“Great commotion about the course of the turnpike thro’ Dedham. Many dread it as bad as a standing army, to spunge them of money.”Fisher Ames Diary, May 19, 1802.
“plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, January 1849 issue of his journal Les Guêpes (“The Wasps”)
This is entry #15 from my previous project, Walking the Post Road. I have been slowly transferring the entries over to this project for a number of reasons. The first reason is that they are relevant to this project in that the first dozen or so are ‘rambles’ about Boston. Even the entries that are not about Boston are about the Boston Post Road. Indeed, writing about places outside of Boston gives me a fresh perspective which is useful when I am writing about Boston. The main reason, however, is that the previous project was done on Apple’s iweb, which is no longer supported by Apple and, consequently, the website is slowly decaying. I will eventually revisit that project and bring the entire site up to date. In the meantime readers are welcome to comment upon this entry as part of this project. It has been updated and edited slightly from the original version which was published on Monday, June 21, 2010, as entry #15, Mile 14.
In entry #13, the one before last, I discussed the two routes taken by my fellow travelers of the eighteenth century, Sarah Kemble Knight in 1704 and Dr. Alexander Hamilton in 1744. Knight took the Old Roebuck Road, the oldest road, which followed East Street in Dedham in a big arc around Wigwam Swamp to what is now the Westwood line at Washington Street. Hamilton, traveling forty years later, took a modified route known as the “Great Road to Providence.” This route is the one I will follow in this entry, from Dedham until it meets up with the Roebuck Road again briefly at the same junction we left Mrs. Knight, on Washington Street at the Westwood line.
Hamilton and Knight both visited Fisher’s tavern which was located on the northeast corner of High Street and Court Street in Dedham. Knight would have walked out the door of the tavern and headed left down High Street, crossed over Dwight’s Brook and followed East Street to what is now Westwood. By the 1740s the main route to Providence was changing, becoming shorter and moving slightly to the west, as a result of improved roads. Hamilton would have left the tavern and headed down Court Street, and then turned right onto what was once called the “Elder’s Causeway” and today is called Highland Street. He would have passed the church in Dedham, which was located on the southwest corner of High and Court Street. In the early 1800s a major schism occurred in what we think of as the Puritan church. The result of this schism was the division of the congregations of almost every New England town into two groups, the Unitarians of whom I have written in a previous post, and the Congregationalists, a more orthodox group. Depending upon which group was in the majority, the church building and the church silver were divided up between the two groups. In the case of Dedham, however, the minority Unitarians kept the church and the silver, and the Congregationalists, as the group that voted to leave the Parish, were obliged to “move out.” Both groups elected to build new churches around the time of their separation in 1819. The Unitarians erected a new building on the site of the old church, while the Congregationalists built a new church across the street. Both churches stand today and are each striking examples of typical nineteenth-century New England churches.
Highland Street is a quiet, winding, residential street with numerous beautiful houses dating to the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century, many which are marked on John Hales’s map 1831 map of Dedham. This street was originally a “shortcut” through the swampy lowlands that made up much of Dedham in the colonial period, shortening the distance to Providence by a mile. It drops to a point where it seems the going must once have been pretty rough as both sides of the road are up against marshes with cattails within arms reach and a stream runs under the road through a culvert. Following Highland Street, the road winds slowly up to a plateau overlooking Washington Street. Shortly I arrive at the intersection with Washington Street, a straight road that originally was constructed as a turnpike in 1802. The Norfolk and Bristol turnpike (part of the chain of turnpikes collectively known as the Boston to Providence Turnpike) was at the leading edge of a wave of turnpike construction in the first three decades of the new American Republic. The turnpikes were run for profit and were built at great cost; the Norfolk and Bristol Turnpike cost $225,000 for example, and at thirty-five miles in length, cost $6,440 a mile.1Robert B. Hanson, Dedham, Massachusetts, 1635-1990 (Dedham Historical Society, 1976), 220. Not one turnpike made a profit, and by 1850 all had become the property of the town or the state, and were free as the railroad overtook them in importance. (2022 update: stay tuned for an upcoming entry on the history of turnpikes in Boston and a walk along one of the oldest).
