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When the Turnpike was a toll road

The Daily Times and Chronicle, Tuesday, November 6, 1979

Burlington Past and Present, by John E. Fogelberg (Article # 020)


One of the most heavily trafficked roads in this town is the Middlesex Turnpike. In fact, the intersection of Route 128 and the turnpike has one of the highest vehicle counts in the commonwealth, especially during those few weeks just before Christmas when the Mall parking areas are overflowing with cars, when it seems that every driver from the electronic firms on Second, Third and Fourth avenues and from the industrial park across the way are fighting for position.

When workers from the RCA plant want to go south and those from the Middlesex Bank want to go north, when cars and trucks enter the highway from Adams Street, from Blanchard Road, from Lexington Street and Terrace Hall Avenue, that short stretch of roadway running from Adams Street in the south to Bedford Street in the north becomes a maelstrom of mechanical infighting on wheels.

It wasn’t always that way. Not too many years ago it was a sleepy country dirt road, not even macadamized. The town, with the help of county funds, tarred and gravelled it periodically, filling in the potholes now and then. The only activity in the area was centered at Woodward’s Country Store where they once featured “Irish Pizza” and Harry Woods Riding School, Woodmoreland Rest, the first backing up to the old mill pond, the second occupying the angle made by the turnpike with Lexington Street. This was “Wood’s Corner.”

Just to the north the Pattison farm occupied both sides of the road and just to the south on Adams Street stood the old Richardson Tavern, which during the Prohibition era had a lively night life as the Red Dog Inn.

The Middlesex Turnpike is not an old road, relatively speaking, since Up Street, now Cambridge Street, was hacked through the countryside as early as 1642. The Turnpike did not open for business until 1811 and its life as a toll road was short, less than 30 years.

A turnpike, by definition, is a road paid for in part or in whole by fees collected at tollgates. The hinged bar that prevented passage on the road until that fee was paid was the original turnpike from which the road got its name. In England such tollgates were in use before 1400. Thus the early settlers to New England were perfectly familiar with a road called a turnpike.

The first American turnpikes, however, did not appear until after the Revolution. And the Lancaster, Penn. Turnpike of 1792 was the first such road to be authorized, constructed and operated by a private corporation. Its success initiated a toll road boom, which lasted almost until 1840 when canals and railroads made them less and less profitable for the proprietors.

The Middlesex Turnpike Corporation was granted a charter by the Legislature in June of 1805, despite the spirited objections of the several towns through which it was to pass. The new town of Burlington was one of the objectors. At a meeting held in 1803, the people here voted that “neither” of the turnpike roads paid for were either necessary or agreeable to the town.

The word “neither” in that vote would indicate that two roads were involved, but that was not entirely true. At first the road was to run from Tyngsboro Meeting House to Chelmsford Center to Billerica Center to a point in Bedford described as “a stake in the land of Abel Wyman, about 12 miles and 120 rods from Boston.” (It was in the Abel Wyman house just over the line in Billerica that John Hancock and Samuel Adams spent the night after the Lexington-Concord fight on the 19th of April in 1775.) Here the road was to divide, one section going to Medford by way of Burlington and Symmes Corner in Woburn, now Winchester; the other passing through the westerly part of Burlington to the “rocks, so-called in Cambridge,” that is West Cambridge, once Menotomy, now Arlington, thence on a straight line to the West Boston Bridge.

The original petition had the road running from Tyngsboro on the Merrimac River to Medford on the Mystic River, which would have put it in direct competition with the Middlesex Canal that Loammi Baldwin had just completed in 1803. The portion of the road through Cambridge was but an added attraction. However, for whatever reason, the latter project was the only one completed.

Opposition from the various towns was bitter, particularly so in West Cambridge and Lexington where in the former a number of mills on Mill Brook were thought to be in jeopardy, and in the latter because the pike was to appropriate an old and well-travelled road. To the north the authority, to appease residents, decided to run the road in a straight and direct line from Bedford to Tyngsboro, thus leaving Billerica Center one mile to the east and Chelmsford Center almost as far away to the west. It proved to have been a poor decision.

The several southern towns lost the argument in 1811 and the Corporation built its road. Trees were cut down, stumps were pulled out by teams of oxen and swampy areas were crossed by either fill or a corduroy construction made of logs. The surface of the road was mostly of earth taken from the excavation of ditches on either side. The only big construction project was the bridge that carried the highway across Nutting’s Pond in Billerica.

When finished the road was 26 miles long and four tollgates collected the fees. There was no tollgate in Burlington, but there was one just over the line in Lexington, a short distance beyond the home of Reuben Reed. And that gate precipitated another legislative battle, which resulted in allowing Lexington farmers and certain farmers from Woburn to pass that particular gate without the payment of a toll. Burlington later petitioned the Legislature for its removal in 1812, but then the war with England erupted and no action to help Burlington farmers materialized.

The Middlesex Turnpike was never a success financially because farmers and stages refused to use it, preferring the older roads and their well-known taverns. In 1840, Burlington agreed to the county’s request to take over the road and the Turnpike Charter was repealed in 1841.

A bid that may have brought the turnpike into prominence long before the advent of Route 128 was proposed in 1900, when plans for a high-speed electric inter-urban railroad line was considered to run from Sullivan Square to Lowell using the old turnpike through Burlington. It never got beyond the planning stage and the turnpike here remained a little used country road for another 50 years.