Old North Cambridge

By Thomas F. O’Malley, 1929

The literature of Cambridge contains but little relating to the early days in North Cambridge. This does not necessarily mean that North Cambridge history is lacking in interest, but rather that the subject has not been written up. The region between Harvard Square and Alewife Brook is rich in historic interest and association. Cambridge’s participation in the stirring events of April 19, 1775 was almost exclusively confined to the territory between Beech Street and the Arlington line. From the beginning of our settlement this upper part of the town, even though it was a place of small farms, was also a place of interesting happenings and of importance to the rest of the community. It has suffered because it has been neglected by the writer of local history. Today, he who would know our early history must search in original material, and he will find a wealth of it in our registry of deeds and probate office, and in the records of the county commissioners. The few facts here offered are gleaned largely from these sources.

In the early days and well down into the first half of the last century streets were not common in North Cambridge. Of course there was the great main highway known to us as Massachusetts Avenue and there were a few lanes. Right here I wish to commend the truthfulness of our early townsfolk; with them a road was a road, and a lane was a lane. They did not call a narrow cartway a road or a street, but a lane, and the name it bore had some suggestion of its purpose or locality. Thus the present Rindge Avenue and Cedar Street was Kidder’s Lane, and Harvey Street was Poor House Lane. Walden Street was a meandering cartway, a rod in width, running from the great road across to Vassal Lane, and seems to have had no particular name. Tannery Street was the ancient way to the fish weirs at Alewife Brook and dates back to 1636, when Andrew Warner was directed to build a cartway there. Beech Street was the connecting link with the highway to Winter Hill and the Milk Row Road to Charlestown Neck.

As a highway Massachusetts Avenue had its beginning in 1635 and was the direct line of communication between Cambridge and the settlements begun at Concord in 1634. It appears in the records under a variety of names, all of which are sufficiently clear to identify it. Some of them persisted to a comparatively late date. Here are a few: “The Greate Countrey Road,” the “Road to Menotomy,” the “County Road,” the “Road to Cambridge Farms,” the “Road to West Cambridge,” the “Road by Davenport’s Tavern,” and the “Road by Porter’s Tavern.” Along about the middle of the last century it became known as North Avenue and finally by its present name.

Although it has always followed the same general direction, there is strong reason for believing that at several places it may have been relocated. At least two relocations have come to my notice. The first was in April, 1724. At a meeting of the Proprietors of the Common Lands, Mr. Samuel Whittemore moved “that the Countrey Road against his lott at Jones’s Hill may be removed more eastward, that his lott may be laid more together for the convenience of fencing” (Jones’s Hill, otherwise known as Gallows Hill, is the elevation between Linnaean and Arlington Streets). Mr. Whittemore’s petition was referred to a committee who advised that the road be relocated as prayed for and it was relocated. The second relocation was in 1832-33, when William Hunnewell, Abel Whitney, and thirty-four other residents in the vicinity of the present Porter Square filed with the county commissioners a petition setting forth “that a section of the County road leading from Harvard College toward Concord by the Tavern late of John Davenport, but now of Reuben Demmon, is now angular, circuitous and inconvenient, and at a moderate expense may be made straight and be thereby rendered shorter and less expensive and much more convenient and useful, without any injury to any one.” It is not unlikely and quite possible that the purpose of this petition was to undo the mischief done in 1724 when Mr. Whittemore’s “convenience of fencing” was the cause of relocation. At any rate the commissioners found that public necessity and convenience required that the crooked way should be made straight, and decreed that it should go directly from Davenport’s Tavern over land of Hepzibah Goddard to the gate post in the fence of Henry Potter, comprising that part of the avenue between Beech Street and Linnaean Street.

