Thursday, February 25, 2016

Maynard and Stow Connect to The Finest Hours

Most people are familiar with the U.S. Marine motto Semper Fidelis (sometimes as Semper Fi), which translates from the Latin as "Always Faithful." Not as many know that the official U.S. Coast Guard motto is Semper Paratus, meaning "Always Ready." Or that the Coast Guard has a state of mind characterized by the informal motto: "You have to go out, but you don't have to come back." It appears in the recently released movie, The Finest Hours, as "In the Coast Guard they say you go out, they don't say you gotta come back in."

Stern of the USS Pendleton after the storm, aground, on its side
after the men had been rescued. (all are Internet downloads)
A version of this quote was first attributed to Life Station Keeper Patrick H. Etheridge back in 1884. He ordered his crew out to a wreck on the Diamond Shoals off Cape Hatteras, South Carolina. One man shouted that they might make it out to the wreck, but never make it back. Etheridge replied "The Blue Book says we've got to go out and it doesn't say a damn thing about having to come back." He was referring to The Bluejacket's Manual, the Navy's enlisted sailors' guide to all Navy regulations, at that time also used by the Coast Guard. 

The Finest Hours, based on a 2009 book of the same title, portrays events of February 1952, when during an intense northeaster storm, two near-identical oil tankers, the USS Pendelton and the USS Fort Mercer, each broke in half off the Massachusetts coast. Of 84 men aboard the two ships, 70 survived. The movie is about the rescue of 32 out of 33 men who were on the stern section of the Pendleton. The rescues from three of the four ship sections were conducted at great danger to the responding Coast Guard seamen. Five were later awarded Gold Life-Medals, four the Silver Life-Saving Medals, and fifteen Commendation Ribbons.  

Rescue motorboat being launched
from the CGC Yakutat
And now for the local connection. In a May 1952 Coast Guard press release, Edward A. Mason, Jr., Apprentice Seaman, age 23, mentioned as being awarded the Silver Life-Saving Medal for his part in the USS Fort Mercer rescue, was identified as being from Maynard, Massachusetts. His parents, Edward Aaron Mason and Hazel (Brackett) Mason, lived in Stow and in Maynard, and were buried in Stow's Brookside Cemetery.
Furthermore, Mason is alive, age 86, and on the afternoon of February 7th, sat down in the Fine Arts Theatre in Maynard with his daughter to see the movie.

Mason was aboard the 310 foot long Coast Guard Cutter Yakutat, which approached the drifting and tilting bow section of the Fort Mercer. Nine men had been on the bow at the time the ship split in two. Rescue attempts failed the first day, and by the next morning only four were still alive. With the storm abating but still raging, the Yakutat launched a 26 foot, wooden motorboat with a volunteer crew of five, Mason among them. The boat was damaged while being launched.

CGC Yakutat's rescue boat with crew of five
The boat stationed itself near the sinking bow section. Two men jumped into the water and were pulled into the small boat, but then a wave smashed it into the side of the wreck. Now badly damaged, nearly sinking, the small boat made its way back to the Yakutat and was lifted back aboard. Soon after, the two men still on the wreck jumped into the ocean and pulled themselves into a rubber life raft that was attached to the Yakutat by rope. With ocean temperatures in the 40s (F) all of the rescuers and the rescued were suffering from hypothermia, but all survived. The bow section of the wreck sank shortly after the rescue. The movie barely mentions the Fort Mercer.

The February 25, 2016 edition of Beacon-Villager carried this column and also an interview with Mr. Mercer, conducted and reported by Holly Camero, reporter/editor. Her article included a photo of Mercer holding the medal he received back in 1952. After serving three years in the Coast Guard, Mason returned the area to live in Stow, where he and his wife raised four children.  

The tankers in question, referred to as T2s, more specifically T2-SE-A1s, were of World War II vintage. With extreme demand for fuel for the U.S. Navy in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the navy settled on one design and had close to five hundred of these ships built in various shipyards. Production was very fast, sped by welding the steel plates to each other rather than combining riveting and welding. Dimensions were 523 feet long, 68 feet wide, holding close to six million gallons of fuel. After the war the tankers were decommissioned and sold.

