Over the River

Image

bridge copy

The Mystic River is only seven miles long and it’s not very wide. But, it played a large role in American history. The name itself may sound familiar, as it was the title of a popular movie directed by Clint Eastwood and Sean Penn. The movie was an adaptation of the novel by Dennis Lehane, the bestselling Boston author.

On his way to Lexington, Paul Revere crossed the Mystic River by way of what is now the Cradock Bridge in Medford. The first bridge built here, in 1637, was a wooden drawbridge: the first toll bridge in New England. It was rebuilt in 1880 and 1909 according to a nearby sign. Plans are currently underway for another upgrade, at an estimated cost of 8.5 million dollars.

It was along the Mystic’s banks that Massachusetts’s first ship was built in 1631. It was the first of many. Over 500 clipper ships were built here through the 1800′s, many designed for the China trade.

This area was also known for its rum. Old Medford Rum was popular and advertised as “the best rum in the states”.

But most interesting to me, is the connection between this bridge and a song from my childhood: “Over the River and Through the Wood.” The song, which we sang in grade school, was originally written as a poem by Lydia Maria Child, the 1800′s women’s rights activist and abolitionist who grew up in Medford. In the rolling song, Child describes her Thanksgiving trip to her grandparent’s house, over an earlier bridge at this same spot.

Over the river and thru the wood, 
To grandfather’s house we go;
The horse knows the way
To carry the sleigh,
Thru the white and drifted snow, oh!

Over the river and thru the wood, 
Oh, how the wind does blow!
It stings the toes,
 And bites the nose,
As over the ground we go.

Over the river and thru the wood,
To have a first-rate play;
Oh, hear the bell ring,
”Ting-a-ling-ling!”
Hurrah for Thanksgiving Day-ay!

Milling About

When Paul Revere rode through Arlington, Massachusetts (then known as Menotomy) warning of the approaching British troops, he passed by a some old water-powered gristmills. Old to Paul Revere, that is. English Puritan colonists had first settled in the area in 1630′s and by 1637 the first mill was built, powered by the briskly running waters of the Mill Brook which drops over 150 feet in two miles. Soon others were built.

The Olde Schwamb Mill is the most well known old mill in the area. The site of the mill stands is considered the oldest continuously operating mill site in America. The mill that stands there now dates from 1864. It was rebuilt after a fire and became, under the ownership of Charles Schwamp, the foremost creator of oval picture frames in the country. Their frames can be found in nearly every major museum in the United States as well as the White House, The Vatican and Buckingham Palace. The mill avoided demolition in 1969 by a community preservation effort and appears today as if untouched for a century. It welcomes visitors as an all volunteer mill-museum.

Closer to the route of Paul Revere’s ride is The Theodore Schwamb Mill (pictured here) named for Charles Schwamb’s brother. This mill is older then the Olde Schwamb Mill and was also powered by the Mill Brook, which was reduced to trickle on my visit. Theodore’s mill manufactured high quality piano cases for the burgeoning Boston piano industry. For a time, it was the largest business in Arlington. The Schwambs, five brothers in all, were immigrants from Germany in the mid-1800′s and they employed many skilled fellow German immigrants in mills that they owned. The invention of the radio hurt the piano business and the mill turned to architectural woodworking, surviving into the 1970′s. Today, the connected mill buildings house small businesses and artist studios.

The Gruesome Landmark

The Gruesome Landmark

Early on in Paul Revere’s ride, as he left Charlestown and rode toward what is now the border with Somerville, he was forced to change course abruptly.

Revere writes of what happened in a letter from 1798:

“I set off upon a very good Horse; it was then about 11 o’Clock, and very pleasant. After I had passed Charlestown Neck, and got nearly opposite where Mark was hung in chains, I saw two men on Horse back, under a Tree. When I got near them, I discovered they were British officer. One tryed to git a head of Me, and the other to take me. I turned my Horse very quick, and Galloped towards Charlestown neck, and then pushed for the Medford Road. The one who chased me, endeavoring to Cut me off, got into a Clay pond, near where the new Tavern is now built. I got clear of him, and went thro Medford, over the Bridge, and up to Menotomy.”

