Boston Rambles

Boston Rambles

A Rambler Walks and Talks About the Hub of the Universe

Watertown: Circling The Square.

Upper Boston Post Road Entry #1 (UBPR #1)

Detail from a USGS Topographical map (Boston South, #42071-C1-TM-025) showing Watertown Square. The red circle at the center is the “Square.” The winding red roads branching in all directions away from the “hub” are Colonial Era roads. The two straight roads heading east are nineteenth-century turnpikes. Watertown Square was the principal hub for travelers heading west from Boston until 1807, when the Worcester Turnpike (today’s Route 9) was built. A few decades later trains replaced the turnpike as the primary means of travel. Today the interstate highway (I-90) is the main route most travelers take west from Boston. The Massachusetts Turnpike (I-90) can be seen in red at the bottom of the map, adjacent to the train tracks for westbound trains, both routes bypassing Watertown Square.

“Main Street through Weston, Waltham, and Watertown to Mill Bridge over the Charles River was the Ancient Post Road, originally called the County Road, and later the Sudbury Road.”

Stephen Jenkins, The Old Boston Post Road, (1913), p. 371.

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Watertown Square is less a square and more a wheel with spokes extending away from the hub in all directions. The oldest road leads south across the bridge over the Charles River and follows a winding path into the actual “Hub of the Universe,” Boston. Another very old road heads northeast towards Harvard Square and on to Boston via a bridge (but for over 150 years via a ferry) from Charlestown. This road to Cambridge is the route George Washington followed on his way to take command of the newly-formed Continental Army in 1775. Two more very straight roads running east originated as competing turnpikes in the early nineteenth century and were designed to run more directly into Boston by avoiding the tortuous curves of the old roads, which themselves had been “designed” with walking in mind and thus avoided hills and water as much as possible. Both Arsenal Street and Beacon Street, the modern incarnations of the two turnpikes, are lined for half a mile leading out of Watertown with commercial buildings, in particular stores selling car parts, predominantly automobile tires. This area appears to be a sort of “hub for hubs,” befitting the general layout of the “square” itself. A couple more roads run along the Charles River in each direction. However, the road that most interests me is the one that heads west from Watertown Square into the interior of Massachusetts. This road is called Main Street in Watertown, but it is also known as the Boston Post Road.

Watertown Square, as the crow flies, is only 6.5 miles from the Old State House. Following the more circuitous old road out of the city it is still a comparatively short nine-mile walk. By comparison, walking along the Post Road north from its origin around Bowling Green in lower Manhattan for nine miles will leave you in Harlem, with a walk of five more miles just to reach the top of Manhattan Island, and a further six-mile walk to cross the Bronx, for a total of twenty miles to follow the old Post Road out of New York City! The walk from the Old State House in Boston to Watertown Square is the same distance as walking west from my old apartment in the Palms neighborhood of Los Angeles to Will Rogers State Beach in the Palisades neighborhood, or, heading east instead, it is a mile short of reaching Los Angeles City Hall, which gives you a sense of the enormous size of that city. It is the distance from Wrigley Field in Chicago, home of the Chicago Cubs, to what was formerly called Comiskey Park (I refuse to advertise its current bland corporate moniker), home of the Chicago White Sox. A nine-mile walk through Washington D.C. along Massachusetts Avenue from its origin at the northwest border with Bethesda, including a short detour from Union Station to take in the Capitol building, brings you to the Potomac River in the southeast of the city. It is a nine-mile walk to cross San Francisco from Pier 39 to the San Francisco Zoo. It is nine miles northeast along the old Post Road from Independence Hall to Four Seasons Total Landscaping in Philadelphia, site of the infamously comical Giuliani press conference (and ten miles from the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Philadelphia, which is where they likely meant to have the press conference). In other words, a nine-mile walk in most large American cities would be entirely within the city limits. As Boston is one of the smallest major cities in area but one of the largest metropolitan areas by population in the country, it is perhaps unsurprising that this point in Watertown, which requires also passing through the towns of Brookline and Newton to reach, is still part of the urban fabric of the city. It is, however, on the perimeter of the dense urban hub, and once the walk west begins we will quickly start to escape the gravitational pull of the Hub.