Model of a T2-SE-A1. These ships were 523 feet long and carried 6 million gallons of fuel. The break was
between bridge (near center of the ship) and the rear, which include the engines and crew quarters. 
In peacetime T2s were typically manned by 40-45 men. Today's supertankers carry 100 million gallons, 
are more than 1,000 feet long, and staffed by only 25 men. 
The fuel tanks were compartmentalized by watertight bulkheads, so it really was possible for a ship to break in two and each half remain afloat. And these were not the only two T2s to suffer this fate! Flawed welds were suspected, but a larger problem appeared to be that the steel plates became brittle in cold weather because of high sulfur content in the wartime era steel. The stern of the USS Fort Mercer survived the storm, was towed to Newport, RI, where it was used in the construction of a new tanker - the USS San Jacinto. Which, twelve years later, split into two from an explosion while engaged in tank cleaning operations.

Back on May 22, 1952, The Maynard Enterprise had a first-page story about Mason, in response to his having been awarded the Coast Guard Silver Life-Saving Medal at a ceremony in Washington, DC, at which twenty other seamen also received awards for their parts in the rescues of February 18-19, 1952. From the article:

Mason's Citation: "For heroic action on the morning of 19 February 1952, as a crew member of a motor surfboat, from the United States Coast Guard Cutter Yakutat, engaged in the rescue of survivors of the tanker USS Fort Mercer, which had broken in two in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Cape Code, Massachusetts. Although the surfboat had been damaged while getting away from the Yakutat, Mason displayed outstanding seamanship while assisting in bringing it to the bow section of the Fort Mercer. There, in the face of extreme peril, he and the other crew members persuaded two survivors to jump into the water so that they could be picked up. The survivors were recovered and taken aboard the surfboat, which, severely damaged and in a sinking condition, was forced to return to the Yakutat. Mason's exceptional courage, professional skill, and unwavering devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Coast Guard."
                                                                                              - Secretary of the Treasury.

Edward A. Mason, Jr., holding the Coast Guard Silver
Lifesaving Medal he was awarded in May 1952
Photo: Ann Ringwood, Beacon-Villager
Edward A. Mason, Jr., was born in Stow on March 16, 1929, but his family later moved to Maynard, where he went to school. He was a mechanic before enrolling in the Coast Guard in January 1951. He had been assigned to the CGC Yakutat, operating out of Portland Maine, for less than a year before the rescue event. At the time of the rescue his parents, Edward and Hazel Mason, were living on Parker Street, in Maynard. He left the Coast Guard in 1953 and moved to Stow, where he and his wife raised their four children, It was his daughter, Mary Conlon, who had attended the movie with him at the Maynard Fine Arts Theatre. She had also taken him to a book signing of the author, Michael Tongias, in Westborough.  


Monday, February 22, 2016

Assabet River Rail Trail - 2016 News

A long write-up of years of progress and current walkability and rideability on the Assabet River Rail Trail is posted at this blog ( as a June 2013 entry. The content below is about the construction plans for 2016-18.  
Two stacks of railroad ties block the trail at the north end of Maynard. If
walking north, possible to safely get around the first one, but at the second,
will need to detour west (left) through the parking lot, then northward on
Acton street, in order to avoid the second stack and the construction.

NOTE: As of January 2016 the section at the north side of Maynard (north of Concord Street) is difficult to walk, as there was a storm sewer pipe installation in 2015 which left the Trail blocked. See photo.  

NOTE: Bids accepted Sept 2015, opened February 23, 2016. Six bids received, with range $6.7 to $10.4 million dollars. According to the timeline, construction will start June 2016, all paving done in late 2017, and  project completed (fencing. landscaping, etc.) in early 2018.

The Assabet River Rail Trail website has posted the latest blueprints for the rail trail section to go from the Acton train station to the White Pond Road Bridge at the Maynard:Stow border. This phase does not include extending into Stow on what is known as "Track Road," although that unpaved road will remain open to walkers and bicyclists. The accepted bid's budget for this 3.4 mile section of the trail in Acton and Maynard was $6.7 million dollars. See plans at:

Signs in Stow, Maynard and Acton. 
The 32-page PDF document starts at the west end. The first part of each page is an overhead view of the proposed trail. The second part of each page is the side view, showing change in elevation.

No surprises. Most of it is 12 foot wide, paved, with 2 foot stone dust shoulders. Parts have a flanking fence and/or a drainage ditch ("swale") on one side or both. Sections through the center of Maynard are narrowed to ten feet wide - a few squeezed spots to only eight feet wide.

PERMITS: Permitting has been completed on Section 91, the Wetlands Protection Act, the Clean Water Act Section 404(ACOE) and Section 401(WQC). Those abbreviations are Army Corp Of Engineers and Water Quality Certification, respectively. Section 91 calls for retaining public access to waterfront. Section 404 addresses any land subjected to dredging or filling. If wetlands are destroyed, there has to be compensation via construction of an equivalent wetlands area elsewhere.

