Section 1: Mount Auburn Cemetery to Belmont Street intersection. 0.3 miles.
Borders change. Had I undertaken the walk described in the previous entry, along Brattle Street to Mount Auburn Cemetery, in 1753 instead of in 2018, I would have entered Watertown as soon as I crossed Sparks Street in what is now Cambridge, near the property which became the Lechmere estate in 1761 (see the right red marker on the map below). In 1754 the boundary changed as Cambridge expanded westward to what is today Homer Avenue, a short distance beyond the entrance gate of Mount Auburn Cemetery. The current boundary is different again as a result of more land-swapping in the nineteenth century. Currently everything north of Mount Auburn Street belongs to Cambridge, while most of Mount Auburn Cemetery is in Watertown. Thus the sidewalk in front of Mount Auburn Street is in Cambridge all the way to the junction with Belmont Street. Only then does Mount Auburn Street, part of the old path from Charlestown, enter Watertown (see the left of the two red markers).
Yet literal signs that this area was once Watertown remain. A stone marker sits on the sidewalk of Mount Auburn Street next to the Mount Auburn Cemetery fence, directly opposite the office building at 625 Mount Auburn Street. On the east-facing side of the stone is a ‘C’, while on the opposite side is a ‘W’. On the north face is the date 1829. The old boundary stone remains though the boundary has shifted.
Roads Change. Thus, although this is an entry about the old road in Watertown, I begin by walking a quarter mile of road in Cambridge. I have left behind the elegant mansions of Lechmere and Oliver and Vassall; instead, here along Mount Auburn Street opposite the cemetery, there is a service station, two auto repair garages, a pediatrician’s office, another office building, and a large shopping strip with a Stop and Shop and a Starbucks. There is a lot of traffic on this wide street, much altered since its early days as the path taken by the original inhabitants, prior to the arrival of English settlers, from Boston Harbor to the first set of waterfalls on the Charles River at what is today Watertown Square, before ANY of this was called Boston or Charlestown or Somerville or Cambridge or Watertown.
After crossing over the abandoned tracks of the former Watertown branch of the Fitchburg Railroad, which once had a Mount Auburn Station at this spot (Mount Auburn has been a tourist attraction since it was consecrated in 1831), I reach the junction of Mount Auburn Street and Belmont Street, two very old roads. Belmont Street is part of the old road to Lincoln and Concord, and is also the old back road to Waltham, bypassing Watertown Square. A road to be explored in a future entry.
Mount Auburn Street is the old road to the bridge over the Charles River at Watertown. Originally called Mill Street, according to Henry Bond, a nineteenth century chronicler of Watertown, “Mill Street began below Mount Auburn, where Sir Richard Saltonstall began his plantation, and selected his homestall lot, and passing by the ancient graveyard, it extended to the mill, at the first or lowest, falls on the Charles River. It did not long retain that name, but acquired that of Cambridge Road, or the road to the College, and sometimes the County Road. It has recently been renamed Mount Auburn Street.” ¹ At Watertown Square Mount Auburn Street merges with the road leading to Watertown from Brookline and Roxbury to become Main Street in Watertown, which was the principal road west out of Boston in the eighteenth century. Before heading off down the old road I stop for a coffee at Intelligentsia Cafe, a decent outpost of a Chicago chain nestled in the angle formed by the diverging Belmont and Mount Auburn Streets, once the site of an eighteenth century tavern. Revitalized, I finally enter Watertown, although technically I have already been in what was once Watertown for almost two miles.
Section 2. Belmont Street to Grove Street. 0.4 miles
Towns Change. Curiously, considering the historical significance of neighboring Cambridge, Watertown was founded first, in 1630. The Charles River was navigable for about ten miles upriver as far as the first set of waterfalls, hence Watertown, the first inland settlement in Massachusetts. Two years later the Puritan leaders decided to establish a fortified town a little further down river and Watertown relinquished a chunk of its territory to the ‘Newtowne’ which was soon renamed Cambridge upon the establishment of ‘the college’. Incidentally Newton was originally part of Cambridge and eventually took the original name for itself when it became a separate town. The three original settlements on the north bank of the Charles River over which the original road passed were Charles-, New-, and Water-town.
