Saturday, January 8, 2011

Trespassing: A Bridge to the Past

Stone Bridge over Ponkapoag Brook
 (photo by George T. Comeau)

You really should not trespass. And yet, while it is indeed risky to admit to this fact, sometimes the prize is worth the risk. Let me place by way of disclaimer the fact that you should in no way follow in my footsteps; let this be fair warning. You should leave the trespassing to well qualified Canton historians who are happy to tramp through backyards, fields and swamps in search of historic sites and long lost cellar holes. In fact, that is what we will do this week. Let’s take a virtual tramp through Canton and discover a hidden artifact that is still intact and pretty much inaccessible to all but the trespasser.

There are some wonderfully hidden sites in Canton that have been lost to both time and memories. I have always been fascinated with the old stonewalls that crisscross throughout the town. Many of these walls served as both boundary lines and pens for livestock. As you ride the train to Boston from Canton Junction you will see plenty of old stonewalls in the swamps heading toward the Fowl Meadows. As you drive down York Street or meander down Chapman Street, look between the old house lots and see the ancient walls that are reminders of an agricultural Canton when the stonewall was a staple of a small farm and garden.

Take Elm Street for instance — a perfect example of one of our most beautiful streets in Canton. Go slow, not only for the curves, but to take in the splendor of this colonial roadway. As for trespassing, that is just what I did recently when I parked my truck along the intersection of Greenlodge and Elm and took off on foot after the recent snowstorm. I was looking for a very old bridge that crosses Ponkapoag Brook on what was originally Back Street — the “back” road to Dedham Street.

 On my right, climbing a gentle hill, were the remnants of the old country road disappearing even deeper into private property. This road dates to 1738 and follows the layout of an earlier road called the Packeen Path. If you bought your Christmas tree at the Pakeen Farm on Elm Street, this is the same property that was part of the original 12 Divisions shown on the 1696 map of what would become Stoughton and Canton.

Situated well above the marshes of the Fowl Meadow, this path was used extensively as a native trail and later became a colonial cart path. By 1798, the old road was discontinued and in the process created a time capsule of sorts as it has been largely untouched for over 200 years. The pathway is bordered by stonewalls that measure one rod wide (16 ½ feet) and a deep upland of white pine. I decided it would not be proper to travel further than necessary onto private property and instead sought after the stone bridge spanning the Ponkapoag Brook.

I had been to this bridge a few times before, but only in the summer when it was hardly possible to see the structure due to the overgrowth. As I tramped further and the snow got a bit deeper, and the afternoon light got dimmer, I was almost forced to give up for the day. The fresh snow was only marked by the occasional rabbit track and now my footfalls. The only sound was the running of the stream — pure, clean and cold — a layer of ice running up the side of the banks. This trespass was made easier by the fact that the path I was on was the new interceptor project for the Greenlodge Street sewer project.

Ancient Stoughton Record of 1744 in the collection of
the Canton Historical Society (photo by George T. Comeau)
About half a mile up on the left was the old stone bridge — hidden in the woods in an improbable place, since any use for this structure ended in 1798 when the old Country Road was abandoned. The bridge was as wonderful as I recalled. Dating to between 1738 and 1744, this is a quintessential cart bridge over a babbling brook. It is hard to imagine, but this bridge was the highway between the iron forge, built in 1717 on Walpole Street, and the Blue Hills. There is a series of huge volumes of Ancient Stoughton Records in the Canton Historical Society and within a dusty tome is an obscure reference to the bridge in 1744. The brittle paper details the laying out of the road by the selectmen of Stoughton and has a single line that reads in part “from thence to Puncapogg Brook where ye Bridge now is & over ye Brook Marked a large Maple tree by ye Brook.” Our bridge is more than 266 years old and may in fact be approaching 275 years old.

Dropping down the icy bank of “ye Brook” to take a photo for our non-trespassing readers, it was a joy to see this relic in such wonderful condition. The deck is a series of four stone slabs of Dedham granite, each measuring three feet in width and eight feet in length. Although covered in snow, I recall that there are no quarrying marks and they are likely natural in form. The abutments built on the north and south banks of the brook are dry fieldstone. This is a superbly crafted bridge and would have had to support the weight of animals and carts loaded with iron destined for Boston. The abutments are built up of five courses of rough stone and were likely completed by skilled masons in the “traditional English form.”

In 1875, the Canton Historical Society organized its annual Fast Day Walk (Patriots Day) and described their “trespass” to this site thus: “turned abruptly down a neglected lane, along the line that once divided Lot No. 5 of the Twelve Divisions from the Indian land. We examined with care an old stone bridge, which has stood, where it now stands, long anterior to the memory of those now living. It is remarkable for the size of the top stones, the largest measuring eight feet by seven and nine inches. These stones were selected in the adjoining fields and have never been touched by chisel, wedge or hammer.”

So little is written about this bridge that it is hard to even know if there was an earlier bridge at this spot. What we do know is that this is one of the few remaining examples of a mid-18th century slab stone Colonial period bridge in eastern Massachusetts. Dr. Arthur Krim, who has researched Canton for the Historical Commission, believes that this bridge is worthy of inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places; it is just that important.

This story ran in the Canton Citizen on January 6, 2011.


Jim Gildea said...

I grew up with my eight brothers and sisters just through the woods near this bridge at the end of Algonquin Road. I can remember spending many summer days lounging on this bridge under the shady trees that over hung it. A bit further up the road on the left is a concrete dam. Do you know if this served any particular purpose?

Geo. said...

I too saw the V shaped dam. My guess is that it helps hold back water that supports the system at the golf course. Thanks for reading. Geo.