Boston and Albany Railroad Arch Bridge, Becket, Mass

An early 20th century postcard showing the view looking east along the Boston and Albany Railroad, with a stone arch bridge on the left side and the Westfield River on the right. Image from author’s collection.

The scene in 2021:

The first railroads in the United States were constructed starting in the late 1820s. These were mostly concentrated in the northeast, and they tended to be relatively short lines that linked neighboring cities. Here in New England, Boston soon emerged as an important railroad hub, and by the mid-1830s it had three different lines that radiated outward as far as Lowell, Providence, and Worcester. However, railroad investors had far more ambitious plans, including one proposal that would extended the line west of Worcester all the way to Albany.

Throughout the colonial era, and into the early 19th century, Boston had been one of the most important seaports in the present-day United States. However, as settlers moved west, and as the country acquired new territory, Boston found itself on the far eastern edge of a nation that was rapidly expanding westward. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 further threatened Boston by linking New York City with the Midwest, making it the primary seaport for trade with the inland regions.

As early as 1826, the Massachusetts state legislature had begun exploring the possibility of a railroad from Albany to Boston. This would prevent Boston from becoming economically isolated from the rest of the country, by providing an alternate route to the sea for goods transported along the Erie Canal. The state subsequently hired prominent civil engineer James F. Baldwin to examine potential routes through the state. The most promising was a southerly route, which would head west from Worcester through Springfield and Pittsfield before crossing into New York. This is, more or less, the route that would ultimately be opened a little over a decade later.

To achieve this goal, the Western Railroad was incorporated in 1833, although construction work did not start until 1837. The eastern half of the railroad, from Worcester to Springfield, was relatively easy to build, and it opened on October 1, 1839. However, the western portion, which crossed the mountains of the Berkshires, was a far more challenging engineering feat. By this point, railroad technology was still in its infancy, and there were still significant questions about the ability of steam locomotives to operate on steep grades. Some doubted whether a locomotive could handle grades greater than one percent (one foot of vertical rise for every hundred feet of track), and many early railroads used steam-powered inclined planes to pull trains up steep sections of the route. However, any crossing of the Berkshires would require consistent grades in excess of one percent, in some places even exceeding 1.5 percent.

To reach the divide between the Connecticut River and Housatonic River watersheds, the route of the railroad followed the Westfield River to the west of Springfield. In the town of Huntington, the river splits into three main branches, with the railroad continuing upstream along the west branch. From there, the river valley becomes increasingly narrow and winding, particularly in the last 13 miles from Chester to the watershed divide in Washington.

In order to oversee this project, the railroad hired George Washington Whistler as chief engineer. An 1819 graduate of West Point, Whistler was one of the nation’s leading civil engineers, and he was involved in the construction of many early railroads. He would go on to earn international fame from his accomplishments here on the Western Railroad, and Czar Nicholas I of Russia subsequently hired him to build the Saint Petersburg–Moscow Railway. However, Whistler’s fame would ultimately be eclipsed by his son, the prominent artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who was a young child living with his family in Springfield when George Washington Whistler built the Western Railroad.

For Whistler, the most difficult part of the project would be the 13 miles between Chester and Washington, where the railroad rose in elevation from 600 feet in Chester to 1,459 feet at the watershed divide. This was a serious challenge, given the concerns about the technical limitations of steam locomotives, but Whistler also had to build this railroad within the confines of a narrow, sinuous river gorge. This meant the railroad would require a series of deep rock cuts and high embankments, along with repeated crossings of the river, in order to maintain a reasonable grade. Even so, the finished railroad would have a six-mile section with an average grade of 1.51 percent, and a maximum grade of 1.57 percent.

Probably the most distinctive feature of this section of the railroad is its many bridges. The railroad crossed the river a total of 21 times in these 13 miles, and ten of these bridges were masonry arch bridges, including the one shown here in these two photos. The original intent had been to use simpler bridges with rubble masonry abutments, but these would have been vulnerable to spring flooding, so the railroad opted for more substantial arch bridges. This required excavating down to bedrock to anchor the abutments, and it also meant bringing in quarried stone from elsewhere, since the local stone proved to be of inferior quality. This was a significant expense for the railroad, as these quarried blocks—which weighed upwards of a thousand pounds each—had to be transported along rough roads to these remote work sites along the river.

Aside from the bridges, other labor-intensive work included the many cuts and fills along the railroad bed. A little to the east of the bridge in this photo, just beyond the curve in the distance, is a deep rock cut, measuring about 575 feet long and 30 to 40 feet deep. In the days before dynamite and other high explosives, this work would have been done using only black powder and hand tools such as picks and shovels. Beyond this rock cut was an embankment, with a long stone retaining wall that had to be built to keep the railroad bed from sliding off the steep cliff down to the river. A few miles to the west of the stone bridges, at the highest point of the railroad in the town of Washington, was an even larger rock cut. It was about a half mile long, and 55 feet deep at its deepest point.

All of this work, including the unanticipated need for stone arch bridges, led to significant cost overruns for the Western Railroad. In 1838, prior to the start of construction, the cost of building section of the railroad to the west of the Connecticut River was estimated at $2.1 million. The actual cost turned out to be a little over $2.5 million, including nearly $1 million just to build a 13-mile section here in the Berkshires. The single most expensive mile was just a little to the east of the scene in these photos, between mile markers 127 and 128. Within that mile, the railroad crossed the river three times on large stone arch bridges, and cost nearly $220,000. The company’s January 1841 annual report explained some of the reasons for these added expenses, quoting the engineer (presumably Whistler), who wrote about the challenges of building the railroad through this section along the Westfield River:

With the limited knowledge of the character of the stream here, at the time of the original estimate, and, judging of its effects in times of freshets, from the comparatively unstable character of the structures then existing on the turnpike, occupying almost the immediate line of the rail-road, in tolerable security, it was then judged that structures of the more ordinary kind, with common rubble masonry for bridge abutments and side walls, would give ample security to the road, and such was estimated for. But the experience in time of our personal knowledge of the effects of freshets in this stream, proved the necessity of abandoning such structures, and resorting to others of a more costly and permanent character. Stone arches of large openings were adopted, requiring masonry of a very different and superior character to support them;—rendering it necessary too to resort to great depths in search of permanent rock foundations below the bed of the stream. This was the more readily acceded to at the time, from the belief (as every appearance indicated) that materials suitable for such structures would be obtained from the rock cuts in their immediate vicinity. But soon after they were commenced, and the character of the stone exposed by the opening of the cuts, it proved entirely unfit; and the contractor was compelled to resort to quarrying and hauling the stone from a distance, and over roads almost impassible;—thus rendering it necessary to increase his prices to meet this additional cost.

The work of actually building the railroad was largely done by immigrant laborers, primarily the Irish. At one point there were several thousand workers employed here, and this is evident in the 1840 census, which was conducted in the midst of the railroad construction. In a sort of precursor to the later railroad boom towns that would follow the First Transcontinental Railroad several decades later, the town of Middlefield—located on the north side of the river—saw a particularly dramatic increase in population. From a population of 720 in 1830, Middlefield grew to 1,717 in 1840, with the census noting that 686 were from “Middlefield proper,” while the rest were counted as “extraneous population.”

These workers generally lived in temporary shantytowns along the river, and the census indicates that most were in their 20s or 30s, with few over the age of 40. The 1840 census does not provide much specific demographic information, and only the heads of the households are individually named, but the census data suggests that most of these men lived here with their families. Most of the households included both a man and a woman who were between the ages of 20 and 40, along with several young children who were generally under the age of 10. The surnames of the heads of household were overwhelmingly Irish, with Murphy being a particularly common name among the workers in Middlefield.