At the junction of Mt. Auburn and Belmont Streets once stood a building dating to 1700, taken down in 1898, which housed a tavern. An early owner was Edward Richardson, who apparently allowed gunpowder and military stores to be hidden in the basement in the period leading up to the revolution (Drake, History of Middlesex County, p. 447.). Later the tavern was kept by Joseph Bird and his family. The building can be seen on the map of the Boston area by John G. Hales from 1819, and is labelled in his later map of 1829 as ‘Late Bird’s now Bellows Tavern’. Curiously, a year later Hales produced a map specifically for Watertown, where he records the building as ‘Wyeth’s Hotel’. An 1850 map of Watertown (see above) has the property listed as belonging to ‘J. & H. Bird’. The Bird property is where the Intelligentsia Cafe is located today, the modern successor in a way.
The walk along Mt. Auburn Street in Watertown is fairly dull for the first third of mile or so: There is ‘Greg’s’ restaurant with its interesting sign, there is a funeral home near the late nineteenth century Sacred Heart Parish Church, the second Catholic Church established in Watertown, built to accommodate the burgeoning Catholic population of the East parish. There are some mid-twentieth century houses, most covered with vinyl siding, and there is the looming presence of the Art Deco Western Electric building (1931) housing the headquarters of Tufts Health Plan, the medical insurance provider. There is little that seems particularly old and no evidence at all of the old tavern.
Then, at the intersection of Mt. Auburn Street and Grove/Arlington Street (technically Arlington Street, as Grove and Arlington merge a hundred yards south of the cemetery, but on old maps it is labeled as Grove Street), in a sea of ugly commercial buildings, including what seems to be the world’s largest CVS, I reach the ‘Old Burying Place’. This turns out to be the original graveyard of Watertown, already mentioned in town records before 1645, one of the oldest burial grounds established by European settlers in the country. Inside I find a monument to the Bird family, ‘tavern keepers, musicians, and keepers of a lending library’, I am helpfully informed by the information wayside at the entrance. Nearby is a large Egyptian Revival obelisk column memorializing Joseph Coolidge, the sole Watertown casualty of the battle of Lexington and Concord and ancestor of president Calvin Coolidge. Most of the land around the cemetery, including the Tufts Health Plan Headquarters building, was at one time owned by the Coolidge family and the area is still referred to as Coolidge Square. There are stones commemorating other early settlers like the Stearns family, while other stones commemorate more tavern keepers: The Learned family and the Hastings family. Other stones memorialize early ministers, including the third minister John Sherman, who preached at the meeting-house once located directly across Mount Auburn Street, and which was controversially moved a few more times, ending up by 1754 more than a mile west along Mount Auburn Street to Common Street, where a new cemetery was also established.
3. Old Burying Place to School Street.0.5 miles
People Change. Crossing the busy intersection, I walk through the small commercial district around Coolidge Square to reach the Deluxe Town Diner, an inviting ‘lunch car’ diner, dating to the 1940s. The place is very busy, they serve good quality diner food at a decent price, and I leave full and happy after downing a massive cheeseburger with fries. Many of these diners, found predominantly in the Northeastern United States, were prefabricated, shipped whole, and were designed to be able to fit on small or quirky lots. Interestingly, this diner was one of the few fabricated on site, wrapping the older ‘Town Diner’, an old Worcester Lunch Car diner, with a newer bigger building to create a larger than normal diner (Larry Cultrera, Classic Diners of Massachusetts). Prior to the arrival of fast food chains beginning in the 1950s, diners served a similar function: quick, inexpensive and basic food. They were also a way for hard-working immigrants to establish themselves in their new homeland. This particular diner was opened by Greek immigrants, the Contos family, in 1947.