Looking north into Watertown Square from Watertown Bridge. This is a busy junction with constant traffic, an indication that Watertown is still an important component of the dense urban fabric of Boston and its surrounding towns. Note the curve of the ‘new’ road arching right to meet Mount Auburn Street. Also note the green sign for ‘Route 20’ at right which, for long stretches, is part of the ‘Boston Post Road’, the subject of this project. Note that clicking on the photos will open them in a new page and that they can be expanded to show more detail. All photos by the author unless indicated.

Watertown Square is also close to the edge of the city in my mind. I have biked and walked along the river path from the Back Bay many times but almost always turn around here.  For someone without a car, this is near the limit of regular MBTA bus service. Although there is a bus depot at nearby Watertown Yard, where numerous buses arrive and depart to and from Boston and Cambridge, from Watertown only bus #70 continues westward on to Waltham; otherwise one must take either an Express Bus or the Commuter Rail to continue to points west. Watertown Square is in the transition zone to suburban Boston.

Watertown Square is where the two routes one could take west out of Boston in the Colonial period converged: the road out by the neck through Roxbury and Brookline or, by taking the ferry from the North End across to Charlestown, the road through Somerville and Cambridge. All travelers heading west from colonial Boston or Cambridge passed through this spot. From here they continued along the Upper Post Road which led, via Worcester, Springfield, and Hartford to New Haven, where the Lower Post Road was joined and continued on to New York.

modern version of original waterfall

Watertown Square became an important hub because it was the site of the first waterfall and thus the end of the navigable tidal portion of the Charles River. The first bridge built across the Charles River was put up here in the 1640s, which explains the convergence of roads here. However, as is plain to see from the map above, the development of alternate transportation routes from the early nineteenth century onward (the Worcester Turnpike, now Route 9, the trains, and the Massachusetts Turnpike) diminished the early central importance of this transportation hub. Watertown entered into a gentle decline and evolution into a densely populated suburb of Boston. The relative proximity of Watertown to Cambridge, Newton, and Boston resulted in a compact town that more closely resembles the densely populated Boston neighborhoods of Dorchester or Jamaica Plain than the leafy towns of neighboring Belmont or Lexington. The density of Watertown, at 8832 inhabitants per square mile (mi2) with 35,329 inhabitants packed into 4 mi2, according to the 2020 United States Census figures, while not comparable to Boston (13,977/mi2) or Cambridge (18,529/mi2) is much greater than that of the towns to the immediate North (Belmont, 5807/mi2), South (Newton, 4987/mi2), and West (Waltham, 5119/mi2). The walk from Watertown Square to Waltham and beyond is a transitional walk from the core of what I consider to be Boston to what are definitely the suburbs.

Watertown Square is where I concluded the last of the many walks I described in previous entries along the old roads leading out of Boston in all directions. Some years ago I also described a walk along the old Lower Boston Post Road, following the oldest road to New York from Boston through to Dedham and then south to Rhode Island and across coastal Connecticut. In this entry I will commence on a new phase of this project, a walk along the Upper Post Road, closing the larger loop created by the divergence of the two roads from New York to Boston at New Haven. It truly does feel as though I am leaving Boston behind as I walk west from Watertown.

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Looking south up Galen Street in Watertown. The stone marker indicating the site of Coolidge Tavern is hidden behind the white truck, on the edge of Watertown Yard.

Watertown Yard, located only a few yards along Galen Street from the Watertown Bridge on the south side of the Charles River, has a forlorn, end-of-the-line quality, a quality made worse by the dirty piles of snow lining the edges of the yard and the biting winds of February that constantly seek access to my skin through the chinks in my winter armor. It is actually the end of the line in more ways than one as it was built to accommodate the trolley cars of the now defunct A-branch of the Green Line, which was extended here from Newton Corner in 1912. The trolley line was shut down and replaced by the #57 bus in 1969, which follows parts of the old road to Boston as far as Brighton Square before continuing on more modern roads (that is to say, roads built in the early 1800s as opposed to the 1600s or earlier) to Kenmore Square. A handful of other buses, including the Express #504 bus to Downtown via Copley Square, also begin and end their routes here at what was once a transfer station between the Boston Elevated Railway and the suburban lines fanning out from Watertown Square.

Image of Watertown Yard in 1967. Trolleys were replaced by MBTA Bus #57 in 1969. Photo from Wikipedia from an image submitted by David Wilson.

The terminal and transitional nature of the bus depot befits the mood of this entry, one where I turn my back on the old roads around Boston and begin to walk away from Boston to follow the Upper Post Road into the depths of Massachusetts and on to Connecticut. Watertown Square, at the junction of two old roads leading out from Boston on each side of the Charles River, has long been a departure point for those journeying out of Boston. The inauspicious tableau in front of me, comprised of buses turning around in an ugly depot, busy traffic roaring past on the adjacent street, and the unprepossessing buildings housing mundane sub shops, nail salons, and dentist offices that line the icy sidewalks, almost obscures a small plaque not twenty yards from the bus stop which hints at a much richer picture of the area as a point of departure.

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Plaque commemorating the site of the Coolidge Tavern very close (40 yards) to the south east corner of the Watertown Bridge on Galen Street. The building housing the tavern was built in 1742, and is mentioned numerous times in the diaries of various notable figures from the Revolutionary War Period, including John Adams and George Washington (yes, he slept here!). The building was taken down sometime after 1916 to make way for the Watertown Yard, which today serves as a bus terminal. One of the buildings of the Yard can be seen in the background.

The last words of the entry for Thursday, November 5, 1789, in the diary of George Washington are ” …thence to Watertown, eight more (miles), the country is very pleasant, and the roads in general good. We lodged in this place at the house of a Widow Coolidge, near the Bridge, and a very indifferent one it is.”1The Diary of George Washington from 1789 to 1791; Embracing the Opening of the First Congress, His Tours through New England, Long Island, and the Southern States. Together with his journal of a Tour to Ohio, IX 1753. Edited by Benson J. Lossing. New York: Charles R. Richardson & Co., 1860. p. 47. The building housing the Coolidge Tavern once occupied the site of what is now Watertown Yard. Built in 1742 the building served as a tavern as early as 1764, licensed by Nathaniel Coolidge, Jr., one of the many Coolidges in Watertown, the direct ancestors of a later president, Calvin Coolidge. The tavern keeper Coolidge died in 1773, but his wife Dorothy (Whitney) continued on as the aforementioned “Widow Coolidge.” The newly-elected President Washington had just completed a circuit on his tour of the “Northern States” from Boston through to Salem, Newburyport, Portsmouth, and Exeter, New Hampshire before returning by way of Andover and Lexington. He stopped for the night here in Watertown before heading home on a different road from the Upper Post Road that he took to get to Boston from New York, heading southwest on today’s Watertown Street to follow what is now Route 16 through Newton and Needham to Sherborn, then continuing on to Connecticut along what was called the “Middle Post Road,” a subject for another day.2The short version is that Washington had likely planned on taking the Lower Post Road to Rhode Island to complete his tour of the New England States as constituted in 1789 (Maine, which he did briefly visit, was still part of Massachusetts, and Vermont was pretending to be an independent entity until 1791). However, Rhode Island had stubbornly refused to ratify the Constitution and so, technically, Washington was not President of Rhode Island, and so had to swerve around Rhode Island. Not wanting to retrace his steps, he took an alternate route back to Hartford, Connecticut. Incidentally, Rhode Island joined the Union the following year and Washington to a boat to Newport in August, 1790, to complete his tour of the New England states. He later took a similar trip through the Southern states. As we move along the road to Worcester and Springfield, Washington’s observations on the places he stayed on his journey north, the quality of the road, and the individuals he encountered, will make interesting reading and are often even more barbed than his opinion of the Widow Coolidge’s establishment.

The first Vice President of the United States and a native son of Braintree, John Adams, who accompanied President Washington during much of his visit to Boston, had himself stopped here fifteen years earlier on his way to Philadelphia to represent Massachusetts at the Continental Congress, as he recorded in his diary entry for August 10, 1774 : “The committee for the Congress took their departure from Boston, from Mr. Cushing’s house, and rode to Coolidge’s, where they dined in company with a large number of gentlemen, who went out and prepared an entertainment for them at that place. A most kindly and affectionate meeting we had, and about four in the afternoon we took our leave of them, amidst the kind wishes and fervent prayers of every man in the company for our health and success. This scene was truly affecting, beyond all description affecting.”3The Adams Papers. Diary & Autobiography of John Adams, Volume II. Edited by L.H. Butterfield. New York: Atheneum Press, 1964. p.97 Robert Treat Paine, another representative of Massachusetts on the journey and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, also recorded the scene that day in his diary : “We dined at Coolidge at Watertown in Company with between 50 and 60 Gentlemen from Boston who rode out to take their leave of us and give us their best Wishes for our Success on the Embassy.”4Adams Diary, p. 97 footnote 2.