The arrival of so many foreign immigrants in a small, rural community was not without controversy. Early in the construction process, in the spring of 1839, the Hampshire Gazette published an article titled, “The Irish on our Public Works,” which addressed concerns about the societal impact of the Irish immigrants who were working on the railroad. The article warned that, “[i]f some measures are not taken for the education and moral reformation of the multitudes of Irish and other foreign emigrants that swarm the country, our republic will be much in danger from them.” Perhaps in response to these concerns, a few months later a resident of Middlefield began raising funds to establish three schools for the children of the laborers. It seems unclear as to whether these contributions were motivated by genuine altruism or by nativist fears about an under-educated immigrant class, but a subsequent article in the Boston Evening Transcript declared that the students were “learning rapidly, and doing credit to the labors of their benefactors.”

These workers remained here throughout the summer of 1841, and the railroad was ultimately completed in the early fall, with the final tracks laid at the rock cut in Washington on October 2, 1841. The railroad opened two days later, linking Boston and Albany. In the process, the railroad set a number of records. It was, up to that point, the longest and most expensive railroad in America, and it was also the first to be built through mountains without using steam-powered inclined planes to assist locomotives. As such, it was a significant engineering milestone, and it was enough to gain the attention of the czar, who brought Whistler to Russia as soon as his work here on the Western Railroad was finished.

However, despite the completion of the railroad, there would continue to be challenges, including a fatal accident that occurred on October 5, 1841, just a day after the line opened. The railroad originally just had one track, with occasional passing sidings for trains heading in opposite directions, including ones at Chester and Westfield. On this particular day, both the eastbound and westbound trains were given instructions to meet at Chester before proceeding. However, the eastbound conductor apparently never received this message, and was expecting to meet the other train further down the line in Westfield. This resulted in a head-on collision about four miles west of Westfield, killing the conductor of the eastbound train and one passenger, along with injuring many others. The accident was a personal tragedy for George Washington Whistler, whose niece, Caroline Bloodgood, was on the train. She was among those injured, and her young son was the one passenger who was killed in the accident.

The Western Railroad did manage to help dispel the myth that steam locomotives were unable to ascend steep grades under their own power, but the section of the railroad here in the Berkshires was nonetheless challenging for trains. Whistler had selected locomotives that were built by Ross Winans of Baltimore, a friend of his whose daughter Julia would later marry his son George. Nicknamed “crabs,” presumably because of their eight drive wheels and Maryland origins, these locomotives proved unreliable here on the Western Railroad, and the railroad ultimately resorted to custom building their own mountain locomotives at their shops in Springfield.

Despite these setbacks, the railroad overall proved to be a success, and for many years it was the only east-west railroad through the Berkshires, providing an important transportation link between Boston and the rest of the country. Although it was originally built as a single-track railroad, Whistler had wisely designed the bridges and other structures to accommodate a second track. This made the initial construction costs higher, but in the long run it saved the railroad money by making it easy to add a second track without having to reconstruct all of the bridges.

For travelers along the route, this section through the Berkshires was a highlight of their journey. The 1847 travel guide A Chart and Description of the Boston and Worcester and Western Railroads, published only six years after the railroad opened, provides the following description:

No language that we are master of could give the traveller any proper description of the wildness, the grandeur, or the obstacles surmounted in the construction of this portion of the route. The river is exceedingly crooked, and the lofty mountains, which are very steep and rugged, and of solid rock, shut down quite to the river on both sides, their sharp points shooting by each other, rendering crossings at every bend of the stream indispensable. In addition to this, the points of the hills must be cut away, and for many miles these rock cuttings and bridges follow each other in regular and rapid succession. . . . Nor does the passing traveller, hurling along as rapidly as he is, see much of the beauty of this mountain gorge. It is not until he has seen, from the base of these mighty structures of art, the passage of the cars, that their magnificence is really felt.

The Western Railroad would ultimately merge with the Boston and Worcester in 1867, forming the Boston and Albany Railroad. This company would, in turn, be leased by the New York Central starting in 1900, although this line retained the Boston and Albany name well into the 20th century. In the meantime, the railroad continued to make improvements to the route, including some changes here along the banks of the Westfield River. A few of the original bridges were replaced, including the easternmost one, which was replaced in 1866 with the current double arch bridge. The next bridge upstream from there was replaced in 1912 with the current steel deck truss girder bridge, although the original stone abutments appear to still be there, encased in poured concrete. Much further upstream, the westernmost two bridges were apparently reconstructed in 1928 after having been damaged in a flood, although it is possible that portions of the original bridges are still underneath the concrete.

However, the most significant change to this portion of the railroad occurred in 1912, when about a mile of the railroad was rerouted, including the section shown here in these two photos. The first photo was probably taken only a few years before this occurred. The postcard is undated, and does not have a postmark, but it has an undivided back, suggesting that it was printed before 1907. As part of this realignment, the railroad shifted to the south side of the river, eliminating two of the river crossings. One of the original bridges, located about 300 yards west of here, was demolished as part of this project, in order to make room for a new bridge. Three other original bridges were simply abandoned, including this one here, which is the westernmost of the three.

Today, more than a century after the railroad was rerouted, these three bridges are still standing. One of them, the easternmost, is still on land owned by the railroad, and it is directly adjacent to the active rail line, so it is not accessible to the public. However, the other two bridges, along with the 3,000-foot section of abandoned railroad right-of-way between them, are now owned by the state as part of the Walnut Hill Wildlife Management Area. The bridges are accessible by way of the Keystone Arch Bridge Trail, a 2.5-mile long trail that starts in Chester. Despite being over 180 years old, and despite not having been maintained in well over 100 years, these bridges remain in good condition, clearly fulfilling Whistler’s goal of creating bridges of “a more costly and permanent character.”

As the travel guide had indicated back in 1847, it is hard to get a sense of the scale of these bridges from the railroad. Even today, it is hard for visitors to tell just how big these bridges are while standing atop them, and photographs are likewise unable to capture the full scope of these structures. Only by climbing down to the river and looking up at the arches can a visitor fully appreciate the size of the bridges, and the work that went in to building them in the middle of a river gorge in one of the most remote areas of the state.

Of the three surviving bridges, the one here in this scene is the largest. Including the wingwalls, the structure of the bridge is over 500 feet long, the bridge deck is about 25 feet wide, and the top of the bridge rises about 75 feet above the river. The bottom of the arch is about 60 feet above the water, and the total span of the arch is 54 feet. The bridge is mostly in its original condition, although about three-quarters of the parapet stones are gone, having apparently been pushed over the edge by vandals over the years.

In 1980, this bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing structure in the Middlefield–Becket Stone Arch Railroad Bridge District. Then, in 2021, the two surviving stone arch bridges on public property, including this one, were designated as National Historic Landmarks as part of the Western Railroad Stone Arch Bridges and Chester Factory Village Depot district. The district is also comprised of the railroad bed in between the two bridges, including the large rock cut and stone retaining wall, along with the historic railroad station in the center of Chester, several miles to the east of here. This station is owned by the Chester Railway Station and Museum, which features an extensive collection of artifacts relating to the Western Railroad and the construction of these bridges.

For more information on the history of these bridges, the National Historic Landmark Nomination Form is an excellent resource. The Friends of the Keystone Arches also has an excellent website, with plenty of historical information and photographs, along with information about hiking to the bridges.

Middle Street, Hadley, Mass

The view looking north on Middle Street towards Russell Street in Hadley, around 1900. Image from History of Hadley (1905).

The scene in 2021:

Hadley is one of the oldest towns in western Massachusetts, having been first settled by European colonists in 1659 and incorporated as a town two years later. Its terrain is mostly flat, and it is situated on the inside of a broad curve in the Connecticut River, giving it some of the finest farmland in New England. The main settlement developed in this vicinity, with a broad town common on what is now West Street. This common was the town center during the colonial period, and it was the site of three successive meetinghouses beginning in 1670.

