Our History: Historical Society Essay from 1894

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The Spring Hotel, built in 1824, was located on Main Street in Watertown Square across from the train depot. The First Parish Church (demolished in 1975) can be seen in the background. (Photo courtesy of the Watertown Free Public Library)

The following story is part of a series on local history provided by the Historical Society of Watertown. It is from our October 1999 newsletter “The Town Crier.” It was written in 1894 by then-Historical Society of Watertown Vice President, William Ingraham. Mr. Ingraham was a founding member of the Historical Society, and served the town at various time as Town Clerk, Town Selectman, on the Board of Assessors, on the Improvement Association (for streets).

In our February 1999 edition of The Town Crier, we wrote about the forming of the Historical Society of Watertown back in 1888. Candidates for membership into the Society were required to “present a paper, or to make some other such contribution as will advance its objects.” The presented essays were printed in the local newspaper and many have been saved by the Historical Society in scrapbooks. We stated in that newsletter that we would print one of the essays from time to time. Following is an essay given by William H. Ingraham, Esq, read at the March 13, 1894 meeting.

It’s interesting to note that many of the brick buildings Mr. Ingraham is recalling are still standing today. As you drive or walk down the streets he mentions, look up at the buildings. The names are carved on the top.

In reply to your kind invitation to give you some reminiscences of almost a half century of life in Watertown, I am forced to say I hardly know where to begin, what to include, or where to end. In fact, if a person is actively engaged in what is going on in a town, all writing seems to be largely personal history, for you can hardly call these things to mind without bringing personal matters along with them, so please take them as they are, keeping in mind what you may like and rejecting the rest.

My first recollections of Watertown date back some years before I made it my home. Almost sixty years ago, when I was a boy in a country store in Framingham with my brother, early one pleasant summer morning, I took his two-horse team to drive to Boston to bring out a load of merchandise. I came along down through Waltham. No railroad tracks crossed the lines of our streets, for at that time railroads were unknown in Massachusetts. About the first thing that I recollect noticing as I jogged along, after passing the old Governor Gore place, was a blacksmith shop standing near where the West school-house now is, and a man by the name of Pond was the owner, as his sign over the door testified, quite an important institution for teamsters and travelers in those days as well as today. The next thing I noted was the hotel at the upper end of the street, near where Mr. Noyes’ house now stands. It was not so much the hotel that I noted, for I was neither dry nor hungry, but a large water tank stood in the yard and my horses were very ready to drink, if I was not, and I stopped to give them the chance. When I started down the street from that hotel, my eyes took in a picture I shall never forget. The sun was well up, but it was early morning, and as I looked down the avenue the grand old elms that were then in their prime almost arched the street. With the sunlight struggling through the thick foliage, the clear morning air, and the houses that lined each side of the street, – not such houses as you will now find on many of our streets, but good old-fashioned dwellings, such as the times called for and with which everyone was well satisfied, – with their owners or occupants just starting out on their daily business, made to me one of the finest views I had ever seen, and which I shall never forget.

I have driven down the street many a time since, but that morning’s ride and prospect has never been equaled. I saw but little of Watertown for the next ten years, only an occasional ride through as business called me, until the summer of 1846. I had some conversation with Col. Winthrop Faulkner, who was one of the active men in Framingham. With him I had very pleasant conversations, who was also one of the original owners of Fitchburg railroad stock and a director in the company for a great many years. I said to him that I proposed to come to Watertown to live, and asked him what he thought of the place. He burst out at once with, “It is the finest town in Middlesex County,” and he said he spoke from personal knowledge. I believed him then, and I have kept the faith to this day.