The descendants of Irish and Italian immigrants are the single biggest group of residents in Watertown according to the American Community Survey (ACS for 2016 the most recent data available), which is the case for virtually every town in the Boston area. People who identify as having Greek heritage make up only 2.4% of the population of Watertown according to the ACS. However, Greeks, as well as many other less populous immigrant groups, have had and continue to have a prominent presence in Boston. A few yards beyond the Town Diner along Mt. Auburn Street I find myself in a very interesting neighborhood of East Watertown made up of another often overlooked group of immigrants, the Armenian diaspora.
One of the most agreeable aspects of these walks along old roads, or transects as I like to think of them, is that, although there is an underlying logic and a defined path to follow, the way ahead of me is, for the most part, a blank slate. Of course I expect to encounter ancient burial grounds and old churches. However, the experiences and encounters I have in between the ‘milestones’ that line the route are often completely unexpected and lend a sense of mystery to the walks.
I learned that Watertown was the home of the Armenian community in Boston and one of the most important in the United States from my high school chemistry teacher (and chess team coach) Mr. Sevagian, but I assumed that most of the community had dispersed, the same way Irish or Italian neighborhoods gradually fade away as immigrants become Americans. Indeed the Armenian community has spread to all corners of the country and become another source of the mighty stream of American culture [William Saroyan, Cher(yl Sarkissian), Andre Agassi(an), Eric Bogosian, the Kardashian family, to name merely a few contributors of Armenian descent]. Yet the neighborhood along Mount Auburn Street from Bigelow Street to School Street retains more than just vestiges of the large community that began to form in Watertown in the late nineteenth century. No fewer than three bakery/specialty foods stores, all with signs in the distinctive script of the Armenian language, line this six block stretch of Mount Auburn Street.
Armenia, for me, is one of those blank spots on the map, an elusive place located in that mysterious area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, between (and within) Turkey, Russia, and Iran, with an unusual language, a unique alphabet, exotic food, and the obscure Armenian Apostolic Church, the predominant religion. To try to get the beginnings of a handle on this unique population I step into the Massis bakery. My initial impression is that it seems quite similar to the Greek or Lebanese stores I visit frequently in my own neighborhood. Baskets filled with fruits and vegetables line one wall, and the shelves are stocked with spices and beans, nuts and dried fruit. There are canned goods with labels in a script I can’t read, as well as buckets of olives, refrigerated cases of unfamiliar cheeses and other dairy products, and display cases of exotic and enticing pastries. There is even a picture of a snowy mountain peak (in this case Mount Ararat).
Indeed, one of the connections between these three immigrant groups is that all were comprised predominantly of refugees from the Ottoman Empire and later, from the successor state, the Turkish Republic. All three groups were predominantly Christian populations living as minorities in a Muslim-ruled territory, and all three felt the wrath of the combined forces of renascent Turkish nationalism and religious intolerance that peaked during the turbulent final years of Ottoman rule.
I order an appealing looking cream-filled phyllo pastry roll called a shaabiyat, to complement my large lunch at the Deluxe Town Diner (at least I’m walking!), and use my usual trick, when trying to crack open a door to an unknown world, of talking about soccer with the gentleman behind the counter. Being an Arsenal fan comes in handy sometimes, as the lone Armenian player I know, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, is an attacking midfielder for the Gunners, so I quickly move onto a discussion of his skills, which leads to a pleasant three or four minute chat about Armenian food and Armenian culture. Thus my knowledge of things Armenian has gone from almost nothing to slightly more than nothing, but one has to start somewhere. Besides the shaabiyat is not bad, although, perhaps unsurprisingly, it bears more than a striking resemblance to pastries I have had in Lebanese bakeries.
A couple of blocks beyond the bakery is St. James Armenian Apostolic Church, begun in 1931 and first opened for service in 1933. The distinctive architecture and more elaborate cross (see photo at the beginning of this entry) makes this building stand out from the Catholic and Protestant churches I normally encounter. A second Armenian Apostolic Church, St. Stephens, is located less than a half mile away, apparently the product of a political schism between the Armenian diaspora over the influence of the Soviet Union on the patriarchate when Armenia was part of the U.S.S.R.
