The Devil’s Den Revisited

I generally try to avoid revisiting places we have been before, but if there is a significant change to a historic place it warrants another look. When the new Ashland High School was designed, careful consideration was given to the impact a facility of its size would have on the surrounding areas. A lot of the focus was on the environmental impact (as seen by the numerous reports available on-line), but the designers, engineers, and members of other boards and committees also looked at any impact the school would have on historic places.

As we all know, the new Ashland High School is located on East Union Street on a parcel of land previously owned by the Kadra family. And we also know that this hilly rock of ages is not a particularly forgiving tract of land as witnessed by the lack of athletic fields during the initial construction of the school. It came as no surprise that sooner or later people would be looking for fields up there.

OK, so where’s the historical impact? It actually comes in two parts: The Old Connecticut Path and the Devil’s Den. The Old Connecticut Path ran from Massachusetts Bay to the Connecticut River valley and dates back to the early 1600s. It was used by both the Indians and early settlers as a path to the fertile Connecticut valleys during lean crop times here.

Framingham historian George T. Higley’s presentation to the Framingham Historical Society at the close of the 19th century suggested that:

“This trail, beginning in the easterly part of the state north of the Charles River, came through the towns of Sudbury and Framingham into Ashland and passed on in the direction of Hopkinton and Grafton to the west. Its purpose was to avoid the passage of streams of water and swamps, as well as the climbing of difficult hills. Horses, cattle and foot travelers passed over this trail until the time when roads, broken out by the settlers, or laid out by the towns and counties, superseded its use, and parts of this trail were afterward laid out as public roads.”

Higley also traced the route from South Framingham down Union Street, which is East Union Street in Ashland today. Ashland High is on East Union Street.

The Devil’s Den is a talus rock formation that created a cave large enough for the Indians to possibly store food and other provisions. The athletic fields currently under construction include the pathway that is considered part of the Old Connecticut Path, and this path passes by the Devil’s Den.

From our previous visit to the Devil’s Den in 2009 we found that a 2002 Massachusetts Technology Collaborative survey of the land for the new “High Performance Green” Ashland High School noted the area known as the Devil’s Den, along with the Old Connecticut Path as being possible historic sites that were not to be disturbed during construction of the school. This is a portion of the survey report that I cited back then:

“… prehistoric materials were recovered from a mottled soil matrix in association with historic/modern materials. It has been suggested that either the town or the previous owners had pushed some dirt into the cave, partially filling it in so as to prevent people from entering and using the cave. The observed stratigraphy seems to support that supposition. Indeed, several beer cans were observed in the back of the cave behind the large boulder. It is not known if the dirt that was put into the cave was brought in from somewhere else or merely pushed in from outside the cave. The large boulder within the cave prevented additional testing in the furthest depth of the cave/rockshelter to aid in evaluating the extent of disturbance, presence of Native American materials, and overall significance of the cave.”

By all counts, this area has historical significance. The construction underway has now stripped the landscape around the Devil’s Den up to the cave’s entrance leaving no signs of the pathway once considered part of the Old Connecticut Path. There are surveyor’s stakes behind the cave leading me to think that it may soon be a casualty of progress. My only hope is that I am wrong, and that some consideration was given to preserving a piece of Ashland’s history.

Steve Leacu for Ashland Directions
December 2011