The third meetinghouse, which is shown here in these photos, was completed on the town common in 1808. This location was a matter of serious contention, as by the turn of the 19th century much of the town’s development had shifted east toward what is now Middle Street. Tradition ultimately prevailed, and the third meetinghouse was built on the common. However, this proved to be only temporary, because in 1841 it was relocated. The intended location was to be a compromise, located halfway between the common and Middle Street, but the movers ignored this and brought the building all the way to Middle Street, to its current location just south of Route 9.

Architecturally, this meetinghouse reflects some of the changes that were occurring in New England church designs. Prior to the late 18th century, the region’s churches tended to be plain in appearance. Many did not have steeples, and those steeples that did exist tended to rise from the ground level on the side of the building, rather than being fully incorporated into the main section of the church. This began to change with prominent architects like Charles Bulfinch, who drew inspiration from classical architecture when designing churches and other buildings. Bulfinch’s churches tended to feature a triangular pediment above the main entrance, with a steeple that rose from above the pediment, rather than from the ground.

Bulfinch does not appear to have played a hand in designing Hadley’s church, but its builder was clearly influenced by his works. It has a pediment with a steeple above it, and it also has a fanlight above the front door, and a Palladian window on the second floor. Other classically-inspired decorative elements include pilasters flanking the front entrance and dentils around the pediment. As for the steeple itself, it does not bear strong resemblance to the ones that Bulfinch designed, but the builder likely took inspiration from other 18th century New England churches. In particular, it bears a strong resemblance the steeples of churches such as Old North Church in Boston and the First Church of Christ in Wethersfield, Connecticut.

Aside from moving the church to this site, the other major event of 1841 that solidified Middle Street as the town center was the construction of a town hall here. Prior to this point, town meetings were held in the church, as was the case in most Massachusetts towns in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Massachusetts was slow to create a separation between church and state, and not until 1833 did the state outlaw the practice of taxing residents to support local churches. Here in Hadley, this soon led to a physical separation between the church and the town government, although as shown in this scene the two buildings stood side-by-side on Middle Street.

While the church features Bulfinch-inspired architecture, the design of the town hall reflects the Greek Revival style of the mid-19th century. This style was particularly popular for government and other institutional buildings of the period, as it reflected the democratic ideals of ancient Greece. The town hall is perhaps Hadley’s finest example of this style, with a large portico supported by four Doric columns, along with Doric pilasters in between the window bays on all four sides of the building.

The first photo shows Middle Street around the turn of the 20th century, looking north toward the church, the town hall, and Russell Street further in the distance. The photo also shows a house on the foreground, just to the right of the church. Based on its architecture, this house likely dated back to about the mid-18th century, but it was gone by 1903, when the current house was built on the site. This house was originally the home of Dr. Frank Smith, and it was designed by Springfield architect Guy Kirkham.

Today, the town of Hadley is significantly larger than it was when the first photo was taken more than 120 years ago. Russell Street is now Route 9, a major east-west thoroughfare that has significant commercial development thanks to Hadley’s position at the center of the Five Colleges region. Likewise, Middle Street is far from the dirt road in the first photo, and it is now Route 47. However, much of Hadley has retained its historic appearance, including its extensive farmland and its many historic buildings. Here on Middle Street, both the church and the town hall are still standing. They have seen few major exterior changes during this time, and the church is still an active congregation, while the town hall remains the seat of Hadley’s town government. Both buildings are now part of the Hadley Center Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.

City Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The northeast corner of Philadelphia City Hall, seen from the corner of Market and Filbert Streets, around 1905. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2019:

Throughout most of the 19th century, Philadelphia’s municipal government was located in the old city hall building, adjacent to Independence Hall at the corner of Chestnut and Fifth Streets. Built in the 1790s, when Philadelphia had a population of barely 30,000 people, this building had become too small for the rapidly-growing city by the mid-19th century. The result was a new city hall, shown here in these two photos. It would be everything that the small, plain Federal-style building was not: it would be massive and architecturally opulent. Upon completion, it also held the title of the tallest habitable building in the world, marking the only time that a building in Philadelphia would hold this distinction.

The site of the current city hall had previously been a park, known as Centre Square. This park had been a part of William Penn’s original design for the city’s street grid, and it proved to be an ideal location for city hall, at the intersection of the north-south oriented Broad Street and the east-west Market Street. The building was designed by John McArthur Jr., a Scottish-born architect who spent most of his life in Philadelphia. His design featured a Second Empire-style exterior, which was particularly popular for government buildings in the United States during the post-Civil War era. Work began in 1871, but it would ultimately take 30 years to finish, at a cost of $25 million, thanks to construction cost overruns and governmental corruption.

City Hall is laid out in the shape of a square, with seven floors surrounding a central courtyard. In the middle of each side of the building is a large, ornate pavilion that rises above and projects outward from the rest of the building, as shown on the rights side of this scene. On the ground floor of each pavilion is an open archway leading into the courtyard. Along with these pavilions, the building also features matching turrets at each of the four corners. However, by far the most distinguishing feature of City Hall is the tower here at the northern side of the building. It rises 548 above the street, and it is topped by a 37-foot statue of William Penn that was designed by sculptor Alexander Milne Calder.

Although the interior was not completed until 1901, portions of the building were in use by the late 1870s. The tower topped out in 1894, surpassing Germany’s Ulm Minster as the tallest habitable building in the world. As such, it became the first non-religious building in recorded history to hold this distinction, and it would also become the last non-commercial building to do so. Its height was eventually surpassed by the Singer Building in 1908, and since then all of the record holders have been modern skyscrapers. Because of this, Philadelphia City Hall has a unique position on the timeline of the world’s tallest buildings, representing a transition from the cathedrals of the 19th century to the skyscrapers of the 20th century.

Despite its record-setting height, the size of City Hall is somewhat deceptive when viewed in photographs. Part of this was intentional on McArthur’s part, as the arrangement of windows gives the appearance, at first glance, that there are only three floors above the ground floor. This illusion affects the apparent scale of the tower as well, and it is hard to tell from a photograph that the statue is actually 37 feet tall, rather than simply being life-sized. As a result, photographs do not fully capture just how massive this building is. However, it is quite the imposing building when seen in-person, and this would have been even more so for the people in the first photo, which was taken when City Hall was still the world’s tallest building.

Unfortunately for architect John McArthur, the many construction delays meant that he did not live to see the completion of his magnum opus; he died in 1890, at the age of 66. These delays also meant that, by the time it was completed, the design of City Hall was hopelessly out of date. By the late 19th century, tastes had shifted away from the highly ornate features of Second Empire architecture, and City Hall was seen as a relic of an earlier era. This criticism started even before the construction was finished, with the Philadelphia Inquirer declaring it to be an “architectural monstrosity” that “always will be until that bizarre French roof is ripped off and a couple of substantial stories added.”

City Hall would continue to face criticism after its completion, both for its design and also for its location in the middle of a major intersection. As early as 1916 there were calls for its demolition. The Inquirer reiterated its criticism of the design, which the newspaper believed “belongs to a thoroughly discredited era of architectural merit.” Furthermore, the building “blocks our two chief streets and hampers developments which are essential to the welfare of the people and to Philadelphia’s progress.” Consequently, the Inquirer argued, “everyone will agree that where it stands now is an obstruction and a nuisance and the only open question relates to the expediency from a practical and business-like viewpoint of its obliteration.”

