The Topography of Waban
by RHODES A. GARRISON
[This article shows how the development of Waban was determined by its early roads. The main drag was called the Sherborn Road — present-day Beacon and Woodward Streets combined —, and may date back to 1651. It may even have originated as an Indian trail. When what is now Washington Street was built through West Newton to Lower Falls, the Sherborn Road fell into disuse, and Waban lapsed into a century of splendid, bucolic isolation. There was also much more water around Waban in early times: ponds, streams, marshes, and swamps, which eventually ran off down to Quinobequin— J.M.]
We live in Waban and most of us assume that it has always existed. We do not stop to think why Waban developed as a community or why it is located in this particular spot rather than in some other nearby place. If, however, we consider the location of Waban in relation to other places and study its topography, as well as the desire of man both to travel and to found a home, the reason will become evident.
As Waban is politically a part of Newton, its relationship to the other villages will be better understood if we mention first why they were settled. Newton differs from many early communities in that it was settled by individuals rather than by organized groups, and that no one central locality dominated the others. Newton, in short, is made up of individual villages, the three oldest of which, Newton Corner, Newton Center and West Newton grew up on through highways. Three others, Newton Upper Falls, Newton Lower Falls and Nonantum developed on account of water power. Later, after the Boston and Worcester Railroad was opened in 1835, Newtonville and Auburndale sprang up at railroad crossings; and, after the opening of the Charles River Railroad in 1852, Newton Highlands came into being at the Oak Hill Crossing.
Coming now to Waban, we find record, in 1671, of a highway known as the Sherburn Road passing through the limits of the town, with mention of several small lots indicating something of a settlement. This highway went from Brookline Village to Sherburn, passing over the present Woodward, Beacon and Washington Streets to Lower Falls. We do not know when it was laid out, but as the Christian Indian Village at South Natick was established in 1651, presumably it was opened on or before that date. It is possible that part of it may have been an old Indian trail. This old road lost its importance and Waban became practically by-passed when the road from West Newton to Lower Falls was opened sometime between 1700 and 1750. As late as 1885, therefore, Waban was merely an isolated farming community, suitable as the seat of the Newton Poor Farm, which, by the way, was moved from Auburndale to Waban about 1837.
The real beginning of Waban as a separate community occurred with the opening of the railroad station August 16, 1886. In November 1852, the Charles River Railroad had begun to run from Brookline to Needham. Entrance to Boston was over a branch of the Boston & Albany to Brookline. About 1885 the Boston & Albany bought, for $415,000, the line from Brookline to Needham Heights, a distance of 5 1/0 miles, and put in a new road from Newton Highlands to Riverside, thus connecting with its main line. It was necessary to open new stations on this Newton Circuit. This the company did at three through highways to Boston, situated at convenient distances from each other, namely, Worcester Turnpike, Beacon Street and Washington Street. Of the three stations, Eliot, Waban and Woodland, only the one at Waban grew into a community with post office, stores, churches, etc. Possibly Eliot was too near to Newton Highlands and Woodland to Lower Falls to become centers. On the other hand, Waban's development was probably due to the fact that its real estate was held in large lots by owners who were ready to sell and develop the place. Briefly, Waban is a child of the railroad and its development began with railroad communication to Boston. This, it must be remembered, was before the days of automobiles. The time element in horse-drawn vehicles had previously prevented its growth as a sleeping place for Boston.
Having seen that the location of Beacon Street determined the position of the railroad station at Waban, let us consider why Beacon Street was placed where it is. The reason lies in the fact that it is on the watershed between the Charles River and two brooks, Cheesecake and Cold Spring. Let us, therefore, take up the physical topography of Waban and study the lay of the land as a whole, with special reference to the business center of the town.
In general, Waban is an upland plateau with meadow or swampy ground around much of its borders. Along the Charles River, starting from Lower Falls, there is a row of bluffs broken by gullies. Near the center there is a wide valley with a broad base on the river and a narrow point reaching nearly to the railroad station. After that there is a short upland hill over which Collins Road runs and then another wide valley reaching to Woodward Street via Dresser Brook. On the other side of Woodward Street there is a wide valley of Upper Cold Spring Brook, bordered on the Waban side by Alien Avenue and Gordon Road. The plateau east of Chestnut Street is broken by the narrow valley now occupied by Avalon Road. This appears to be a real break, the section to the north being a rocky formation which is totally lacking to the south. Crossing Chestnut Street, the plateau reaches out between the Brae Burn Golf Club and Moffat Road until it strikes a branch of Cheesecake Brook. Between Beacon Hill and the railroad is the large meadow occupied by the Brae Burn. The rocky ridge between Beacon Street and Pine Ridge Road is, in a topographical sense, the center of the town. From Chestnut Street down Avalon Road is one of the watersheds of Cold Spring Brook, across Beacon Street is the watershed of Cheesecake Brook, and across the southern end at Woodward Street is the watershed of Charles River.
