Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Long History of Wooden Sidewalks in Brookline

Mention wooden walkways and most people will probably think of boardwalks along the beach or over wetlands or other fragile environments. Some might picture scenes of raised platforms on dusty streets in the Old West as seen in movies and on TV.

Few will think of a place like Brookline.
Beacon Street, looking east from Englewood Avenue, 1887. This picture was taken not long before the widening of Beacon Street. (Public Library of Brookline via Digital Commonwealth)
But wood was once a common material for sidewalks even in urban areas of cities and towns. And Brookline probably had them longer – almost 100 years from the time the first one was laid to when the last was taken up – than any community of its size and/or proximity to a major city.

There were plank sidewalks (as they were called) at one time on major thoroughfares like Beacon, Washington, and Harvard Streets and Brookline Avenue, though those soon gave way to more durable materials.

(NOTE: Click on the links in all of the photo captions on this page for larger and/or zoomable views of the photos. You can see additional photos with wooden sidewalks on the Brookline Historical Society website.)

Beacon Street looking west from Carlton Street, 1887. Public Library of Brookline via Digital Commonwealth
Beacon Street looking east from the corner of Washington Street, 1887. Remains of an old tannery are on the right. (Public Library of Brookline via Digital Commonwealth)

Plank Sidewalks on Residential Streets

Even with the coming of newer materials plank sidewalks continued to be laid on some residential streets in Brookline as late as the 1920s and to be maintained for years after. The last one, in fact, was not removed until 1955!

54 Gardner Road
Plank sidewalk in front of 54 Gardner Road, 1888 (Brookline Historical Society)
Wooden sidewalk on Rawson Road, 1915 (National Park Service. Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site)
Wooden sidewalk on Bowker Street
Wooden sidewalk on Bowker Street, date unknown. (Brookline Historical Society)

Plank sidewalk on Newton Street
Plank sidewalk in front of the Widow Harris House on Newton Street, date unknown (Brookline Historical Society)
Wooden sidewalk, in foreground, on Winthrop Road, looking down on Washington Square, c1900. University Road is in the middle, and Corey Hill is across Beacon Street. (Iowa State University Library Special Collections)

Plank walk table from 1907 Town Report
This table from the 1907 Brookline Town Report shows where new plank walks were added and old ones replaced in town that year.

From a Necessity to a Nostalgic Anachronism
Why did Brookline have wooden sidewalks and why did they last so long?

In 1854, a committee was appointed to look into a proposal from David Sears and others to install a gravel sidewalk and plant shade trees on a part of Beacon Street starting where it met the Mill Dam coming across the Back Bay from Boston. (Beacon Street, then a narrow country lane, had been laid out across Brookline in 1850-51.) The committee, in 1854, deemed that proposal premature in light of uncertainty about further plans for Beacon Street.

Also in 1854, Town Meeting voted to allocate $200 "to make and furnish a suitable gravel sidewalk" in front of the property of "any of the abutters upon any of the highways" of the town if the property owners would supply "edgestones of hammered granite of uniform size, not less than five inches thick" to be placed between the road and their property.

In 1858, Town Meeting took up the question of sidewalks on Beacon Street again, this time voting

That the Selectmen be and are hereby authorized to lay a plank sidewalk across the marsh on Beacon Street, provided the expense does not exceed six hundred dollars and the abutters on said street will make a continuous line of sidewalk up to Kent street.

For the next 11 years, the Town would spend as much as $800 a year on sidewalks in different parts of town. But by 1869, a more concerted effort was called for. A committee appointed in July delivered a report in August that said, among other things, that

The condition of the sidewalks of the town being so bad, your committee would urge that there be no further delay than is absolutely necessary, and recommend the immediate appropriation of eight thousand dollars, to be expended by the Selectmen in laying such walks as they shall deem best suited to the different streets, always remembering that a good sidewalk should protect from mud at all seasons of the year.

The committee further recommended that

Attention should be given first to the main thoroughfares leading to the centre of the village and the railroad stations, laying it on one side of the street only, and, wherever it is practicable, on the south side of the street, that it may the better be kept free from snow and ice. A walk from Walnut street through Cypress and School streets, and Aspinwall avenue to the Episcopal Church, would render all the churches of the town accessible to the majority of the inhabitants. 

The eight thousand dollars was approved by Town Meeting. The committee's report, prepared after correspondence with the mayors of New York and other cities and visits to Cambridge and Lawrence and to Concord, New Hampshire, looked at several different materials for sidewalks. These included flagstone, brick, and two types of concrete. Wood was not mentioned, but it continued to be used extensively. (Well into the 1880s, more money was spent on plank sidewalks in some years than on any other kind.)

