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Evolution of the Boston Marathon course

Remembering where it started: Ashland wants due recognition

By John Powers
Globe Staff / April 16, 2010

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ASHLAND — So much of it was happenstance. It just happened that a Concord-to-Boston route wasn’t practical when Boston Athletic Association officials decided to stage a holiday marathon. It just happened that John Graham and Herbert H. Holton turned right instead of left when they were laying out the course. It just happened that King Edward wanted the 1908 Olympic marathon in London to begin at Windsor Castle and end at the royal box inside the stadium. It just happened that Boston was hosting the US trials for the 1924 Games and had to extend the distance to the official 26 miles, 385 yards.

That’s how it happened that the Boston Marathon began in this western suburb for its first 27 years before it was moved to the town next door in 1924. “IT ALL STARTS HERE’’, declares the sign in Hopkinton, where the gun has been fired every Patriots Day since 1924. But for those who’ve forgotten, or never knew, Ashland has its own sign on the site of the old mill on Pleasant Street where the inaugural race went off — “IT ALL STARTED HERE IN 1897.’’

The BAA Marathon, which will be contested for the 114th time Monday morning, still goes through Ashland for 3 mostly downhill miles on the blistered path to Copley Square. But for nearly nine decades Hopkinton has received top billing, to its neighbor’s lingering regret. “The hair always rises on the back of my neck when someone refers to this race as ‘Hopkinton’s Historic Marathon’,’’ Dick Fannon, then-president of the Ashland Historical Society, wrote to the Globe in 1990.

Hopkinton has been a touchy issue hereabouts since 1846, when Ashland was pieced together with chunks from three adjacent towns. Hopkinton either bought or stole the Magunco Tub, the fire engine that Ashland inherited when it was incorporated. Ashland “borrowed’’ a Revolutionary War cannon from Hopkinton and for years displayed it atop Magunco Hill until it exploded and killed a bystander. And their Thanksgiving football rivalry has gone Hopkinton’s way for awhile now, including last year’s 35-7 dismantling of the winless Clockers.

So Ashland wants to make sure it gets due credit both as the inventor of the electric clock (Henry Warren, 1916) and the birthplace of the world’s most storied marathon. “All we want to do is be recognized for the historical part of it,’’ says David Foster, who chairs the town planning board and has been pushing for the completion of the embryonic Marathon Park next to the original starting line at the site of the vanished Metcalf’s Mill, which made boxes.

What Foster would love to have included there is a memorial to everyone who has run the race, and make the site a stopping place for marathon buffs. “It’s something I really want to get done,’’ he says, “but it all depends on the financing, which is very difficult these days.’’

Had the marathon distance remained the same as it was in 1897 the runners still might be starting on Pleasant Street, running through town and then turning left toward Framingham. That was Holton’s idea nearly seven decades ago. “It is my intention to continue to do all I can hereafter to have the “original’’ 25-mile Boston Athletic Association race re-established, in which event it will again have to “start’’ in Ashland,’’ he wrote to the town’s historical committee in 1942.

The BAA, which had sent half a dozen athletes to the first modern Olympics the previous summer, wanted to stage a marathon using a layout roughly replicating Paul Revere’s (actually, William Dawes’s) legendary 1775 ride. But there were traffic issues in Arlington and Cambridge and the bridge to Boston was closed.

So Graham, who was BAA manager, and Holton set out on bicycles, roughly following the Boston & Albany train tracks through Boston, Newton, Wellesley, Natick, and Framingham. “It was mere caprice that we headed for Ashland,’’ Holton would recount. When the cyclometer read 25 miles from the Irvington Oval, the starting line was established.

Graham gave directions that assumed local knowledge (“Follow the boulevard straight in to the old entrance to the reservoir, keep to the right until you strike Beacon St.’’). Just before race time the runners dined at the Central House, with the six New York entrants at one table and the locals at another. They arrived fashionably late at the starting line which Tom Burke, who’d won gold medals in both the 100 and 400 meters in Athens, had created by scraping his shoe across the dirt.

“Each runner was allowed a bicyclist to carry his clothes and a medic also on a bicycle to tend to whatever medical problems arose as he raced toward Boston,’’ Ashland historian Kay Powers wrote.

After calling out the names of the 15 starters (A.T. Howe wore No. 1 because he’d been the first to enter), Burke shouted “Go!’’ at 12:19 p.m. “The crowd at the Ashland station was good natured,’’ the Globe reported, “and as it formed a line for the athletes to pass, the sleepy old town rang with the cheers of her lusty sons.’’

Hamilton Gray, the New York distance star, and Harvard miler Dick Grant, whose coach had warned him not to race, led the field until Wellesley Hills, when John J. McDermott passed them. Gray soon began walking and finished fourth. Grant, who lay down to have a street watering cart spray him, didn’t finish. McDermott ended up winning by more than a mile, and while his margin was described as “only six minutes and 52 seconds,’’ it still stands as the largest ever.

“The cheering and yelling was deafening,’’ the Globe reported, and McDermott promptly was shouldered above the crowd for a triumphal ride. But he’d lost 9 pounds for his efforts and declared that he’d likely never run another long race. “I hate to quit now because I will be called a quitter and a coward, but look at my feet!’’ McDermott said. “Do you blame me for wanting to stop it?’’

Still, the Globe concluded that the race “proved a great success and is an assurance of an annual fixture of the same kind’’ and McDermott returned the next year along with 20 other starters. By 1899 the course had been remeasured and the line was moved back to the middle of the railroad bridge on High Street. But by 1907 the field had grown so large — 126 entrants — that the line was moved again, to Union Street at Stevens Corner.

If the King hadn’t wanted a royally customized course for the Games, the start might have remained there. But when the BAA switched to the Olympic distance, adding more than a mile meant moving up the road to Hopkinton, where the race has commenced ever since.

While the distance still is 26 miles, 385 yards, the start and finish lines each have moved several times to account for course remeasurements, the growing size of the field, and the desires of sponsors (Prudential and John Hancock) to have the race end on their doorsteps. And while 3.05 miles of the race still are in Ashland along Route 135, its genesis largely has been forgotten.

Metcalf’s Mill burned down in 1932 and the Marathon Park is in suspended animation. A group of benches sit along a brick walkway next to where the Sudbury River spills over a dam. A stone monument has been engraved with the names of some of the race’s “keepers of the flame,’’ most notably Scottish guardian Jock Semple. Other displays are blank, waiting for inscription. “We had the momentum going for a while, but it died down,’’ says Foster. “It got put on the back burner.’’

For 86 years Hopkinton has been where everything begins on Patriots Day. What Ashland needs is a new finish. When Hancock signed on as sponsor in 1986, it got the BAA to move the line down the street from the Pru and nearer to its signature tower. If the financial services company ever wanted to have the race finish in front of its new headquarters in South Boston, that would add more than 2 miles to the course — and Ashland could put its Hopkinton neighbors out of business.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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