I came that fall as I anticipated, to work for a firm then called Locke, Strickland & Co., the company being Andrew Cole, who was in fact the main owner in the business. They occupied as a store the building now occupied by Mr. Bent as a furniture warehouse. It was located over the canal on the site of the present brick block, corner of Galen and Pleasant streets, owned by the dye house company. Just beyond it was a large frame dwelling-house, which received the name of the “Tremont House,” a shabby old house at that time, long since removed to the island near the paper mill; but it had been the home of two men who held first rank with the lawyers of Massachusetts – I mean Benjamin R. and George T. Curtis – one who you will all recollect held the high position of a Judge of the Supreme Court of the United States, who honored himself and his native state, the old Commonwealth of Massachusetts, by resigning his position upon the bench when the notorious decision known as the Dred Scott decision went forth from that court, “that a black man had no rights that a white man was bound to respect,” a decision that required the guns of a Grant to wipe away, and the earnestness of a Sumner to incorporate into the constitution of our land; that forever hereafter, a man shall be a man before the law, without regard to color or condition.

At that time as I said, when I first came to reside here, the Spring Hotel was the largest brick building on the street. The store now standing on the corner of Main and Galen Streets, then called Bridge Street, was there then, but after a slight blaze, was remodeled and made a much finer appearing building. Going towards the bridge on the east side of the street were two frame
dwellings, one owned and occupied by the heirs of Mr. Barrett; the other, I do not recollect the
owner’s name. Standing on the island in the middle of the river was a frame building used as a fish house, and every spring after the fishing business commenced, it was as lively a spot as you could find in Watertown. I do not say that it was the most desirable business that could be for the men engaged in it, for as a class they were not apt to be dry either outside or within; but they dragged their seines, either by hand or horse power, and the thousands of fish that were brought to the land bore witness to the enormous quantity that swam in the Charles River. For more than one hundred and fifty years this river furnished a large item of food for all the people who lived on its banks, until bridges crossing and filth pouring into the stream, drove the finny tribe from its waters, as I fear, never to return again.

The town hall was built the first year I came to Watertown. I went to its dedication. I shall never forget the warm words of John Weiss when he dedicated it to temperance and freedom, and the rights of man. His words were received with approval by some, and with great wrath by others. It took a man of a great deal of nerve and independence to say such things at the time they mobbed Garrison and hunted Phillips and Parker for such utterances in Boston, and here let me say, that around that hall, which is now so much decried by many, cluster some of the firmest recollections of my life. The cause in which it was dedicated, and the seed which was then sown by Mr. Weiss has been cultured and sustained by many an earnest heart and eloquent tongue. On its platform have stood Phillips, Garrison, Parker, George William Curtis, Beecher, Chapin, Holmes, Dana, and James Russell Lowell, with a host of lesser lights, yet equally true to the cause of humanity. On the platform of that hall, Wendall Phillips, when driven out of Boston, found a chance to pour forth his burning words a short time before the Rebellion began. It was announced that the town hall in Watertown was open to him. On the day he was to speak from that platform I was in Boston, and saw small placards or handbills, if you call them by that name, posted in Dock Square: “Wendell Phillips will lecture in Watertown this evening.” Every man at that day knew what such a notice meant. I was town clerk at the time, and under the direction of the selectmen, swore in some thirty special police to protect the meeting and to keep the peace. Moleneaux, with a band of Turners, warm friends of Phillips, came from Cambridge as a body guard, ready to do duty if called upon. I went to that meeting, which passed off as quietly as a May morning. Again I learned that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” and we may say, safety also.

Old Town Hall at the corner of Main and Church Streets (Photo courtesy of the Watertown Free Public Library)

I feel at times that no matter how fine a building the future necessity of the town may demand and its wealth may construct, never upon its platform shall stand firmer speakers, or from the lips of any man shall drop more eloquent words for humanity and freedom.

