Thursday, May 21, 2015

I Seek Newton, Part 1: Lower Falls

From Dave Brigham:

Welcome to the first part of an occasional series about my adopted hometown, Newton, Mass. I've posted plenty here about Newton over the years, but I realized recently that there's so much to cover and it's the easiest place to drive around so I should conduct a more thorough review.

Settled in 1630, Newton spreads its population of about 80,000 residents across 13 villages. Newton Centre, Nonantum and Newtonville have significant commercial districts, while other neighborhoods, such as Waban and Lower Falls, have fewer retail outlets. Then there's Thompsonville, which I'm sure many people in the city have never heard of.

I'm kicking off with Newton Lower Falls primarily because I was most intrigued about it when I started thinking about this project. Cut off from the main body of Newton by Route 128, Lower Falls features many gorgeous old homes, a small shopping district along busy Washington Street (which continues into Wellesley in short order) and a beautiful church (St. Mary's Episcopal) and attendant cemetery.

Three years ago I wrote about a rails-to-trails project there as part of a post covering a handful of pedestrian crossings of the Charles River (see October 12, 2011, "Troubled Bridges Over Water"). The Lower Falls bridge was once part of the 1.25-mile branch of the Boston-Albany Railroad that ran from Lower Falls to the Riverside Yard, where the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) now runs trolleys and buses, and where companies including Greyhound and Peter Pan operate bus lines. The bridge has been rebuilt as a pedestrian connection into Wellesley.

(Former train bridge connecting Newton Lower Falls to Wellesley)

As I thought about walking around Lower Falls to get a better feel for the village, I recalled that several groups want to extend the walking path from the old bridge to Riverside Yard. I needed to find the route that extension would take to Riverside, where a developer plans in the near future to build apartments, retail sites and a parking garage on part of the land owned by the MBTA. As this development progresses, I'm sure the activist groups that want to extend the path -- the Newton Conservators, Newton Bicycle/Pedestrian Task Force and the Charles River Watershed Association, among others -- will continue to pressure the city, the Department of Conservation and Recreation and abutting neighbors.

To see what walking path supporters are up against, I walked along the bridge, crossed Concord Street and found myself staring at a no man's land about 40 feet wide running behind houses on both Baker Place and St. Mary's Street. I hoped to find remnants of railroad tracks or ties.

Wading in with camera in hand, I expected to encounter at least one neighbor barking at me from their back yard asking what the hell I was doing. I wasn't trespassing on private property, but I felt self conscious because the area has little cover from concerned residents. I could see right away that this project is going to face severe scrutiny and pushback. The area in question continues behind dozens of more homes along a few more streets (and along the backside of the Leo J. Martin Memorial Golf Course) before connecting up with an old train bridge that crosses Route 128 on its way to the Riverside Yard.

(Train bridge crossing Route 128, connecting Lower Falls with the MBTA's Riverside Yard.)

While residents will surely fight a path that will bring walkers, runners and cyclists through their backyards, I believe they'll also rue the loss of their dumping ground.

(Residents have filled in the former rail bed with major amounts of yard waste, from trees and shrubs to potted plants, as well as other refuse.)

I ventured only about 50 feet in before hitting this obstacle. Along the way I spied composting bins, discarded potted plants and piles of leaves that were obviously dumped from backyards. Alas, I found no sign of the Boston-Albany line, but I'm sure if the path gets approved and folks start clearing things out, they'll make a few interesting finds.

I decided to turn around, having satisfied my curiosity for the time being. That's when I made my own interesting find:

(Discarded Pacer moped.)

If anyone wants to restore a Pacer moped, you'll find this rusting junker about 25 feet into this suburban jungle.

During my short tour of Lower Falls, I spent time on another bridge over the Charles River.

(The Mary Hunnewell Fyffe Footbridge, which features a fish passage.)

This bridge connects the lower falls sections of Newton and Wellesley. There is a fish passage here, to facilitate interspecies communication.

I took a roundabout way to this bridge, because I was unfamiliar with the terrain. I cut behind the post office and an office building and found a path next to the river. I then traveled behind a senior living community, where I found this odd creature.