This 1888 photo shows Aspinwall Avenue at St. Paul Street with St. Paul's Church in the background. The plank sidewalk can be seen on the lower right and in close-up below. (Brookline Public Library via Digital Commonwealth)

A 1906 report from Michael Driscoll, Superintendent of Streets and Sewers, noted some of the pluses and minuses of plank sidewalks:

There is no doubt as to the comfort and convenience of plank walks, especially in the winter season, but their maintenance is very costly, and in view of the rapid and continued increase in the price of lumber there is some question as to the advisability of continuing their use.

Expenditures on new plank sidewalks dropped after that, though costly repairs continued to be done. By 1923, Driscoll was recommending against laying any new plank sidewalks at all.

The cost of repairs and renewals of the plank walks is larger than ever before, and in my opinion, the time has come when the policy of laying these walks wherever petitioned for should be discarded.

By 1931, Driscoll's successor, Daniel Lacey, was calling for a halt to even repairs of plank walks and for their replacement whenever they wore out.

Owing to the fact that the cost of maintaining plank walks has increased tremendously during the course of the past few years which necessitated a definite program for the removal of them, it is with a keen feeling of satisfaction that we report the elimination of 8,000 feet of old plank. In a few years, when the full utility has been derived from the existing plank walks, this type of sidewalk will be a matter of history.

But it would be another 24 years before the last of Brookline's wooden sidewalks was gone.

A National Curiosity
As years went by, Brookline’s remaining wooden walkways even drew national attention. In 1942, there were articles in two trade magazines: "City Clings to Wooden Walks" in The American City in May; and "70 Years of Wooden Sidewalks" in Roads and Streets in October.

This photo from the October 1942 issue of Roads and Streets magazine shows Woodland Road looking north toward Heath Street. The houses in the distance are 421 Heath on the left and 409 Heath on the right.
Town officials Daniel Lacey, left (mislabeled as "Lace") and Henry Smith, as shown in Roads and Streets.

The continued presence of the plank sidewalks, according to the article in The American City,  was due to "such a clamor from residents who wanted to retain the rustic beauty of their old walks" as well as to the use of new pressure-treated lumber that extended the life of the wood and cut maintenance costs by 54%.

The attention brought by the articles in the two trade publications led to newswire items that were widely distributed and appeared in newspapers around the country.

News items like these about Brookline’s wooden sidewalks appeared in newspapers across the country in 1942 and 1943. Clockwise from top left: Cullman Banner, Cullman, Alabama;  Harrisburg Telegraph, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Boston Globe; and Poughkeepsie Journal, Poughkeepsie, New York.
By 1950, it was clear that the end was near for the town's plank sidewalks. The Town Report for that year noted that

The policy of eliminating, as rapidly as possible, the dangerous and high maintenance-cost plank and gravel walks throughout the town, will be continued until all have been removed.

In November 1955 the Boston Globe ran a one-paragraph wire service item about the removal of the last wooden sidewalk in the old lumber town of Muskegon, Michigan. Ironically, they seemed unaware that nearby Brookline had only recently removed the last of its own plank sidewalks.

Where was the last wooden sidewalk in Brookline? We may never know. The Town Reports from 1950 to 1954 lists the streets from which they were removed. These included sections of: Warren Street, Cottage Street, and Heath Street (1950); Warren Street, Heath Street, Dudley Way, and Reservoir Road (1951); Heath Street, Colbourne Path, and Gardner Path (1952); Warren Street, Woodland Road, and Addington Path (1953); and Cottage Street and Hayden Road (1954).

But the 1955 report simply says:

The work of removing plank sidewalks in the Town was completed this past year.

Blake Road and Tappan Street, 1915
Wooden sidewalk on the left at the intersection of Blake Road and Tappan Street, 1915 (National Park Service. Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site)

Wooden sidewalk in front of the Putterham School at its original location on Newton Street, c1900. (Brookline Historical Society)

Close-up views of some of the old plank sidewalks of Brookline
Close-up views of some of the old plank sidewalks of Brookline

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

A Brookline Fountain for Horse and Dogs

An elaborate drinking fountain for horses and dogs, exactly like these examples in present-day Charlottesville, Virginia (left) and Quebec City, Canada (right) once graced a prominent location in Brookline Village. 

Fountains in Charlottesville and Quebec City

There are many photos of the intersection of Washington and Harvard Streets in Brookline Village (officially called Harvard Square). Together they present a picture of more than 150 years of change  in the center of the town's oldest still-thriving commercial district. 

One of our favorites here at the Brookline Historical Society is this photo from around 1908. (A larger, zoomable version is on our website. Check it out to view the photo in much more detail.)

Harvard Square, Brookline, circa 19108

Almost all of the buildings in the photo are still standing, making the location easily recognizable. (The major exception is the nearer of the two church spires. It burned on New Year's Eve 1960-61.)

Rhodes Brothers store
 On the left of the photo is the Rhodes Brothers grocery store in a building that was constructed in 1905. The building still stands, though it has lost some of its ornamentation. Rhodes Brothers occupied the space until after World War II when it became New England Food Fair. A bank and a health club are in the space today.

