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 a … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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13 responses to “Unbuilt Boston: The Ghost Cloverleaf of Canton”

  1. Joe says:

    The interchange in Burlington between MA3 and MA128/I95 is similar. In its current state, it forms a ‘T’ junction, by using only part of the complete cloverleaf. A quick look at Google Maps/Earth shows the unused southeast loop of the cloverleaf, and the straight line where MA3 ends actually continues into the woods a good distance.

  2. Ron Newman says:

    The interchange of Routes 1 and 60 in Revere also has artifacts of what was supposed to happen, but didn’t — an I-95 expressway through the salt marsh and the Lynn Woods up to 128.

  3. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    @Joe, @Ron —
    Wow, I didn’t know about those two abandoned sites. For other readers who may be interested here’s a link to a Google Maps page showing the the MA 3 – I-95 interchange. And the Revere site that Ron mentions is especially impressive — you can see the earthworks constructed all the way through the salt marsh before the project was called off. Thanks!

  4. Jerry says:

    The politics that brought about this shift were very intricate, not surprisingly. Francis W. Sargent, a Republican, was governor when the brouhaha began and delivered the decision (at the state level)to step on the brakes. Washington, and especially Congress, were reluctant to make such a sharp turn, however — until Indianapolis, where the GOP was strong at the time, found itself confronting a parallel situation. The confluence brought bipartisan agreement on a bill that would let states divert Interstate highway money to mass transit projects. The result in Boston includes the present-day Orange Line, which follows part of that originally planned I-95 corridor through the South End out to Forest Hills.

  5. Randy says:

    Fascinating article, thanks much for thinking to write on this topic. I would have found it interesting regardless, but living in Milton just minutes from the Blue Hills Park as I do, I found it particularly compelling.

  6. Doug Mink says:

    The state is planning to tear down the “Bridge to Nowhere” as part of a project to widen Route 128 and improve flow through the rest of the I-95 interchange. The bridge right now is a major link for non-motorized traffic–hikers and bicyclists–to get across Route 128 without dealing with the constant streams of motorized traffic at the adjacent interchanges on Route 138 and East St. I led a bike ride over it last week, and put the route and pictures
    on my web site.
    We’re starting to work on getting the state to replace the bridge with a bike/ped bridge soon after it is removed.

  7. I must thank you for writing this on many levels. I am the creator of the Little Lanes tour, and I am honored that my work has inspired you to write about this fascinating piece of lost history.
    The article had particular emotional resonance with me as a Cambridge native – the map shows that the B.U. Bridge fly-over would have literally destroyed the neighborhood (in fact the very house!) in which I grew up. I cannot imagine how vastly different my own life would have been had the residents not succeeded in blocking its construction (this is now memorialized by a mural on the side of what is now Micro Center).
    Thanks so much for writing this.

  8. Thank you for linking to bostonroads.com.

  9. Common says:

    Everything has consequences. Rather than manage and plan for growth in population, commerce and traffic, with the understanding that it WILL necessitate the construction of highways, Boston has become a transportation nightmare.

    There is no will to actually make rapid transit truly effective (because, surprise, that calls for money and space as well). Meanwhile two-lane roads like Dorchester Ave., Washington St., and Hyde Park Ave., are way beyond capacity, making it difficult to travel by car, even very short distances, for most of the day. The truth is that the need to use these roads effectively cuts off certain parts of the city from other parts, while adding frustration, danger (especially for pedestrians) and pollution.

    All the nostalgia and sentimentality about “neighborhoods” has to have some limits. Essentially, the same cowpaths that were worn out 100-200 yrs ago are still being used, without regard for necessities of modern life, and its just plain dumb at this point.
    The cost is ridiculously high population density (and property values) and commute times.

  10. Andrew says:

    I have done a lot of research on this topic and find the NIMBY sentiment amazing. People in Boston complain to this day about the Big Dig and its ramifications. However, if the above mentioned project had been done it would never have been needed. It is almost impossible to get any real improvements to the mass transit infrastructure accomplished. Towns almost have to be paid off when a commuter rail extension is proposed. There are miles of proposed T subway extensions, but none of these will ever happen because of constant law suits. Everyone says they want good efficient transportation…as long as someone else has to suffer in the building stage.