Text by James B. Stone, from Images from the Past, published by the Newbury 350th anniversary Committee.
Featured image: Bridge over the Parker River in Newbury, on today’s Rt. 1A, 1898.
When the first settlers arrived in Newbury in May of 1635, there were only Indian trails which wound through the forests. Besides food and shelter, an immediate problem was movement in the new settlement, and they faced a virtual wilderness with an abundance of rivers, streams, creeks, and marshes.
Early roadways were rutted pathways that could be traveled only by foot. Improvements rendered travel by horseback possible, and in time these “roads” came to be designated cart paths for rough two-wheeled carts, or tumbrils, often drawn along by oxen at a bumpy snail’s pace.
Since there were no bridges in the town until Thurlow’s Bridge in 1654. most ancient roads were laid out to avoid waterways and other topographical features such as high hills and low places. Consequently, roads meandered around the countryside. The process of straightening out these old New England roads continues to the present day.
Although a plan of the original settlement of the Lower Green does not exist, some evidence suggests that there were three main roads: “Merrimac Street” running at a right angle from the Parker River near the landing-place of the first settlers; High Road, or “the Country Road,” which ran from the north bank of the Parker River for a distance of six miles to the ferry at Carr’s Island; and another road marked simply “highway” running off High Road to the river. “Merrimac Street” may now be Cottage Street, which also proceeds from the landing place of the first settlers.
The earliest road in the Byfield section of Newbury followed an Indian trail from the Falls on the Parker River to Andover. In 1636, Richard Dummer and John Spencer built a mill at the Falls for grinding corn and sawing timber; the pressing needs of the settlers soon established a “road” or path to the Dummer Mill at the Falls.
From the Dummer Mill, the traveler could strike out into the wilderness for the Upper Green on a narrow trail over the “Highfields” (Orchard Street); crossing “Indian Field” to the farm at Cart Creek (some distance south of the present bridge over the creek on Orchard Street), the trail continued to Middle Road just north of Thurlow’s Bridge across the Parker River. From Middle Road the path led to Boston Street then to Green Street, and finally to the Upper Green. Most of this ancient road is still in regular use 350 years later.
In November 1639, the General Court in Boston ordered the laying out of a road from Boston to Portsmouth. This was the first road in Massachusetts Bay Colony to be officially commissioned by the Court and came to be known as the “Bay Road” or the “Road into the Bay.” In its original order, the General Court decreed that each town served by the road should choose two or three men to lay out the road within their town, and that the men charged with this task in adjoining towns should work together to fulfill the order of the Court.
In 1660, the Bay Road was laid out from the Rowley Mill (now the Jewel Mill) to Thurlow’s Bridge. The road ran up and over Rowley Mill Hill and passed between the present Ingham Dormitory on the grounds of the Governor Dummer Academy and the Degen House, which adjoins the academy grounds. After crossing the salt marsh, it joined the old section of Middle Road at Thurlow’s Bridge. The Bay Road then followed Middle Road to Boston Street over Four Rock Bridge and then to Green Street and the Upper Green. Travel north on the road followed the High Road to Carr’s Ferry and thence to Salisbury, Hampton, and Portsmouth.
The Bay Road was the main artery from Boston for over 100 years and carried travellers and commerce through the heart of Newbury to points north. With the construction of the Parker River Bridge in 1758 and the Newburyport Turnpike in 1806, sections of the Bay Road fell into disuse. Even so, farmers continued to use the abandoned section of this road over Rowley Mill Hill through Governor Dummer Academy into the 1850’s.
During the early 1700s, the entire Bay Road was marked with milestones. Tile markers from Boston to the Wenham town line have either been lost or removed. Although only nine of these ancient stones remain today, four of Newbury’s original five milestones still stand. The stone at the Governor Dummer Mansion House is inscribed 5N (Newbury 5 miles) and 33B (Boston 33 miles) and dated 1708. The next milestone was thought to be at the junction of Middle and Orchard Streets. Writing in 1896 John J. Currier says, “The stone that marked the thirty-fourth mile from Boston is missing. Tradition says it was taken from its proper place fifty years ago and used in the construction of a culvert on the road to Byfield Factory.”
The next stone, marked 35 B, stands at the corner of Middle Road and Boston Street. One stone near Four Rock Bridge is inscribed 3613, and at the corner of Green and Hanover Streets the last marker gives the distance to Boston, B37, on its face and on opposite ends the distance to Portsmouth, P28, and to Ipswich, I10. The milestones are for the most part rough fieldstone, thought to be diorite, with crudely carved letters and ciphers. Newbury’s stones are adorned with symbols such as triangles, whirls, and crossed circles whose meanings have been the subject of some study.
In 1804, the opening of the Newburyport Turnpike (U.S. Route 1) realized a direct route between Boston and Newbury. Although contemporaries described the Turnpike as “going over every hill and missing every town in Essex County,” previously isolated rural towns such as Newbury were now afforded relatively easy access to Boston.
Bridges were vital to the settlers from the earliest times. The first bridge across the Parker River was built between 1651 and 1654 by Richard Thurlow. In May of 1654, the General Court voted “that Richard Thurlow, having built a bridge at his own cost, over Newbury River, hath liberty to take 2d for every horse, cow, oxe that shall pass over said bridge provided that passengers shall be free.”
For 104 years, Thurlow’s Bridge was the only bridge across the Parker River for travelers and commerce on the Bay Road from Boston to the north. Although at least four bridges have been built on the spot of the original bridge, they all have been known, even today, as “Thurlow’s Bridge.” The bridge stands third among bridges in continuous use in New England having been in use for over three centuries.
Four Rock Bridge on Boston Street over the Little River was in use before 1663. The bridge has retained the original name of Boston Street, which was known as Four Rock Road by the early settlers.
Trotter’s Bridge on Hanover Street is mentioned in the county records of 1660 and was probably in use before that time. The old records are silent as to the origin of the name. Hull’s Bridge is mentioned in the county records of 1653, and a bridge at the Falls in Byfield is first seen in the county records of 1702.
The first bridge over the Plum Island River connecting the island to the mainland was built in 1805. At the same time, the Plum Island Turnpike was laid out and constructed.
The bridge across the Parker River near the Lower Green (U.S. Route I A) was built under the direction of Ralph Cross in 1758 and considerably shortened the distance from Rowley and Ipswich. Over it came Benedict Arnold and his men on their expedition against Quebec in September 1775. In 1789 George Washington, escorted by cavalry, infantry, and artillery, crossed the Parker River by this bridge. At the Upper Green he left his carriage, mounted his horse, and proceeded into Newburyport where he was celebrated in an address by John Quincy Adams, a student in the law offices of Theophilus Parsons of Newburyport. Over the same bridge came President James Monroe in 1817 and the Marquis de Lafayette in 1824.