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Why Burlington divorced Woburn

Burlington (left) and Woburn
Burlington (left) pulling away. Painful but unstoppable.

Before Burlington became a town, it was section of Woburn with no name besides the Native American moniker “Shawshin.” In the early 1700s, the people in the remotest section of Shawshin grew tired of trekking to Woburn center for church service, especially in winter. They were paying church dues, tantamount to taxes, but they weren’t getting their money’s worth.

This dissent had major implications. Back then, a church was more than just a church. It was the hub of the town. It was the municipal meeting house, the cultural convention center AND a place of worship. The separation of church and state didn’t come until 1791 via the First Amendment — but our story is still in the early 1700s. Church was everything. Many school teachers were ministers. If you didn’t attend church, you were in self-imposed exile from your town, a dropout.

Instead of dropping out, Shawshin created its own “Second Parish” meeting house/church, now known as the United Church of Christ Congregational, at the top of Lexington Street in 1732. This was a very provocative move. Woburn worried that this so-called Second Parish might foreshadow an outright split as a separate town. Those worries proved accurate. Less than two years after the Second Parish was created, it launched a series of efforts to spin off as a separate town. The first separation committee consisted of:

  • James Walker, esq.
  • Capt. Reuben Kimball
  • Capt. John Wood
  • Ensign Timothy Winn
  • Mr. Edward Walker
  • Mr. John Caldwell
  • Mr. James Walker
  • Capt. James Reed

Their efforts forced a vote before the main parish.  Should this Second Parish separate or not? The results showed 86 against letting them go, 39 in favor. Not exactly unanimous. And so the main parish gathered its own heavyweights to form a committee against separation. That committee consisted of:

  • Col. Loammi Baldwin
  • Samuel Thompson, esq.
  • Maj. Jeremiah Clapp
  • Daniel Wyman
  • Abijah Thompson

A heavyweight battle indeed. After several attempts to gather overall parish support and then sway the state legislature, the Second Parish finally got is way in 1799. And so the village of Shawshin officially broke off from Woburn and became Burlington on the strength of its new Second Parish. Woburn decried the loss of revenue and human resources, but it had no recourse.

Here’s a news tidbit about the Legislature’s approval:

March 12, 1799 Burlington is born

Newburyport Herald and Country Gazette March 12, 1799 Burlington MA


Here’s the couple before and after the split.


These people owned or occupied homes worth at least 100 pounds when Burlington went “live” in 1799, so they’re considered the first Burlington residents:Some of Burlington's first homeowners

Here’s the first official definition of this new territory, to be called Burlington. The border markings are humorously primitive. Some borders are defined by nothing more than a “heap of stones”!

Burlington border markings 1799

The first Burlington town meeting commenced on March 11, 1799. It established:

  • A town clerk
  • Five selectmen
  • Some overseers of the poor
  • Three assessors
  • Treasurer
  • Constable
  • Three highway surveyors
  • Two fence viewers
  • Two lumber surveyors
  • Sealer of leather
  • Two measurers of wood
  • Clerk of the market
  • Sealer of weights and measures
  • Two hog reefers
  • Three field drivers.

There was no police or fire department.

The second meeting, on April 1, 1799, involved choosing a state representative, setting aside $150 for schooling and paying a $248 salary to Rev. John Marrett, the minister who led the split from Woburn. Did he deserve 65% more than the entire school system? It’s probably too late to debate it.

And so, in a nutshell, Burlington was born because going to church in Woburn center was too hard given the primitive transportation. The end.

Burlington’s seminal buildings


The Second Parish meeting house was built in 1732 on “Forest Field Hill,” now the head of Lexington Street near the Simonds Park basketball courts. At first, the building didn’t even have a bell or a heating system.



Original Town Hall on Simonds Park, Burlington MA
Original Town Hall on Simonds Park. Burned down in 1902.
Burlington Public library, built in 1850
Burlington Public library, built in 1850 at Bedford and Cambridge Streets. It also functioned as the Center School. In the early 1970s, it was the temporary police headquarters while a new police station was being built across the common. Now this building is the town museum.
Town Hall on Center Street, 1915-1969
Town Hall on Center Street, 1915-1969.

This article is based on a section of Lotta Cavanagh Rice Dunham’s History of Burlington, published in 1950. The building photography came from the same book. By the way, the etymology of “Burlington” is unknown. Some think it’s tied to Bridlington, England. 

5 thoughts on “Why Burlington divorced Woburn Leave a comment

  1. I remember Mrs. Dunham (the town librarian) in the 50s. She put a fly leaf in each book and when you took it out she would date stamp it and hand write your name in the book. Walking to the library was about the only entertainment in Burlington at that time.

    My family moved to Burlington in 1952 (when I was in the 2nd grade) and I lived there (when I wasn’t in college”) until I graduated from graduate school. At the time I didn’t know that I had ancestors who lived in Woburn (Richardsons) before Burllington broke off. I also had the Pollards and Farmers who lived in Billerica in the 1600s and early 1700s.

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