The Turnpike enabled express riders to travel from Boston to Providence in two hours and forty-five minutes, substantially faster than the old route I am following. Hamilton, for example, in 1744, left Boston on the morning of August 17, stayed the night at Slack’s in North Attleboro and reached Providence in mid-morning of Saturday August 18. Many people did not want to pay the tolls required to travel on the turnpikes and stuck to the old roads. These people were often referred to as “shunpikers,” and I am in that category, not because I refuse to pay the toll, but because I am trying to travel the oldest roads I can find. Occasionally the turnpikes were built over an existing road for short stretches, or the old road eventually fell into disrepair and was built over, and in those cases I will follow the more direct turnpike road (which is always called Washington Street in every town through which it passes, including Boston). On this occasion I cross Washington Street and continue on Elm Street, which shortly intersects the second of the newer roads, US Route 1, built in the 1920s. This road is very busy, lined on both sides with big box stores. I pass quickly across the highway and continue on Elm, (now with the large Legacy Place Mall on the left) for a few more yards before it ends abruptly at Interstate 95 which cut the road off from its original intersection with East Street, the older road. I am also only yards away from the train tracks of the Franklin line of the MBTA Commuter Rail. I walk down to the evocatively named Dedham/128 Corporate Center Station platform, cross the tracks, pass through the large parking lot and an industrial park, up the entrance road to the industrial park, and reach East Street at the interchange with Interstate 95. I cross through the interchange as in the previous trip, and walk down East Street until I reach Washington Street again, having avoided US Route 1 by passing over it. This last mile or two has not made for a very pleasant excursion, which would have been been much more pleasant had I just turned right at Highland and Washington, and followed the old turnpike here, but it is more “authentic” as I have tried to follow the oldest road. I hope I don’t have to do that too frequently on this trip. In some ways it is as dark and forbidding as the swamp must have been. (2022 update: still horrible to walk this segment).
Westwood was formerly known as Clapboardtrees (I don’t know why, maybe because it was woody and provided clapboards for the houses of the residents of Dedham), and was originally the Third Parish of Dedham. An 1830 map of the area refers to the intersection of Washington Street and East Street as “Crossways,” a very appropriate name considering the nature of the transportation bottleneck in the immediate vicinity. I am only in Westwood briefly as the road crosses at the eastern corner of the town. I pass the former Blue Hart Tavern on the right, now a real estate office.2See the last entry for an update on the fate of this building I then cross Purgatory Brook, possibly the best place name I have encountered thus far. After a mere four-tenths of a mile I come to the Norwood/Westwood Line. Norwood was previously known as South Dedham and was originally the Second Parish of Dedham. Interestingly Hales’s map of 1831 shows short segments of road occasionally curving off of the arrow-straight turnpike and then reconnecting with the turnpike, as if the turnpike builders took the straight parts of the old road and left the curved ones. by the 1851 these little remnants of the original road are no longer marked on the map, and little evidence remains of them today.
Abruptly at the border of the two towns, we leave the former turnpike road, these days called route 1A, as ‘our’ road veers left and downhill slightly. This road, unusually, is still called Washington Street, the only instance I have found where Washington Street does not refer to the Boston to Providence Turnpike. My sense that something is not correct is proven correct later when I examine older maps and realize that the straight segment called Upland Road that runs adjacent to the railroad tracks for 0.7 miles from the Norwood/Westwood border before becoming Washington Street again is a newer segment added sometime after 1856. Thus this stretch of Washington Street was both the original road as well as the turnpike for decades. For a few hundred yards Hamilton and Knight are reunited on their respective journeys, but this proves to be short-lived. After half a mile, the Old Roebuck Road and the Great Road diverge again, this time for twenty miles, at the junction of Neponset Street and Washington Street. Knight’s route, the Old Roebuck Road, follows Neponset Street to Pleasant Street, into Walpole, then through Sharon, Foxborough, Plainville and North Attleborough. Hamilton followed the Great Road to Providence through Norwood Center, Walpole Center, Norfolk, Wrentham, and Plainville, meeting up again with the road traveled by Knight and earlier travelers in North Attleborough. I will once again follow each traveler, first Hamilton, then Knight as they each made their way to Slack’s tavern in North Attleborough, where they join again and follow the same path into Providence, Rhode Island.
Distance traveled in this entry: 3.6 miles.
Total distance traveled from Old State House: 14.7 miles
Total distance traveled in this project (all variations): 18.4 miles