Worcester’s Seven Hills Unmasked

Telegram & Gazette
Worcester, Mass.
Sept. 18, 1992

Worcester’s Seven Hills unmasked

By James Dempsey

One of the perennial calls we get at the newspaper comes from someone wanting to know the names of the Seven Hills of Worcester.

What, say you youngsters and new arrivals to the city, Worcester built on seven hills? Like Eternal Rome?

Well, yes and no. The story isn’t quite so simple, so kindly suffer a little waffling before I answer. Hit the RW button with me, and let us rewind to the early part of the century. Local historian and panjandrum Professor Uriel Waldo Cutler is at his desk penning his thoughts. “Ancient Rome’s storied Seven Hills are now hardly distinguishable one from another,” he writes, “so filled up are the valleys between them, so overtopped are their summits by layer after layer of historic buildings, so confused are their outlines by teeming streets.” Warming to the subject, Cutler turns his luxuriant prose and his proclivity for parallel constructions to Worcester. “Worcester, too, has its Seven Hills, about which traditions are gathering, over which the races are creeping, between which the separating valleys are being filled up by the action of all the erosive forces of an active civilization.”

Cutler rhapsodized in this manner a while and then went on to list the Seven Hills: Pakachoag, Sagatabscot, Chandler, Green, Hancock, Bancroft and Newton.

Now Uriel may have been a good historian, but he was no geographer. For example, he neglected to mention Tatnuck Hill, which, at more than 1,000 feet, is higher than anything on his list.

For years Worcester trivia buffs have tried hard to explain to people that the Seven Hills of Worcester is a suspect simplification. Bill Moiles, who wrote a popular and graceful column for the Telegram for years, and whose work I have been cheerfully mining ever since I started this job, listed 15 hills, adding to Cutler’s seven Bigelow, Messinger, Millstone, Oak, Parker (Tatnuck), Wigwam and Winter hills, and Mount Ararat.

In 1973 high school geography teacher Dennis Wood raised the ante, saying that determining which are the “real” seven hills is “historically confusing” and “topographically impossible.” He organized “A Tour of 17 of Worcester’s Seven Hills,” which included such rarely mentioned prominences as Walnut, Moreland, and Prospect hills.

Now this is where it gets complicated, so pay attention. Many of Worcester’s hills have several names. For instance, Tatnuck or Airport Hill was once known as Parker Hill. Astride the Auburn-Worcester line, Pakachoag Hill, where Holy Cross sits and which used to be spelled Boagachoag, is actually called Mount St. James but is popularly known as College Hill. Over the town line, it’s Pakachoag once more. Bell Hill is also known as Chandler Hill.

Then again, some hills are actually just parts of larger hills. Part of Sagatabscot Hill came to be known as Union Hill when land was set aside there for soldiers returning from the Civil War. When Irish immigrants moved in to build the railroads, they called the same place Dungarvan Hill after the Irish seaport. With the coming of French-Canadian families, the name French Hill came into use. Oak Hill and Crow Hill are other prominences on the larger Sagatabscot, and what we call Vernon Hill and Grafton Hill are actually neighborhoods there.

Indian Hill is just north of Indian Lake. Dead Horse Hill gallops up Stafford Street into Leicester. Rattlesnake Hill lurks on the lower part of Airport Hill. Millstone Hill is an old quarry on Green Hill, which used to be Crown Hill.

The list goes on. St. Anne’s Hill is at the northwest end of Shrewsbury Street. Wigwam Hill is off Plantation Street east of the Biotech Park. You’ll find Stratton Hill off Mountain Street, Burncoat Hill on Squantum Street, and Paine Hill on lower Lincoln Street. The picture is further muddied by esoteric rises such as Stump and Eddy hills.
So the truth is that Worcester is built on many, many hills. Yes, you say impatiently, but how many? OK, hold my feet to the flames and I’ll give you a number: Excluding hills with multiple names, and admittedly counting every little bump and knob, I figure somewhere in the region of 28.

But the Seven Hills myth lives on. It’s hard to say why. Perhaps it’s because seven is a neat number, or that it has both classical and Christian allusions. Also, Cutler said there were seven, and the Chamber of Commerce recognized them as the “official” Seven Hills. Whatever the reason, the Seven Hills legend took hold, and as Cutler himself might have written, the cause of historical and geographical truth fell bravely but bloodily beneath the thundering hooves of oversimplification.