courage and plunge headlong into Worcester.
The author would like to acknowledge Paula Lupton, curator at the Ward House Museum and to thank her for her taking the time to show me around the house and grounds with enthusiasm on a cold January morning.
Distance traveled in this entry along the route of the Upper Boston Post Road from the Northborough/Shrewsbury line to the Shrewsbury/Worcester line: 4.6 miles.
Total Distance traveled along the original route of the road from the Old State House in Boston for this project: 43.6 miles.
Total Distance covered for all the walks described in Boston Rambles: 105.0 miles