Wednesday, June 29, 2016

History of Assabet River Rail Trail

Maynard rail road station, photo taken 1910.
Courtesy of Maynard Historical Society.
Click on any photo to enlarge.

Same site, once auto shop, later dry
cleaner's, now empty. Potentially a
site for a Maynard visitors' center?
See articles related to construction in July, August, October and November 2016.

People with long memories can recall the end of Maynard's railroad passenger service in 1958. Less noted was the decline and end of freight service in the 1960s. After decades of disuse the railroad and MBTA each gave up on resurrecting rail service. The 12.4 mile long right of way was deeded over the five communities (Acton, Maynard, Stow, Hudson and Marlborough). Some of the land was subsequently sold to private owners. And there it lay, a broken-up ghost of a railroad spur dating back to the 1850s, once traveled by as many as twenty trains a day, crossties rotting and trees growing up between the rails.

The concept of converting obsolete railroads to pathways for non-motorized use, i.e., "rails-to-trails," began in Wisconsin in 1967 with the opening of the 32 mile long Elroy-Sparta State Trail. Important milestones were the National Trails System Act, which allowed for conversion of government-granted railroad right-of-ways be converted to trails, and the Transportation Equity Act (TEA-21, passed in 1998), which permitted federal funding for transportation improvements other than in support of planes, trains and automobiles. The law has gone through name changes but the goal of federal support for non-motorized transportation remains. 

Rails were removed in 2014 and sold for scrap steel. A few
pieces were left behind where trees had grown over the rails.
According to the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy organization ( there are now more than 22,000 miles of official ex-railroad trails in the United States. Another 8,000+ miles are in building or planning phases. Lengths range from the 253 mile John Wayne Pioneer Trail, Washington, to the 1.5 mile Manhattan High Line, New York. In Massachusetts, two of the best-known are the 22 mile Cape Cod Rail Trail and the 10 mile Minuteman Bikeway.

Trails take two forms, either packed crushed stone or paved. The first has a much lower construction cost, but higher maintenance. The second can easily exceed $1,000,000 per mile, especially if bridges are needed. In all instances the majority of the cost is federally funded. The remainder is divided between states and towns crossed by the trails.

Locally, the vision of a rail trail on the Acton to Marlborough right of way was begun in 1992 by a few interested residents acting in concert with town employees. A plus for potential funding was the intermodal nature of the concept - with the north end anchored at the South Acton train station, users could walk or bicycle to Acton to commute by train, or the reverse, commute by train to Acton to get to work in neighboring towns. To this end, the Acton train station rents enclosed bicycle lockers for $75/year, soon to go to $100/year.

ARRT sign put up by volunteers years ago, to
promote awareness and use as a walking trail.
The Assabet River Rail Trail organization ( was created in 1995 to coordinate volunteer activity. The five towns voted to approve the trail in 1998. Jeff Richards was the first ARRT president, followed by Thomas Kelleher, who has served in that position since 2001. Duncan Power has been clerk for as long. ARRT members have been instrumental in fostering awareness of the proposed trail. For Acton and Maynard that included literally hundreds and hundreds of hours clearing and maintaining the right of way for hikers and bikers. While a few people have been ambivalent about the planned trail ("It's right behind my house!" or "Why does it have to be paved?"), most of the comments have been positive.

Trail construction in Maynard and Acton is to start July 2016 and be completed by May 2018 (all but the final landscaping and fencing should be done by late 2017). After this 3.4 miles is completed at the northeast end, to go with the years-old 5.8 miles at the southwest end (in Hudson and Marlborough), what is planned for the middle?  Negotiations are underway for Track Road, the two miles between the Maynard/Stow border and Lake Boon. Beyond that, the trail would require two (expensive to build) crossings of the Assabet River, and a wide swath of land between the bridge sites is in private ownership. An alternative would be to detour south across the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge before turning west. This would add many (scenic) miles to the originally proposed length, but obviate the need for bridges and the repurchase of the original right-of-way. Either way, the next phase of the trail is years and years away before any possible funding.

