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The Battle Over Atlantic Ave

Peter Barnicle

 From Peter Barnicle, "The Resurfing of Atlantic Avenue," Cohasset Mariner, November 8, 1979. Reprinted by permission of the Cohasset Mariner.

Today Atlantic Avenue winds near the oceanfront from Nichols Road past Sandy Beach and over Cunningham Bridge to Beach Street, and then on to Margin Street at the harbor. In the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the stretch from Nichols Road [built in 1882] to Beach Street was missing.

A number of townspeople, particularly those who owned property in the area, thought that a macadam roadway, an extension of Jerusalem Road, would enhance the value of the land and attract builders of summer homes. Naturally, their reason was that the new homes would bring increased income to the town.

The proposal to "build a road across 'the island' (Beach Island)" was first brought up at a town meeting in 1852 and then put on the back burner. For the next thirty years the necessity for the road was debated pro and con. Peter Kimball, owner of the Pleasant Beach House, and several other property owners, agreed to offer the town a right of way through their land for the road. Kimball went so far as to say he would build the road through his own land.

It wasn't until the town meeting of 1884 that the proposal was again brought up at town meeting. The selectmen were asked to study the idea. However, thus time proponents were ready to do battle. They got up a petition requesting a special town meeting, and 178 residents signed it.

J. Q. A. Lothrop, the moderator, called the meeting for September 18, and the proponents and the remonstrants (the opposition) showed up for a discussion. Henry D. Hyde, counsel for the opponents, was well prepared. At least, according to reports of the meeting, he talked for two hours. Hyde argued that the road was not needed and was more expensive than the town could afford. He also questioned whether a bridge could be legally built across the mouth of Little Harbor without the permission of the legislature. At the time there was a wooden [footbridge] where Cunningham Bridge now spans the opening. It replaced Cuba Dam, which had been built around 1765 [and was destroyed in 1851].

How Cuba Dam came by its name is another story. One legend says that an elderly black from Cuba lived in the area at the time it was built. Another story is that it was named to commemorate Lord Albemarle's capture of Havana by the British in 1762. In any case, the dam was built to protect the salt marshes where haying was a big industry. Several expensive efforts were made to control the tides, but recurring storms undid the work.

At the special town meeting, the selectmen decided "to lay out the proposed road in three distinct locations and secure estimates from road builders as to the probable cost, and to report to the next annual town meeting." The "three distinct locations" idea started another brouhaha. Peter Kimball, whose hotel burned down in 1881, found that one of the routes would go directly in front of his barn and spoil several house lots on which he planned to build. Another route would go through his orchard and over his wells.

Undaunted by the protests, Daniel N. Tower surveyed the routes as outlined to him by the selectmen. A hearing was held before the Legislative Committee on Harbors, and members of the committee took time off from their arduous duties to visit Cohasset for a look at the proposed bridge site.

The matter was on the warrant for the 1885 town meeting and was defeated by a vote of 127 113. The meeting voted to have "a committee of seven, appointed by the moderator, to act with the selectmen in revising and changing the proposed location of the proposed road." W. C. Burrage, a resident of Beach island and one of the proponents of the road, was recorded after the meeting as saying, "The selectmen have been bullied in the matter from the first, threatened with suits at law and loss of position, talked to and at behind their backs by some of the first citizens of the town, begrudged the expression of their opinions, and then forsooth coolly told they 'insult' people by their labor to improve the town."

Despite the adverse vote, the legislature approved the bridge part of the project but not before Attorney Hyde made his position perfectly clear. "My client," he said, "is totally opposed to any road of whatever name, nature, or description."

The town fathers restudied the road, and finally, in 1890, Atlantic Avenue as we know it now came into being. Not exactly where it was first planned along the oceanfront but then you can't have everything.