A year later, Boston was under siege by the newly-formed Continental Army, headquartered in Cambridge under the command of General George Washington, who awaited instructions and financial assistance from the Continental Congress. James Warren, President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, which was holding sessions in Watertown while Boston was occupied by troops of “His Majesty’s Army,” recorded the visit in October 1775 of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Lynch, representatives of the Continental Congress: “Doctor Franklin, and Mr. Lynch stopped at Davis. I waited on them, and they came over and drank Coffee with us. The next day I dined with them all at Head Quarters, and Yesterday they and the General Officers, and the Gentleman of Character from the Southward on a Visit here were Entertained by the House at Coolidges on the best Dinner we could get for them, Turtle, Codfish, &c. Every kind of Civility and mark of Respect is shewn them here, and if they don’t leave us better satisfied than they came, to us, it will not be our faults.5“To John Adams from James Warren, 20 October 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-03-02-0113. [Original source: The Adams Papers, Papers of John Adams, vol. 3, May 1775 – January 1776, ed. Robert J. Taylor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979, pp. 218–224.]). Apparently the place went downhill between 1775 and 1789.

Coolidge Tavern in a nineteenth century photo, presumably when the Brigham family still owned it. A map of 1900 lists the property as belonging to the “Estate of J. Brigham.” The building was demolished shortly thereafter to make way for the expansion of the A-Branch Line of the trolley from downtown Boston to a new terminus at Watertown Yard.6“Coolidge Tavern.” Photograph. Digital Commonwealth, https://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/7d278v012 (accessed February 17, 2022).

The building was later owned by John Brigham, who ran a nearby lumber yard on the river. His son Charles Brigham, born in 1841, grew up in the house. The younger Brigham became a renowned architect, responsible for many of Boston’s most iconic buildings, including the First Church of Christ Scientist extension (1904-1906) in the Back Bay, the Church of the Advent (1880-1888) on Brimmer Street in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, and the enlargement of Bulfinch’s State House. Moreover he designed many elegant mansions in the Back Bay, the Greater Boston area, other parts of New England– even in places as far flung as Valapraiso, Chile! Brigham also designed many structures for Boston’s new subway system. Charles Brigham lived in Watertown until 1922 in a house he designed on Garfield Street (a much swankier part of town) before moving to Shelter Island, NY, where he died in 1925. An active member of Watertown civic life, he was instrumental in the preservation of the Fowle House (current home of the Historical Society of Watertown, discussed in a previous entry). It seems ironic, then, that Brigham was still alive, interested in preservation, living in Watertown, and designing buildings for what is today the MBTA, when the construction of the Watertown Yard resulted in the demolition of his boyhood home, site of so many famous historical gatherings. The building is shown on a November 1916 Sanborn Fire Insurance map but is absent from the February 1923 map as the Watertown Yard has expanded into the space of the former Coolidge Tavern. Indifferent as the service at the Coolidge Tavern may have been, it certainly would be preferable to have the building on the site rather than its contemporary incarnation. 7For more information on this fascinating architect, I direct you to the website of David J. Russo, who has put together an impressive collection of essays on Brigham’s life, his designs, virtually every building associated with his name, and his connection to Watertown, replete with lots of interesting images and references for anyone interested in delving deeper into the life of this son of Watertown. One of the great pleasures I derive from this project is the discovery in each place I visit of many people who also care about the past, not necessarily the grand past of kings and empires, but local history. Every place I pass through seems to have a coterie of individuals dedicated to the preservation of their small patch of history for posterity. I salute them.

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Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nictycorax nictycorax) at the Watertown “falls” with what appears to be a Blueback Herring (Alosa aestivalus), although I am more confident in my bird identification skills than in my ability to identify fish.