An oft-asked question is whether the Acton end of ARRT will link to the Bruce Freeman Trail, currently being extended south through the east edge of Acton, toward West Concord. There is no rail right-of-way between the two, and thus no good option for an off streets connection. One possibility would be to create a three mile long bicycle lane on School Street and Laws Brook Road.

June 2013 has a long write-up on walkability of all of ARRT. Visit for maps, etc.

Display of railroad rail mounted on cross tie
An exhibit on the history of the railroad and transition to a rail trail was put on display in the Maynard town building on June 28, 2016, in anticipation of construction beginning on the Acton and Maynard portion of the trail. The display case on the main floor includes ten photographs, five pages of text showing the timelines of the railroad and the trail, and explanatory captions. One text panel explains how Amory Maynard's teenage son - Harlan - took the train to Concord to attend school at a private school run by Frank Sanborn. Harlan's classmates included Ralph Waldo Emerson's children and one of his teachers was Henry David Thoreau. The lower part of the case contains a section of original rail, baseplate, spikes and cross tie, plus extra spikes painted in Maynard school colors of black and orange. The exhibit was removed in October but it may be installed at the library in November.    

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Telephones from Bell to Cell

OSMOSE is a New York company that provides utility pole inspection and
treatment services. MITC-FUME is an anti-fungal chemical injected into
poles to combat fungal rot. Treatment every 5-7 years.
"Astounding" barely begins to describe how fast telephone technology went from invention to must-have. Alexander Graham Bell was awarded a U.S. patent in 1876. Operator switchboards were being set up in cities by 1878, and by 1881 close to 50,000 telephones were in use, mostly in east coast cities. One reason for fast implementation was that the telegraph, invented decades earlier, had become a mature industry with inter-city connections, telegraph poles, set fees, operators, etc. In many instances, telegraph companies adapted by adding telephone service, sometimes referred to as 'talking telegraph.'  

Telephone wires were also known as "Hello wires," and there is a mention as early as 1880 for "Hello" as the appropriate answer to a phone call. (Bell preferred "Ahoy," but he lost out to Thomas Edison.) In a 1889 book, Mark Twain wrote that switchboard operators were known as "Hello girls."

The mythology of telephone history has it that young men were the first switchboard employees, but their rudeness, impatience and pranks quickly led to this becoming a woman-only profession. Young women, preferably unmarried and living with their parents, were background checked, then taught the proper tone of speech and vocabulary for operators, as in "Number please." Unspoken was that this was a profession for U.S. born white women only. Not until 1944 did Bell Telephone begin to hire Negro women as operators. Jewish women were excluded for almost as long, as were immigrants in general.      

Locally, telegraph service had reached towns west of Concord in the 1850s. In Maynard, the first phone was installed at Johnson Pharmacy in 1888, in what was then the Masonic Building, on Main Street. All calls, in and out, were made from that location, and people paid by the call. The second phone, same year, was in the residence of Dr. Rich. By 1902 many local businesses had phones, including the newly relocated W.B. Case & Sons dry goods store. That was the year NET&T moved its switchboard office into the Naylor building, corner of Nason and Main (burned in 1917, currently site of Serendipity).      

Shared telephone pole: NET&T
Company and Boston Edison.
As phone networks expanded, most home phone customers were on a party line, meaning shared. A call would be put out on a line with four homes. The operator would signal with one ring for the first house, two for the second, and so on, so homeowners would know who was supposed to pick up. However, there was no means of stopping others on the line from listening in.

 Back in the early years, telephone, telegraph and electric power companies were each putting up their own poles. Arrangements were made to share, with each paying rent to the others on a pole-by-pole basis. We still call them 'telephone poles' even though much of what is carried is electric power and cable for out televisions and computers.

Most poles have lost their date nails, but this one still
sports a nail indicating the telephone pole dates to 1939.
Click on any photo to enlarge
Speaking of telephone poles, if your vehicle breaks a pole your insurance will be charged for a replacement. Poles at corners provide support for yard sale and lost pet signs, evidenced be the hundreds of staples and nails. One too-common sight is 'double poles,' old poles next to the replacements because some of the wires have not yet been transferred. Poles used to have spikes for climbing, but these have (mostly) been removed. Instead, workers use a hydraulic lift mounted on a truck. A scattering of older poles sport a date nail at eye height. Two digits on the nail head signify year installed. Oldest spotted so far reads "38."