At that time the road had little resemblance to the broad, well-kept highway of today. It was a real old-fashioned country road, deep in dust in summer and muddy or full of ruts, according to the temperature, in winter. In “A Cambridge Robinson Crusoe,” John Holmes gives us a picture of the old road between Harvard Square and Beech Street as it was, say in the twenties. I quote from the imaginary conversation between the captain and Royal Morse: “Then, going along toward the West Cambridge road, there’s a little three-cornered piece of common where the Light Horse always comes up at Commencement time. Oh, ain’t that a handsome sight, captain? Well, up there in the corner is the minister’s, . . . and there’s Mr. Royal Morse’s and Mr. Gannett’s. . . . Then you come to the corner [Gannett House] and there’s a little pasture lot with a yellow barn on it. They always have a dancing tent there Commencements. . . . Well up the road there’s about a dozen houses, say until you get to Davenport’s Tavern [at Beech Street]. I suppose Davenport does a great business now with the country pungs that come down in the winter.”

“Do you remember the houses, Royal, along the road pretty well?” asked the captain.

“Why, no, I don’t, but about a third of ’em was little black story and a half houses, with gambrel roofs.”

“Yes,” said the captain, “and them houses, in my opinion, saw the row that was going on the nineteenth of April, ’75.”

This is a not inaccurate description of the old road even down to the days just before Cambridge became a city. There were scattered farmhouses, each with its pointed or gambrel roof (usually facing toward the south), with gables and a long lean-to at the back toward the north. Of these old houses, but four remain to us: the Cooper-Austin house on Linnaean Street, erected in 1657; the Watson-Davenport house on Massachusetts Avenue near Rindge Avenue, the main portion of which was built before 1757; the Solomon Sergeant, now McCrehan house, on Rindge Avenue nearly opposite Cedar Street, put up in 1792; and the old Dixon-Goddard-Fitch house which probably dates back to 1692. To these may be added the old house which now stands on a rear lot off Russell Street and which once stood on the avenue. This was a Watson house, also, and probably was the home of Daniel Watson, who in the early part of the nineteenth century owned a large tract of land beyond Russell Street.

While we are speaking of Massachusetts Avenue it might be well to digress for a moment and say a word about the city boundary line, which at Porter Square shoots off in a northeasterly direction and gathers in quite a bit of what seems properly to be Somerville territory before it again returns to the old line at Russell Street. In 1802 Nathaniel Goddard, Benjamin Goddard, Stephen Goddard, Josiah Wellington, and Nathaniel Prentiss occupied the region bounded by the present Massachusetts Avenue, White Street, Elm Street (Somerville), and Russell Street, the greater portion of which was then a part of Charlestown, and they were citizens of the latter town. Tradition hath it that they desired to become members of the First Parish in Cambridge; at any rate they wanted to become residents of Cambridge, so they appealed to the General Court, which happened to be in an accommodating mood, with the result that the hitherto straight boundary line was so stretched as to encompass their property and they were duly “set off from the Town of Charlestown and annexed to the Town of Cambridge.” Sixteen years later, 1818, their neighbor, William Hunnewell, also desired to become part and parcel of Cambridge and an equally accommodating legislature again stretched the line and he, too, was “set off from Charlestown and annexed to Cambridge.”

It was after 1800 that Porter Square began to assume the appearance of a square. In 1805 while the turnpike craze was epidemic, the Middlesex Turnpike Company was incorporated and proceeded to build a short straight line road from the present Lowell to Boston by way of the West Boston bridge, which had been opened to travel in 1793. Its line brought it through North Cambridge and to it we owe the opening of a new road, first known as the Turnpike, later as Hampshire Street, and now as Beacon Street. Here the turnpike began at Davenport’s Tavern at the corner of Beech Street, passed over the land of Stephen Goddard, Walter Frost, Jonathan Harris, Samuel Kent, and the heirs of Gideon Frost, coinciding with the present line of Somerville Avenue and Beacon Street from Porter Square to Washington Street in Somerville. After 1810, when the county commissioners formally and officially established it as a turnpike, it was called Hampshire Street. It was a toll road. In 1828, after a vigorous battle, in which the West Boston Bridge Company and the Craigie Bridge Corporation took a most pronounced part, a new piece of road was put through to connect with Elm Street or Milk Row Road near the present Craigie Street in Somerville, and a more direct line to Charles-town Neck was established. This piece of road is now that part of Somerville Avenue which runs from the foot of Elm Street into Porter Square.

