While researching Worcester in the 1850s for my new book, Erin’s Children, I studied the City Documents for that decade. Among the many commissions, committees, and departments required to submit annual reports was the Highway Department. As anyone who lives, works, or regularly drives into Worcester can attest, the City’s roads seem to be perpetually under construction. Apparently, this is nothing new.
What was new in the 1850s were the roads themselves, at least paved ones. Horse trails and dirt paths had long been in existence, but eventually the city decided that paved roads would provide better access. Since Worcester was becoming a hub of industrialization, commerce, and rail travel, it seemed only appropriate that one should be able to easily traverse the city.
Not only did the city want passable streets, but they were interested in pedestrian safety and aesthetics, too. City streets should be bordered with sidewalks. However, Worcester’s citizens were expected to assist with implementation.
The report for 1851 states that “1200 feet of curb stone was set and furnished as an inducement for citizens to provide sidewalks against their respective estates.” It seems that the city was happy to supply the materials, but hoped the citizens were DIY types, or if not, would at least hire people to do the work for them. The same year’s report stated that “the public found the constant highway work inconvenient and complained, but no damage was done to private property that wasn’t addressed.” Worcesterites in 1851 complained about the incessant road work and found it inconvenient? No kidding! Some things never change.
As we know, road crews can generate some significant noise. Apparently, the same held true in 1852, though it was a different noise. Leveling or straightening a road, such as was done to Highland Street that year, was accomplished by the technique known as blasting – the use of black powder to cause explosions. I suppose blowing it up is one way to change the shape of the road!
The Highway Department was especially busy in 1854 as the City Documents make note of work done on Main, Front, Summer, Laurel, Hanover, Mechanic, Union, Church, Bridge, Southbridge, Elm, Pearl, Green, Park, Salem, Prospect, Madison, Chandler, Chestnut, Belmont, and Lexington Streets as well as the installation of a sewer in Central Street, the building of a footbridge over the dam on Grove Street near the wire factory, and the grading and building of a bridge on Temple Street.
Like today, road construction was the site of busy work crews and all their equipment. Where today we expect to see trucks, cranes, forklifts, and asphalt mixers, to name a few, pedestrians in the 1850s encountered teams of oxen, plows, horses, tons of hay (to feed said oxen and horses), chains, bars, picks, shovels, hoes, forks, and chestnut planks. The roads themselves were paved with layers of crushed stone (macadam) or cobblestones.
By 1856 crosswalks were going in, one at the head of Pleasant Street and one opposite Crown Street as were several more brick sewers, these on Main and the junction of Summer and Central Streets. It should be noted that the sewers were solely for the runoff of storm water. Sewers for sanitary purposes were not introduced until the late 1800s.
Another similarity between today and the 1850s for Worcester’s Highway Department was the removal of snow from the roads. In the early 1850s snow wasn’t actually removed from the city streets, but rather packed down with teams of oxen and horses until it was smooth enough for sleighs to glide over. This was known as “breaking the road.” By 1856 the Highway Department could boast of owning a “snow plow and plow and scraper.”
In 1857 the City was on a roll with the creation of new roads, brick and stone sewers, bridges, and the grading of sidewalks. One entry states: “New road near Tatnuck starting near Elijah Hammond’s and leading to Holden Road, near Mr. Flagg’s formerly the Nichols Farm. 122 rods.” And another: “Curb and cobblestone on Main Street in front of Timothy Stone’s block; Market Street near the Worcester & Nashua Railroad; Pleasant Street (including brick) near Ethan Allen’s estate; Union Street under the railroad bridge; Walnut Street, and Thomas Street near Main Street.” Crosswalks also went in on Southbridge, Main, Sycamore, Park, Carroll, and Lincoln Streets.
Being responsible for the building of bridges, the Highway Department noted the following were built in 1857: Quinsigamond Bridge, Central Street Bridge, Market Street, and 2 bridges on Union Street.” The report for 1858 shows the Highway Department equally as busy as the previous year.
In 1859, the City record attests to the hard work and sound engineering of Worcester’s Highway Department with this entry: “Streets and bridges all in good condition at the close of winter” before going on to list grading, paving, and laying of curbs on a multitude of streets along with “a new road made near Barber’s Crossing.”
The work begun by the Worcester City Highway Department so long ago continues today. A thank you to the many hard-working folks who build, repair, and clear Worcester’s roads and bridges past, present, and future!
Characters in Erin’s Children are not immune to the conditions of constant road construction. In this scene domestic servants, Meg, Kathleen, and Nuala, attempt to enjoy their day off with a shopping trip in downtown Worcester:
“What will you do?” Nuala asked Kathleen as the three walked down Union Street on Thursday.
“Look for another position, though I don’t know how to go about it. Lemuel hasn’t bothered me recently.”
“Not at all?” Meg inquired.
“Nothing more than usual,” Kathleen confessed.
“You should go to the Lintons’” Nuala agreed with Meg. “What is this?” An entire section of Union Street was dug up making it nearly impassable. A crew of laborers was setting a large pipe into the ground.
“Is there a speck in this city that isn’t having something done to it?” Nuala complained as she gathered her skirts.