There’s a marker signifying the spot where Paul Revere changed direction. It can be found in a surprising spot: across the street from Royal Pizza & Subs (featured in the drawing) by the doors of a Holiday Inn, at the edge of its parking lot. A long time ago, this area was referred to as Charlestown Commons.

The landmark that Revere used to describe where he changed course was quite different from the one outside of the hotel. He wrote that he changed course “nearly opposite where Mark was hung in chains.” That place was certainly a gruesome one.

Mark was one of three slaves who, in 1755, were arrested and tried for the murder of their owner, the Charlestown merchant and former ship captain, John Codman. They were also charged with petit treason, the crime of killing a master. The three plotted and poisoned Codman with arsenic, which they added to his meals seven times. Mark, it is written, was upset with his separation from his family. He had set fire to Captain Codman’s workshop six years earlier in an effort to prompt his dismissal.

In the end, the three slaves were found guilty and suffered different fates. Mark’s two companions were female. Phillis, an elderly woman, was found guilty of both crimes (murder of an owner and petit treason) and was burned at the stake in Cambridge at a site called Gallows Hill, near present-day Porter Square. Phebe was found to be a lesser conspirator and sentenced to be transported to a plantation in the West Indies. Mark, 30 years old, was also found guilty of the two crimes and was hanged (also at Gallows Hill). His body was then tarred, and gibbeted (hung in chains) for all to see, including Paul Revere, who came close to passing the decayed corpse, still hanging over the street, 25 years after the crime.

Called to Arms

Called to Arms

The home of Benjamin Locke is tucked into a busy suburban street in Arlington, Massachusetts. You’d have to look carefully to find the markers mentioning it is an historic landmark. But on the night of April 19, 1775, Paul Revere (and probably also William Dawes) would certainly have warned this house of the coming British. After all, Locke was the Captain of the Monotomy Minutemen.

At around 2:00 am, Captain Locke heard the British troops marching by his front door and made his way to Lexington where he faced the British at dawn on the town’s green. He faced the British again on their return from Concord, and is assumed to have been part of the fight at the nearby Jason Russell House.

In June, Locke fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill and it is said his musket grew so hot from firing that he had to wrap his handkerchief around it to continue firing, which he did.

The house, built in 1720, was eventually sold by Captain Locke to the Baptist Church (to which he belonged) to be used as their first meeting house. It is now a private residence.

A Place for Ideas

A Place for Ideas

Two days after Patriot’s Day, little remains of the flurry of holiday activities along the parade route in East Lexington, Massachusetts. The many flags and patriotic buntings which lined Massachusetts Avenue have been packed away until perhaps the Fourth of July. The only traces of a holiday celebration that I see from where I sit sketching are a plastic fork, a paper plate and a napkin on the ground by the historic Stone Building.

Almost all of the small village of East Lexington is historic. It developed separately from Lexington center where the “shot heard ’round the world” was fired. The early to mid 1800s were its heyday, led by the Robbins Family, who owned a successful fur dressing company producing capes, caps and muffs among other things. They, along with another manufacturer of fur dressings, Ambrose Morell, employed over 300 people at the height of their businesses.

The Robbins family not only brought prosperity to the village but also a worldly perspective. Eli Robbins (1786-1856) was very civic-minded and progressive in spirit. It was he who built Robbins Hall in 1833 as a combination public meeting hall and residence, a place to celebrate freedom of speech. The handsome Greek Revival structure played host to lyceum lectures (educational lectures of the period), religious services and speeches by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Julia Ward Howe and Henry David Thoreau to name a few. Abolitionism and temperance were topics of discussion.

The building was passed down through the family and eventually became known as the Stone Building. In 1892, it was sold to the town of Lexington and became a branch of the town’s public library. In 1997, the building was closed due to a serious flood problem.