I've dubbed it a "faux-ote."

I didn't learn until after my trip that some of the buildings I passed behind, as well as others I checked out on a second visit, had amazing histories.

(Lower Falls Wine Co., formerly known as Boyden Hall.)

This building, which has housed Lower Falls Wine Co. for 75 years, once hosted theatrical performances and Catholic masses, as well as community-based gatherings such as voting and bandage rolling during World War I, according to the wine company's web site.

(Former Ware Paper Mill.)

Here is the former Ware Paper Mill, which was built in 1790 and was the first paper mill to be built on the banks of the Charles River, according to Wikipedia. These days, this building is occupied by a consulting firm, while other parts of the old mill contain a rug store and retail stores.

(Approximate site of former Wales's Tavern.)

On this spot (or someplace close by) once stood Wales's Tavern.

(Former firehouse and library, this building is now condos.)

This cool building with the unfortunate doors was once a firehouse, and subsequently a library. It is now condos.

Rounding out my trip, I walked along Grove Street and checked out the backside of the St. Mary's Cemetery.

(St. Mary's Cemetery.)

I'll keep an eye on the effort to extend the walking path from Lower Falls to Auburndale, which just happens to be the village that I'll feature in the second part of this series.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Roam If You Want To

From Dave Brigham:

Often times when I set out with my camera to take pictures for this blog, I have a destination in mind. I've made note of an aqueduct head house, a named building, an abandoned factory or a stretch of long-forgotten railroad tracks and circled back to document the place in advance of doing research.

Almost as frequently, I'm going somewhere -- my accountant's office, Target, dropping my son at an appointment -- and remember to bring along my camera bag, in case I have time to poke around looking for my favorite places on the fringe. While I love exploring with a purpose in mind, it's these wild goose chases that raise my excitement level to that of a little kid under the tree on Christmas day.

Sometimes I get a lump of coal in my Backside stocking. Other times I drive around, pass a few promising places but continue on hoping for the equivalent of a new bike or a Red Ryder BB Gun (look it up....), only to run out of time. On enough occasions, however, I stumble across some cool places to take some interesting photos. Not everything has a story that I need to research. I just like hiking around, exploring and finding the less-traveled spots.

Here are some of the results.

As part of my ongoing mission to document the Backside of my adopted hometown, Newton, Mass., I've come across places that don't easily give themselves away. I suppose a knock on the door might lead to an answer, but I'm not usually willing to do that.

This fancy, rounded bench looks like it's made of cement. The letters "PD" are inscribed on the lower left section. I spotted this seat as I was trying to figure out where the one-time Stanley Steamer plant on the Newton-Watertown line once stood. The bench is in the corner of the yard of a rundown house situated in the most northeastern point of Newton.

Does the "PD" stand for Police Department? Was this bench originally sited in front of a local constabulary? Or are the initials attached to a person? Lots of questions about this oddly located, uncomfortable seat.

Built in 1900, this two-family house is, like the property in the previous photo, located in Newton Corner. I like the look of this place, which was recently rehabbed. Stalking the house on Google Maps, I noticed while on "street view" that there was a historic marker of some sort on the house. When I arrived with my camera a day or two later, however, I noticed that the marker was gone. Again, I could knock on the door and ask about the house and any historic significance, but I'm not very comfortable prying into people's lives that way.

Recently, I was on the other side of town, the southwest section of Newton called Oak Hill. I'd picked up my tax return in nearby Dedham, and had some time to kill before picking my son up at school. It was cold and overcast, with light hail falling as I walked into the woods just over the border in Boston's West Roxbury neighborhood. The trees provided decent cover from the precipitation as I walked a trail along the fringe of a cemetery and the remains of the Brook Farm. Across a thin stretch of trees I could see the Baker Street Jewish Cemeteries, 42 individual cemeteries run by the Jewish Cemetery Association. The path took me right past the far southwest corner, where I easily scrambled over a low wall and took this picture.

I continued on the path to the outskirts of Millennium Park in West Roxbury.

