Unbuilt Boston: The Ghost Cloverleaf of Canton

Last Halloween, a Boston startup called Untravel Media published a multimedia walking tour called “Boston’s Little Lanes and Alleyways” that guides listeners through some of the city’s oddest secret passageways and back streets. I took the tour myself, and found that its dramatic combination of photography, music, and narration taught me about a side of the city that even most Bostonians know nothing about. (Untravel also has a number of other interesting tours, including a brand new one about the historical neighborhoods around Harvard Square.)

The Ghost Cloverleaf of CantonIn the spirit of “Little Lanes,” I thought I’d tell you about another strange and mostly-forgotten piece of Boston’s past: the half-abandoned cloverleaf where I-95 meets I-93, on the western edge of the Blue Hills reservation between Canton, MA, and Milton, MA. I stumbled across this forlorn, fascinating place last fall at the end of a hike around the reservation. And while highway construction may sound like an odd subject for a column that’s supposed to be about technology and the Web, I see the Canton cloverleaf as an important technological artifact in its own right. It’s a telling symbol of our own occasional indecision about what we value more: technological conveniences (automobiles, in this case) or coherent, livable communities.

The ghost cloverleaf, which connects to the reservation’s trail system, is an odd sight indeed: a network of curving ramps and a disused six-lane expressway that suddenly dead-ends in a dense, marshy forest. It’s fully outfitted with curbs, drains, and lane markings, but is used today mainly as a refuse dump and long-term parking lot for construction equipment owned by the Massachusetts Highway Department. As you walk along the empty pavement, the main sounds are the chirping of crickets and the distant roar of cars on I-93. (The photo here conveys a bit of the spot’s strange, lonely atmosphere.)

Abandoned portion of I-95/Southwest Expressway in Canton, MAI’ve always had a morbid curiosity about great half-built or never-built projects, so I immediately wanted to know what happened here. As I learned from an assortment of websites, the cloverleaf was constructed between 1962 and 1968, and is the northern half of what was originally intended to be a fully working interchange between I-95, aka the Southwest Expressway, and I-93, aka Route 128, aka the Yankee Division Highway.

From here, the state’s highway blueprints called for the Southwest Expressway to continue about 10 miles north into Boston. It would have barreled through farmland and residential neighborhoods in Milton and joined up with the American Legion Highway, which would have been converted into an expressway running along the eastern edge of Franklin Park. From there, the expressway would have turned Blue Hill Avenue into a six-lane gash through Roxbury and Dorchester, eventually connecting with I-695 near the present-day intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Southampton Street (which happens to be about four blocks from where I live in the South End).

Never heard of I-695? That’s because it was never built, either. Also called the Inner Belt, it was part of a scheme laid out in 1948 to help interstate drivers and truckers avoid the congestion in downtown Boston by circling through outer Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville. Perhaps it was a good idea at one time. But had this 7-mile loop been constructed, the Boston cityscape would be immeasurably different today.

Map of Planned Inner Belt Interchange with Mass PikeThink of the city you know, and then think of a 300-foot-wide right-of-way thrust along the following route: from I-93 near Massachusetts Avenue and Southampton Street in Roxbury west to the Ruggles T station; then across Huntington Avenue, flattening the Museum of Fine Arts and slicing through the Emerald Necklace where the Fenway joins the Riverway; then turning north to cross Beacon Street and Commonwealth Avenue, intersecting with the Mass Pike in a huge tangle of ramps, and soaring across the Charles River on a tall, ugly, concrete bridge overshadowing the BU Bridge (click on the map at left for a larger depiction of this monstrosity); then descending back into Cambridgeport, paralleling Pearl Street and Prospect Street and blighting Central Square and eastern Somerville; and finally curving eastward along Washington Street and rejoining I-93.

Demolition to make way for the Inner Belt began on the Roxbury end of the route in 1962. But in one of the first examples of a major community uprising against afederally funded highway project, people in the affected neighborhoods organized a massive campaign to get the project cancelled. Fred Salvucci, an MIT civil engineering graduate and transportation advisor to Boston Mayor Kevin White—and later transportation secretary under Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis—became one of the project’s loudest opponents. His influence led Representative Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill to famously tell Federal Highway Administration chairman Lowell Bridwell that the Inner Belt and the Southwest Expressway “would create a China Wall dislocating 7,000 people just to save someone in New Hampshire 20 minutes on his way to the South Shore.”

The “Ramp to Nowhere” off I-93 in SomervilleAs sentiment against highway overbuilding gathered across the nation, the Inner Belt and Southwest Expressway projects gradually fizzled, and in 1974 the state traded in the promised federal highway dollars in exchange for mass-transit funding. But even though the expressways went unbuilt, they left artifacts that are still visible around Boston. There’s the Canton cloverleaf; there’s Roxbury’s Melnea Cass Boulevard, whose surprising width is the legacy of the demolition that extended all the way to Tremont Street; and there’s even a “ramp to nowhere,” a spur jutting off the elevated section of I-93 in Somerville where the Inner Belt was supposed to have connected to the interstate.

As we zoom along today’s urban and interstate freeways, we don’t think much about the the cityscape that came before, or of the historical communities and the ribbons of natural landscape that had to be erased to make way for our internal-combustion-driven lifestyles. But in that forest in Canton, there’s a permanent reminder of a road that never was—and of the living neighborhoods that community action and a reexamination of our priorities kept intact.

For more information about the Southwest Expressway and the Inner Belt:

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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