Registry of Deeds History: Creation of the Northern District

A recent email correspondent asked why the Northern Middlesex Registry of Deeds district consists of just 10 communities whereas the Southern District had the other 44 communities in Middlesex County. Like so much else, the answer involves some history.

To start, the Northern Middlesex Registry of Deeds District consists of ten communities: Billerica, Carlisle, Chelmsford, Dracut, Dunstable, Lowell, Tewksbury, Tyngsborough, Westford and Wilmington.

It’s not a symmetrical split. Lowell burst on the scene after its 1826 founding, quickly becoming the second biggest city in Massachusetts. In 1848, the county built the Superior Courthouse on Gorham Street so there was a big legal presence here. In 1855, the legislature carved out the new registry district.

I’ve never found any “legislative history” of that act so I can’t say exactly why they did it or why they chose the communities to include in it. Circumstantially, two things – both technological – contributed to it. First was that all the records for these ten towns that had been recorded previously were in Cambridge. For the new registry to function effectively would require copies of all the prior records for the ten communities to be available at the new registry in Lowell. That required going through the existing record books and hand copying all that involved land located in one of the ten Northern District communities. I suspect that if that if many more towns had been included, copying the additional records would have made the task insurmountable.

The other factor was the railroad. Geography suggests that towns in northwestern Middlesex County, like Groton or Pepperell, should be included in a “northern district,” but given the reality of transportation in 1855, it was easier to get from those places to Cambridge than it was to Lowell. Consequently, Middlesex County towns west of Dunstable, Westford and Carlisle were placed in the Southern District Registry.

Additionally, just as the MBTA Lowell line commuter rail today links Lowell, Billerica and Wilmington, so did the same rail line in 1855. I suspect that was the main reason that Wilmington made it into the Northern District.

Middlesex County was not unique in having more than one registry of deeds. Shortly after the Lowell registry was created, Essex County was divided into Northern and Southern Districts (in Lawrence and Salem) and Worcester County was similarly divided (with registries in Fitchburg and Worcester).

Two other counties, Berkshire and Bristol, are split into three registry districts. In the Berkshires, that’s presumably because of the distance and topography. The Berkshire registries are in North Adams, Pittsfield, and Great Barrington. I suspect Bristol County was split into three in some sort of local political compromises. Those registries are in New Bedford, Fall River, and Taunton.

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