Needham History Center & Museum

The Cow Tunnel

by Polly Attridge, Archivist, Needham History Center

Why did the cow cross the road?  HOW did the cow cross the road? The construction of Route 128 in the 1950s upset the cows’ placid routine, requiring an ingenious solution for cattle-driving, Needham style.

Imagine riding down busy Route 128 in Needham and seeing cows grazing in a large pasture on the northern side of the highway.  You might wonder who owned them; why they seemed to be stranded out there with no indication of a farm, or even a barn, anywhere near them; and, most importantly, how on earth they got there, as the land around the pasture was in the process of being developed.

Well, it this was once the case in Needham. We will tell you when and how it came about, and why Greendale Avenue was an important part of the puzzle.

Before the Europeans settled here, Greendale Avenue was part of an old Native American trail from what is now Dedham, to the Upper and Lower Falls of the Charles River. In the 1600s it was nothing more than a rutted dirt path called “The Road from Dedham to the Upper Falls.”  In the 1700s, a few people built homes there, and it was changed simply to “The Road from Dedham to Newton.”  But by the 1800s more houses were being built. It continued as a dirt road, but for some reason the Needham Chronicle in 1898 reported that “Greendale Avenue is being used more for pleasure than for heavy teaming.”  This didn’t last.  A bit of it was repaired in 1905, but by 1925 it was described as “one of the wretched roads of the town.” That same year the Needham Street Department asked for a relocation of the street from Lyons Street to Great Plain Avenue and from the Railroad Bridge to Broadmeadow Road.

In the early 20th century, Boston had what was called a “hub and spoke” transportation system, with Boston as the hub, and small roads built for horses and buggies leading to the surrounding small towns. As soon as the automobile became popular, the roads became gridlocked. If you wanted to get from one town to another you had to go through the city, but it wasn’t until the 1920’s that it was determined that a circumferential highway around Boston was an absolute necessity.  With this in mind, in 1925 those in charge of state transportation matters focused on a number of towns in a semi-circle approximately 15 miles out of Boston. Within those towns they chose streets which ran north and south. For some unexplained reason – unless it was wishful thinking – they also called most of those streets “The Circumferential Highway,” in preference to the names bestowed by the towns.

Building Route 128 through Cutler Park in Needham in 1951.
Building Route 128 through Cutler Park in Needham in 1951. The steep grading shows why the tunnel was both necessary and feasible.

At that point the handwriting was on the wall, and in 1929 the Town of Needham authorized an appropriation of money to relocate and rebuild Greendale Avenue in hopes that the area would be among the first to be included in the resolved plan to build a $14 million state highway. Apparently this took a lot of consideration because it wasn’t until 1931 that the town did as recommended, building the road higher than before, curving onto higher land toward the west.  The northern part of the road was rebuilt from High Street in a southeastward direction to Kendrick Road. The other end of the road was temporarily abandoned. It is now a short residential stub known as Old Greendale Avenue.

The decision to rebuild Greendale Avenue was a good one, because in the 1930’s Boston’s new DPW Commissioner William Callahan (yes, the Callahan Tunnel man) managed to secure enough money to build the beginning of his proposed six-lane, semi – circular highway, still within the 15-mile radius of Boston. As money came in he built more pieces of the road. After World War II people began moving from Boston to the suburbs, thereby increasing the need for the new road. In 1949 the state received a $200 million grant for highways, and it inspired him to put the new Circumferential Highway at the top of his priorities.

But back to the cows… For many years before anyone even thought about highways, Phillip Simon, a Needham cattle dealer, had a large barn with the word CATTLE written across the side. From his house at the top of the hill at 248 Greendale Avenue (near Kendrick Street) he could look northward to his large pasture land and see his cows happily grazing. In 1931 the state mandated the exact plans for the new highway. In what seemed a hopeless deadlock those plans just happened to split his land in half.  With his barn on one side of the street and the pasture on the other, it looked as if Phil had quite a problem. However, an alert engineer for the state had already grasped the situation and come up with a brilliant solution. They built a tunnel under the road. It was built of cement with a stone floor, and wide enough for one cow to pass through easily.  Despite the slight vibration and noise from the cars overhead, the cows, from the very first day, with no apparent hesitancy or fear, accepted it as a way of getting them to their destination, whether it be to the pasture or back to the barn. They would graze peacefully until the late afternoon, when they would meander, one by one, to the tunnel and amble through it to the barn in time for milking.

As time went by Route 128 took up more and more of the pasture land with radio towers and businesses, and the number of cows dwindled until finally those that were left went through the gate one last time.

Our records don’t show what finally happened to Phil and his cows, but it appears that the tunnel, which served for 17 years, was plowed over when the complete Route 128 was built, replacing the local Circumferential route by 1950.

We haven’t seen any cows in Needham for a long time, but if they were here, they certainly would not appreciate having a pasture anywhere near the now-crowded and very noisy major highway we simply call “128.”

Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum