Historic Building of the Week: The world’s narrowest sidewalks

A newspaper clipping depicts the “world’s narrowest sidewalk” in Marblehead. Photo by Marblehead Historical Commission

Last month, I hurt my ankle.

I was climbing at a rock gym, fell off the wall, and landed horizontally on my typically vertical right ankle. I’ve taken to calling it my “career-ending injury,” despite my climbing career being a figment of my imagination.

The issue here is that being a slightly injured recreational indoor climber is my part-time persona. Most of the time, I’m a photographer and Historic Building of the Week writer. So not only do I do my own stunts (falling off of fake walls), I also take my own photos for these articles. I took the one for this article.

Sometimes, I get lucky with parking around town and I can take a photo without moving too far away from my car, or even getting out of it. Other times, I have to trek halfway across town to the building. In the latter situations, I have to brace myself emotionally, physically, and literally for the adventure.

But let’s get one thing settled — just because my ankle is sore doesn’t mean that you all can keep getting away with this: your sidewalks. I get it, Marblehead is a historical town that was built metaphorically and literally on fish bones. But come on, some of these sidewalks are a joke.

The sidewalk that really got my goat was the one on Washington Street. You probably already know which one I’m talking about, but if you don’t, walk from Old Town Hall toward the Old North Church on the left side of the street. 

As you walk, you’ll notice that the sidewalk gradually narrows until it all but disappears. Between the overhang of some of the houses and foliage protruding from window planters, you might as well be walking on a tightrope.

It turns out I’m not just some woman in the 21st century yapping and whining. I’m simply carrying on a centuries-old tradition of writing about sidewalks in town. 

The first mention I could find about the sidewalk on Washington Street is in a short article in a Sept. 18, 1937 copy of The Daily Evening Item. In this article, the author writes, “Now comes quaint, historic Marblehead with the world’s record for the narrowest sidewalk, a walk but 1 foot wide under construction on the west side of Washington Street.” 

Even 87 years ago, Marbleheaders understood the peril of this sidewalk. The article cites concerns by the contemporary selectmen about the width of the way, and now-removed steps in the middle of it.

“Imagine, for instance, a home comer on a dark night balancing himself along this walk, probably on a dark night… only to find suddenly that there is no walk but a pair of steps instead. Imagine his feeling when he is bumped over those steps and bounced out into the street. He could hardly be expected to hit a sidewalk only a foot wide under such circumstances.”

But this “mantrap,” as the article describes it, is not the only sidewalk in town that has drawn ire.

A Nov. 24, 1894 edition of the The Daily Evening Item cites The Marblehead Messenger, which points to the sidewalk on Summer Street as “the narrowest sidewalk in town.” A 1944 article in the Messenger restates it. However, the 1894 blurb notes claims of other streets being even more narrow.

The key difference between me and those who have paved the way for my complaints is that I will not be suing. In the 1937 Item, the Marblehead selectmen claimed that they had received “nearly a dozen suits filed against the town since the sidewalk project was started” in 1934. I will temper my frustration.

Sidewalks are an integral part of communities, especially in downtowns. They allow us to get around easily without cars, and accessibility features like crosswalks and curb cuts have only made them better. 

The benefits of sidewalks are almost entirely negated by the width of those on Washington and Summer streets. But at least they make for an interesting article.