This proposal ultimately gained little headway, but the building survived several more serious proposals to demolish it, including one in the 1950s. However, this plan failed in part because of the enormous expense of demolishing such a large masonry structure; the demolition costs would have been roughly equal to what it had cost to build City hall a half century earlier.

Despite the long history of criticism of City Hall, it retained the title of tallest building in Philadelphia throughout most of the 20th century, thanks to an informal gentleman’s agreement that no building should rise higher than the statue of William Penn. However, its height was ultimately surpassed by One Liberty Place in 1987, and other skyscrapers soon followed. Because of this, City Hall is now only the 12th-highest in the city.

Today, more than 120 years after its completion, City Hall remains in use by Philadelphia’s municipal government. It is the largest city hall in the country in terms of interior floor space, and it also stands as the world’s tallest freestanding masonry building in the world. Several other masonry structures are taller, including the Washington Monument, but these do not qualify as buildings and so are listed in a separate category. Over the years, the views on City Hall’s architectural design have changed, and the building is now highly-regarded as a masterpiece of Second Empire architecture. As a result, in 1976 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark, which is the highest level of federal recognition for a historic building.

Carpenters’ Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (2)

Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia, around 1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2019:

As explained in more detail in the previous post, Carpenters’ Hall is an important historic landmark in Philadelphia, having been the meeting place for the First Continental Congress in 1774. Over the ensuing years, it would be used for a variety of other purposes, including as a hospital during the American Revolution, as the offices of Secretary of War Henry Knox during the early 1790s, and as the temporary home of both the First Bank of the United States and the Second Bank of the United States. By the mid-19th century it had become an auction house, a comparatively undignified use that helped to inspire the restoration and preservation of the building in 1857.

By the time the first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century, Carpenters’ Hall was more than 125 years old, but it still retained its colonial-era exterior appearance. However, by this point the building, which is situated at the end of a narrow alley in the middle of a city block, was hemmed in by much larger buildings. This would remain the case until the mid-century, when the Independence National Historical Park was created. Among the more controversial aspects of the park’s creation was the large-scale demolition of many historic 19th and early 20th century buildings, in order to create a more park-like setting that highlighted only the Revolutionary-era buildings.

Today, Carpenters’ Hall is now twice as old as it had been when the first photo was taken. However, because of the removal of so many surrounding buildings, its exterior setting now more closely resembles what it would have looked like when the delegates to the First Continental Congress arrived here in 1774. It is still owned by its original occupant, the Carpenters’ Company of the City and County of Philadelphia, and it is open to the public as one of the many preserved 18th century buildings here in Philadelphia.

Carpenters’ Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Carpenters’ Hall, seen looking south from Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, in May 1859. Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia, Frederick De Bourg Richards Photograph Collection.

The scene in 2019:

One of the many important Revolutionary War-era landmarks in Philadelphia is Carpenters’ Hall, shown here in these two photos. Despite its rather unusual location at the end of a narrow alley in the midst of a city block, this building played an important role as the meeting place of the First Continental Congress, which convened here in September and October 1774. This gathering was attended by many of the future Founding Fathers, and it marked the first time that the various American colonies gathered together in response to grievances against the British government.

As is suggested by its name, Carpenters’ Hall was—and still is—owned by the Carpenters’ Company of the City and County of Philadelphia, a craft guild comprised of the city’s architects and builders. The building was designed by one of its members, the prominent architect Robert Smith, and the construction work began in 1770. It was not completed until 1775, but it was finished enough to allow its use as a meeting space as early as 1773. Then, in 1774, when the delegates arrived here in Philadelphia, they selected the building as their meeting space. John Adams described it in his diary on September 5, the first day that the First Continental Congress was in session:

At Ten, The Delegates all met at the City Tavern, and walked to the Carpenters Hall, where they took a View of the Room, and of the Chamber where is an excellent Library. There is also a long Entry, where Gentlemen may walk, and a convenient Chamber opposite to the Library. The General Cry was, that this was a good Room, and the Question was put, whether We were satisfyed with this Room, and it passed in the Affirmative. A very few were for the Negative and they were chiefly from Pensylvania and New York.

The convening of the First Continental Congress was largely motivated by the Intolerable Acts that the British had passed against Massachusetts, in response to the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Although the other colonies were not directly affected by these measures, which included closing the port of Boston and dissolving the colonial legislature, the Intolerable Acts raised fears in other colonies that their liberties could similarly be revoked by Parliament. A total of 12 colonies sent delegates to the Continental Congress, with only Georgia declining to participate.

The delegates who met here at Carpenters’ Hall included many leaders who would subsequently go on to play active roles in the American Revolution. The most notable of these were George Washington of Virginia and John Adams of Massachusetts, but other prominent delegates included Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, John Jay of New York, and Patrick Henry. However, despite the presence of radical figures like Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry, the assembly also included many moderates who opposed separation from Britain, including Isaac Low of New York and Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania, both of whom ultimately became loyalists during the American Revolution.

At this point, few delegates were prepared to embrace political independence from Great Britain, so the First Continental Congress ultimately took a moderate stance. The delegates approved the Declaration and Resolves, which outlined colonial grievances against Britain, and they also created the Continental Association, an agreement that involved boycotting British goods while also threatening to ban exports to Britain if the Intolerable Acts were not repealed by the following September. In addition, they agreed to reconvene on May 10, 1775, as what would become the Second Continental Congress.

The First Continental Congress adjourned on October 26, 1774. When the delegates to the Second Continental Congress arrived here in Philadelphia just over six months later, they met in the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall, rather than the much smaller Carpenters’ Hall. Aside from a different physical location, the Second Continental Congress also faced very different circumstances, as the American Revolution had begun just three weeks earlier with the battles of Lexington and Concord. The outbreak of war made it more difficult for the moderate delegates to continue advocating reconciliation, as shown by the harsh British response to the Olive Branch petition, and it would eventually lead to Congress famously declaring independence in 1776.

In the meantime, Carpenters’ Hall continued to be used by the Carpenters’ Company, but it also served a number of other roles during and after the Revolution. The Continental Army used it as a hospital and as storage for military supplies, and the British similarly used it as a hospital during their occupation of the city. Then, in 1790, when Philadelphia temporarily became the national capital, Secretary of War Henry Knox had his offices here in this building. A year later, the Carpenters’ Company built a second building here on this site, known as New Hall. The group moved their headquarters to this building, and Knox likewise moved his offices there. However, the Carpenters’ Company continued to rent out their original building to various tenants.

From 1791 to 1793, Carpenters’ Hall was occupied by the Bank of North America, and it subsequently became the temporary home of the First Bank of the United States from 1794 until 1797, when its permanent facility was completed about 50 yards to the east of here. The building’s next tenant was the Bank of Pennsylvania, and in 1798 it became the site of a major bank heist when thieves stole over $160,000 from the vaults. However, one of the men died just a few days later from yellow fever, and the other one was later arrested after attempting to deposit some of his stolen loot here at the bank that he had robbed.

During the early 19th century, Carpenters’ Hall served as the Philadelphia Custom House, and then from 1816 to 1821 it was the home of the Second Bank of the United States, which was located here during the construction of its own building on Chestnut Street. Several other organizations used the building in the 1820s, including the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, the Musical Fund Society, and the Franklin Institute. Then, starting in 1828 it was rented by auctioneer C. J. Wolbert & Co., who used the building as his auction hall.

Carpenters’ Hall would remain in use as an auction house for nearly 30 years, but by the mid-19th century some began to lament the fact that such a historic building was being used for such base commercial purposes. In 1848, historian Benson J. Lossing visited the building, which at the time bore a banner on the façade advertising for Wolbert’s company. Lossing subsequently wrote about how the “very Temple of Freedom” was covered in the “placards of grovelling Mammon.” Continuing the biblical imagery, he challenged the people of Philadelphia, asking “[i]s there not patriotism strong enough in Philadelphia to enter the temple, and ‘cast out all them that buy and sell, and overthrow the tables of the money-changers?’”