But time moves on, and with it came the Branch railroad and the changes which ever follow in the wake of the steam engine. The old grist mill still stands, grinding out its daily grists, but each side of it, what changes! Large brick buildings cover the sites of where formerly stood poor, small frame buildings. Next to the Spring Hotel was a small frame store occupied by Benjamin Dana, for many years the village postmaster. The old store was moved up to the street leading from Main Street, by the side of the Fitchburg railroad, and is now used as a dwelling. Now the fine Dana block stands there, and where the McMaster block stands, the old gentleman McMaster occupied a small old frame shop and diligently plied his shears and needle therein, bringing up to the same trade his son, who in after years succeeded his father, and pulled down the old shop and erected the fine brick stores that stand there today. You will all recollect the frame building at the corner of Main and Spring Streets, where the best block on the street now stands, erected by the Otis Brothers (Editor’s Note: the Otis Building still stands), an ornament to the street and a credit to the owners; also the fine store and market building as you turn into Mt. Auburn Street, where the Grand Army hall opens its doors to the old veterans when they fight their battles over again, but without spilling blood or breaking bones. On the opposite side stands the old Nolan building, once occupied by S. Noyes as a drug store and grocery, long before he built the brick block now occupied by the Hall Brothers and others. The bank was formerly a butcher’s market, as was the more imposing savings bank a frame shoe store. In fact, there is hardly a building on the street, when I look them over, but what has been erected or new modeled since I came to town.

The site of Union Market National Bank before the limestone building was built. On the right, only 3 of the 8 bays of the bank building built by Charles Brigham remain, now owned by Watertown Savings Bank. (Photo courtesy of the Watertown Free Public Library)

When I first came, for many years, Belmont was a portion of Watertown; but after a long and desperate struggle the division was consummated, and as I look back, I think, to the detriment of both sections. The division took away a large section of agricultural land and a substantial body of citizens. No town can lose such territory or such citizens and not feel the loss. But the old town braced herself for another struggle, and putting the best face on things, pushed along much faster than did the new town of Belmont. Latterly, Waverley has taken a great start, and bids fair to outstrip the center of Belmont. I cannot refrain from speaking of these things, for they were so intimately connected with my early life in Watertown, and you must remember that I am writing personal reminiscences. In those days, no gas, no street lights, no concrete walks, no water supply, no sewers, no macadamized roads were anywhere in town.

When I first served as town clerk, when Belmont was a portion of Watertown, the whole grant for town expenses, including schools and highways, was between $7,000 and $8,000 for the year. I well recollect when the grants reached $10,000 the citizens thought it was an enormous sum. But how little you had, and with what small things you were satisfied. Do we want to go back to the old times? We cannot if we would, and I would not if I could. Everything that a town can have consistent with fair economy, and a good expenditure of your grant, taking care to not overstep the bounds of prudence, so that the community shall not feel oppressed by the burden of taxation, I say, all that comes within that limit should be freely granted and cheerfully paid; but I have no more right to vote one dollar of a man’s money for which I do not give him full value, than I have to put my hand in his pocket and take the dollar without so much as saying, “By your leave.” This is one of the reminiscences which you will please excuse.

A few years passed on and the town began to agitate the establishment of a high school. It was a subject that provoked considerable discussion, and I recollect as but yesterday, that Mr. Thaxter in opposing it, said that he feared the children of the poorer portion of the inhabitants would suffer in consequence of such a school being established. He said he was a friend to them and he did not want the town to take such action as would cripple any of their privileges. My only reply to that was, that I did not want for my children a friendship that kept them from the privilege of a free high school in the town where they were living. The result was that we established the school, and Nathaniel Whiting hired Mr. Webster for the first teacher, and no man with more energy or perseverance ever took hold of a school of that description.

Levi Lincoln Thaxter, from a photo taken by his son, Roland (Courtesy of the Watertown Free Public Library)

So of the building of the Free Public Library. The first step towards that was a subscription by individuals to raise money for books. The citizens raised about $4,000 in 1867 or ’68, and offered it to the town as a foundation for the library. The next year, I think, the town took action upon it, chose a committee of ten as trustees – only two of them are left, Dr. Huckins and our fellow laborer, Joshua Coolidge, the rest have passed over the flood – and voted to take the store in the town house, at that time occupied by Joel Barnard, and the room was fitted up for that purpose, The committee, with Rev. John Weiss at their head, made the first selection of books, and I think very few public libraries were more fortunate in their officers having charge of the selection.

