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.


  1. Thanks for posting. I play golf at the Leo J. Martin course frequently, and wondered about the history, after I saw an old drawing of the course (before it was reconfigured in the early '60s to make room for the Turnpike interchange with 128). A couple of golf holes back in the area the rail line goes by were taken out and replaced with new holes on the other side of the course (across the river), so I wandered in looking for signs of a rail line -- a heavily-reinforced drainage culvert is about the only one clearly visible at this point. But a little surfing led me to your article, as well as the history of the Newton Lower Falls branch. Curiosity satisfied -- thanks!

  2. Hey Urbie -- always glad to help! Also glad to know I'm not the only one curious about these types of forgotten places.

  3. Sure thing, Dave! Also, there's a fascinating little book called "Building Route 128 (Images of America)," by Yanni Tsipis and David Kruh, that you might like. The book is mostly old photos, with some descriptive text, illustrating the history of Route 128 -- the patchwork of small roads that was originally designated "Route 128," and how the present highway was planned, built, and enlarged over the years. That's how I found out the information about the relocation of 128 in the '60s, which required the alterations to the Martin golf course.

  4. Thanks for the book tip. Just added it to my Amazon wish list!

  5. I grew up on Grove St with my seven siblings. My parents lived in Lower falls for over 50 years. I have countless memories to every one of these places. thanks!

  6. I grew up in Lower Falls with my seven siblings. Many memories of the above places!