The often destructive consequences of politics often follow immigrants even to distant lands. On the property is a memorial to the victims of the Armenian Genocide in 1915. A systematic campaign to ‘Turkify’ what is now Turkey resulted in the slaughter of more than 800,000 and perhaps as many as 1.5 million Armenians, while many more fled the country. Sadly, a century later there are still people splitting hairs about whether the massacre was a genocide or not, despite the fact the term ‘genocide’ was coined specifically as a result of the events described above.
Most immigrants I know did not particularly want to leave their home, but rather were obliged to leave as a result of political or religious turmoil or because of the lack of economic opportunity. Indeed, most immigrants I speak with express a desire to return home someday. The picture of Mount Ararat is there precisely to remind Armenians of where they come from and what they left behind. Most immigrants never return home. Mount Ararat, Often called Massis in Armenian and the symbol for many of Armenia, is visible from Yerevan, the capital of the Republic of Armenia, but is located on the other side of the border in Turkey. The children of immigrant families, however, move on and make the cultural transiton to become hypenated-Americans, by far the largest single group of Americans.
America has long been the beneficiary of the turbulence which results in the exodus of people from their place of origin. The unseemly nationalist rhetoric emanating from many so-called ‘conservatives’ of late, including our venal and boorish President, seems even more outrageous when one considers the background of those making the most obnoxious statements. Ironically, it is fair to say that many of the ‘America First’ White nationalist nuts spewing bile would have been considered neither ‘White’ nor ‘American’ in the not so distant past. However, like many before them, they eventually ‘passed’ into American society and became American and even ‘White’, in some cases. Perhaps a brief examination of their family origins might assist these blowhards to rethink their toxic and divisive opinions. As I discussed in a previous entry, this is not the first time there has been a wave of nationalist rhetoric, and it won’t be the last, but it will only be stopped when the loudmouths are confronted directly and are removed from the positions of power where they can implement their nefarious policies. Some things never change.
4. School Street to Common Street. 0.7 miles.
Moving Along. Adjacent to the sidewalk near St. James Church is a stone marker which brings me back to the original road. The stone is one of a series of markers along the old road commemorating the exploits of Henry Knox (the first marker, or the last one from Knox’s point of view, is on Cambridge Common), who was sent by General Washington to retrieve artillery captured at the surrender by the British Army of Fort Ticonderoga, on Lake Champlain in upstate New York. Knox and his team, using ox-drawn sleds, hauled a train of 60 cannons and other artillery pieces through a more than 100 mile-long section of the Hudson River Valley, then over the Berkshires and across the length of Massachusetts along this road, a feat which was instrumental in forcing the British Army to evacuate Boston in 1776. Thus we leave the exotic realm of the ‘Orient’ and return to walk along the old road west out of Boston and Cambridge.
The road from Charlestown through Cambridge and into Watertown has so far been almost entirely flat, with little or no elevation, noticeably different from the alternative road out of Boston along Boston Neck, and through Roxbury, Brookline, and Brighton, where there are quite a few hills to negotiate. Perhaps this explains why Samuel Sewall, writing in the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth century, often describes passing through Cambridge on the way from Boston to Watertown. Perhaps Knox, considering his cargo, took this road in 1776 for the same reason.
After passing through the small Armenian commercial district, the neighborhood becomes more residential, lined with modest homes that slowly give way to larger nineteenth century Victorian houses as the road begins finally to descend slowly to the Charles River. In 1819, as shown on map of the Boston area by John Hales, there were only one or two houses along this stretch of road. One of the habits I have acquired from this project is to identify places recorded on the old maps and to see if they have survived down to the present day. Having calculated that one of the squares on the 1819 map along the stretch of road from School Street to the Common Street Cemetery would have been located a few hundred yards before the junction of Mount Auburn and Walnut Streets, I keep my eyes open in case one of these houses turns out to be one of the two hundred year old dots on the map. At Stearns Street my hunch pays off, as I spot a large mansion just off the main road on a small incline along the north side of Mount Auburn Street. I take a short detour and at 16 Stearns Street I encounter what is clearly an old mansion likely to be the one Hales marked on his map.
