History of Winchester, Massachusetts



General History
The Prehistory of Winchester; Squaw Sachem (Chap. 1 of Chapman's History of Winchester)
Official History Page
Archival Center
Middlesex Canal History
Winchester Historical Society
Historical Photographs of Winchester, Massachusetts
More Historical Photographs of Winchester, Massachusetts

General History

Winchester was first settled by Charlestown citizens who were granted land in the northern ranges of their town in the 1630's in districts originally designated Waterfield and Rockfield. Much of this land formed part of Woburn after that town was incorporated in 1642. Other Charlestown lands now part of present-day Winchester were annexed to Medford in 1753 and to West Cambridge (later Arlington) just several years before Winchester's own incorporation. Early settlement was concentrated along Cambridge Street (the Cambridge-Woburn road) with some scattered upland farms to the west, and along Richardson's Row (Washington Street). Other areas settled before 1800 were located along the Medford-Woburn road: Symmes Corner (at the intersection of Main, Bacon and Grove Streets) and Black Horse Village (near present day Black Horse Terrace on Main Street). Long before 1700, members of the Converse and Richardson families had built the first mills in town along the Aberjona River, and for a hundred more years the area remained purely rural in nature.

During the Revolution, the Black Horse Tavern (demolished in 1892) on the Medford-Woburn road served as an important meeting place for soldiers as well as citizens. By the end of the 18th century, some thirty-five houses stood within the bounds of present-day Winchester; the population was only about 200 persons.

The Middlesex Canal, which opened in 1803, and the Boston and Lowell Railroad which supplanted it in 1853, worked to change the character of the village. The small mills on the Aberjona and isolated farms now had fast and cheap access to the Boston market and beyond, and these ties to the city grew stronger over time.

The early grist mills gave way to more modern factories: wool carding, leather splitting and mahogany sawing were carried out; piano cases, felt, watch hands and shoes were manufactured. Blacksmith and iron shops profited from the proximity of the new railroad. Near the center of town, housing for a new commercial and professional class was constructed, reflecting the popularity of Greek Revival and Italianate styles.

In 1840 the South Woburn Congregational Church provided the first house of worship within the village boundaries. The thriving village soon began to feel the need to separate from the parent town of Woburn, and it was the church that initiated the move. By 1850, the town was ready to establish its independence from Woburn. Naturally enough, the public offices of the new town were located near the Church and railroad in the area that rapidly became the town's commercial, social and religious center. The new town was very nearly named "Columbus" but instead the town fathers honored a wealthy businessman, Colonel William P. Winchester, who was of course, expected to return the favor in a tangible fashion. Indeed, Col. Winchester did donate three thousand dollars to the new town, but died suddenly within months of the incorporation of the town bearing his name, never having set foot in the town.

Two distinct social groups developed in the new town. In the area near the mills, such as the Canal Street-Salem Street neighborhood and in Baconville (near Grove Street), industrial workers settled near their factories. Simultaneously, Boston businessmen began settling in Winchester, attracted by the railroad which made commuting possible. Wealthy Bostonians had previously used Winchester as a summer residence. Friction between the two groups was played out in stormy town meetings: as the town became increasingly industrialized, "progressive" new citizens now worked to limit industrial growth through election of their candidates to town offices (mid-nineteenth century selectmen). By 1893, the tide had turned and a system of town parks replaced the tanneries at the town center. From the 1870's on, suburban developments of great charm were built by the town's businessmen and professionals, and new residents were attracted in large numbers. Mansard, Queen Anne, Colonial Revival and Shingle-Style homes are found through-out the town. By 1900, Winchester's days as a mill town were clearly past.

All the mills and factories are gone and the Aberjona is again a pleasant stream, but the houses of both workers and industrialists remain, as do many of the homes built around the town center for businessmen and professionals in the mid-19th century. Street after street of suburban homes built in the years following the Civil War survive intact as a testament to Winchester's final evolution to a residential suburb.

Key Dates in Winchester History

Additional Reading

Winchester, Massachusetts, The Architectural Heritage of a Victorian Town, The Winchester Historical Society, Winchester, Massachusetts, 1988.

Artists of Winchester Massachusetts 1850-1950, Ellen Knight.

The Old Middlesex Canal, Mary Stetson Clarke, published by the Center for Canal History and Technology, Easton, PA, 1974.

Middlesex Canal Guide and Maps, Warburton VerPlanck, published by the Middlesex Canal Association, Billerica, Massachusetts, 1996.

These books are available at Book Ends (781-721-5923) and Bowditch & Crandall, Inc. (781-721-7667) in Winchester.

History of Winchester, vol. 1, Henry Smith Chapman, Published by the Town of Winchester (Original edition: 1936).
History of Winchester, vol. 2, Bruce Winchester Stone, Published by the Town of Winchester, 1975.

These two volumes are available at the Winchester Public Library.

THE WINCHESTER ARCHIVAL CENTER

The Winchester Archival Center is located in Town Hall. The Center was first opened in 1975, and is maintained by the town as a research center for the various historical collections of the town: books, maps, photographs and documents. Information available at the Archival Center includes business and personal papers relating to the Whitney Machine Shop, the Vinson-Owen Collection (in conjunction with the National Skaters Hall of Fame), the Winchester Historical Commission's Inventory of Historic Buildings, Winchester Directories of Residents and Tax Lists, genealogical source materials and town public records prior to 1900.

The Archival Center (721-7146) is located in Town Hall.