The Carpenters’ Company ultimately chose to heed his words, and drove out the money-changers, in the metaphorical sense. In 1856, they voted to not renew Wolbert’s lease, and when he left the organization began restoring the building to its original appearance. It was rededicated on September 5, 1857, on the 83rd anniversary of the opening of the First Continental Congress. Reporting on the event the next day, the Sunday Dispatch praised the restoration of the building, writing about how the Carpenters’ Company,

determined that henceforth the old Hall should go into a respectable and dignified retirement, and that for the food it had already done, it should no more be the scene of traffic. The society have fitted the ancient Hall up in handsome style, and, while doing so, they have adhered as closely as practicable to the original plan of the building, and Carpenters’ Hall is now nearly in the same condition it was in when the historical events occurred which gave it importance. 

The first story, in which the first Continental Congress assembled, has been grained in imitation of oak, and such articles of new furniture as it was necessary to procure, have been made in a style to comport with the ancient relics preserved in the building, and which tradition says were used there by Congress in 1774. . . .

The Carpenters’ Society intend keeping the Hall sacred for the future, and citizens and strangers will be afforded an opportunity of visiting and inspecting this relic of the most interesting period of the city’s history.

The upper part of the building has been handsomely fitted up with a library and meeting room for the members of the society, and with rooms for the residence of the janitor and his family. In the library are several of the original fire buckets which belonged to the hall before the introduction of a hose.

Outside the Hall, in front of the building, a neat grass plot and flower beds have been laid out, and handsome lamps occupy the sides of the main entrance. The inside of the building has also been supplied with elegant and appropriate chandeliers, brackets, &c., which were designed purposely by their manufacturers.

The first photo was taken less than two years later by Frederick De Bourg Richards, as part of an effort to document Philadelphia’s historic buildings. It shows the north side of the building, looking down the narrow alley connecting it to Chestnut Street. The buildings in the foreground hide much of Carpenters’ Hall, and the one on the right also blocks the view of New Hall, which stood just to the northwest of Carpenters’ Hall. These modern buildings provide an interesting contrast to the old colonial-era landmark, in particular the advertisements for California-bound steamships, which indicate just how much the nation had changed since the First Continental Congress convened here less than a century earlier.

Today, more than 160 years after the first photo was taken, much of this scene has changed. At some point New Hall was demolished, as were the commercial buildings in the foreground. Some of these may have been demolished as part of the creation of the Independence National Historical Park, which involved the removal of most 19th century buildings across several city blocks. However, Carpenters’ Hall itself is still standing in the distant center of this scene. It is still owned by the Carpenters’ Company, and it is open to the public with free admission. In the present-day scene, it is joined here by a 1960s reconstruction of New Hall on the right, which now serves as the New Hall Military Museum, and on the left by the Pemberton House, a 1960s reconstruction of a colonial-era mansion.

Pelham Town Hall, Pelham, Mass

Pelham Town Hall, at the corner of Amherst Road and Route 202 in Pelham, on December 20, 1932. Image taken by Stuart D. Pike, Metropolitan District Water Supply Commission.

The scene in 2015:

The old town hall here in Pelham was built around 1743, the same year that Pelham was incorporated as a town, and it is said to be the oldest continuously-used town hall in the country. Built long before the idea of separation of church and state, it was also used as the town church for nearly a century, making it one of the oldest surviving church buildings in the state.

Pelham was settled 1739 by Scotch-Irish colonists. Most had been part of a group of immigrants who arrived in Boston in 1718, but they faced discrimination in the largely English Puritan town, and many subsequently moved to Worcester. However, they received similar treatment there, and  by the 1730s they began looking west to what was, at the time, the frontier areas of Massachusetts.

In 1738, a group of 34 settlers purchased the land that would become Pelham from Colonel John Stoddard of Northampton. They then laid out house lots and roads, and within a few years they began construction of this meeting house here at the crest of a hill near the geographic center of town. The town hired brothers Thomas and John Dick to build it, and it may have been used for church services as early as 1741, although the entire structure was not completed until 1746.

Pelham was incorporated as a town in January 1743, and the first town meeting occurred here in this building a few months later on April 19. Among the items of business was the selection of town officials. These included five selectmen, a town clerk, and a treasurer, along with a variety of other offices, including two fence viewers, two hog reeves, and two “Officers to Prosecute ye Law Respecting Killing Deer,” which was apparently an 18th century equivalent of a game warden.

With the town government established, the next step was for the town to choose a pastor. During its first few years, the church did not have its own pastor. Instead, the weekly preaching was handled by “suppliers,” who were generally short-term itinerant pastors. One such supplier was Robert Abercrombie, a Presbyterian pastor who began preaching here as early as 1742. A native of Scotland, Abercrombie graduated from the University of Edinburgh and subsequently came to the American colonies, arriving in 1740.

In May 1743, the town selected three residents who would be responsible for consulting with other local clergymen and choosing an appropriate person to become the town’s full-time pastor. This committee subsequently recommended Abercrombie, and four other pastors submitted a letter endorsing him, including Jonathan Edwards, the prominent theologian and pastor of the church in Northampton. The letter read:

Whereas we ye Subscribers have had some considerable acquaintance with Rev. Mr. Abercrombie, Preacher of ye Gospel, and what we know of his qualification by Information and personal acquaintance, we advise ye people of God in Pelham to Invite ye sd Mr. Robert Abercrombie to settle in ye Work of ye Ministrie among them as their Pastor.

This letter was dated August 30, 1743, but the next day a group of 22 residents submitted a letter of their own, stating that they “Do protest against ye proceedings of Part of ye inhabitants of ye sd town in their calling of ye Rev. Robert Abercrombie to be their minister in sd town.” The specific reasons for their objections are unclear, but they succeeded in postponing a final decision until the following March. By that point, the opposition evidently relented, and the town extended a formal call to Abercrombie, which he accepted on March 5, 1744.

Abercrombie was ordained here on August 30, 1744, with Jonathan Edwards delivering the sermon for the occasion. Edwards is often remembered for his vivid metaphors describing sin and damnation that he employed in his famous 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” but his message here in Pelham lacked the same level of intense imagery. He did, however, twice warn his audience here to “fly from the wrath to come,” a phrase that he had used in the closing part of his 1741 sermon.

Edwards’s sermon for Abercrombie’s ordination was titled “The True Excellency of a Minister of the Gospel,” based on John 5:35, “He was a burning and a shining Light.—” He used this verse to explain the role of pastors, and how they are to be a shining light to their congregation, just as John the Baptist was in this particular verse. The printed version of the sermon is nearly 9,000 words long, and likely would have taken around an hour to deliver. The first three-quarters of the sermon focused on the biblical responsibilities of pastors in general, including a grim warning about how pastors who are unfaithful in their positions will suffer torment in hell that is second only to the punishment of demons themselves.

Near the end of his sermon, Edwards turned his attention to Abercrombie. To the new pastor he declared:

You have now, dear Sir, heard something of the Nature and Design of that Office to which you are this Day, in the Name of Christ, to be solemnly set apart. You are therein called to be a Light to the Souls of Men, a Lamp in God’s Temple, and a Star in the spiritual World. And you have heard wherein, in Christ’s Esteem, consists the proper Excellency of one in that Office, and how in this a Minister of the Gospel becomes like his glorious Master, and glorifies him, and is likely to be the Instrument of the Salvation and Happiness of the Souls of Men, and to receive a glorious Reward from the Hands of God. . . .