There is plenty of activity in the street. On the left a woman and boy are crossing the square behind a cart, one of several horse-drawn vehicles in the picture. (There are no automobiles, although automobiles were increasingly seen in town by this time.) On the right, workmen are replacing bricks in the pavement in front of James Rooney's shoe shop and the Rooney Block of three buildings.

One woman appears to have just disembarked from a streetcar coming down Harvard Street while another is about to board. (There are tracks coming down Washington Street, as well.) Elsewhere in the photo men, women, and children can be seen crossing the street, walking on the sidewalk, or standing in front of various stores.

One of the most delightful elements of the whole picture is the horse, at the front of a cheese delivery wagon, drinking from a fountain in front of Rhodes Brothers right in the middle of the photo.

Horse drinking from fountain

Amid all of this activity, one thing we did not pay much attention to was the fountain itself.

Until now.

A Widespread and Award-Winning Design
While looking through issues of the Brookline Chronicle on microfilm in the basement of the main library recently, I came across an article from July 16, 1887. It provides an illustration and a detailed description of the new fountain to be placed "in a prominent place in Harvard Square." (See the full article at the bottom of this page.)

A cast iron column, reported the Chronicle,
Newspaper illustration of fountain
....supports a larger or upper basin (which holds 40 gallons), at a height of four feet three inches above street grade, or at sufficient height for horses to drink with ease, without the driver being obliged to uncheck them. At the top and in the centre of this basin is an ornamented post. At the base of the post, four mythical aquatic figures are attached, and from the mouths of these the water flows into the larger basin. The waste water supplies the dog trough below. 

Closeup views of the Charlottesville fountain
These closeup views of the Charlottesville, Virginia, fountain show the spouts shooting water into the upper basin (left) for horses and the lower trough (right) with water for dogs and other small animals. The same design was on the Brookline Village  fountain.
The Brookline fountain, noted the article, was manufactured by Henry F. Jenks of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Its design had won awards from the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Assocation and the Cotton Centennial Exhibition in New Orleans. Copies could be found in different parts of the country and as far away as Copenhagen, Denmark and Adelaide, Australia.

Looking up Henry F. Jenks I found three articles on the excellent Memorial Drinking Fountains blog where I first saw the pictures from Charlottesville and Quebec City. You can read more on that blog about the Charlottesville and Quebec fountains. There is a third article about another example in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (There is no photo of the Cambridge fountain, which is no longer there, but the same illustration as appeared in the Chronicle is shown, only this time with a lamp attached to the top of the post.)

Henry F. Jenks with fountain
Another good source is an article about Jenks and his fountains in the January 2018 newsletter of the Blackstone Valley Historical Society. It includes a photo (right) of Jenks with one of his fountains in an unidentified location.

Other sources mention Jenks fountains of this and other designs in Pawtucket, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Menominee, Michigan. The trade journal Building Age in 1885 described a Jenks fountain that provided people with ice water through a system involving ice cubes in a specially designed ice box with coils of tin-lined pipe.

One of these ice water drinking fountains was dedicated in Boston's Bowdoin Square in August 1889. The Boston Globe reported that:

"The ceremonies, which lasted about an hour, were witnessed and participated in by a large crowd that blocked the street from curb to curb."

The End of the Brookline Fountain...and One More Surprise
The 1887 Chronicle article tells us when the Brookline Village Jenks fountain was installed. (An earlier photo shows a simpler, less ornamental watering trough at the same location.) It's uncertain when the fountain was removed. It can be seen in photos as late as 1915, but probably did not last much beyond that date as gas-guzzling automobiles replaced water-guzzling horses on the streets of the town.

One of the joys of local history research is the way serendipitous discoveries, like the Chronicle article, lead in unexpected directions, like the story of the Brookline fountain, Henry Jenks, and the fountains he designed in the U.S and around the world.

In this case, I had one more surprise in store. While working on this blog post, I remembered seeing another fountain, a small element in a large photograph of Beacon Street looking east from the tower of the S.S. Pierce Building. (We obtained the photo, taken some time between 1903 and 1907, from the Iowa State University Library.)

Beacon Street looking east, between 1903 and 1907

On the right side of the photo, between the sidewalk and the street, there's another fountain, easy to overlook amid the dramatic view of still largely undeveloped Beacon Street and the streetcar shelters. Here it is in closeup:

Closeup of Coolidge Corner fountain.

It certainly appears to be same design as the Brookline Village fountain. Fortunately, there's an even better view, this one from the collection of the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site.

This view is a section of a larger photo of Coolidge Corner. (The automobile has just come north on Harvard Street and is turning east onto Beacon Street.) It leaves no doubt; Brookline had two Henry Jenks designed horse-and-dog fountains in town.

Photo credits: 

Brookline Chronicle article about Harvard Square fountain, 1887
Brookline Chronicle, July 16, 1887