It is a curious fact that the Coolidge Tavern was located in a 150-acre patch of land on the south bank of the Charles River that is a part of Watertown. The reason has everything to do with the fruits of the river and the location of Watertown at the tidal head-water of the river. Anadromous fish such as herring, shad, and alewives, which breed in fresh water, once swam from the Atlantic Ocean through Boston Harbor and up the river in the tens of thousands, stopping briefly at the falls before literally making the leap to the next segment of the river. The precursors of the English settlers fished here for centuries and the new settlers quickly followed suit, setting up massive fish weirs across this relatively narrow stretch of river. William Wood, an early chronicler of New England, wrote in 1639: “A little below this fall of waters, the inhabitants of Water-Towne have built a Wayre to catch Fish, wherein they take great store of Shads and Alewives. In two Tydes they have gotten one hundred thousand of those Fishes.”8William Wood, Wood’s New-England Prospects. Boston: Wilson & Son for The Prince Society, 1865. page 44. The town annexed 150 acres of land along the river to accommodate the weir and to lay sole claim to the fish caught therein, which resulted in a great deal of contentious litigation with neighboring towns and towns upriver over the next several decades. By 1663 Nathaniel Coolidge, an ancestor of the tavern keeper of the same name, owned the weir. 9 Henry Bond, Genealogies of the Families and Descendants of the Early Settlers of Watertown, Massachusetts, Including Waltham and Weston; To Which is Appended The Early History of the Town with Illustrations, maps, and Notes. Second Edition, Two Volumes. Boston: The New England Historical Genealogical Society, 1860. pp. 1036-7

Watertown Bridge. The current version of the oldest bridge over the River Charles was built in 1907, as it says on the inscription at center. The first bridge across the river was built near this spot in the 1640s and was subsequently rebuilt many times.

As I have mentioned countless times, the bridge here was the earliest across the Charles River. A small craft could navigate up the river from Boston harbor for about ten miles before encountering the first set of waterfalls. This favorable setting resulted in Watertown becoming one of the earliest settlements in Massachusetts, in about 1631, not five hundred years earlier as some deluded writers would have us believe. The imaginative first paragraphs of the Historical Sketch of Watertown Chapter of the History of Middlesex County (1893) are dedicated to the “likely establishment,” with scant evidence to support the claim, of a settlement of the area by Norsemen from Iceland sailing up the river five hundred years earlier than the Puritans.10Solon F. Whitney, Historical Sketches of Watertown, Massachusetts, Compiled in Part for History of Middelsex County. Philadelphia: J.W. Lewis, 1890. p. 317. This fantasy had an underlying cultural and political aim in a period of mass immigration from Italy and other ‘undesirable places’, which was to undermine the ‘accomplishments’ of Christopher Columbus, a swarthy Mediterranean type, by positing the earlier arrival of some fine lads of Aryan stock. Notwithstanding the pathetic yearnings of Solon F. Whitney, the author of this fictional narrative (who also had some very disturbing things to say about the native inhabitants), there are some interesting bits of information to be found in his contribution that have some actual documentation.

For instance, Whitney describes colonial documents dated June 2, 1641 in which “Mr (Thomas) Mayhew (is) to have 150 acres of land on the south side of Charles river of Watertown weire. The tole of Mr. Mayhew’s bridge is referred to the governor and two magistrates to settle for seven years.” 11Whitney, p.384 This is the first record identified which discusses a bridge across the river. This original footbridge was rebuilt in 1647 to accommodate horses. That the bridge was a critical piece of transportation infrastructure is implicit in the order of the General Court of November 11, 1647 which implored the people of Watertown to “put up the bridge for the benefit of the country…”12Bond, p. 1040. The bridge required much repair and was rebuilt on several subsequent occasions wide enough eventually for wagons, and ultimately culminating in the current wide and elegant version from 1907.

Looking up the Charles River from the Watertown Bridge.

It is truly a handsome bridge, wide and solid, with detailed stone balusters and engraved inscriptions describing the history of Watertown and its connection to the river. It is also extremely busy with noisy traffic barreling through from Newton or Brighton to Cambridge or Waltham, mostly passing through Watertown Square in an arching curve which fortunately takes most of the traffic away from the more bucolic path of the Charles River Reservation that runs along the river.