God in his Providence has brought you far from your native Land, and from your Friends and Acquaintance there; but you will have Reason notwithstanding to acknowledge the good Hand of his Providence towards you, if he is pleased to make you a burning and shining Light in this Part of his Church, and by the Influence of your Light and Heat (or rather by his divine Influence, with your Ministry) to cause this Wilderness to bud and blossom as the Rose, and give it the Excellency of Carmel and Sharon, and to cause you to shine in the midst of this People with warm and lightsome, quickening and comforting Beams, causing their Souls to flourish, rejoice and bear Fruit, like a Garden of pleasant Fruits, under the Beams of the Sun.

Edwards then concluded by speaking directly to the people of Pelham, encouraging them to pray for and support Abercrombie:

If it be, as you have heard, the proper Excellency of a Minister of the Gospel to be a burning and a shining Light, then it is your Duty earnestly to pray for your Minister that he may be filled with Divine Light, and with the Power of the Holy Ghost, to make him so. For herein you will but pray for the greatest Benefit to your selves; for if your Minister burns and shines, it will be for your Light and Life. That which has been spoken of, as it is the chief Excellency of a Minister, for it renders a Minister the greatest Blessing of any Thing in the World that ever God bestows on a People.

Likely aware of the controversy that had divided the congregation a year earlier, Edwards then warned the residents of Pelham to not act in opposition to Abercrombie, and even implied that such people did so because the light of his teachings exposed their own personal sins:

[T]ake Heed that instead of this you don’t take a Course to obscure and extinguish the Light that would shine among you, & to smother and suppress the Flame, by casting Dirt upon it; by necessitating your Minister by your Penuriousness towards him, to be envolved in worldly Care; and by discouraging his Heart by Disrespect and Unkindness. And particularly when your Minister shews himself to be a burning Light by burning with a proper Zeal against any Wickedness that may be breaking out amongst his People & manifests it by bearing a proper Testimony against it in the Preaching of the Word or by a faithful Exercise of the Discipline of God’s House, instead of taking it thankfully, and yielding to him in it, as you ought, don’t raise another Fire of a contrary Nature, against it, viz. the Fire of your unhallowed Passions, reflecting upon and reproaching him for his Faithfulness.

He then ended the sermon on a more positive note, encouraging his hearers to:

[T]hus walk as the Children of the Light, and follow your Minister wherein he is a Follower of Christ, i. e. wherein he is as a burning and shining Light. If you continue so to do, your Path will be the Path of the Just, which shines more and more to the perfect Day, and the End of your Course shall be in those blissful Regions of everlasting Light above, where you shall shine forth with your Minister, and both with Christ, as the Sun, in the Kingdom of the Heavenly Father.

As it turned out, both Edwards and Abercrombie would go on to have turbulent relationships with their respective congregations. Edwards was dismissed from the Northampton church in 1751, and Abercrombie faced similar challenges here in Pelham. For Abercrombie, the issue appears to have centered around his refusal to baptize the infant children of parents who were living in unrepentant sin. The Presbytery in Boston ultimately suspended him in 1754 and dismissed him a year later, but he and his supporters here in Pelham did not go down without a fight. Contesting the authority of the Presbytery to dismiss him, Abercrombie refused to yield his position, and he had to be physically barred from entering the meeting house to preach.

Abercrombie would remain in Pelham for the rest of his life, farming his land while occasionally supplying the pulpit for churches in other towns. He also sued the town for pay that he believed he was entitled to, and the case dragged on for four years until the courts ruled in his favor in 1759. In the meantime, the divisions within the church prevented the town from selecting his successor for nearly a decade, so the church went through a series of “suppliers” until 1763, when a Hampshire County grand jury indicted the down for its negligence in failing to obtain a pastor.

Soon after the grand jury issued this indictment, the town selected Richard Crouch Graham, a 24-year-old Yale graduate who had evidently been one of the suppliers in the early 1760s. He was ordained as the second pastor of the church, with a salary of 60 pounds. This would later be raised to 80 pounds per year, but Graham nonetheless fell deep into debt. According to a 19th century Yale biographical sketch, “his mind gave way,” presumably under the pressure from his financial situation, and he died in 1771, a few weeks before he would have turned 32, leaving a widow and four young children.

As a result, the town was again without a pastor. However, this time it only took four years before Nathaniel Merrill was ordained as the town’s third pastor in 1775, a few months after the start of the American Revolution. While church-related issues had long been divisive here in Pelham, the question of American independence prompted little controversy, with 19th century historian Josiah Gilbert Holland later describing how, “[t]he people of Pelham were on the right side in the Revolution.” Most significantly, this included a vote at a town meeting here on June 20, 1776, when the town’s residents declared “by Unanimous Vote that we are willing to Come Under Independency from under the yoke of the King of Great Brittain.” Exactly two weeks later, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia likewise unanimously approved independence from Britain.

No battles were ever fought anywhere near Pelham during the Revolution, but the war nonetheless came at an economic cost to the town’s residents. Among other problems, the war led to ruinous inflation, causing Merrill’s salary to increase from 80 pounds in 1775 to 2,500 pounds in 1780. However, despite the town steadily raising his salary, Merrill was apparently unwilling to continue to be paid in rapidly-depreciating currency, and he left his position in 1781. That same year, Daniel Shays made his first appearance on the lists of town officers, as one of four men on the town’s Committee of Safety. He would serve in that capacity and in several other town positions over the next few years, before his name came to epitomize the economic plight of rural Massachusetts farmers.

In the meantime, Merrill’s departure meant that the town’s pulpit was once again vacant, so the town again resorted to short-term suppliers. This would, in turn, lead to the most bizarre incident in the long history of this building, involving one of early America’s most notorious con artists. It all began on a spring day in 1784, when a 19-year-old, who went by the name of Reverend Davis, arrived in town with a letter from Moses Baldwin, pastor of the church in Palmer. The letter recommended Davis as a suitable supply pastor, so the town invited him to preach for the next four weeks, at a rate of five dollars per week, plus board and horsekeeping.

As the people of Pelham would later discover, though, Davis was not his real name, nor was he an ordained minister. Rather, he was Stephen Burroughs, a Dartmouth dropout whose father, Eden Burroughs, was a pastor in Hanover, New Hampshire. Prior to arriving in Pelham, he had spent time as a “doctor” on a privateering vessel out of Newburyport. He had then returned to New Hampshire, where he found work as a schoolteacher. However, he ended up in trouble for stealing a beehive, and for his relationship with a “widow” whose husband turned out to be alive and well. Burroughs subsequently left New Hampshire, but not before making off with ten of his father’s written sermons. The doctor-turned-teacher had thus reinvented himself as a pastor, and he preached several sermons here in western Massachusetts before receiving the letter of recommendation from the credulous Reverend Baldwin.

Here in Pelham, the young “Davis” proved himself to be a capable preacher, but some of the parishioners began to become suspicious of him, especially after someone noticed that he was preaching from notes that were written on old, yellowed paper. Believing that he was merely recycling someone else’s sermons, one of the leaders in the church asked him on the following Sunday to preach from a portion of a specific verse, Joshua 9:5, which reads “And old shoes and clouted upon their feet.” However, despite the obscurity of this verse, and his minimal time to prepare, Burroughs delivered a strong sermon. He spoke of shoes as a metaphor of one’s spiritual journey through the world, and how old shoes represented old sins. In particular, he railed against the sin of jealousy, evidently targeting those who had doubted him.

His sermon was convincing, and the church responded by offering to let him continue preaching here for four more months. Burroughs remained here until September 1784, and he may have been able to continue the charade much longer if not for the arrival of Joseph Huntingdon, Burroughs’s friend from Dartmouth. He stayed in Pelham for a few days, and accidentally called Burroughs by his real name several times. Then, while Burroughs was accompanying him for part of his journey home to Coventry, they saw Justus Forward, pastor of the church in the neighboring town of Belchertown. Forward had, as his guest, another clergyman who recognized Burroughs and addressed him by his real name, despite Burroughs’s insistence that his name was Davis.