The library kept on until it outgrew its quarters, and its friends began to move for larger and better rooms. The magnificent gift of Mr. Hunnewell (a Watertown-born citizen, who remembered kindly his birthplace) of $10,000 gave great impetus to the work, and other generous gifts from townsmen, soon provided the necessary sum, and the library with all its attendant privileges, stands today an ornament to our town and a lasting memorial to all those who by labor or money contributed to its erection.

But these are things of today, and within the recollection of most of you, and I need not repeat what you all know so well, yet my reminiscences would not be complete without them.

The foundry took the place of the fishery, and a most excellent exchange for the town, for since its establishment it has kept steadily on increasing year by year, always paying good wages and keeping an active and industrious body of men, who add prosperity and strength to our town.

The Walker and Pratt Foundry was located across from the Otis Brothers building which stands on the corner of Merchants Row. The Foundry and other buildings were demolished and today the Delta is located there. (From the 1889 Geo. H. Walker & Co. map of Watertown)

The growth of churches has kept pace with our school houses. When I came to town the Unitarian church was as it is now. The Methodist society worshipped in a small building standing near where the Catholic church now stands. They sold their building and land and bought the lot and proceeded to erect their church building on Main Street, where it now stands. The Baptist society erected their church also, but I cannot give the exact date. Then followed the Phillips church, which was burned, and their present structure was built on the site of the one burned. There was a Universalist society and a church called Union church. Newton and Watertown joining in erecting and maintaining it; but part of its members joined a society in Newton and part in Waltham, and finally the church building was sold to the town for a school house, and is still in use for that purpose. The Roman Catholic society bought the land where the original Methodist church stood, and proceeded to build their present brick church theron. They also moved a frame building from Newton, I think, and have used it as a chapel. Their Parochial school building with nearly 500 scholars, attests their rapid growth. The Episcopal society, after holding their services for some time in private dwellings, erected a very cosey little church on the corner of Mt. Auburn Street and Russell Avenue, which adds very much to the good appearance of that neighborhood. A Union chapel was built some years since at Mt. Auburn, and services have been regularly held there for years. At the present time the Catholics are erecting a very substantial and costly building for church purposes, near the Union chapel, but fronting on Mt. Auburn Street. The Universalist society, again organized, hold their services in the Grand Army Hall, and I cannot see how any person can call for anything in the line of religious services that he cannot find in the good old town of Watertown. When the Methodist society erect their new church on the fine site purchased by them on Mt. Auburn Street, any person driving through our town will be obliged to admit, that if we are not a religious people, it will not be for lack of churches.

Between thirty and forty years since the gas company commenced operations, at first small and weak, today how strong, with its gas and electric plant shedding light into many a dark corner. Over the south side of the river, over the one hundred acres that we have had to contend so hard to retain, what a change! The houses that were there you could almost count on your fingers, and what were there were mostly small. Now look the ground over and see what you may find today. Old Dr. Morse, who lived in the Page house and owned the larger part of the west side of Galen Street, has passed over to the other side. He was a strange old character. In former days, engaged in foreign shipping, he was owner of a vessel named “Galen.” She was taken by the French in the war, and the old man did not live to see his claim paid; but his heirs, I understand, since his decease have realized on the claim. He got the name of the street changed from Bridge Street to Galen Street. After his death a man by the name of Boyd took hold of these acres, lotted them off, laid out streets, and commenced a general advance in the way of building houses along the whole line. There never was seen so many and so good houses erected in Watertown in so short a time. The lot of land lying between two railroads and in so close proximity to two thriving villages, Newton on the south and Watertown on the north, offered to the speculator and also the man who wanted a home for himself unusual inducements, which were rapidly taken up. But like too many such speculations, it went up like a rocket and came down like a black stick. Boyd himself came to grief, and many others who put money in went out after wool and came home shorn. Savings banks and insurance companies fared alike. They loaned money to speculators, and after foreclosing, sold out at a loss. For a long time dullness hung like a cloud over the territory, and some uneasy persons added to the depression by commencing a struggle to be set off to Newton. They magnified every known disadvantage and trumped up a great number that had no existence except in their fertile imaginations. The result was that after many efforts (the good common sense of the Massachusetts legislature telling them they had no case), they ceased the struggle and the increase of prosperity and growth of business is seen on every hand on the territory. If any observing individual will cast his eyes over the land he will see how necessary it was to Watertown to defend her rights and retain so large and valuable a share of her already limited area, and I trust it will be a long time before any of her citizens consent to further dismemberment. From being one of the largest town, we have been reduced to about 2,000acres., hardly a respectable farm for a western agriculturist, almost justifying the remark of the late Esquire Bigelow, that if this cutting off should be continued, they would leave us only bridges and graveyards.