Having given the general topographical layout, let us see how the streets fit into this pattern, both with regard to the physical characteristics and, what is also important, the desires of man. The Sherburn Road, the first through Waban (probably by 1651), follows the watershed along the Charles River and then goes down to the "wading place" at Lower Falls. Coming from Eliot, the road closely follows the watershed in -nearly a straight line as far as Alien Avenue, then it drops off the plateau and follows between the edge of the plateau and the former swampy land to the south. At the brick block it picks up the watershed and again follows it a nearly straight and level line to Washington Street.
The second road to enter Waban was in 1702. In 1687, according to Newton records, "John Ward and Noah Wiswall were joined to our Selectmen, to treat with the Selectmen of Cambridge, to lay out a highway from our Meeting-house to the Falls." This was from Newton Center to Newton Lower Falls and was along the line of the present Homer Street, Commonwealth Avenue, Fuller Street, Commonwealth Avenue and Washington Street to the Sherburn Road. The part of Washington Street from West Newton to Commonwealth Avenue was not laid out until some time between 1700 and 1750. As stated above, in 1702 it was "Voted that the way from the Meeting-house to the Lower Falls shall be turned from Henry Seeger's Hill, along the Country Road, by the house of John Staples, and so by the pine swamp." This meant that the route should follow the Sherburn Road from where the Waban Engine House now is as far as the present Windsor Road. Then a new road was built which follows the present Beacon, Short and Chestnut Streets to Fuller Street where it joined the old road. Just why this change was made we do not know as there was no settlement at Waban and no saving of distance. Probably it was done to avoid the long steep hill up Fuller Street, for the new way provided a comparatively level route. Topographically, after leaving Fuller Street, the new road crossed the watershed between Cold Spring Brook and Cheesecake Brook, and then followed higher ground between the rocky plateau and the old swamp where the Boston Gardening Company is now located, joining the watershed by the bridge on the Sherburn Road.
The third road in Waban was a continuation of the second road from Short Street to Upper Falls and is now a part of Chestnut Street. It must have been laid out between 1831 and -1847, for it does not appear on a map of the first date but does on an 1847 map. This is not so important a highway as far as Waban is concerned, for it does not go through the center and was principally built as a connection between West Newton and Upper Falls, which at that time was growing as a manufacturing center due to its water power. It did, however, give an indirect entrance to Waban from Upper Falls and beyond via the Sherburn Road. Incidentally, it will be a surprise to many to learn that a stage line was run from Upper Falls to West Newton after the railroad was opened, so that passengers might have quick transportation to and from Boston.
The fourth through line came into existence when Beacon Street was built out from Boston in 1847-48. This runs in a straight line and on the map looks like a turnpike, but it was built after the turnpike era which practically ended with the coming of the railroads. Like many of the turnpikes, it passed through no centers between Boston and Newton Center. It started at the present Kenmore Square and provided exit from Boston to the west beyond the famous milldam. Earlier roads from Kenmore had, however, been built to Brookline and to Watertown. Today, Beacon Street curves around the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, but Waban people will be interested to know that originally, before the Reservoir was built, it went in a straight line. After reaching Newton Center, Beacon Street turned and was continued to meet the southern end of Short Street, thus furnishing another entrance to Waban. However, it utilized part of the old road of 1702 to make its objective. Incidentally, the name of Beacon Street was given not only to this captured part, but also to that part of Woodward Street beyond the railroad bridge. A feature of this new entry was that it did not follow a watershed, but entered Waban over a swampy section watered by Cold Spring Brook.
The above streets complete the old through roads in Waban. With the exception of Beacon Street, they all utilized watersheds and avoided low marshy ground. If we assume that the Sherburn Road was in use by 1650, it was approximately fifty years before the cut-off from Fuller Street gave a new entrance to Waban, and about one hundred and forty years more before Chestnut Street from Upper Falls and Beacon Street from Newton Center gave additional access. It is difficult to believe, but in the last one hundred years, no new through routes have been built despite the great growth of Waban and surrounding territory. Protected by the Charles River and swamps, Waban is practically an "island," the only access being over three watersheds which serve as connecting links with the outside world. Perhaps the best way to emphasize this is to state it negatively. For the two miles between Washington Street and the Worcester turnpike, no road except Chestnut crosses the railroad and no bridge crosses the Charles River. Except for Beacon Street, no through road runs between Woodward and Fuller Streets, for Cold Spring swamp forms an effective barrier. The same holds true between Chestnut and Washington Streets, Beacon Hill with its steep sides being an obstacle. Between Fuller and Beacon Streets, no road enters from the west. The railroad, of course, is an artificial barrier, but could be surmounted if traffic warranted.