The tranquil and verdant pathway lining the river today is a far cry from the long history of commercial and industrial use of the river at this site. In addition to the fish weir and dam crossing the river itself, mills and factories lined this stretch of the river for over three centuries. The map below, from the Middlesex County Atlas of 1900, shows at least three factories lining the north bank of the river, while Brigham’s lumberyard, mentioned earlier, occupies a large area along the south bank. The map also illustrates the early fruits of a movement to create more green space along the river, by the recently-formed (1892) Metropolitan Park Commission. The gradual expansion of the parks along the river to take in the former factory land resulted in the bucolic setting today, where it is not uncommon to see a heron catching the formerly rare herring, alewife, or shad swimming up to the dam. The Charles River today is probably cleaner than at any point since the early 1630s, when English settlers first settled and began to ‘improve’ the land.

View of the Watertown Bridge from the Charles River Reservation. Not too long ago mills and factories lined the banks of the river.

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Watertown Square in 1900. Detail from Middlesex County Atlas, plate 23. Notice that Mount Auburn Street does not lead directly to the bridge as it does today (see other map). Also note the abundance of factories lining the river as well as the new green space of the Metropolitan Park Commission.

Watertown Square did not always have the radial shape it has today. A glance at a map of the the area in 1900 shows the square with a much more asymmetrical layout. The present organization of the streets converging in Watertown Square dates to the construction of the present Watertown Bridge between 1905 and 1908. Prior to this redesign Galen Street led directly to Main Street at the current intersection with Pleasant Street instead of curving sharply to the right to connect directly to Mount Auburn Street as it does today. This rearrangement in Watertown Square marks one of the few substantial changes to the historic road in Watertown, apart from the obvious paving and widening that has occurred on all the historic roads in the area. The layout of the road and even some of the buildings along the road west to Waltham would have been familiar to someone like John Adams traveling in 1774 or even to Samuel Sewall, traveling in 1686.

Palimpsest of the old road from the bridge.

Despite the dramatic reconfiguration of the layout of Watertown Square, a palimpsest of the old road can still be found after crossing the bridge. The bus turnaround immediately adjacent to the entrance to the Charles River Reservation entrance is aligned in roughly the same pattern as the original road. The frisson I feel at having made a small “discovery” as I walk along this short stretch from the bridge to Main Street, trivial as it may seem, derives from the idea that, unbeknownst to those passing me by, I am following in the centuries-old footsteps of countless travelers along this ostensibly mundane stretch of sidewalk past parked buses. I am on the Post Road.

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A row of impressive bank buildings flank the south side of Main Street in Watertown Square. Charles Brigham’s sole surviving contribution is the more ornate yellow one in between the two limestone buildings. A Washington Memorial Highway plaque, a proxy for the Post Road, is attached to the facade of the first building.

The entrance to Main Street from Watertown Square is guarded by the imposing bulk of the Watertown Savings Bank Building. Erected in 1921, this large edifice replaced an older set of buildings, including one built by Charles Brigham, the architect who grew up in the Coolidge Tavern building over the bridge. Between 1870 and 1900 Brigham designed at least three buildings along this block. The only building of Brigham’s remaining on the block is sandwiched between the building anchoring Watertown Square at the head of Main Street and a similarly imposing limestone building from 1928. This more elaborately decorated, less severe building than its neighbors with it’s facade of yellow brick, is the former Union Market National Bank (1900). Today all three buildings appear to be part of the Watertown Saving Bank and lend an air of elegance to Watertown Square.

A similarly elegant bronze plaque attached to the exterior of the first building has a profile of George Washington and reads “This tablet marks the George Washington Memorial Highway at Watertown, 1732-1932. presented by Watertown Post no. 99 A.L. (American Legion).” This refers to the establishment of an official road to commemorate the route Washington took to Cambridge to take command of the Continental Army in 1776, the same route he took from New York to Boston in 1789, and the route I intend to follow for this project. Apparently 22 markers were put up in Massachusetts and “some number remain.” There is one on Mason Street in Cambridge, across the street from the Washington Elm, the putative site Washington took command of the Army; how many more remain to be discovered as I walk along the Post Road.

Washington Memorial Highway, also known as the Upper Boston Post Road.