The Atlas of Middlesex County of 1900, shows the property today bisected by Stearns Street as belonging to ‘G.A. Stearns’, with a large house (exactly where the house today sits) and some outbuildings located directly across Mount Auburn Street from the newly developed Boylston Street and Fairlawn neighborhood . A map of 1850 shows only two houses on the north side of Mount Auburn Street between School Street and Walnut Street: one is the property of ‘A. Bailey’, while the other belongs to ‘S. Stearns’. Similarly, the maps of both 1829 and 1819 show only two unlabelled buildings along the same stretch of the old road, in about the same location as the Bailey and Stearns estates. Zillow claims the house was built in 1835, but it is more likely (or it has at least elements) from an earlier period.
The Stearns family, as I mentioned earlier, were among the earliest English settlers of Watertown. The original Stearns in Watertown, Isaac, is reputed to have arrived with Winthrop in 1630. Isaac Stearns was appointed in 1647, according to Watertown Records, “to consider how the bridge over the river is to be built…” (Bond, Watertown, p. 451) which appears to be the first mention of a bridge over the Charles River. The modern version of that original bridge, a little under a mile away, is the final destination of today’s walk.
I shortly reach Walnut Street, another of the older roads in Watertown which, as can be seen in maps of 1794, or 1819, intersects with Mount Auburn Street. Just beyond Walnut, as I continue through a neighborhood with many lovely Victorian houses, I pass Franklin Street, a reminder that only a few years ago this tranquil neighborhood was the scene of one of the biggest manhunts in U.S. history, when one of the ‘Marathon Bombers’ was cornered in a boat in someone’s backyard just down the road from here.
Just beyond Franklin Street, past a few more Victorian houses, many today occupied by institutions such as the Armenian General Benevolent Union, is the Common Street Cemetery, the ‘newer’ cemetery of Watertown, and the site of the fifth church of Watertown, built in 1754. That’s right, the fifth church in 125 years, in five completely different locations! One of the keys to understanding the development of the New England town in the colonial era is to realize that there was one meeting house for the congregation and it was for the entire town. There were no Baptist or Lutheran churches in that period, and certainly no Catholic or Armenian Apostolic churches. There was only the congregation and the minister who served at the pleasure of the congregation. The meeting-house was paid for by the townspeople and the townspeople were ALL expected to attend.
A major difficulty in that period was the distance often required to reach the meetinghouse. In the case of Watertown, which in those days stretched west to include Waltham and Weston (a nine mile walk away), the trek in winter was arduous. Hence the location of the original Meeting Houses, the first thought to have been east of Mount Auburn Cemetery in today’s Cambridge (dating to 1632)² and the second, from 1635, near the Old Burying Ground in East Watertown, proved to be too far away for many of the far flung residents of town. As Drake eloquently says of the early history of Watertown, which included territory that are now parts of Weston, Waltham, Belmont, Cambridge, and even Lincoln, “For more than a half century, she was preserved from mental stagnation by an acrimonious dispute over the question of the proper location of a new meeting-house.” (Drake, History of Middlesex County Vol. II, p. 437).