The cell phone era began in the United States in 1983 with Motorola's DynaTAC 8000X. This larger than brick-sized phone cost $4,000 at the time - equivalent to more than $10,000 now - and provided only 30 minutes of talking time per ten hour recharge. Cell phones have gotten smaller, cheaper, smarter and common. According to a 2015 government survey, eight percent of households have only a land line, 47 per cent are only cell and 42 per cent have both. Three percent have no phone at all. The trend toward only cell is age driven - higher in younger - and interestingly also poverty driven, as poorer households are less likely to have a land line.  

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Snapping Turtles on Land - Why?

June hereabouts brings turtle sightings on dry land, near and not so near bodies of water, some of which end up in the weekly newspaper police reports. What's happening is that female snapping turtles are leaving ponds and rivers to find places to lay eggs.

Let's get to the important parts first: snapping turtles should not be picked up by their tails as this can damage the animal's vertebral column and tail. Think how you would feel if dangling from one wrist or one ankle. And if you try for a grab of the shell, know that the neck is long enough and flexible enough for the biting end to reach at least half way back. A shell grip above the hind legs is safer, but better to leave the turtle alone. Second option is to lay a tarp or blanket on the ground and convince the turtle to walk onto that. (Yeah, right.) Then have people lift it by the corners. Or coax the turtle to walk into a garbage can.    

What these wanderers seek is a sandy or loose-soil bed in which to scrape out a depression, lay some 20 to 40 roundish eggs, each not much smaller than a ping-pong ball, scrape dirt back over, and depart. Unlike alligators or crocodiles, the mother does not guard and maintain the nest, nor stay with the newborns after hatching. Nest predation by skunks, raccoons, opossums and mink, followed by hatchling predation by great blue herons, snakes, otter... mean that fewer than five percent make it to end of first year.  

If they do survive, juvenile and adult snapping turtles are omnivores that will eat just about anything, including aquatic plants, dead fish, and live stuff they catch: crayfish, snails, fish, frogs, salamanders, insects, leeches, worms, snakes, small mammals, baby ducks, baby geese - and other turtles.

Females reach sexual maturity at about 15-20 years, with an upper shell 10-14 inches in length and a weight of 10-16 pounds. Males are larger than females. As snapping turtles continue to grow as they get older, and can exceed 50 years in the wild, male turtles can exceed 30 pounds, with rare reports of turtles exceeding 60 pounds. And there are reports of snapping turtles grabbing a leg of a adult Mallard duck and dragging the duck underwater.

One acquaintance told me of a childhood experience when he and friends were stepping on stones to cross a small stream in Great Meadow, Concord. One of the algae-covered 'stones' started to move! Everyone was startled. No one (and no turtle) was injured.   

Most snapping turtles enter hibernation by late October and emerge around April. To hibernate, they burrow into the debris or mud bottom of creeks, ponds or lakes. Metabolic rate is slowed. Rather than rising to the surface to breath, the semi-comatose turtles are able to absorb oxygen through their skin. Come spring the turtles reactivate. This paragraph started with "Most" because there are credible reports of sightings of active snapping turtles in mid-winter, seen through the ice.    

Female snapping turtle laying eggs, June 2015
Click on photo to enlarge.
Last June a snapping turtle larger than a car's hubcap chose the greenspace behind Maynard's town building to lay eggs. This was noted by town employees. A hurried consultation led to the conclusion that the eggs were too fragile to relocate, so a plastic mesh fence was erected around the nest site. The hope was that some 60-90 days later, unseen by human or predator eyes, the newly hatched, inch-long turtles crept under the edge of the fence, to the Assabet River, there to avoid herons and other hazards, and reach adulthood.

And finally, it is legal to catch snapping turtles in Massachusetts. From "Common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) that measure at least 12 inches in straight-line carapace length may be taken by hand, dip net or gaff, up to a limit of 2 per day, or in possession for personal use, by licensed fishermen. Snapping turtles may not be taken from May 1 to July 16." As to why one might want to catch a snapping turtle, the operative word is "soup."


