By Edward W. Gordon
Located within a section of western Arlington encircled by Massachusetts Avenue, Quincy Street, Gray Street, Oakland Street and Appleton Street, the Crusher lot is characterized by rugged, wooded terrain which is crisscrossed by unpaved paths. The Ottoson Middle School is located at the northwestern edge of this six acre parcel. To a great degree the undeveloped Crusher Lot contributes to the rustic appearance of residential areas that border it on the east, south and west.
Journalist Jack Adams (Wicked Local Media) notes that the area is “best for a quiet walk to watch some wild life.” The Crusher Lot’s still-wild and natural state provides glimpses of the way Menotomy, later Arlington, looked at seminal times in its history, illustrating how Native Americans probably viewed their land before English Puritan developed commenced in the mid 1630s. In addition, the Crusher Lot presents a picture of why the once heavily wooded land south of Appleton Street/Paul Revere Road provided a discrete base from which to carry out a surprise attack on British Red Coats returning from Concord on April 19,1775—an attack known as the “Battle at the Foot of the Rocks.”
Why is this Arlington-owned conservation land called the Crusher Lot? The derivation of its name dates to Victorian rather than Revolutionary War era times. In 1869, four years after the Civil War and two years after the name Arlington replaced West Cambridge as the Town’s name, the Town purchased an item that would prove to be very useful. A stone crusher was purchased for stone excavated from a quarry on the lot. The stone was pulverized for use in the construction of new streets in the town. The purchase of the steam powered stone crusher suggests the powers that be envisioned the development of residential enclaves built over the most tugged terrain. Middlesex County Atlases issued in 1875, 1889 and 1898 locate the steam powered stone crusher on a site just to the west of the foot of Fessenden Street. By 1898, the stone crusher could also be reached via a foot path linking it with Acton Street to the west. The stone crusher was housed in a small, L-shaped wooden structure that was either moved or demolished between the early 1900s and ca.1920. The 1923 Atlas shows proposed west to east extensions of Appleton Place, Acton Street and Harvard Street to Quincy Street, then called Bowen Street. The fact that these streets were never set out no doubt had to do with the presence of a new junior high school on the Crusher lot—a school that might have future expansion needs that would preclude full length streets—this school was the predecessor to the present Ottoson Middle School.
The 1875 Atlas underscores the fact that the stone crusher’s creation was timely given its location on the eastern doorstep of the Arlington Heights residential development which began in 1872 on the northern slopes of Pierce’s Hill. This “rural village” created by “gentlemen doing business in Boston” encompassed more than one dozen streets, over 300 house lots and a two acre park at the top of Pierce’s Hill. Historian Edward W. Gordon notes in Ice, Crops and Commuters (1982, for the Arlington Historical Commission) that “construction of all thoroughfares was facilitated by a stone crusher and twenty ton stone roller which had been purchased by the Town in 1869-1870.”
The crowning glory of this street system that followed the natural contours of the terrain was Park Avenue, its center corridor, “which was built on a solid stone foundation its entire width of eighty feet, making it even in the worst weather, dry and clean, one of the finest roads for walking and driving in the country.”
Charles S. Parker in Town of Arlington Past and Present (1907) provides an over view of the evolution of the Town’s street construction equipment capabilities over time nothing that “on April 5th the town appropriated money for a stone crusher and in 1870 added to this essential in building macadamized streets a twenty ton stone roller. A new crusher bought in 1884 was abandoned for the up-to-date machine installed in 1903.”
Evidently other fledgling neighborhoods in the town took advantage of the stone crusher, including late 1800s developments such as Crescent Hill/Mount Gilboa and Kensington Park, near Pleasant Street. In the case of the mid 1890s Kensington Park, the rocky, unforgiving land was almost too much to tame for Arlington’s stone crusher and steam roller to handle. Despite the availability of these labor saving mechanical devices, an Arlington Advocate reporter noted that year that the “the work of laying out streets in the (Kensington) Park is not a simple matter, the mass of ledge and rock making the task expensive and tedious.”
In addition to the Crusher Lot’s significant historical links with planning and development within the Town it also has historical associations with prominent Arlingtonians, including Nathan Robbins, a leading Quincy Market poultry king. He was also a bottler and exporter of Robbins Spring Water and a summer resort owner—both of these enterprises were located on nearby Robbins Road. According to the 1889 Middlesex County Atlas he owned the Crusher Lot as part of his vast real estate portfolio and by 1898 his heirs had sold this lot to the Town.
Cyrus Dallin, the sculptor responsible for creating the Paul Revere equestrian statue in the North End and the Massasoit statue in Plymouth lived at Oakland Street, corner of Cliff Street which was probably named for the precipitous drop in grade into the Crusher lot on the north side of Oakland Street. Dallin moved into the substantial wood shingle-clad Queen Anne residence at 69 Oakland Street in 1900. Rell G. Francis in Cyrus E. Dallin: Let Justice Be Done (1976) describes Dallin’s love for the mountains of his home state of Utah saying that it was only fitting that he should live up on a hill top in Arlington. Although part of Dallin’s Arlington Heights lore is that he bought a section of the Crusher Lot across from his home so that it could never be developed and thus obstruct his views of distant Boston, this anecdote is not born out by Middlesex County atlases. The bottom line, however, is that Dallin loved rustic settings that nurtured his spirituality and the Crusher lot was part of Dallin’s immediate, ideal environment. Further research may reveal more prominent Crusher Lot neighbors.
Here’s a steam-powered crusher from the 20’s. This might be something like what was there back then:
Edward W. Gordon, Museum Director
Director of Museum Programs and Site Administrator of the Old Schwamb Mill, Edward Gordon has been president of the New England Chapter of the Victorian Society of America since 1991 and served as executive director of the Gibson House Museum from 1990 to 2001. Mr. Gordon has worked as an historic preservation consultant, preparing nominations of buildings and districts to the National Register of Historic Places. He is well-known as a Boston area guide, and leads tours of historic areas and places. He is a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Society of Architectural Historians, the South End historical Society, and the Greater Boston Tour Guide Association. Mr. Gordon is a past recipient of the John F. Ayer Award for outstanding contributions to the field of Massachusetts history by the Bay State Historical League.