Driving Wellesley Crazy: A history of the Great Plain Avenue rotary

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on November 27, 2014. 

Source: Town of Wellesley GIS website

Source: Town of Wellesley GIS website

There are some things in life that are complete mysteries. Like how Stonehenge was built. Or whether Bigfoot exists. But perhaps even more puzzling: why in the world would anyone ever construct a rotary?

Consider the rotary on Great Plain Avenue. It’s just way too confusing on its north side where Great Plain Avenue, Wellesley Avenue, and Seaver Street all intersect. Sure, it seems to function perfectly fine during off-peak hours. But at rush hour, the area is heavily congested and car accidents aren’t uncommon.

The irony, of course, is that this rotary was actually part of a construction project completed in 1947 that was intended to make traffic less hazardous. Not so much at this location, but rather at the intersection of Great Plain Avenue and Brook Street, which for years was known by locals as “Death Corner.” (Although it was the scene of numerous accidents, it appears there was only one fatality there.)

It doesn’t take a civil engineering degree to understand why it was so dangerous. Prior to 1947, the eastbound (i.e., Needham-bound) and westbound lanes of Great Plain Avenue near Brook Street both occupied its current westbound lane. (The current eastbound lane was nothing more than a grassy field.) Therefore, drivers heading west along Great Plain Avenue from Needham who wanted to turn left onto Brook Street had to turn at an obtuse angle only a few hundred feet before a blind curve, increasing the likelihood of broadside collisions.

After years of complaints from residents – and much pressure by the Townsman editorial staff — the Town finally sought to remedy the situation in 1941.

Fortunately, it wasn’t difficult for the Town to acquire the land necessary to separate the two directions of traffic and construct the rotaries on Great Plain Avenue at Wellesley Avenue and at Brook Street. In fact, all that land was held by just two landowners — the Fuller family and Channing Sanitarium — and both offered it to the Town for free.

Completing the project, however, was another story. Just months after beginning construction in early 1942, all work was suspended in response to labor shortages and material restrictions because of World War II. Construction would not resume until 1946.

When the project was finished one year later, the results were mixed. Although the situation at Brook Street was much improved, the rotary at Wellesley Avenue was an absolute nightmare for both locals and out-of-towners. Within only a few months, there already had been countless accidents as drivers were incapable of navigating the rotary.

(For what it’s worth, according to Wikipedia, this rotary is the only traffic circle in the Commonwealth where drivers entering the rotary have the right of way.)

Over the ensuing years, this issue would become even more problematic as traffic became much worse because of the increase in Wellesley’s population — and perhaps more importantly — the construction of the Town incinerator (now the Recycling and Disposal Facility) off Great Plain Avenue in 1960.

The question then begs to be asked: Can anything be done at this time to fix the problem? It seems doubtful. Elongating the rotary in order to space out the traffic would create tight turns unnavigable by large trucks. And stop signs or traffic lights would probably only worsen gridlock during commuting hours.

But you never know. Maybe one of these days, traffic experts will finally uncover the secret to reconfiguring this intersection that will minimize congestion and maximize safety.

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