Serpentina in the Linnaean name comes from observation that the neck is snake-like long and snake-like fast. Extended, head and neck are about same length as the width of the shell. Many the person has had a finger bitten for not knowing this fact.

Snappers hiss. If confronted on land, snappers expel air from their lungs to make more room to pull neck into shell. From this neck-retracted position the neck muscles and bones are ready for a very fast strike and bite.

Each state has its own restrictions. For example, Connecticut allows five per day, 30/year, shell length to exceed 13 inches, and allows hook fishing and turtle traps in addition to by hand, net or gaff.

Southeastern states are home to alligator snapping turtles, an entirely different species that weighs in at 100-200 pounds. This is the turtle that has an extension on its tongue that looks like a wriggling work. Fish swim up to eat it and become eaten.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

D.Y.W.Y.K. Club: 1889-1926

"Don't You Wish You Knew" was the explanation behind the founding of the D.Y.W.Y.K. Club in 1889, in Maynard, MA, a mill town west of Concord. Membership was limited to twenty men. The club's existence came to an end in 1926. Purpose is lost to history, with the exception that we know that the club held an annual masquerade ball at Maynard's Music Hall, prizes awarded to handsomest lady and most comically costumed gentleman.

The phrase, with or without the acronym, appears to have been common slang some 100 to 150 years ago, separating people in the know from those on the outs. Much like "www" for world wide web, saying the acronym out loud requires more syllables than the words it represents. Only in print does it have a useful brevity.   

We know nothing about how members originally decided to organize, what functions the club had other than the annual ball, or how replacement members were chosen. What we do have on the D.Y.W.Y.K. Club is a short description penned by Ralph L. Sheridan, in 1965. From the list of members in 1900 we learn that many had Irish surnames: McCarron, Doherty, Coughlan, Sheehan... mixed with old Yankee stock: Whitney, Smith, Lawton...

D.Y.W.Y.K. Club ticket in collection of Maynard Historical Society
The D.Y.W.Y.K Club masquerade ball was no small undertaking. The Historical Society has in its records a 1909 printers' estimate for printing 1500 tickets, 1500 promotional flyers and 75 posters to be set in storefront windows. A 1901 poster for the "BAL DE MASQUE" provides details: music by Brigham's Original Celebrated Singing Orchestra, Concert 8 to 9, tickets 25 cents, followed by Dancing 9 to 3, tickets one dollar per couple. To put that into context, male mill workers were making 20 to 25 cents per hour.

The Music Hall, built 1884 by Lorenzo Maynard, had started out as a roller skating rink, also doing duty as a basketball arena, host to dances, theater, minstrel shows and silent movies. It burned to the ground in November 1912. The location was on Main Street, west of McDonald's restaurant, roughly where the new apartment building now sits.  

Dancing, you say?  This town was CRAZY about dancing. The local chapters of national organizations such as Masons, Elks, Moose, Eagles and Odd Fellows would each have annual balls with live music and dancing. Gaps in the calendar were filled by groups of friends who would pool their money to rent a hall, hire a band, and hope to turn a profit selling tickets in advance and at the door. In warmer months these might be "Shirt Waist" dance parties, meaning less formal dress - no suit jackets for the men, and skirts and blouses for the women.

In that era, the burgeoning popularity of ragtime music pitted young against old in the form of "animal dances" and the like thought by many (of the elders) to be so scandalous as to warrant banning. Well-known dance names included the fox trot, turkey trot, bunny hug, grizzly bear, kangaroo hop, camel walk, Texas Tommy wriggle... These dances were danced in close personal contact intended to arouse sex feeling. By today's standards quite chaste in comparison to twerking or grinding, but back then, scandalous.

Much like responses portrayed in movies such as Footloose, there were official and semi-official reactions to any dancing that included lewd movement, unchaste touching, or indecent exposure. In Maynard, the November 1913 Selectman's meeting reached a decision that all of these objectionable forms of dance be prohibited "...for a cleaner and better Maynard."

P.S. "Happy Feet" (animated, penguins) was another movie in which the elders were against dancing.