Building the Early Town: First Roads

by on May 29, 2010 in History

Nelson Highway DeptThe charter granting Monadnock Number Six to those early proprietors required that they provide the basic necessities for the new community’s viability.  Of necessity, building roads came first.

Breed Batchellor was the town’s first resident, settling as early as 1766.  He moved into an early structure built by Josiah Billings just over the east line of Keene in Monadnock Number Six, comfortably in Roxbury today.  That part of Keene was settled sparsely, but Batchellor’s home had access to Keene over Keene roads.  Dr. Nathaniel Breed followed Batchellor, building a large log cabin on the Old Stoddard Road followed shortly thereafter by Joseph Stanhope who built on the north slope of Osgood Hill on today’s Homestead Lane. Aaron Beel, James Bancroft, Phineas Stanford, Thomas Upham and Eleazer Twitchell are mentioned in the first road records as living in town. Certainly they created trails to serve their farms and these probably became the first roads.

In 1768 Breed Batchellor and Nathaniel Breed were appointed to layout roads.
Their layout is lost but we know there were at least five early roads that predate the first recorded layout in 1773:

  • From the site of the future Packersfield meetinghouse to Keene
  • From the meetinghouse site to Joseph Stanhope’s and on to Limerick (Stoddard)
  • From the meetinghouse site to the outlet of Pleasant Pond (Silver Lake)
  • From the meetinghouse site to the outlet of Center Pond
  • From the outlet of Pleasant Pond to Eleazer Twitchell’s

The first of these connected our town with the region’s most established town: Keene. It went from the old meetinghouse site west along the current Lead Mine Road as far as the house currently owned by Dorothy Iselin, where it turned south through the woods.  Then as now, it shortly crosses a brook and turns west south west and runs north of Woodward Pond. It comes out at the old Roxbury Center and passes Breed Batchellor’s cellar hole in present-day Roxbury. Roxbury calls its end “Middle Town Road” today.

The second early road connected Nathaniel Breed and Joseph Stanhope to the center and led to the neighboring town of Limerick. The third and fourth connected the two earliest mills to the center and the last connected another early resident and may have gone on to connect to Dublin.

Our early roads connected the people who lived here, the early mill sites and the common where the meetinghouse was and the Nelson Cemetery is today.  It was also important to connect to the surrounding towns of Keene, Dublin, Marlborough, Hancock and Stoddard.  Modern cartographers may be surprised by this list, but there was no Sullivan, Roxbury or Harrisville when Nelson built its early roads.  Other inter-town roads were established to Hancock and Marlborough.

A map or roads in 1774, the year of incorporation, probably looked like this:

Nelson Map 1

Monadnock Number Six Roads at Incorporation (click on this image to see a larger version)

First recorded road layout:
Records of Proprietors’ Meetings Monadnock #6
July 1773 Extract from Records:

“From the Dublin Line near Mr. Wood’s mill to the meetinghouse. Beginning on the town line (Nelson/ Dublin) near the SE corner of Joseph’s Mason’s land and then runs northerly to a red oak then to a stake and stones a little north of the Corn Mill [at the outlet of Pleasant Pond] and the NW corner mark of the road leading from said mill to Twitchell’s to a large red oak tree near Pratt’s barn … Then between Aaron Beel’s house and barn and John Adams’ land then to a small beech at the line on the north side of John Adams’ land to a large rock with stones on top on the line between Thomas Morse’s and Ensign Batchellor’s land to a white ash on the southeast side of a Great Hill then under the east side of said hill to a stake and stones then crossing the centerline into the northeast quarter then 3 rods west of the southeast corner of the ten acres on common land. All marks are three chops facing the road.”

The above road layout is a good example of early road descriptions. It states the road’s purpose: connecting Dublin and Mr. Wood’s Mill to the meetinghouse. It described landmarks that would have been known to Monadnock Number Six inhabitants at the time, both man-made and natural terrain features. It made reference to the map of 1768 showing the division of the town into quarters with a centerline dividing the town east to west.

Those early residents probably called the road: “ The Road from Daniel Wood’s Mill to the Meetinghouse.” The road connected the meetinghouse to Dublin starting at the Dublin line at the outlet of Pleasant Pond, swung just east of the pond on what is now Breed Pond Road in Harrisville, then headed north on Crickett Hill Road, past the Pratt barn and Aaron Beel’s house and barn (still in Harrisville). Today it goes through the woods east of the Silver Lake until it joins the Hardy Hill Road eventually joining the road to Keene (Lead Mine Road today) at the site of the original meetinghouse.  It passes cellar holes and early houses. They are not in the road description as they all came later.

Unlike the Hardy Hill Road today it did not follow the contour line, but left the current Hardy Hill Road and went over the shoulder of Hardy Hill (the Great Hill) behind what is now Betsy Street’s house. The description reads, in part: “to a white ash on the southeast side of a Great Hill then under the east side of said hill to a stake and stones then crossing the centerline into the northeast quarter then 3 rods west of the southeast corner of the ten acres on common land.” Having come over the hill, the road probably turned east and passed the Street house (built about 20 years after the road by the Reverend Gad Newell). That house had doors facing the road to the south and east.  The road was moved to its current location in 1912.

Terrain was a big factor in early road building. Roads tended to follow original lot lines perhaps because they formed property boundaries and laying them out on those lines did less damage to early mowings, pastures and orchards. Roads tended to be built right over hills rather than following contour lines. In our hilly town contour lines meant bench cuts in hillsides made by hand. Horses and horse-drawn wagons fared much better straight up or down rather than having to negotiate a side hill.

The Road from Daniel Wood’s Mill to the Meetinghouse

In the years between 1773 and 1820 the town grew rapidly toward its population peak. The original pattern of a few roads radiating out from the center to other towns pausing to connect settlers on the way grew to include other “spokes” as well as a network of connector roads. The network looked a bit like a spider’s web heavily modified by the limitations of our local terrain.

Road Network 1820

There are 174 records of road layouts, road abandonments and changes in the path of old roads from the Corn Mill Road through the year 1820 near Nelson’s population peak.  Each was laid out by the selectmen and approved by town meeting. The process of laying out roads was so hectic at one point that a committee was appointed to determine which of the three roads to Hancock would be the official one.

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