The intersection of Market Square and Market Street in Ipswich

Self-governed at Market Square

My wife and I often have breakfast at Heart and Soul at the corner of Market and Central Streets, known traditionally as “Market Square,” but more recently as “Five Corners.” I never cease to be fascinated by cars and pedestrians negotiating that busy intersection with only a few stops signs and no traffic signal, or any other indication of how to proceed.


Glenn Kennedy posted this sped-up video of Ipswich “rush hour” on YouTube.

For lack of a better phrase, I call this the “courtesy intersection.” It is not for the timid. While motorists from our town almost always stop for pedestrians (whether or not they are in crosswalks) driving through this intersection has its own unwritten rules.

Here are a few guidelines for negotiating Five Corners, (aka Market Square, Quint’s Corner, Tyler’s Corner):

  • To turn or cross the intersection, nose slightly into the traffic lane to signal your presence.
  • Thoughtful local drivers will slow down and time their speed to give one vehicle the opportunity to pull onto the busier road, hoping that the same courtesy will be extended to them in the future. But t’s cheating to follow the car in front of you into the roadway.
  • The quickest route crossing Market Square from North Main is a right turn followed by a left on Hammatt St. to Depot Square.
  • It’s may be cheating to bear left on N. Main in front of the Christian Science Church, then turn right and immediate left on Market Street, but it works, and I do it anyway.
  • People who race through the intersection are surely not from around here and should go back to wherever they came from.
View of Market Square in the 1950s

Every newcomer to the town is mystified by this absence of the familiar red, green and yellow lights that tell us when to stop and when to go, but Ipswichites will tell you that there has never been a signal and it would be a bad idea if there was one. (And don’t call them Ipswichians).

The lack of a coherent system seems to work. The Holland city of Drachten and Portishead, England removed most of their traffic lights several years ago based on the theory that drivers would drive better if they watched for clues from their surroundings. Drachten’s center previously had an average of eight accidents annually, a number which has now been reduced to almost zero.

Woodcut of Ipswich from the early 19th Century. From a historical perspective, this intersection has looked like this for at least two centuries and probably longer.The middle roadway curving up the hill is part of the Old Bay Road, the first highway in America. It’s what connected South Main to North Main and is how stagecoaches got up the hill. As part of the North Green, it’s listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
1832 map of Ipswich
This closeup from the 1832 map of Ipswich shows how South Main and North Main were originally one roadway. Central Street was not constructed until more than a century later.
Sketch looking down the hill to Market Square, circa 1867. Not a lot has changed except now thousands of cars and trucks drive daily over the 250-year-old Choate Bridge, which was built for the stagecoach.

Ipswich folks are courteous and friendly but being of industrious Puritan stock we’re too busy to wait for a light to change colors. It’s the way we’ve always been. Ipswich prides itself as being the Birthplace of American Independence because not far from this intersection, ninety years before the Boston Tea Party, John and Samuel Appleton and the Rev. John Wise along with other townsfolk led the “Andros Rebellion” against the English Crown’s imposition of a tax and revocation of local self-governance. We really don’t like being told how to do what we’re already doing; nor were we about to let John Appleton’s house be torn down and replaced with a service station at Market Square.

Trolley tracks at Market Square
Market Square and the Lower Green in Ipswich
Later in the 20th Century, Ipswich replaced the fountain and street light at the top of Market Street with a concrete pillar, sometimes referred to as “silent policemen.” There was an identical one at Lords Square. The round object at the top was illuminated.
market_square_girl_ww1
During the First World War, it was apparently perfectly safe for children to pose for photos in the street. The traffic bollard behind the girl reads “Slow, Keep right.” You didn’t have to actually stop. The blinking light at the top of the bollard was the last traffic light at this intersection. Heading up the hill, children are hanging out in the old bandstand.
The Whipple House being moved from Saltonstall Street to its present location at the South Green.
The Whipple House being moved from Saltonstall St. to its present location on the South Green

February 2019 update: It’s been several years since I first published this article, and the traffic barreling through town on their way to somewhere else while their smart phones scream for attention seems to have doubled. But newcomers will discover that we haven’t changed all that much in three hundred and eighty-five years when they inevitably suggest installing a traffic light at the confusing intersection of Market, Central, North Main and South Main Streets. Slow down, wave the next person through, find a place to park, and head over to the Choate Bridge Pub where you can watch through the window at the best show in town!

Doug Brendel has a brilliant solution that should make this intersection even more interesting to watch!

November 2022 update: The State has proposed to drastically alter the intersection and install a traffic light. Read more about this in the Ipswich Local News.

Market Place (Five Corners) intersection today
In 2022, the state proposed to remake the intersection to look like this.
In Nov. 2022, the State proposed to remake the intersection to look like this.

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