The next event of importance hereabouts was the coming of the railroad. The Boston & Lowell Railroad was already a fact, but it touched only at East Cambridge. On March 17, 1841, the legislature chartered the Charlestown Branch Railroad with authority to build a line from Swett’s wharf in Charlestown to Block Island at Fresh Pond in Cambridge. Its location in Cambridge was over the land of Ozias Morse, over Hampshire Street, crossing North Avenue south of Ball’s store, through land of Abel Whitney to a point on land of Porter and Meacham (the Porter’s Tavern property), and thence northwesterly in a straight line through the land of Porter and Meacham, Henry Potter, John Davenport, Samuel Sargent, and others until it reached Alewife Brook, substantially the line of the Fitchburg Railroad, its successor in title. (There is a plan of this location in the county engineer’s office and is well worthy of examination by anyone interested in our local history.) The act of incorporation also provided that the railroad should cross Hampshire Street and North Avenue under bridges — a commendable provision which was destined to give rise to a heated and long drawn-out battle between the towns of Somerville and Cambridge on the one side and the newly established railroad company on the other. It will be recalled that in 1805 the legislature had chartered the Middlesex Turnpike Corporation and that the corporation had built that part of the turnpike which was called Hampshire Street. For a long time prior to the coming of the railroad, the turnpike had ceased to be a paying proposition. Four days prior to the passage of the act creating the railroad corporation, viz., on March 13, 1841, the legislature passed an act dissolving the Middlesex Turnpike Corporation, and the surrender of its charter was accepted to take effect on June 1 following. By this same act it was provided that the turnpike, except so much as had already been, or before June 1, 1841, should be laid out and established as a town or county road, should be discontinued. Hampshire Street was not laid out as a town or county road prior to June 1,1841, but remained open and was used as a convenient private way by adjacent owners and all having occasion to use it. In January, 1842 the county commissioners were petitioned to lay it out as a public way and in September following did so. In the meantime the railroad had pushed its construction work and had built the bridge at North Avenue, but balked at building the one at Hampshire Street. In 1843 it brought its petition to the county commissioners, setting out that Hampshire Street, as recently laid out, obstructed and injured the railroad and asked to have the street discontinued or diverted; the purpose being, of course, to avoid the expense of the bridge. The county commissioners couldn’t see any merit in the railroad’s contention and not only denied its petition, but directed that the bridge should be built. The railroad flatly, persistently, and stubbornly refused to build the bridge, alleging that the county commissioners had no authority to lay out Hampshire Street as a county way after June 1, 1841. After much bickering all around, the towns of Cambridge and Somerville got together and went to the Supreme Judicial Court for a writ of mandamus to compel the railroad company to erect the bridge. The railroad secured eminent counsel, and the case was fought with bitterness and enthusiasm; neither side would yield in the slightest degree. The towns won. The court made short work of the railroad’s objection, holding that it, the railroad, was bound to comply with the terms of the statute which created it. This decision ended the fight, and the railroad company erected a bridge similar in construction to the one on North Avenue. The bridge at Walden Street was first erected prior to September, 1857.

Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson in his reminiscent chapter, “Life in Cambridge Town,” written for “Cambridge of 1896,” in referring to our locality in pre-city days, says: “North Cambridge as yet was not, though Porter’s Tavern was.” Porter’s early became an important factor both in the business and social life of North Cambridge, and perhaps marked the beginning of the extensive cattle markets that flourished here for many years. Porter’s, however, was not the first of the taverns here. The ancient inn was Davenport’s, which stood on the side of the present St. James’ Episcopal Church at the corner of Beech Street and the avenue. Davenport also owned the extensive establishment across the road and later known as Porter’s. In 1830 John Davenport sold his entire tavern properties to Sylvester Edson, who came from Woodstock, Vermont. Edson managed the property for a few years, when it passed into the hands of the Charles River Bank, which held a mortgage on it. On April 1, 1837, the bank conveyed the property to George Meacham, Ebenezer Kimball, and Zacariah B. Porter; Meacham held a half interest and Kimball and Porter a quarter interest each. Zacariah B. Porter came from Brighton where cattle markets already existed, and soon became the dominating managing factor in the new enterprise. This was four years before the coming of the railroad. The property acquired by Porter and his associates comprised about seventeen and a half acres, and extended up the avenue to around Creighton Street, across the track and down to the present Upland Road, and included, besides the hotel, stables and slaughter houses. Not far away, at Walden Street, was the slaughter house of Henry Potter. The “Cattle Market” and “Porter’s” grew apace and the names became synonymous. Within five years after Cambridge became a city it was found advisable to have a bank at North Cambridge to care for the cattle business. In 1851, Zacariah B. Porter, Walter M. Allen, and George Meacham and their successors were incorporated as “the President, Directors and Company of the Cambridge Market Bank” to be established “at the place called Porter’s adjacent to the Cattle Market.” The capital stock was $100,000, divided into shares of $100 each. A bank building was erected close by the hotel, not far from the site of the present North Cambridge Savings Bank. In 1853 the capital stock was increased to $150,000. The business of the bank seems to have been almost entirely limited to cattle enterprises — at least it did not go into real estate mortgages, for it did not hold more than a half dozen during its sixteen years of existence. During its period of activity it drew to it some of the most active business men of the community. In 1856, George W. Lewis was president, Warren Sanger, cashier, and George Meacham, Henry Potter, Calvin Dimick, Samuel F. Woodbridge, and Chester W. Kingsley were on its board of directors. About the time of the end of the Civil War the bank closed up its affairs and in June, 1866 conveyed its real estate to Samuel F. Woodbridge.

Porter’s had its social as well as business side. Colonel Higginson tells us how the Old Cambridge boys “watched with a pleased interest, not quite undemoralizing, the triumphant march of the ‘Harvard-Washington Corps’— the college military company—to that hostelry for dinner on public days; and their less regular and decorous return.” Lowell wrote of them that “their gyrating banner … on the evening of training day was an accurate dynamometer of Willard’s punch or Porter’s flip.” This was long before the days of the “Cambridge Idea.” Porter’s and the Cattle Market are now things of the past. The old hotel is gone and its once extensive grounds have long since been cut up and covered with buildings.

There were other taverns here, all more or less connected with the cattle market, and each having its complement of stables and cattle sheds. Also there was the race track, a natural if not a necessary adjunct to a cattle market. The race track, or “Trotting Park” as it was officially called, was on the large tract bounded northerly by the present Harvey Street, in the early days known as Poor House Lane; easterly by the present Cedar Street; southerly by Kidder’s Lane, later Spruce Street and now Rindge Avenue; and westerly by a line about one hundred feet beyond the present Clifton Street. Like all orthodox trotting parks this one had its hotel or tavern. The hotel was on Cedar Street and was known as the “Park House.” The building is still standing, much remodelled and now used as a tenement block. From 1849 to 1853 it was conducted by Hiram Woodruff. In 1853 one E. Goodwin had it. In 1855 Francis D. Kidder and Samuel G. Reed, the owners of race track grounds, cut the tract up into streets and building lots.

On Massachusetts Avenue, near the corner of the present Frank Street, was another tavern known as the Elm House. This stood on what was a part of one of the Watson farms. In 1840 a tract of four and one quarter acres, together with the buildings thereon, was conveyed by Elizabeth Watson to Josiah Boynton, who probably first opened the tavern. In 1849 it was occupied by one Anna Corbett, a widow. At any rate she contemplated remaining there as landlady for in November of that year she entered into an ante-nuptial agreement with William Woodruff in which it was recited that she had “certain personal estate consisting of household furniture and furnishings and household stuff now at the hotel called the Elm House . . . which she is desirous to continue to hold to her separate use” notwithstanding her forthcoming marriage. The schedule of furniture, etc., annexed to the agreement exhibits quite an array of equipment for a tavern and may have been the inducement for William to enter into the matrimonial venture. In 1851 Josiah Boynton conveyed the premises to Calvin Stevens, subject to a lease to William Woodruff for two years. Woodruff seems to have had the place for about four years. In 1853 it was carried on by E. C. Bates. Calvin Stevens conveyed the premises to George W. White, who in May, 1858 sold to Samuel F. Woodbridge. Mr. Woodbridge in early life was a butcher and cattle dealer and may have conducted a cattle market there. Part of the lot was sold to the Union Street Railway in 1873. The remainder of the estate was finally cut up into lots. Wood-bridge Street perpetuates the name of the last owner of this tavern.

