Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Sledding on Newburyport Turnpike

I remember hearing my grandfather (William S. Nichols) talk about his boyhood experiences with the old Route 1 (Newburyport Turnpike) that ran right by his home in Danvers. In the 1950's he told us about the fun of sliding on sleds on that hilly roadway. I could hardly believe him; it sounded much too dangerous, but he said that it was safe because he and his friends could always tell when traffic was coming by the sound of the bells on the horse-drawn wagons or carriages.  Oh! That was an entirely different era!

This weekend I had an unexpected opportunity to hear my grandfather's voice again. My cousin Janet sent me audio files made from old tape recordings related to our family. A friend of hers had skillfully rescued the sounds from an old tape that had seemed unplayable. One of the segments on it gave me MORE information about this sledding, or "coasting" as he called it -- stories I had not heard before, or did not recall.  I'll quote his words below, but first, a bit of context.

William S. Nichols was born in 1872 at the Pine Knoll homestead at the corner of Preston Street and Newbury Street (now known as Route 1). He lived there from 1872 to 1892, his first 20 years. Later, after education at Harvard and Oxford and his career in ministry in other locations, he retired to Danvers and lived the rest of his life in a house only about a block away from his birthplace. I grew up next door. At some point Granddaddy wrote essays about the remarkable changes he had witnessed in his lifetime, including the changes to Route 1 from horses to cars. I recall my father asking him to read some essays aloud so that his voice and essays could be recorded. I sat in our living room as Granddaddy read, and Daddy operated the recording device. That was 1958. I loved hearing again some of the turnpike stories and was glad they were being saved. My grandfather died a few months later, at age 86.

Here are the words of this 86-year-old man recalling winter fun in Danvers in the 1880's:

Winter time on the pike is what I remember most vividly. In the days of my youth, coasting was the great outdoor joy. On a turnpike hill just by our house was a favorite coast for Danvers youth. I wonder if Danvers youth today would drag their double-runners all the way from downtown – 2 miles or more – for an evening of coasting. They did in those days. 
There was keen competition in the double-runners, not only in the making of them, but in the proven ability to go faster and farther than others. Much ingenuity went into the making and in the fitting out. The natural way was for the steerer to lie on the board on his stomach and grasp the front end of the forward sled and make it go where you wanted it too. The trouble was this took up too much of the board, and limited the numbers of riders. The more riders you had on, the faster and farther you went. So most of the double-runners would be fixed with a steering bar or wheel to the front sled. Then 4, 6, or 8 or more riders could get on behind the one who steered.
There were nearly always enough riders waiting at the top of the hill. All were welcome to get on if they could find room. There were spills, but I do not hold in my memory any serious accidents. 
It was a glorious sport and as the coasters came by our house with their laughter and noise, they might be heard quite late into the evening. 
Nichols Street* crossed the pike at the top of the hill and the additional pitch and the needed skill to turn the corner successfully often added pleasure and spills. At the foot of the long hill just beyond the Allen farm, there was quite a rise in the road. When the coasting was at its best, it was possible to go over that rise and go beyond North Street – quite a distance.  It would be a long hard pull up the hill back. It was over a half a mile. The rope attached to the sleds would purposefully be long and everyone would take hold. That long pull often decided the ever-raised question of whether we would take one more coast down. The number of riders at the top would begin to thin out.  ...
The walking that had to be added to the riding made coasting a rugged exercise for our youth.
What a treat to have my grandfather's description of his boyhood fun on that road! I'm glad to share it here.
* This was the former route of Nichols Street, when it proceeded north over the western shoulder of Dale Hill. The turnpike, too, had higher hills in those days. They were bulldozed down in 1949/50 as Route 1 was widened.