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Snake Hole? Up Street? A roundup of old Burlington areas

The first roads were really just paths that turned and twisted to connect the scattered homes of settlers. These paths usually avoided steep hills, bogs and wet areas. Even mighty Cambridge Street was a meandering path before the automobile came along and prompted engineers to make straighter roads.

The Woburn Record for November 4, 1644 refers to “a highway laid out through Mr. Trarice’s land and the land of Michael Bacon and Charlestown Lots, leading to Shawshin, commonly known or called by the name of Up Street.”

That old highway approximates today’s Cambridge Street. From John Cummings’ corner, near today’s Cafe Escadrille, it roughly followed today’s Cambridge Street — but made some notable detours! Here’s a trip along the old Up Street route:

The original Up Street explains why measly Arlington Road has such an important-sounding name. It was indeed part of the main road to Arlington.

When Burlington was part of Woburn, it comprised Shawshin, Forest Field, Snake Hole, Rock Meadow, Mount Playnum, Up Street, Great Meadow, Pine Meadow, Long Meadow, and Millstone Meadow. Then came the Swamp Road, Cranberry Meadow, Wood Hill, Lubber Brook, Vine Brook, Path Woods and Greenleaf Mountain.

Bordering Burlington in Wilmington was Maple Meadow. Over the line in North Woburn were Hungry Plain and New Bridge, the basis of today’s Newbridge Avenue in the Winnmere section. Farther south in Woburn was Whispering Hill. At the junction of Woburn, Lexington and Burlington was a section called Worlds End.

Why so many “meadows”? Because the first settlers loved meadows. They were fertile, moist, and easily cleared for plowing and seeding. Some were previously cleared by Native Americans for corn and squash. Perfect! The more meadows, the better.

Shawshin is an Indian name which survives as a river, but originally applied to the entire Billerica/Burlington border area. In the parcelling out of meadows in 1647, seven men were given rights to “lay out the meadow at this side the head of Ipswich River that runneth into Reading bounds.” The plan of Woburn made by Samuel Thompson in 1794 shows two streams, each of which is named “head of Ipswich River” and have their origins in the northern part of this town in the vicinity of the Fox Hill School.

Forest Field or Forest Hill Field was that area surrounding the first Burlington church near Simonds Park. Benjamin Johnson provided the land for the church and the cemetery nearby.

Little Rock Meadow, according to notes made by Edward Johnson of Woburn in 1888, was within the bounds of Burlington in the vicinity of Durenville in Woburn, which doesn’t clear up its location very much. That same gentleman describes Mill Rock Meadow or Millstone Meadow as westerly of the present North Woburn. It is described in deeds of James Baldwin in 1852 as “partly in Woburn and partly in Burlington and in a place called Millstone Meadows.” He adds, “The term Mill Rock would imply that the meadow contained a rock which the colonists considered suitable for the manufacture of millstones.”

A committee for “laying out of swamps” in 1657 granted to Edward Winn “two acres of swamp adjoining to his meadow at a place commonly called Snake Hole.” This could be the well field area directly in back of the old Winn homestead where Jerome Lynch lived more recently, or maybe farther down the brook.

Winn Street at Wyman Street, Burlington MA

The Swamp Road, by the way, is now Lowell Street, which does indeed traverse two big swamps as it connects Woburn to Burlington behind the movie theater on Route 128.

Mount Playnum is first mentioned in the Woburn Records for February 12, 1648, which includes the statement, “Granted to Abraham Parker one small parcel of meadow lying near the new bridge leading to Mount Playnum.” This is now Mountain Road. In 1888 Johnson describes it as “in the rear of the house of Mrs. Samuel Winn and the school house adjacent, and also called ‘Mine Mountain’ or ‘Mineral Hill’ or ‘Copper Mountain ain’.” These latter mentions refer to the fact that at one time copper was thought to be plentiful enough there to be mined.

About 1730, a man named Pierce went copper-hunting on that mountain. The land belonged to the Winns, but they were farmers, not miners. They wanted no part of a mining project and did not want to sell the land to Pierce. They were open to making a profit, however, so they allowed Pierce to dig as long as the Winns got a big piece of any profits.

Digging began just off Mountain Road, likely at the junction with Wyman Street, but the whole endeavor ended in tragedy June 11, 1731, just a few months into the project. Three diggers hit some hard rock and decided to blast. They drilled a deep hole in the outcropping of ledge, filled with black powder, tamped and fused.

According to accounts in the Boston Weekly News-Letter, the three were covering the hole with broken pieces of stone when a stray spark “flew in the crack that was in the cane which held the fuse.”

The premature explosion created havoc. Mr. Clough, evidently an engineer with some mining experience, had his left hand and right arm amputated in an attempt to save his life, but his wounds were so severe that he died within a week. John Potter, his teenage apprentice, had his right hand blown off and Pierce was hit in the face with so many pieces of rock and gravel that he lost the sight of both eyes.

Thus ended copper mining in Burlington. What happened to the survivors is not known, and no trace of the shaft, if there was one, is now visible.

This post is loosely based on a 1980 Ed Fogelberg article calledMount Playnum, Snake Hole, Up Street?”


8 thoughts on “Snake Hole? Up Street? A roundup of old Burlington areas Leave a comment

  1. Lived in Burlington most of my life, never knew some of this history, thanks for the articles, very interesting !!

  2. Interesting post. What’s missing is why Arlington Rd was the “main road to Arlington” and then became truncated, or measly as you call it. WHAT USED TO BE WHERE THE PRESENT DAY HIGH SCHOOL IS? Are there before/after BHS pics? Stands to reason there are at min pics of BHS during construction in the early 70s. To think the famed spray painted rocks were at one point just a hill, possibly part of a meadow or farm?

    Unearthing and sharing this history would make for a fascinating post…

    • An apple orchard, according to some old Arlington Street residents. The main road went that way probably due to the wetlands, which were prized before they became a hindrance to development.

      • Thanks, RWF. Where can any pics of this be found? There has to be archived photos somewhere of the land as it was scoped for construction of the present day BHS. Would be amazing to see and the town must have these or similar pics archived.

        • Those elusive “archived photos somewhere” usually don’t exist. Or they exist in box in someone’s attic or basement, but the owner has long forgotten about them. My website is a Quixotic effort to put all of it back into circulation. We’re on the same team.

          • No pre/post photos of the land that is current day BHS is surprising, especially given construction was ~1970. Here’s hoping the “quixotic” forces that be smile upon us.

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