Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Great Bridge Over the Charles

Today, the big transportation issue people are talking about in Cambridge is the T. It affects individuals, businesses, and local government. In the first two hundred years after Cambridge was settled, however, the construction and maintenance of bridges across the Charles River had just as broad-reaching an effect. While we depend on bridges today, and a bridge closing or new bridge would certainly draw attention, as compared with the years through the mid-nineteenth century, we take bridges for granted.

When Puritans settled Boston and Cambridge in 1630, the two towns were very far apart, not just in distance, but because of natural obstacles and the methods of transportation available. The first ferry in Cambridge, which left from the foot of Dunster street, began running in 1635. It crossed the Charles and docked in Brookline. A traveler would follow the road through Brookline and Roxbury to Boston.1 However, ferries were unreliable for a variety of reasons: they ran infrequently, and stopped in the winter when the river froze. The people decided they needed a bridge to carry Cambridge products, such as cattle and surplus crops, to the market in Boston. It had become increasingly clear over the past few decades that Cambridge was not developing into a center of trade the way its neighbor was.2

Like most decisions in the first few generations of settlement in Cambridge, the one to build a bridge was made communally, with the support of church members. In 1656, the town meeting decided “to pay each one their proportion of a rate to the sum of 200l. Towards the building a bridge over Charles River.”3 It was completed eight years later. The bridge went across the river, through Roxbury, and across Boston Neck (the narrow strip of land connecting Boston, which was then a peninsula, to the mainland), and the total journey spanned eight miles. The bridge was simply called the Great Bridge.4 
While it was a public project, the responsibility for the Bridge was debated within Cambridge. In the middle of the seventeenth century, there were ongoing tensions between the Cambridge government and the residents of the part of the town on the south side of the river. The residents of the south side felt distinct from the center of town, and repeatedly petitioned to have their own parish or township status. In 1661, three leading south side residents refused to pay their share towards the money the town was spending on the Great Bridge, and the Cambridge selectmen ordered the constable to seize the men's property equal to the amount of the dues.5 In the 1680s, the area did separate from Cambridge to become Newton.

The Great Bridge spanned the Charles at a time when the river was much wider than it is today. The bridge was large, wooden, and very expensive to maintain. In 1670, the General Court of Massachusetts observed that the bridge was decayed enough to be dangerous. The bridge had been funded by Cambridge citizens and by voluntary contributions from residents of a few neighboring towns, but now Cambridge declared that it was unable to pay for repairs.6 The General Court knew how important it was not to have to go back to using a ferry to stay connected with Boston. The Court stated that a ferry is “not so safe, convenient, or useful, as a bridge, for a ferry is altogether useless in the winter, and is very inconvenient to transport horses, and not at all accommodable for carts or droves of cattle.”7

The Court declared that any person or town that could repair the Great Bridge or build a new bridge would have the authority to collect tolls as long as the bridge was serviceable.8 However, from the 1680's forward, the General Court divided the responsibility for the upkeep of the bridge between the county of Middlesex and several towns who benefited from the bridge.9 In 1734, Cambridge, Newton, and Lexington were each given a land grant to enable them to continue to repair the bridge.10

While the Great Bridge caused decades of discussion about who was responsible for maintaining it, at one pivotal moment, maintenance was not the goal. On April 19, 1775, Lord Percy led British soldiers from Boston to Lexington as reinforcements in the battle that became known as the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the first battles of the Revolutionary War. In order to slow the advancing British troops, patriots tore up the planks of the Great Bridge and piled them on the Cambridge side of the Charles River.11 Percy's brigade was slowed, but not stopped. The planks on the bridge were later replaced.

The Great Bridge was torn down and rebuilt in 1862, and replaced again in 1915 on the same site, at the foot of JFK Street. This is the Anderson Memorial Bridge, which is still in use today.12 The West Boston Bridge was built in 1793, shortening the distance to Boston considerably.13 While the debates over who would pay for the upkeep of this one important central bridge became less consequential as the Great Bridge was joined by many other bridges in Cambridge in the late 1700's and the 1800's, the building of bridges continued to be a topic of debate. In the nineteenth century, several important bridges were built by private companies, who had the right to charge tolls for a prescribed number of years. The competition between these companies shaped the bridges but also local roads and had ramifications for business and the law.

1Paige, Lucius. History of Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1630-1877. (H. O. Houghton and company, 1877), 195.
2Thomson, Roger. Cambridge Cameos: Stories of Life in Seventeenth-Century New England. (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2005), 23.
3Records of the Town of Cambridge (Formerly Newetowne) Massachusetts, 1630-1703, quoted in Paige 195. November 10, 1656.
4Seaburg, Alan. Cambridge on the Charles. (Cambridge: Anne Miniver Press, 2001, 12.
5Thomson 142.
6Records quoted in Paige 195. October 12, 1670.
7Records quoted in Paige 195. October 12, 1670.
8Records quoted in Paige 196. October 12, 1670.
9Paige 196.
10Paige 196.
11Marean, Emma Endicott. “The River Charles” Merrill, Estelle, ed. Cambridge Sketches by Cambridge Authors. Cambridge Young Women’s Christian Association. (Boston: The Pinkham Press, 1896), 170.
12Seaburg 12.
13Seaburg 12.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Transportation Here and There

The folks over at the Cambridge Historical Society must agree that with so much discussion of the T, it's a great time to look back at other debates in the history of transportation in our area. They recently blogged about the Inner Belt, a proposed interstate that would have complemented the Central Artery to form a loop around and through the inner Boston area, including Cambridge. The project was debated from the 1950's through the 1970's and ultimately rejected. CHS will host a series of three lectures in April about the Inner Belt.

Here at Cambridge Considered, you can expect a post about the significance of bridges in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. I'll be updating soon with information about how bridges affected social, political, economic, and legal change. 

In non-transportation news, I'm also working on a post about Antidisestablishmentarianism in Cambridge. Stay tuned!

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.