By Ginger Allison, Concord Magazine Staff Writer.
On first inspection, "Where is West Concord?" may seem like a pretty silly question. But it is not necessarily an easy one to answer, its boundaries being described by tradition, not map coordinates (modern street map here).
Not a municipality unto itself, "West Concord" describes both an area and a culture somewhat distinct from Concord Center's. And just why this is so requires a look at the history of how West Concord came into being in the first place.
Some of the details of this history have been lost -- it could be that our memory of West Concord's history may prove to be as fuzzy as its boundaries. Some of the information contained in West Concord oral tradition can also not be documented and may indeed be in conflict with what is reported here. Though at one time related to the old voting Precinct 2, what we think of as West Concord has continued to change with time.
West Concord did not develop into an actual village or settlement until the 1880's. In fact, according to Anne Forbes in "Survey of Historical and Architectural Resources, Volume IV", the term "West Concord" was not actually used until 1886. Before then, there were various 19th century settlements in basically three areas which developed on their own at different times, in different ways and for different reasons. It was not until late in that century that there was enough development infilling the space separating this trio of villages that a unified "West Concord" came about. But wait, we are getting ahead of our story a bit....
Westvale, Damondale, Concord Junction, Warnerville, Etc.
From the era of early European settlement until sometime early in the 19th century, West Concord was sparsely populated. Large tracts of land were held by individuals and families. Several were used for agriculture. One used for a 17th century iron works was the earliest West Concord settlement, but it contracted as the iron petered out (see this story here).
Like later industrial areas, these businesses were located to take advantage of the power provided by running water -- in this case, the Assabet River.
Later and in the same area, Westvale developed into the first lasting village. It was built up by the mid-19th century around the textile mills along the Assabet River. Damon Mill, still standing today (photo at right), was part of this area. At different times, part or all of this region was called "Damondale," or "Factory Village." Housing for the largely immigrant work force sprung up around this village and created the first population density in this part of town. Reflecting the great immigrant waves of Boston, first the Irish, then Scandinavians, Canadians and Italians came. There are, however, no records of Westvale/Damondale/Factory Village's exact boundaries. It was in its time a general area or district....it was a tradition.
Development of the Junction
In the 1860's, Warnerville came into being around Ralph Warner's tub and pail factory on Nashoba Brook. The factory -- destroyed by fire and no longer standing -- was powered by the flow of water from the dam which forms Warner's Pond. By the 1870's, the junction of two, then later four, railroad lines were located nearby. Ah -- the tracks of which West Concord is often thought to be on the wrong side. The name "Concord Junction" began to be used for this railroad-dominated area. West Concord's industry is still clustered around these tracks -- many now defunct (below right).
This area was also built up by the need for laborers' quarters. And as happened in many other communities all across America, more industry came, attracted by the railroads (for example, behind Bradford Street, above left)...which in turn called for more housing. This quickly-expanding population brought about a hotel (now the Commonwealth Apartments, photo at left), real estate speculators, developers and locally-run syndicates to create street after street of the homes which still fill West Concord in and near the downtown area. The Junction's traditional boundaries were pushing ever outward.
At some unknown point, the Warnerville neighborhood started to be called "The Junction," too. Like those used for Westvale, this area's names were also a reflection of local tradition, their boundaries expanding through development.
Movement of mail depended greatly upon the railroads, and coupled with the mail generated by the factories (see here for more on this), the Junction was a natural location for a top class post office. According to Concord Postmaster Neil Walker, until July, 1970, the West Concord Post Office (zip code 01781 -- now retired) was run as a separate entity from the office serving the rest of the sleeply little town of Concord. It had its own Postmaster -- considered a plum job -- and was as autonomous as post offices in two different towns would be.
It may be that the West Concord Post office made the only official answer to "where is West Concord?" Postal worker and Concord native Joe Delorey says they served from 748 Main Street south to the Maynard line, over to 516 Old Marlboro Road, to Orchard Road, Barretts Mill from the S-curves south, Grove Street, Elm Place, Assabet Ave, and up Route 2A to the Acton line.
