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Strategically positioned on a plateau between the Charles and Neponset rivers, Dedham possessed natural advantages on which its residents quickly capitalized. The Massachusetts Bay Colony established the Dedham grant in 1636, and a nuclear village was laid out, with High Street as its spine, paralleling the Charles River. In 1639, Dedham ordered the construction of a three-and-a-half-mile canal (Mother Brook) between the Charles River and East Brook, a tributary of the Neponset, and sold “privileges” for access to this power source for milling. Similarly, the “long ditch” connecting two sections of the Charles River north of Dedham Center created Dedham Island in 1652. Mills followed, especially along Mother Brook, which made East Dedham the industrial center of the community.

In 1793, Dedham became the shire town of the newly created Norfolk County, inaugurating a new era of development. The courthouse attracted lawyers and other professionals eager to seize new opportunities for investment. When the short-lived Norfolk Cotton Company failed in 1819, Benjamin Bussey bought the mill and began its conversion to the Dedham Woolen Mills, using the wool of newly introduced Merino sheep and inspired by the system of cloth production at the Waltham mills of the Boston Manufacturing Company (WT5). First the Norfolk and Bristol Turnpike (1804) and then the Boston & Providence Railroad (1834) insured easier access to broader markets. The three-story brick Norfolk House Hotel (1801, expanded 1828), a rare survival in the Boston area, symbolized this new economy.

Both the county seat and industrial East Dedham continued to attract business and investment in the community throughout the nineteenth century. After the Civil War, an estate district began to appear along the Charles River wetlands and between Dedham Common and Weld Pond along Westfield Street. East Dedham attracted immigrants for the mills, first the Irish and then other ethnic groups. The growing wealth of the town and its occupants manifested itself in the substantial public buildings added to the townscape in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Between 1920 and 1965, Dedham experienced its most rapid period of growth as Routes 1 and 128 brought residential development to the community at large and commercial expansion near these arteries.

Writing Credits

Keith N. Morgan

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