Realizing at this point that his identity had been exposed, Burroughs returned to Pelham, packed his belongings, and left town in the middle of the night, taking with him a five dollar advance that he had received for the upcoming week’s sermon. The town awoke the next morning to discover their pastor gone, and word soon arrived from Belchertown that he had been an impostor.

Pursued by angry townsmen, Burroughs made his way to Rutland, Massachusetts, where he had an acquaintance. However, the Pelham men soon tracked him down, leading to a confrontation in Rutland that left one of his pursuers with a broken arm and another with a head injury. Burroughs then armed himself with a scythe snath, entered a barn, and climbed to the top of the hayloft. In the meantime, a crowd of Rutland residents gathered along with the Pelham men, and the two groups began arguing over Burroughs. Despite the outrage of the Pelhamites, the Rutlanders seemed less concerned about the accusations, arguing that Burroughs had upheld his agreement to preach for the town, even if it was under an assumed name. Regarding the five dollars that he had received for the upcoming Sunday, they proposed that Burroughs use it to treat everyone to drinks at a nearby tavern.

This compromise proved acceptable to all parties, and Burroughs’s parishioners-turned-pursuers became his drinking companions for the evening, at least until the arrival of the man who had suffered the head injury. He rekindled the hostility toward Burroughs, and the Pelhamites decided to take him prisoner. However, with the aid of sympathetic Rutlanders, he was able to escape from the tavern.

As it turned out, Burroughs’s five months in Pelham was only the beginning of what would become a long and varied career as a con artist. He was subsequently able to talk his way into another four-week preaching stint, this time in Attleboro, Massachusetts, but he soon gave up preaching and turned his attention to the more potentially-lucrative world of counterfeiting.

With the help of one of his few remaining allies in Pelham, he made the acquaintance of Glazier Wheeler, a notorious counterfeiter. Wheeler sold his counterfeit dollars at a rate of three for a dollar, and Burroughs acquired 20 of them, which be brought to Springfield and used to purchase supplies at an apothecary, including sulfuric acid and arsenic, which were evidently needed for producing more counterfeits. However, the fraud was quickly detected, and he was arrested shortly after leaving the shop. Following his conviction, he was sentenced to stand in the pillory for an hour, and then serve three years of hard labor in jail. Within a few months, Burroughs attempted to escape by setting fire to the jail, and he was subsequently transferred to the state prison on Castle Island in Boston. He managed to escape the island with several other inmates, but they were subsequently recaptured.

Burroughs was later released, but his time in prison did little to reform his ways. He became a teacher in Charlton, Massachusetts, but soon found himself back in jail after attempting to seduce several of his students. After this incident, he left Massachusetts and eventually made his way to Georgia, where he was involved in land speculation schemes. He ended up losing money in this venture, and he later headed back north, living in northern Vermont and then in Canada. In 1798 Burroughs published a memoir detailing his life up to that point, and by the early 19th century he had resumed his counterfeiting career, this time forging American banknotes from the relative safety of Canada. However, at some point he settled down, married, raised a family, converted to Catholicism, and evidently renounced his former way of living. He remained in Canada for the rest of his life, and died in Trois-Rivières, Quebec in 1840.

Meanwhile, back here in Pelham the elderly Robert Abercrombie was still living in town during Burroughs’s five months in the pulpit. He was likely well aware of the subsequent controversy, and it is easy to imagine that he may have found some satisfaction in knowing that the town that had spurned him decades earlier had been duped by a teenaged con artist. Abercrombie would remain here in Pelham for the rest of his life, until his death in 1786, when he was in his mid-70s.

In a way, Abercrombie’s death marked the end of an era for the town, and it occurred right at the beginning of what would become the greatest crisis that the town would face in the 18th century. By the mid-1780s, America had won its independence from Britain, but the states were saddled with wartime debt. With Congress lacking the authority to levy taxes, the national government had resorted to issuing paper money to fund the war. The states issued their own paper money as well, and by the early 1780s these notes circulated far below par. Among those who had received payments in paper money were the soldiers in the Continental Army, who now returned home after the war with little to show for it except for paper money that the government might never redeem for face value.

Here in Massachusetts, the state was deeply in debt. In response, the state government, which was largely controlled by wealthy eastern merchants, raised taxes that had to be repaid in hard money, not in paper currency. This included a poll tax, which was levied on all males aged 16 and older, regardless of income. The other main tax was on property, which placed a greater burden on rural landowning farmers than on the merchants, whose wealth generally consisted of stock investments rather than land. In total, these taxes amounted to about a third of a typical Massachusetts farmer’s income, payable in scarce hard money.

Making matters worse for these farmers, they also faced new demands from their creditors. In an economy with little gold or silver in circulation, they had often paid merchants with goods from their farms. However, like the state government, the merchants were also now demanding payment in hard money. For those who were in debt to these merchants, it was nearly impossible for them to repay their debts while also meeting their heavy tax burden, resulting in many farmers losing their land to foreclosure.

Here in Pelham, life was difficult for the town’s farmers even during good times. Few of the farmers here were impoverished, but few were particularly wealthy either. Farms were generally small, and the town’s hilly, rocky terrain was hardly ideal for agriculture. This, combined with the town’s history of skepticism toward authority figures—whether it was a local pastor or a British monarch—helped contribute to the small town becoming an epicenter in a rebellion that would soon reverberate throughout the country and influence the design of the national government.

Daniel Shays, for whom this rebellion would subsequently be named, was one of these struggling Pelham farmers, although he lived in a few different places before coming to the town. Born in Hopkinton in 1747, he subsequently moved west to Brookfield, then to Shutesbury, and then to Pelham. He served throughout the American Revolution, eventually becoming a captain in the Continental Army. He even received a ceremonial sword from the Marquis de Lafayette, although he later had to sell it because of his postwar financial struggles.

Although he was a newcomer in a small town of close-knit families, Shays had no trouble finding like-minded residents with whom he could share his frustrations. About a half mile from his farm was the tavern of William Conkey Sr., and this became a gathering place for him and his rebels, where they could hold drills outside the building and discuss strategy over drinks inside. Conkey was one of the supporters of the rebellion, as was the rest of his family. Other allies of Shays included several of Robert Abercrombie’s sons, and even Ebenezer Gray, the town treasurer and church deacon who had fallen for Stephen Burroughs’s fraudulent claims several years earlier.

At the start of Shays’ Rebellion, the primary objective was to prevent courts from meeting, which would in turn prevent the courts from foreclosing on any property. To that end, the first major action in Shays’ Rebellion occurred in Northampton on August 29, 1786, when a group of about 1,500 rebels marched on the county courthouse. They succeeded in closing the courthouse, and this was followed by similar efforts in other towns, including Worcester, Concord, Springfield, and Great Barrington.

During this time, there was no national army, in part because of lack of funding and also because of fears regarding standing armies in peacetime. This meant that the Continental Congress was largely powerless against insurrections such as this, leaving it up to state militias to suppress the uprisings. However, given that many members of the militia, especially in here in western Massachusetts, were either participating in the rebellion or at least sympathetic to it, the militia was not necessarily the most reliable solution. Nonetheless, General William Shepard of Westfield managed to raise a sizable militia force here in western Massachusetts, and General Benjamin Lincoln raised a privately-funded militia in the eastern part of the state.