Today, the building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, but sits empty. The Stone Building is beautifully preserved on the outside and awaits the preservation of its interior. The trustees of the Lexington Library plan for it to become “The Lexington Heritage Center.” As a permanent space for public meetings, performances, exhibits and lectures, it will aim to preserve the mission of its creator, Eli Robbins.

Patriots Huddle

Patriots Huddle

In 1895, on the rocky ledge of a tiny hill in Lincoln, Massachusetts, a local farmer named John Lannon found a British sword when moving a boulder. He also found a flattened musket ball. The ledge, overlooking the road that Paul Revere rode, (and a short distance from where he was arrested), is now known as the site of “Parker’s Revenge.”

John Parker certainly wanted revenge and so did his cohorts. Parker was the Captain of the Lexington Militia and it was his men who confronted the British at dawn on their town’s green in what became known as the Battle of Lexington. Eight colonists were killed and ten were wounded that morning before the British marched off to Concord.

Gathering many of his men, including some of the injured, Captain Parker re-engaged the British later that day as they battled their way back to Boston in retreat. This time, the minutemen didn’t face their enemy in line-formation as they did earlier. Instead, they ambushed them from the rocky ledge located at a bend in the road. One shot knocked the British Colonel Smith off his horse with a hit to the thigh. The columns of Redcoats were stopped in their tracks, allowing the Lexington Militia to continue to fire from close range.

Eventually, the British drove the patriots away, but the delay in their forward progress allowed for another ambush just a few hundred yards down the road.

Walking the Battle Road on the weekend of Patriots Day, I too, came across a nervous band of patriots and not far from “Parker’s Revenge.” Turns out, it was the modern version of the Lexington Minute Men. I sat on a stone wall and sketched as the leader of the group prepared his men for a reenactment of the famous skirmish scheduled in a short hour’s time.

The commander showed impatience with his rag tag group. He was concerned the coordination of musket fire was sloppy. Over and over they practiced how the two rows of men should fire and reload. He was insistent they get it right before engaging in battle. Captain Parker would be proud.

End of the Line

End of the Line

In Lincoln, Massachusetts, by the side of the road, there is a marker called the Paul Revere Capture Site. A circular stone wall marks the spot where Paul Revere was arrested by a British patrol. For Revere, it was the end of the line, but not the end of that night’s story.

Revere and William Dawes were on the road from Lexington, where they had just warned Samuel Adams and John Hancock of the coming British. Now it was after midnight, and they were on their way to warn the citizens of Concord, alarming households all along the way, when they were overtaken by Dr. Samuel Prescott of Concord. He was returning late from courting a Lexington woman. Sympathetic to the cause, Dr. Prescott joined them on their mission.

As the three came around a bend in the road, they were surprised by a British patrol. The patriots scattered. Dawes reversed direction and escaped. Prescott jumped a stone wall and, to elude capture, used a side path he knew of. He fled to Concord, where he alarmed the town to the approaching storm of trouble. Revere headed for the woods but was intercepted by the British patrol.

Surrounded by six British redcoats, he was interrogated and searched for arms. An officer “clapped his pistol to my head, called me by name, and told me he was going to ask me some questions, and if I did not give him true answers, he would blow my brains out.”*

Apprehended, Revere was lead back toward Lexington. A major told his sergeant that if Revere attempted to escape, he should “blow his brains out.”* About a mile from Lexington Common, the captors were alarmed to the sounds of the Lexington militia firing muskets. Revere was ordered to dismount and to suggest an alternative road for them to take to Cambridge The British then rode off, taking his horse, but leaving his brains intact.

Free again, Revere continued his nighttime adventure—running through Lexington’s Old Burying Ground to rejoin John Hancock and Samuel Adams at the Clark House and hasten their escape to the town of Woburn.

* From Revere’s personal account, a letter to Jeremy Belknap.