Main Street continues from Watertown Square for 1.5 miles to the border with Waltham. The first few blocks are an intriguing mix of buildings of varying ages built in a wide variety of styles. Some, like the typically ugly CVS building and the cookie-cutter Bank of America branch building, are uninteresting in the extreme while others, like the Watertown Savings Bank block of buildings, draw my attention either because they are interesting historically or are architecturally attractive. The Armenian Museum of America, housed in the Mugar Building directly opposite the Watertown Savings Bank trio of buildings, belongs to the first category, but for me, definitely not the second. As I have already discussed the Armenian diaspora in my previous entry on Watertown I need not detain the reader with my thoughts on the architecture of the building (ugly modernism) and move on a couple of blocks, to the Watertown Free Library. The lovely original library building, now embraced by a tasteful modern addition, opened for business in 1884 according to Solon Whitney, the narrator of the creative Norse saga mentioned earlier. In this case we can confident of the accuracy of Whitney’s claim because he was the town librarian at the time!1312 Whitney, Middlesex County, p. 369. When the town first established a library in 1868 Whitney was the librarian and was still the librarian when he published this history of Watertown twenty years later. In fact he remained the town librarian for almost fifty years until his death at the age of 87 in 1917.

The library is very pleasant and houses some very interesting art work, including a lovely sculpture of what appears to be a fairy, entitled Puck, presumably based on the Shakespearean character, by the sculptor Harriet Hosmer, a Watertown native. Also on display in the History Room is an autographed copy of The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, along with the letter from Solon Whitney requesting, almost demanding Longfellow’s signature, which I find hilariously impertinent. Longfellow appended at the bottom of the letter the terse “my signature on title-page, H.W.L.”, which implies he found it a bit impertinent as well. Spend a few minutes in the library, enjoy the art work, read the letter. Time well spent.

Puck by Harriet Hosmer, Watertown Free Public Library

Serendipitous discoveries continue as I resume my walk along the road to Waltham. Directly opposite the library at 134 Main Street are the law offices of Winnick and Sullivan, housed in a modest building clad in vinyl siding. Except for two small signs (see photo), one placed on the building by the Watertown Historical Commission, which also mentions that it was the house of William Leathe, Blacksmith, it would be easy to overlook this eighteenth century gem tucked in among the various buildings along Main Street. A little further on, past the Watertown Administrative Office Building and opposite Saltonstall park, stands the imposing red brick Gothic edifice of St. Patrick’s Church. The presence of the Catholic church in Watertown dates to 1847, when the old Methodist meeting house was purchased secretly for the church. Upon learning the true identity of the ‘secret’ purchaser the Methodists tried to back out of the deal but threatened lawsuits stifled their efforts and the church was subsequently moved to a spot up the hill behind the site of the current church. An image of the older church can be found on a map of Watertown surveyed in 1850 by Eaton and Whiting. The current building, not designed by Charles Brigham, but rather by the firm of E.G. Bullard, opened for service in 1906. As I have discussed in previous entries, the presence of the Catholic church was not entirely welcomed with open arms in Massachusetts. Myriad religious tensions within towns across Massachusetts often make for some of the most interesting and lengthy chapters in the annals of town histories. An even earlier ecclesiastical dispute amongst the residents of Watertown led directly to the formation of the towns of Waltham and Weston, as we shall see in the next two entries.

Easy to miss under the siding, except for the signs. Serendipity is the walker’s best friend.

Walking along these old roads is akin to riffling an encyclopedia or perusing the shelves at the library, as varied and often disparate items of interest follow one after another in a delightfully stochastic manner. It is impossible to give most of these stories enough attention without these entries becoming infinitely long, but I will try to direct the interested reader to sources that might be useful in following the threads that cross my path. As I have learned from previous projects, focus on making progress along one main thread, the Post Road in this metaphor, is necessary for the project to proceed. Otherwise I could easily circle the square forever. Ideally the warp and woof of all the threads would create a fabric which tells the story of America; realistically I need to focus on a particular aspect of this complex story and leave the intricate weaving to the more capable hands of the local historians in each of the towns along my path. Thus the principal focus of this project will be to elucidate the course of the road in its earliest incarnation and to examine the changes to the road over time. Most of the information related here will by definition primarily concern the Colonial Period but I will certainly digress, as I clearly have done even in this first entry, on topics that interest me and that seem to good to pass up. Serendipity is the walker’s best companion.

At 262 Main Street is an early residence of the writer Celia Thaxter, and shortly thereafter I pass the tracks of the former Watertown branch line of the Fitchburg Railroad. Chartered in 1846, the line reached Waltham Center by 1851, but in what appears to be a theme in this entry, the line was little used once automobiles arrived on the scene, and passenger service ended in 1938. After a few more busy blocks, I reach Lexington Street, which George Washington followed from the eponymous town, before he turned left onto Main Street and passed along the road I have just followed for three quarters of a mile to reach the ‘indifferent’ Coolidge Tavern. It is at this junction that Main Street transitions from primarily commercial buildings to predominantly residential neighborhoods for the remaining half of the walk.