A third meeting-house was erected in 1695, after much ‘acrimonious dispute’, in the far northwest corner of today’s Watertown, at the intersection of Lexington Street and Belmont Street. Samuel Sewall, leaves a record in his diary of his involvement in the moving of the meeting-house, writing on April 15, 1693 “I ride with Capt. Gookin, and take a further view of Watertown that might the better consider the ideas about the place for a Meetinghouse; went about as far as Samuel Begelos (Bigelow’s) near the end of the great Plain.” (Diaries of Samuel Sewall, p. 350). Successive losses of territory by Watertown, including the creation of the towns of Weston in 1713, and of Waltham in 1738, resulted in the drift of the meeting-house back east, first along Belmont Street to Common Street, and by 1754 down Common Street to Mount Auburn Street. The meeting-house can be seen in the bottom left corner of Browne and DeBerniere’s map of 1775. A later map by John Hale from 1829 (not shown in this entry) labels the church with the name ‘Reverend Francis’, a reference to Convers Francis, the minister of the First Church in Watertown for twenty three years, who wrote an early history of the town in 1830, and who is buried in the adjacent cemetery.
The meeting-house was the focal point of religious, social, and and political activity in the towns of New England during the colonial period. Plaques on each of the four posts marking the site of the church relate a sequence of important events that occurred here, including the second and third meetings of the Provincial Congress from April 22, 1775 to May 29, 1775, then from May 29 to July 19, 1775. It was at the latter Congress that General George Washington was received on July 2, 1775, while passing on his way to Cambridge to take command of the militias then being formed into the Continental Army.
5. Common Street to Watertown Square. 0.5 miles.
Closing the circle. The site of the former church, the surrounding graveyard, and the nearby Fowle House, built in 1772 and today home of the Watertown Historical Society, are reminders that this was once the center of colonial Watertown. Less than a half-mile further along Mount Auburn Street is Watertown Square, the busy tangle of streets that is the contemporary center of Watertown. The map by John Hale above, which shows a concentration of buildings around the square, including a factory and mills, along with the more direct new turnpike road (North Beacon Street today) leading to Boston indicate that by 1819 this area had already become the commercial center it is today. Colonial Watertown was being passed by.
Along the first two hundred yards of the short walk downhill I pass no fewer than three church buildings, more evidence of the changes in Watertown over the last two centuries. Behind me already on the road are the Sacred Heart Parish Church and the St. James Armenian Apostolic Church. The lovely building housing the Church of the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church is just across the street from the Common Street Cemetery. The descendants of the original meeting-house split into factions around the time of Hales’ map, and the Philips Congregational Church, one of the children of this schism is ahead on the south side of the street, today the home of the Redeemer Fellowship Church. The former Baptist Church is now apartments, while just beyond at Grace Methodist Church, there are services in both English and Korean.
Immediately beyond this last church, the pleasant ecclesiastical and residential buildings are replaced by soulless buildings housing a Starbucks, a Dunkin Donuts, and a Subway. Fortunately, these are literally outliers as I quickly reach the succession of pleasant low brick commercial buildings housing a variety of small shops and restaurants that line Mount Auburn Street and the other streets leading into bustling Watertown Square, today the extremely busy intersection of Charles River Road, Arsenal Street, North Beacon Street, Mount Auburn Street, Spring Street, Main Street, Pleasant Street, and Galen Street. Across this seemingly impassable divide I spot the Watertown Bridge. I somehow manage eventually to make my way across the tangled mass of streets teeming with traffic to reach the bridge I wrote about some time ago, when I approached Watertown along the road from Roxbury. The circle is closed: all the roads taken by people passing through to or from the west into or out of Boston in the colonial era meet here in Watertown Square. The road west from this point is one road, the Boston Post Road.
total walk distance – 2.4 miles
¹Henry 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), 1032.
²The ‘planters’ of Watertown established one of the earliest congregations in Massachusetts in 1632. According to Francis S. Drake in Memorial History of Boston, Volume I, p. 494, the order of establishment of churches in Massachusetts was as follows: Plymouth 1620; Salem 1629; Dorchester 1630; Boston 1630; Watertown 1632; Roxbury 1632; Lynn 1632; Charlestown 1632; Cambridge (‘New Towne’) 1633.
Some of the sources consulted for this essay
Samuel Adams Drake, History of Middlesex County, Massachusetts. 2 Volumes (Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1880)
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).
Stephen Jenkins, The Old Boston Post Road. New York: Putnam (Knickerbocker Press), 1913.