From the Wheeler Farm site, a short trail leads south along a stone-lined, man-made causeway to the Nashoba Brook, where a footbridge crosses the stream. Here, the Trail Through Time turns west. This intersection of footbridge with TTT’s southerly route marks the only extant remains of the northerly terminus of the Old Road to and from Concord. These remnants, on the southern bank of Nashoba Brook, provide evidence of a formerly busy way in steady use from the 1730s between Thomas Wheeler, Jr.’s grist and sawmills, and Concord Towne. The road ran directly to the present Pope Road, and today its remnants can be followed from this terminus as far as Triangle Farm, a modern farm located off Pope Road, where evidence of the old road ends.
The surviving evidence of this early roadway lies mainly in the stone walls on either side of the roadbed, which is itself badly eroded where it ascends the southerly bank of the Nashoba Brook to the top of a level ridge. However, on the upland portion, the roadbed is evident between the mainly-intact stone walls that originally served to delineate the road. Just beyond the bridge, the track narrows to a constant 10-meter width. The stone walls lining this roadbed are of local rubble in 2 or 3 courses, depending on their size and shape.
Climbing this ascending portion of the ancient roadbed should not be attempted, as that would cause further erosion. See Figure 1 for a view of the old roadbed, best seen in Winter when the earth is bare.
The following entry appears in the Concord Town Records, Old Volume II—Folio 107, on 20 February 1733:
At the desire of Thomas Wheeler, [Jr.] the Selectmen did then lay out a way from said Wheeler’s mill to let him in to the Country Road. … to run over the Brook a few rods below his mill to the upland on the easterly [sic] side of the Brook till it comes to a white oak on the side of the hill.
In return for the allowance of this road, Thomas Wheeler, Jr.:
…promised to make the causeway on the westerly [sic] side of the above said Brook, and also a good and sufficient Bridge over it at his own Cost and Charge.
This public way was accepted on the 11th of March 1733 at a “General Town Meeting of the Notable Inhabitants of Concord.” On February 20, 1734, the Concord Selectmen laid out a road to Thomas Wheeler’s grist mill and his nearby dwelling house, according to Concord Town Reports. This recorded road is misinterpreted in Phalen’s History of Acton to be the present Strawberry Hill Road. However, archaeological evidence, established by the Trail Through Time’s 2008 Field School, supports that the road-remains shown in Figure 1 are, in fact, those of the road, referenced above, which led to and from the Trail Through Time’s Wheeler Farm and Mill site.
Daniel V. Boudillion, an independent researcher into the early history of this area, has added some additional thoughts about this roadway. Littleton sources on the Old Road to Concord state that a route between Shaker Lane in Littleton and Wheeler Lane in North Acton was in use from the earliest white settlement at Nashoba, beginning around 1666. The name ‘Nashoba,’ in this instance, was applied to a (probably) seasonal Indian settlement area along the Brook that bears this name today. The focus of this settlement seems to have been along this portion of the Brook, where natural resources useful to Indians were plentiful during the summer season.
This route was not a road, but followed two connecting Indian trails. The one that led north to Littleton from what became the Wheeler property, before formal roads were constructed, likely crossed the Brook where the Robbins Mill Dam is now located. It is thought by at least two researchers that a stone fish weir at this crossing place pre-dated the milldam. Fish weirs were structures, well-known to have been built by Indians, that extended out into a stream at a likely crossing point in order to spear fish. The milldam was later built along the pre-existing fish weir.
Function and Construction
Roads were the lifeblood of commerce and society in Colonial America. They were designed by first conducting a land survey, and then petitioning the Town in which the desired road lay to grant a Right of Way. Typically, such roads were constructed by clearing a road-bed using oxen; then laying a sub-structure, followed by a dirt surface; and finally bounding the road with stone walls. Because this road was applied for before Acton was incorporated in 1735, Wheeler’s petition was addressed to the Selectmen of Concord Towne, as it was then known, of which the Wheeler Farm and Mills were then a part.
These engineered roads were intended to open isolated areas to commerce and provide links to markets. All plans for such town roads showed dimensions for crews to use in the field. The surveyors would set out the marks for the Right of Way. In this case:
…four rods wide from the low land by the Brook till it come to the fourth mark…and from then on two rods wide…
In the 18th century, to set a measurement, a chain with 100 links was used to measure a 4-rod distance (equal roughly to 66 feet, or 20 meters) between two posts.
The remains of the piers which supported the early bridge are visible under the modern footbridge. They are of rubble construction also and were ample to support the heavy load of oxen, cart, and corn—or other raw materials—which would have traveled to the mill daily during the harvest season. See Figure 2 for a view of the piers today.
It appears that the original topography of the streambed was quite flat and wide, and likely supported a wetlands, as is still the case both upstream of the mill pond and downstream of the stone-lined channel at the footbridge. In order to bridge such a wide area, it was necessary to channel the waters from the flood plain into a canal narrow enough to span with a bridge. Doing so allowed traffic to pass across the stream to and from the mills during a much longer span of the year than would otherwise have been possible. Spring runoff and high water conditions after heavy rains still cause the flood plain to fill with water, sometimes covering the top of the wall along the causeway.
If you visit the site, or if you are already there, be sure to look carefully at the long walls of large-stone masonry, both upstream and downstream of the footbridge, that channel the water to flow under it. Imagine the challenge of moving and fitting together so many boulders with only human labor and the help of oxen. The totality of hydraulic engineering at the mill site, beginning with the dam upstream, is worthy of anyone’s admiration at any time and place.
Historical research reported here was carried out by Kimberley Connors-Hughes, Archaeologist.
Other text and photos have been prepared by Linda McElroy, the Trail Through Time’s Project Director.
Funding for the research was supplied by a vote of Town Meeting authorizing use of Community Preservation Act funds.
Last Updated: 05/09/2014 12:41