Thursday, March 8, 2012

Cambridge Cowpaths

Welcome to the first post of the Getting Around in Cambridge series. In these posts, I will be writing about the the history of transportation, particularly public transit, in Cambridge, from toll roads to the horse-drawn street railway to the Red Line. If there's something you want to see covered in this series of posts, please let me know here.

In response to my post, “Getting Around in Cambridge: what do you want to know?” a reader commented, “I often hear people say that the roads are so terrible because they were laid on old cow paths. I never really questioned this because it made a certain amount of sense, but I'd like to know how much truth there is to it.” If you've ever read a guidebook to the area, you may have heard this legend, and if you've ever tried to find your way in Cambridge or in most other places in the Boston area, you may well be able to sympathize. The first official streets in Cambridge were laid out rather deliberately by the first settlers, and the other early roads were the routes to specific places, laid to avoid natural obstacles and follow the boundaries of established tracts of land. However, cows were much more relevant to town planning in 1630's Cambridge than they are today.

The Massachusetts Bay Company, with a charter from England to settle a new colony, settled Salem, Boston, Watertown, and the land they then called Newtowne in 1630. Newtowne, which was to become Cambridge, was settled by several groups authorized by the General Court of Massachusetts Bay.1 In his History of Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1630-1877, Lucius Paige details the founding of Cambridge based on early town records, and he explains, “the division of lands and the establishment of highways were among the first necessities.”2  The Town Meeting, made up first of stakeholders in the Massachusetts Bay Company and later of all of the residents who were members of the church, passed laws and did all the other necessary tasks of new government.

Cambridge was organized in a pattern that was typical of English settlements. The public buildings were in a small village in the center,  with residences surrounding the village. Private and public farmland and grazing land made up the rest of the settlement.3 The basic layout of the first official streets in Cambridge was a rough grid. Four streets ran east-west, and four ran north-south;  they have been replaced by wider streets with different names, but that area kept its original arrangement.4  The northwest corner of the village was in what is now Harvard Square.5

Paige describes about twenty additional streets which arose out of necessity, connecting people to important places on the outskirts of town.6  Generally, these roads moved out from the village in a somewhat spoke-like fashion, and became a number of the major streets that exist today. For example, the road to the settlement in present-day Arlington extended from the village out to the North, and the “highway to the Great Swamp,” or Fresh Pond,  extended Northwest. The two approach the village, and each other,  at an angle. These two roads were the predecessors of Massachusetts Ave. and Garden Street, respectively.7 Later streets were constructed in a roughly grid-like pattern to fill in the space inside the angle.  In addition to the highways leading to ponds, the oyster-bank by the river, and neighboring towns, Paige's count includes small streets connecting these highways.8

Unlike the village streets, many of the highways were irregular and crooked, in part because they had to wind around natural obstacles. There were several small creeks and marshy areas in the town.  Additionally, Cambridge had some small hills in the seventeenth century, later leveled out in order to fill in the marshy areas of the Charles (see Time and Tide in Cambridge for more about this project).9

The other obstacles that guided where the roads were placed were the borders of tracts of land.10  In 1692, the inhabitants of New Town agreed on how the land was to be impaled – that is, divided into major tracts  (the term “pale” referred to a fence that denoted a land boundary, thus, setting the boundaries was called “impaling.”).11

Individuals were responsible for the care of the roads by their property, and the town Surveyor enforced the cleaning and upkeep of all roads.12 One law that was on the town books beginning in 1633 stated that anyone who felled a tree and left it lying across the highway for more than one day forfeited the tree.13 For settlers facing the tasks of constructing buildings and keeping a ready supply of firewood in an area that was not thickly forested, the fallen tree was as valuable as having a clear roadway.

 Like many English towns at the time, the layout of early Cambridge included tracts of land set aside as common grazing grounds. The tract that is between present-day Garden and Linnaean streets, bounded by North Avenue, was the “cow-common,” and it was undivided for nearly a century.14 The early layout of the town gave rise to a “Cow-Yard Lane,” which separated the housing lots from the grazing lots near what was to become Harvard Yard, and “Cow-Yard Row,” presumably named for a similar reason.15 It is not clear that either of these streets have present-day equivalents.

In many ways, Cambridge was settled in a very intentional manner. In the first few years of settlement, the Cambridge Town Meeting worked hard to make the area livable and workable. Historian Roger Thompson, author of Cambridge Cameos: Stories of Life in Seventeenth-Century New England, describes the first decades as “the initial frenetic period of establishing Town infrastructure” including roads, bridges, fences, and gates.16  A town that began more organically may have been more truly defined by its cow-paths. In Cambridge, cows were taken into account in the division of land and even the naming of a few of the streets, but they did not have a hand, or a hoof, in the layout of the streets themselves.

1 Paige, Lucius. History of Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1630-1877. (H. O. Houghton and company, 1877), 10.
2 Paige 11.
3 Thomson, Roger. Cambridge Cameos: Stories of Life in Seventeenth-Century New England. (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2005), 20.
4 Paige 14.
5 Sutton, S.B. Cambridge Reconsidered: 3 1/2 Centuries on the Charles. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1976), 14.
6 Paige 15.
7 Sutton 21.
8 Paige 15.
9 Sutton 11.
10 Paige 14.
11 Records of the Town of Cambridge (Formerly Newetowne) Massachusetts, 1630-1703, quoted in Paige 10.
12 Records of the Town of Cambridge (Formerly Newetowne) Massachusetts, 1630-1703, quoted in Paige 20.

13 Records of the Town of Cambridge (Formerly Newetowne) Massachusetts, 1630-1703, quoted in Paige 19.
14 Paige 13.
15 Paige 15.
16 Thompson 5.


  1. Fascinating! Thanks for answering my question :)

  2. a hand or a hoof...heh heh.

  3. The version of the joke that I like to tell is "Streets in California (where I'm from) were built with cars in mind, while streets in Massachusetts were build with cows in mind."

    I've heard that College Ave in Somerville, where my first apartment was, used to mark the boundary of the common grazing area of what was then Charlestown, hence its sinuous path. I simplified the story, which may have been a myth to begin with, and told my family that I lived on a cow path, even though I knew that wasn't actually true.