This is obviously a major teen hangout. There are dirt bike trails winding through the trees, and the odd beer bottle and piece of trash here and there.

I'm drawn to places like this because I grew up in places like this. Sure, I get excited by checking out urban decay and dream about undertaking actual urban exploration, instead of just snapping pictures of the outside of dilapidated buildings. But as a kid I explored the woods and streams and railroad tracks near my home. Some people look at these environments and don't see much, but there's always more there than meets the eye.

OK, twisted vines and a dried out ear of corn aren't typically what I feature here. But these are the types of things other people overlook on their way past little patches of woods and tiny fields that don't look like much. I took these shots in Concord, right near a place called Brigham Farm, which has been operated by distant relatives of mine (whom I've never met) since 1824.

In nearby Sudbury, I stopped to take pictures of a long-abandoned place that I'd seen (and taken pictures of) a few years ago.

Known as Bowker's Store, this place in the northern section of town was among a few spots that sold all manner of goods, and served as gas stations and local post offices, too, according to the Sudbury Chamber of Commerce.

According to, Mr. Bowker passed away in 1965 and a man named George Sharkey took over ownership of the store. Shortly thereafter, the store applied for (and was denied) a liquor permit. It appears to have gone out of business soon after, according to the Geocashing site.

Founded in 1639, Sudbury was the third inland, Colonial town established in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, according to the town web site. As such, the settlement has quite a lot of history related to Native Americans, the Revolutionary War and even slavery.

I've never seen a street sign like this. It's pretty cool.

Friday, May 1, 2015


From Dave Brigham:

Dedham, Massachusetts, has an illustrious history.

From Wikipedia:

The history of Dedham, Massachusetts began with the first settlers' arrival in 1635. The Puritans who built the village on what the Indians called Tiot incorporated the plantation in 1636. They devised a form of government in which almost every freeman could participate and eventually chose selectmen to run the affairs of the town. They then formed a church and nearly every family had at least one member.

The early residents of town built the first American canal, the first tax-supported public school, run by Ralph Wheelock, and Jonathan Fairbanks built what is today the oldest wood frame house in North America."

The town center is beautiful, with historic homes aplenty and great commercial buildings and wonderful churches.

(First Church and Parish, Dedham)

There's a cool social club. Well, used to be.

(Odd Fellows Hall, Dedham. Appears to be empty.)

But you read this blog, you know what I'm looking for. I hunt around the edges. I look for stuff that other people pass by. The forgotten spaces.

(The Oasis, Dedham. Now closed.)

Shuttered last year, The Oasis was a dive bar that reportedly opened in 1972. I thought it was a private club, but I wouldn't have gone there even if I'd known it was a public joint. A sushi place is slated to open there, according to reports online.

My standard line about dive bars is that I picture a bunch of old guys in sleeveless t-shirts and women with beehive hairdos eating pickled eggs out of a jar on the bar top. I'm sure The Oasis fit that image to some degree, but after posting that impression about a one-time dive in Waltham, Mass., a few years back, some of the former patrons commented that The Reef was all about community and friendship (see August 25, 2011, "Goodbye Reef, So Long Bill"). Make sure you scroll down and read the comments.

The final shot I made was right on the border of Dedham and West Roxbury, a neighborhood of Boston that still maintains a lot of its "lace curtain Irish" feel. But along the commercial strip of Route 1, just past the Boston Trailer Park, West Roxbury looks like Anytown, USA, with its fast food joints, car dealerships, mattress stores and empty storefronts.

There's one empty lot, between a Pets Supplies Plus and Prime Toyota Boston. An abandoned McDonald's, which stood across the parkway from an operating Mickey D's, was torched two years ago on this spot. Currently, there is a proposal before Boston authorities to build on this site a kosher hotel, which I admit is something I've never heard of.

Here's what's left on the lot.

Not sure what to make of this old shed. The building is close to the parking lot for the former McDonald's, but also sits on the fringe of significant green space along the Charles River. I'm guessing it was once part of a small farm. I'll keep an eye on this....

For more posts about Dedham, click these words.