The First Roads

On the 16th day of May 1663, at a meeting of the inhabitants and proprietors of the town, Marlborough set out its first primary and secondary roads. These were certainly not the only roads in town, but the first to be recognized for their importance to communication and commerce. Most of them were existing paths created either by the Indians or by earlier town activity.

The first one mentioned is quite remarkable. “It is ordered That there bee an Highway stated (& so to continue) of Tenne Rods wide bettweene ye house Lotts of John Ruddocke & Thomas Goodenow wch shall runne up into ye woods as ffare as any Lotts goe, & so on into the Woods & unto the Meadows as mens occasions shall call for & lead them.” Yes, that is a direct quote.

John Ruddock lived at the corner of today’s Mechanic Street and Elm Street.  Thomas Goodenow Sr. was a near neighbor of Ruddock whose property lay along upper Hudson Street.  At one time, Elm St extended from Mechanic to the corner of Union.  The road described can be none other than Elm Street which comes out near to the Post Road on Boundary Street. It was a primary Indian pathway, part of the Old Connecticut Path system that led southward. It joined a path that went to today’s Northborough center, south on Route 135 through Westborough, thence to Grafton and the Indian settlement of Hassanamisset. 

The width of ten rods is a challenge to the modern mind. A handy internet conversion utility says that ten rods is 165 feet or well over fifty yards wide. It is said that the English system of measure has changed little since the 14th century. If so, how is it that such a wide road was called for? The only reasonable answer is that it was the primary path for cattle and would have to be wide enough to accommodate passing herds. The English economy in Marlborough revolved around cattle and the farms were set up between Main Street and Elm Street. Muddy Lane, on the west end of Elm Street and now home of the Marlborough Fish and Game, was a very early watering hole for man and beast climbing up and down the hill. Even today, the rock walls of western Elm Street are very wide apart showing the importance of the road even to a much later date.

The description continues, “This highway is also ordered to run to ye house of John How senr so on still to bee a common Road Leading downe to ye Bay.” John How Sr’s house was on Fowler Street off Stevens Street. This means that the road described ran from John Ruddock’s at the corner of Elm and Mechanic east on Hudson, thence to Union Street over to Stevens Street and from there south to East Main Street where it joined the road leading to the Bay (Boston).

The next primary road mentioned was Main Street. The town record references the minister’s house, William Ward’s house and Johnathan Johnson’s house. All three lay along the Main. The minister lived near the Meeting House which sat at the present day Walker Building. Ward lived off of West Main Street on Hayden Street, and Johnson was the blacksmith whose property was opposite the Meeting House. This road was eight rods or 132 feet wide, wider even then today’s Main Street.

The secondary roads are more of a challenge to locate and some guesswork is involved. The first is described as “betweene ye west end of John Ruddocks Lott, & the house Lott of Abra: How & so to run to the west hill.” Since West Hill is still so called to this day, this is easy – from Elm Street to Berlin Road on Pleasant Street.” But it continues “from Abra: Hows house south East at the end of Tho: Goodenows, Joseph & Sam Rice & the Ministers Lott til it comes into ye Highway that comes from the Meeting house to Henry Kerly’s house.”  The Meeting House is clearly a reference to Main St, but there is no road that currently runs in any direct line from the corner of Pleasant and Elm Sts, (the approximate location of Abraham How) to the Walker Building, former location of the Meeting House.  

There would have been a road, more or less direct, that would have intersected both locations.  Not only that, but this road would have been critical to colonial commerce.  Lancaster was the most important nearby town at the time.  Since Bolton St was then part of Praying Indian land, it was not an option to use to get to any town to the north and west.  The way to Lancaster lay along this major pathway, northwest from the Meeting House to Pleasant St thence along the full length of Pleasant toward Berlin, then part of Lancaster.

The next is a road of four rods from Ruddock’s home toward Fort Meadow. This would surely be Hudson Street where a number of settlers were known to have lived.  The next is described as a road of four rods between the homes of John How Sr. and John How Jr. The first thought is that this might be Stevens Street, but I believe that Stevens Street was part of the main road extending from Elm Street to the home of John How. This road, then, may well have been East Main Street. The acreage of the house lots were considerable at that time and it is conceivable that John How Jr lived on East Main.

The last three roads seem to run off of Main Street. The first is six rods wide (99 feet), and extends from the home of Thomas King’s southward near a brook. This most likely was Maple Street since King was thought to live on the far end of Main Street. The extra width may have been to accommodate commercial traffic since there was a grist mill on the present Mill Street.

The next is described as running from Johnathan Johnson’s to Thomas Barnes.  Johnson originally located to the east side, probably on East Main St., but later became the blacksmith, locating opposite the Meeting House.  This would place the road either as East Main St, or possibly Newton St. 

The final road described goes from the south side of William Ward’s house lot to the lot of Edmund Rice.  This can only be Liberty Street.  Edmund Rice was thought to live on Main Street by historian Charles Hudson, but the fertile farmland on South Street was a more likely location.  Since his property was fifty acres it may have encompassed both locations.  Liberty Street was the main road south and would have continued on as the southern half of South Street.

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