The climatic event of Shays’ Rebellion occurred in early 1787, when Shays and the other leaders set their sights on the federal arsenal in Springfield. With no federal soldiers to protect it, Shepard took control of the facility and guarded it with more than a thousand militiamen. On January 25, Shays approached the arsenal with a similarly-sized force, and advanced despite warning shots from Shepard. He then used cannons to fire grape shot into the insurgent lines, killing four and wounding many others. Armed with little more than swords, clubs, and old muskets, Shays and his men were badly outgunned by the well-equipped militiamen, and the rebels began to retreat.

Following the attempted assault on the arsenal, Benjamin Lincoln and his 3,000-man militia marched west from Worcester in pursuit of the rebels. Shays and much of his force ended up back in Pelham, where hundreds of his men encamped here in the area around the meeting house from January 28 to February 3. From here, Shays then moved on to Petersham, where Lincoln’s militia surprised them at their encampment, took some of them prisoner, and forced the rest to scatter.

Over the next few weeks there were several minor skirmishes, mainly in the Berkshires, but by this point the rebellion was effectively over. Nearly all of the rebels were ultimately pardoned, with about four thousand men signing confessions and taking an oath of allegiance in exchange for amnesty. Only a few of the leaders were excluded from the amnesty offer, and most fled the state, including Shays, who moved to Vermont. However, even he was subsequently pardoned in 1788 by Governor John Hancock, who took a conciliatory approach to the rebels. Shays eventually moved to upstate New York, where he lived in poverty until his death in 1825.

From a military perspective, Shays’ Rebellion was a failure. However, this attempted insurrection would prove to have significant political consequences, both at the state and national level. In 1787, the state legislature responded to some of the farmers’ grievances by lowering taxes and passing debt relief measures. During that same summer, the rebellion also had an effect on the delegates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The fact that loosely-organized, poorly-equipped farmers had nearly taken a federal arsenal, and the fact that the arsenal required a state militia to protect it, convinced many skeptics of the need for a more powerful central government. As a result, the rebellion helped influence not only the writing of the new Constitution, but also the subsequent debate over its ratification.

Throughout all of these events, the old meeting house here in the center of Pelham remained in use as both the town hall and the church. Architecturally, the building was typical of mid-18th century meeting houses, and very different from the types of churches that would come to dominate the rural New England landscape of the 19th century. On the exterior, the building was essentially devoid of any ornamentation, and it had no steeple, which gave it an appearance more like a large colonial-era house than a church.

Another difference between this building and later churches was the interior layout. Rather than having the main entrance at one of the ends, it was located here on the south side, in the middle of one of the long walls. The high pulpit, with its sounding board above it, was located directly opposite the entrance on the north side of the building, and the pews were arranged to face it. During the mid-1700s the church had 27 pews, most of which were divided between two families. As was the case in most New England churches of the period, families purchased their pews, with prices that varied depending on the location in the church.

The interiors of colonial New England meeting houses were generally spartan, with little in the way of decoration or even religious symbolism. They also frequently lacked heat, with some Puritan-minded New Englanders even taking a certain measure of pride in their ability to sit through long sermons in frigid weather. Here in Pelham, the only heat source came from the hot coals that some parishioners would bring in foot stoves, which provided a small measure of relief from the cold. Not until 1831 would this meeting house finally get a stove, some 90 years after it had first been used for religious services.

In a sense, the installation of a stove was a sign of changing times, as Massachusetts continued to shift further away from colonial-era Puritan tradition. One major step in this process occurred two years later in 1833, when the state passed the eleventh amendment to its constitution, ending government involvement in religion. When it was first written, the First Amendment provisions in the U.S. Constitution applied only to Congress, so the individual states were not prohibited from establishing religion. Most states eventually codified religious freedom in their own laws or constitutions, but Massachusetts was the last to do so. State residents continued to be taxed to support local churches until 1833, when the new amendment declared that all religious groups “shall be equally under the protection of the law.”

Here in Pelham, this new doctrine of separation of church and state was soon followed by a physical separation between the two entities. After about a century of sharing the meeting house with the town government, the church moved into a new building of its own. It was completed in 1841, and it still stands just to the west of here. In the meantime, the old meeting house retained its role as town hall, but it was moved back in 1839, onto a portion of the burying ground behind the building. Then, in 1845 it was moved again, this time about 30 feet further north. Also in 1845, the large interior space was divided into two floors, with the upper floor being used for town meetings.

Throughout the second half of the 19th century, Pelham steadily declined in population. This trend was seen throughout rural western Massachusetts towns, as residents moved to growing industrial cities or west to seek better farmland. The town’s population had reached as high as 1,278 in the 1820 census, but two years later the eastern portion of the town was split off to create the town of Prescott. By 1900, Pelham’s population had dropped to 462, having lost nearly two-thirds of its 1820 figure.

The town’s dwindling population had also shifted west during this time. With the loss of land to Prescott, the meeting house was no longer close to the geographic center of town. In addition, by the early 20th century the majority of residents lived in the western part of town, near the border of Amherst. In 1921, residents considered a proposal to begin holding town meetings in the western village, rather than here. However, tradition won out over convenience, and the proposal was defeated by a vote of 52 to 11.

Aside from its use as a venue for town meetings, this building served several other purposes. By the turn of the 20th century the first floor housed offices for the selectmen and assessors, along with the town library and a vault for storing records. Elsewhere on the first floor was the town hearse, and the rest of the floor was used as storage space. The large space in the upper floor was, in addition to the town meetings, used for a variety of plays and other public events.

Although the town had voted to continue using the old meeting house in 1921, it soon faced a far more substantial threat in the subsequent decade. The Swift River valley, which included a portion of eastern Pelham, was being eyed as a potential water source for Boston. The project, which led to the construction of Quabbin Reservoir, would require the disincorporation of four entire towns, including neighboring Prescott, along with substantial land takings from other towns. Pelham itself would be able to remain a town, but its historic center here would be affected, since it was located directly on the watershed divide.

The first photo was taken as part of a project to document all of the buildings in the affected areas. The board in the lower right corner indicates the building’s location, along with its parcel number and other identifying information. Nearly all of the buildings that were photographed were eventually purchased by the state or taken by eminent domain, and were subsequently demolished in order to make way for the reservoir. However, both the town hall and the neighboring church were spared, although nearly all of the buildings to the east of here on the other side of US Route 202 were taken by the state.

Many of the places related to Shays’ Rebellion, including the site of Conkey’s Tavern and the farm that belonged Daniel Shays, were in the section of Pelham that later became Prescott. These sites were, in turn, taken as part of the formation of the reservoir. Neither the house site nor the presumed tavern site are underwater, but they are off-limits to the public on what is now known as the Prescott Peninsula. There is a certain amount of irony here, given that Shays and his fellow townsmen had taken up arms against the state to prevent the loss of their farms, only to have the state take that entire section of their town some 150 years later.

Today, the Pelham Town Hall is one of few remaining buildings with a direct connection to Shays’ Rebellion. It is also one of the oldest surviving church buildings in western Massachusetts. The old meeting house in South Hadley is a few years older, but it has been altered almost beyond recognition, so this one in Pelham is probably the oldest one that has retained much of its original appearance. Because of its historic significance, both the town hall and the adjacent church were designated as contributing properties in the Pelham Town Hall Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.

More than 80 years after the first photo was taken, very little has changed here in this scene. The building is not used as frequently as it had been in the past, though. The town offices are now located about a quarter mile to the west of here, and since 1968 most of the town meetings are held at the elementary school in the west village. However, the town continues to hold at least one meeting here in the building each year, maintaining its distinction as  the purported oldest continuously-used town hall in the country. This unbroken streak, dating back more than 275 years, has withstood church feuds, the American Revolution, an impostor preacher, and a large-scale rebellion, and the town even managed to maintain the tradition during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a brief pro forma meeting here in October 2020.