The growth of the town has not been confined to any one section, but has spread in every direction. The only portion of the town that has not felt the impetus, if any, has been the part on Main Street lying west of the railroad bridge, near the estate of the late Charles Bemis, Esq., and there is no portion of the town that has finer territory or offers more desirable building sites. That territory has perhaps lacked travelling facilities, but the line of electric cars now running from Watertown to Waltham along the whole line of this territory, will, in no distant future, overcome all objections on that score, and we shall, I trust, see the finest buildings occupying those most desirable locations.

The next building movement to follow the Morse field was the opening of land of Esquire Bigelow by Dr. Converse F. Horne. Fine streets were opened and a good class of substantial houses were erected, and where was a large pasture and play-ground for boys, is now a good New England village, with good buildings and nicely kept grounds, dotted with fruit trees and shrubs to make homes pleasant and attractive.

There was an effort made by the town, in fact, a fine tract of ground embracing what is now known as Norwood park, was purchased for a cemetery lot, and a more desirable or a more needed purchase was never made by any town; but unfortunately, petty jealousies and bickerings sprung up, and after two or three quarrelsome town meetings were held, the town voted to sell the lot and allowed a bargain to pass out of their hands that I can see no chance in the future to regain. The lot fell into the hands of an unprincipled speculator who started quite a number of houses, but in the end left town, leaving behind him rather a bad record as a business man. The grounds have, since his day, passed into the hands of several gentlemen, and are now becoming one of the pleasantest places for a quiet home, with railroad facilities, and being near Boston, its future success is assured.

We have all seen with what energy and success the Otis Brothers took hold of, and developed the land owned by Dana, formerly the Russell lot. You can hardly realize that so fine a village has grown so rapidly. Before this was carried out, Mr. Delano March and Mr. Blodgett bought the Thomas Learned farm, and on that estate are as pleasant residences as men could ask for. The railroad cattle yards may be some objection to building on the south part of that farm, and whether the yards will be removed at an early day is yet a question.

The last, but not the least of the real estate movements was when the Watertown Land Co. bought the Nathaniel Whiting estate and developed Whiting Park. I need not particularize, they are all of yesterday. The top of the hill that overlooks our village, covered with fine oaks, I hope may be bought by the town and retained in its beauty as a place for our children to play in when the heat of summer is upon us, and a shelter from the winds which sweep over the landscape in winter.

Charles Brigham (standing) and Tom Gavin (in carriage) in front of Mr. Brigham’s house at 84 Garfield Street (Courtesy of the Watertown Free Public Library)

I certainly must not omit Garfield Street, with its fine residences and magnificent outlook, developed by our worthy townsman, Mr. Charles Brigham, which, if it has been a little longer in growing, has certainly done well for the delay, as has the Russell estate adjoining on the west, and rivaling it in beauty of location and residences; but the younger men and the later residents may more fittingly describe the later movements. On the checkerboard of time, leaving to us, the older men, the recollections of the old families – White, Thaxter, Bigelow, Bemis, Whitney and Stickney – who once were the prime movers in all town affairs, but of whom not one is left to bear the name. One branch of the Russell family, with the Coolidges and Stones, still retain their broad acres, and long may they remain, honored and respected in the future as they have been in the past, is the sincere wish of their friend and your humble servant.

2 thoughts on “Our History: Historical Society Essay from 1894

  1. What a superb essay! Thank you for publishing it, Charlie. Thanks, too, to the Historical Society and the Watertown Free Public Library. A real treat!

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