Detail of a map of Watertown from 1850 by surveyors Dwight Eaton and Elbridge Whitney. At bottom right, on the south side of the river over the bridge, is the Coolidge Tavern, listed as ‘J. Brigham’. The bridge angled away from Mount Auburn Street at the time and intersected with Main Street more directly. Main Street continued through a busy Watertown center. After crossing the railroad tracks of the former Watertown branch line, Lexington Street is reached, the road from which George Washington arrived in Watertown for his ‘indifferent’ stay. From Lexington Street to the border with Waltham, Main Street was very sparsely populated according to this map, with only half a dozen houses in the next three quarters of a mile. The second house on the left is the Browne house, discussed below.

Eaton and Whiting’s map of 1850 shows only a half dozen or so houses along the entire stretch from Lexington Street to the border with Waltham. One of these residences would have been a familiar sight to any traveler along the road since at least 1700. This is the Browne House. The Browne family were early settlers of Watertown and had built on this property as early as 1640. The current house, which dates from 1698, stayed in the family until at least 1897 and is even shown on the 1900 Middlesex County Atlas as belonging to E.H. Brown. By 1919, the house had passed into the hands of William Sumner Appleton, founder of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA), in such a dilapidated state that the Historical Society of Watertown had approved its demolition. Appleton, however, decided to purchase and restore the building to some semblance of its earlier condition, and subsequently transferred ownership to the SPNEA, who still maintain the building as a museum under their modern name, Historic New England. In addition to the historical value of the house as a record of seventeenth century architectural features, the restoration itself is historically significant, one of the first fully documented restoration projects in America. I took a tour of the house in 2017 and the interior is as impressive as the exterior, as shown in the photo below.

Browne House, 562 Main Street, Watertown, built c. 1698.

The development of Main Street in West Watertown from Lexington Street did not begin in earnest until the last decade of the nineteenth century. Even as late as 1916, as shown on a Sanborn’s Fire Insurance Map of the area, there was no development beyond Wilmot Street, just past the Browne House. Today the street is lined almost continuously on both sides of the street to the Waltham line with suburban residential developments, with one exception. A large property on the south side of Main Street at the very end of Watertown is still essentially undeveloped, dates to the eighteenth century, and takes us into Waltham and the next chapter of this project. The substantial estate that once belonged to the Gore family still has sheep grazing in the fields that surround the lovely Federal mansion (which actually sits in Waltham) from 1806. Thus, from the Coolidge Tavern site to these bucolic lands traversing the border of Watertown and Waltham we end the walk along the Upper Boston Post Road just as we began it, with a reminder that even in the dense urban setting of Boston and its suburbs the past is still very much with us. Serendipity!

Interior of Browne House, one of the first fully documented restoration projects in America. Now a museum under the auspices of Historic New England. Well worth a visit.

Other Sources consulted:


Stephen Jenkins, The Old Boston Post Road. New York: Putnam (Knickerbocker Press), 1913.
Chapter XV (pp.355-384) Middlesex County, Massachusetts- Marlborough, South Sudbury, Wayland, Weston, Waltham, Watertown, and Cambridge.

Samuel Adams Drake, History of Middlesex County, Massachusetts. 2 Volumes (Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1880).

Joseph D. Wallace, A History of Watertown, Massachusetts, to 1900. Manuscript Submitted In partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Masters of Education at Boston University, 1950. At Watertown Public Library History Room. available on line.

Charles T. Burke. Watertown Papers. Compiled and edited by David Stafford, 1989. History Room, Watertown library and on line.

G. Frederick Robinson and R. Robinson Wheeler. Great Little Watertown, 1630-1930. A Tercentenary History. Watertown Historical Society, 1930.

Total distance traveled for this project: From Watertown Bridge to Waltham Line: 1.5 miles

Total Distance from Old State House in Boston to Waltham Line along the old road from Boston to Watertown Bridge: 10.6 miles

One Response to Watertown: Circling The Square.

  1. Glad to see a new piece. Interesting as usual.

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