The third discrete area which later developed into West Concord around the State Prison, built in 1887. The staff -- both management and other staff -- also needed new housing. This is the origin of the Green Row on Assabet Ave and the now-defunct-but-one White Ladies on Commonwealth Ave across from the prison. Unlike the factory workers, these people were primarily Yankee-born. Another hotel was needed (on the north side of Route 2, no longer standing), as was a train station close to the prison gates (also now gone). This area became known as "Prison Village" and eventually was simply called "Reformatory" after the state prison became the Massachusetts Reformatory.
The railroad was important to the prison and visa verse. Workers and visitors arrived via rail; prisoners spent their time in workshops manufacturing goods supplied and then later distributed by rail. Today, this area is bisected by Route 2, but where the State Police are now located along upper Barrett's Mill Road, Grove Street and Assabet Ave were considered at one time to be part of West Concord, as was the minimum security prison ("The Farm").
At that time, West Concord was growing faster than the rest of town. This enormous population and industrial expansion resulted in the founding of churches, schools, community centers, and retail blocks (below right, Commonwealth Avenue). In 1899, a streetcar line ran through, linking Concord Center with other towns -- a small side line looped the streetcar to the Reformatory. A vibrant social life and recreations of many types were centered around West Concord, drawing people from other parts of town.
By the time the Prison was built, these different village areas had begun to amalgamate into a larger, single population center. Their traditions were merged into a single tradition, forming a distinct identity: West Concord.
West Concord Name Adopted by Town Meeting
The 1928 Town Meeting approved the official use of the name "West Concord." That Town Meeting completely dodged the question of "Where is West Concord?" by simply referring to it as "that part of the Town" without being more specific. The article said in part:
"Voted, that whereas the Town of Concord in 1886 named its new grade
schoolhouse in the western part of the Town "West Concord School" and did
not name it "Concord Junction School"; And whereas the Concord Free Public
Library in 1919 named its new branch in that school house "West Concord
Branch" and did not name it "Concord Junction Branch"; And whereas a large
majority of the inhabitants in that part of the Town desire to have the name
of the Post Office changed from "Concord Junction" to "West Concord" and a
similar change made as to the railroad station in that part of the Town;
Now, therefore be it resolved that this Town in annual Town Meeting
assembled cordially approves both said proposed changes of names ...and the Town Clerk be instructed to notify the
President of the Boston and Maine Railroad and the Postmaster General."
West Concord Today
Times have continued to change what we think of as West Concord. Where its boundaries used to press outward, now our tradition works to shrink "that part of the Town." For example: upscale, late 20th century residential developments tend to no longer be thought of as in West Concord, though the land they now occupy used to be West Concordian. And, though some long-time residents in the upper Barrett's Mill Road area consider themselves to still be in West Concord, few others imagine calling anything north of Route 2 "West Concord."
But West Concord's vitality persists. It is still a lively business and residential center with a character somewhat different from Concord Center's. Many consider the area to be more "down to earth" than the Center, with more "every day" shopping and fewer boutiques. There is a strong and growing artisan and health care presence. Several manufacturing firms operate in the old, 19th century industrial buildings. A physical sense of neighborhood may be more frequently found in West Concord. And housing prices -- while appreciating well -- are still a little lower there.
How will time continue to change West Concord's boundaries? It is possible that oral tradition will continue to shrink its domain. Though the negative social stigma of West Concord has faded substantially, it still exists. The more high-end housing development that occurs around its edges, the smaller West Concord continues to become through attrition.
Perhaps we are coming full circle: it is interesting to note that now West Concord's downtown is referred to as "the village." How far will our ever-changing tradition send it back? Only time will tell.
Photos from top (all ©2002 Rich Stevenson):
The former site of "Bradford Furniture" and with her two sister buildings, Bradford Street, West Concord.
"Damondale" on the side of Damon Mill, now a modernized office building.
Now the Commonwealth Apartments, this was a 19th century hotel -- note it is now adjoined to the building on the right.
Currently disused railroad tracks near Nashoba Brook, West Concord.
The Harvey Wheeler Community Center, originally built as an elementary school, undergoing expansion.
Commonwealth Avenue, West Concord.
Artwork: Hometown Websmith.
Research Help: Thanks to Anita Tekle, Concord Town Clerk; Leslie Perrin Wilson, Concord Free Public Library; Phyllis Cohen, Barrett & Co. Real Estate.
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