There was yet another tavern on Massachusetts Avenue which flourished about this period and that was the Telegraph House. It stood on the corner of Harrison Street, now Hudson Street, on about the site of McColgan’s drug store. In 1850 it was under the management of Daniel Mace, well known in those days as a horseman. In 1852 it appears to have been conducted by one Cooly. How long it was a tavern I am unable to say. Prior to 1800 the premises belonged to James Munroe who had his blacksmith shop there. Munroe died in 1804. The part which the tavern afterwards occupied was set off to his son Nathaniel, who in 1817 sold it to George Meacham. The next year Meacham conveyed it to Hannah Barrett who had title until August, 1834, when James Haywood became the owner. In September, 1846, Haywood sold it to Ingalls Bunker, of New Market, New Hampshire. It is quite possible that Mr. Bunker may have established the tavern. The premises came into the possession of Mary Mace, wife of Daniel, in October, 1850, and was in her possession down into the seventies.

No discussion of Cambridge hotels or taverns up in this part of the town is complete without mention of the celebrated “Fresh Pond Hotel,” long a famous and favorite place of resort. The founding of this hostelry brings us back to 1796 when Jacob Wyeth, shortly after his graduation from Harvard, bought of his father eight acres bordering on Fresh Pond upon which was erected the hotel. Mr. Wyeth conducted the business until he accumulated a large estate when he retired from active business and leased the hotel to his nephew, Jonas Wyeth, who also retired with a satisfactory fortune about 1840. The property in later years was used as a convent school and known as Mt. St. Joseph Academy, and finally was taken over by the city as a part of its water system, when the buildings were removed.

As the cattle market developed at Porter’s, there began to be a noticeable movement in the real estate line. In 1845 Capt. Gilman Sargent acquired the Philemon Russell estate and cut it up into building lots and laid out Russell Street and Orchard Street from Beech Street to the old Daniel Watson farm northwest of Russell Street. This last-named property came into possession of George Meacham, Henry Potter, and Chester W. Kingsley in 1855, and was later cut up into streets and lots.

On the southwesterly side of the avenue and adjoining the Porter’s Tavern property, Henry Potter had a large tract, in all about thirty-five acres, which extended up the avenue as far as the Davenport estate at the corner of Rindge Avenue and westerly beyond the railroad track. This property embraced considerable of the Watson estate, a farm which had come into the possession of Dr. William Gamage. Dr. Gamage was a practicing physician at the village, as Harvard Square was then called, who had been quite active in many lines outside his profession and acquired a large amount of real estate. After his death, this property passed into the possession of Thomas Brewer, who sold it to Potter. Cogswell Avenue, Mead Street, and the easterly end of Walden Street are now laid out over part of it. The land on the corner of Cogswell Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue, where the first edifice of the North Cambridge Baptist Church stood, was given to the society by Henry Potter.

The large triangular-shaped area bounded by Massachusetts Avenue and Rindge Avenue and by a line about two hundred feet northwesterly from the present Rice Street was in 1850 owned by Joseph H. and George G. Rice, who, in June of that year, cut it up into building lots and laid out Pond, now Hollis Street, and Rice Street. This was originally a Goddard estate and successively passed through the hands of Thomas Russell, Richard Sullivan, and Ammi Cutter Teele until it came into the Rices.’ Other tracts in the neighborhood gradually came into the market and were opened up from time to time, but most of them considerably after the time when Cambridge became a city.

In those early days we had a school here — it was on Russell Street, on what was called the Winthrop school lot. An interesting account of it may be found in our first city directories, which, by the way, were printed by the Chronicle. The first religious body to establish itself in North Cambridge was a Baptist society known as the “Sabbath school,” organized in 1846, and which for a time met in the Winthrop schoolhouse on Russell Street. This body later became the North Cambridge Baptist Church and erected, in 1854, the first meeting house in North Cambridge.

From The Proceedings of the Cambridge Historical Society, Volume 20, 1927-1929