The remaining roads in Waban, and it is surprising how many are called "roads" instead of "streets," are only of local interest compared with the through routes, but most of them fit into the topography of the land and follow certain natural rules. Incidentally, these minor roads did not grow haphazardly like "Topsy," nor over a long period of time as intermittent needs developed. Most of them, apparently, were laid out within a comparatively short time of each other. As the land was owned in large blocks, systematic planning in a large way was possible. Waban Avenue is one of the longest roads. It starts by the churches and follows the ridge along the Charles River, meeting the top of the gullies as they come up from the river valley. After leaving the Cochituate aqueduct, which it follows to where it turns left to cross the river, it slides down the side of the ridge and reaches Washington Street (though the latter part is seldom used). Carlton Road and Varick Road descend the only large gullies available in order to give access to the river. Anawan Road also leaves Waban Avenue, but descends more gently through a broad meadow. This section between Beacon Street and the river is well cut up as a look at the map shows. One feature is the wide and deep depression bounded by Waban Avenue, Carlton and Nehoiden Roads. Windsor Road runs between two branches of Cheesecake Brook-to ascend and follow the backbone of Beacon Hill. Moffat Road winds around the end of this hill and then swings right to reach Chestnut Street between the rocky ground on its left and the bed of an old lake. Pine Ridge Road follows the foot of the central ridge and then bears right to follow the cliff above the valley occupied by Avalon Road. Upland Road, from Woodward Street, follows the plateau above Cold Spring Brook and then goes down hill to cross Avalon valley. Collins Road follows the base of the hill to Fenwick Road and then the latter continues through to Chestnut Street. Quinobequin Road lies entirely along the Charles River on a border of Waban and does not touch the center directly. It is a park road connecting Upper and Lower Falls. It can be used in connection with other roads to reach the railroad bridge, but there is no direct route as such.
It used to be said that all roads lead to Rome. The saying is equally true as regards the bridge at Waban. The map shows that on the Boston side five roads focus at this spot, namely, Windsor, Beacon, Pine Ridge, Woodward and Wyman. The same is also true on the south side, namely, Dorset, Beacon, Waban, Anawan and Collins. This is largely because the old Sherburn Road crossed the watershed at this spot. Not only were highways lured here, but also, within a stone's throw, the railroad and aqueduct, the latter opened in 1848. Both were part of through connections to Boston. The railroad at this point cuts through the watershed at right angles. Looking over the side of the bridge toward Woodland, one can see just how high the original watershed stood. Looking toward Eliot, the tracks skirt the hill rising on the right. Originally, the hill was much larger and extended to the left of the tracks so that when the railroad was built, it was necessary to make an exceedingly deep cut through the hill. The part on the left was finally carted off as gravel filling. Now, instead of looking up at the bank from the train, one looks down. During World War I, enough was still left so that the local Constabulary held revolver practice with the edge of the original hill as a background. Both railroad and aqueduct parallel for a ways the height of land as represented by the Sherburn Road.
Of course there have been some changes in grade and location of streets, but probably not many. One change was in the center of Waban in front of the library where Woodward Street used to curve to the left, joining Beacon Street at Windsor Road. This junction afforded an entrance to the station by automobiles coming both ways on Beacon Street and from Windsor Road. The city planners thought the location dangerous, so the curve of Woodward Street was filled in, the green triangle made into a rectangle and traffic turned down to the present location of Woodward Street. As you come on Chestnut Street from Fuller Street, you ascend a small rise just beyond Byfield Road. Until about 1900, there was a second small rise further along over the rocks, but that was blasted out and a level grade secured. Woodward Street apparently was raised at the time the aqueduct was built. Now there is a rise over it, but originally the road must have dipped some to follow the original level. Woodward Street has also been straightened at the corner of Lincoln Street in Eliot. There it originally followed a curve between two hollows, but one was filled in and the section located as at present. The old route can still be traced. Beacon Street by the brick blocks has been widened twice on both sides. Windsor Road has also been widened by the stores. Beyond Holly Road toward Lower Falls a hollow on the right of Beacon Street has been filled in and the street widened and straightened. Here the road originally curved to the left to make its way between two hollows.
Summarizing, we have tried to show that Waban was originally on a through route but lost its importance by the extension of Washington Street from West Newton to Lower Falls. It then remained a farming district until the coming of the railroad when its real development began. Despite the growth of population, Waban has been so shut off by river, swamp and valley that there are only three real entrances to the center, all of which follow watersheds. The topography of Waban has been given and mention made of how the various roads fit into their physical surroundings, following a natural pattern which can easily be traced. Possibly topography and the layout of streets are dry subjects, but we believe that they are of interest when their relationship to each other is combined with the growth and history of a village.
Back to Waban Early Days