Surveyors' stakes along the Trail. Numbers
are distance in feet from Stow end.
There will be a small parking lot at Ice House Landing, just off Winter Street, near the Department of Public Works (Maynard). This will also serve people planning to put a canoe or kayak into the Assabet River. It will not be possible to put in a boat from a trailer. Small parking lots will also be at the end of Sylvia Street (Acton) and off Maple Street (Acton). Mid-town Maynard has metered parking adjoining the trail and free parking in a lot across from the movie theater.

The south end of this planned section connects to White Pond Road, in the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge has a parking lot on White Pond Road, and allows bicycling on about half of its 15 miles of trails.

According to the plans, sites along the Assabet River Rail Trail will have benches, bicycle racks and information kiosks. Some parking spaces will be lost in the municipal lot behind CVS and the Outdoor Store, and in the parking lot behind the Post Office.

This does not complete the Assabet River Rail Trail. The south end (Marlborough and most of Hudson) was paved years ago, but the completion of this north end will still leave the middle four miles unfinished. From the White Pond Bridge on the Maynard:Stow border it is possible to walk or bike on a dirt road ("Track Road") past Sudbury Road, in Stow, almost to Lake Boon, but no farther, as there is no bridge over the Assabet River. Any connection between north and south is years away.

Options under consideration are continuing on the original railroad right of way - difficult because there are currently private landowners along that route that have no interest in selling their land - or detouring south through the center of the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge and then west in Sudbury.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Making Maple Syrup, Maynard MA

Maple sap collecting buckets are obsolete. Operators now create a web
of tubing connected to a vacuum pump = cleaner and less labor. 
Daytime temperatures above freezing followed by nights below freezing are optimal to promote and prolong the maple sap season, which typically lasts 4-6 weeks. Each tap into a tree is expected to generate 8-12 gallons. New tap holes are drilled each year because the tree reacts by clogging the area around the tap in an attempt to heal itself from the damage.

What is collected is about two percent sugar, processed to concentrate it to 67 percent, meaning that it takes about ten gallons of sap to make one quart of syrup. The tree species of choice is sugar maple (Acer saccharum, also known as rock maple) followed by black, red and silver maple. Sugar maples are preferred because of higher percent sugar in the sap and more sap yield per tree.

Locally, climate change is affecting the maple syrup industry.  The season tends to start 10-15 days earlier than it did decades ago, and of greater importance, is becoming shorter. Toward the end of each sap season the resultant syrup is darker and has a maple taste too strong to be sold as pure syrup. Instead it is used as flavoring for stuff like barbeque sauce.

Tubing gravity-feeds into a stainless steel container. Contents periodically
pumped into a tank on a truck to be transferred to a 'sugar shack' for 
concentration via reverse osmosis and heat evaporator.
With the advent of nights with above freezing temperatures the leaf buds begin to open and the sap develops a bitter off-taste referred to as "buddy" syrup. Sap collection stops when this starts. This week's prolonged warm weather may have been enough to trigger bud break, so that even if February gets cold again, this may be a lost year.

Expert advice on tree tapping is consistent - to harvest without causing harm do not tap trees under 10 inches in diameter, do not add a second tap until diameter exceeds 17 inches, and only go to three (and never higher) when trees exceed 25 inches in diameter. Some maple sugar operations are switching to a smaller diameter tap and not drilling as deep (5/16 and 1.5 inches versus 7/16 and 2.0 inches) and experimenting with tapping smaller trees, but there is not enough long-term experience to determine if the smaller taps mean that smaller trees stay healthy over years of use.  

Tap on too-small maple tree (Click on photos to enlarge)
In Maynard, most of the tapped trees in the woods south of Concord Street Circle are under ten inches in diameter; many are well under six inches. The practice risks doing trees grievous harm. Premature tapping and over-tapping (too many taps per tree) slows growth. It also weakens trees, putting them at risk for disease and rot. 

One newish question is how "green" the maple syrup industry can become. The old bucket methods have been superseded by networks of plastic tubing that connect trees to collection tanks. The process is either gravity driven, or else hooked up to pumps. Studies have also shown that plastic tubing will produce higher yields of cleaner sap and greatly reduce the labor involved with sap collection.

At the sugarhouse, the maple sap is run through a reverse osmosis system which removes about 80% of the water. Although the concentration process is still completed via an evaporator, using the osmosis process first saves lots of fuel. Evaporators can run on gas, oil or wood. Burning wood will put more carbon and smoke into the atmosphere, but it has the benefit of being locally sourced. And free.

The newest fad is to skip any concentration process entirely, and market "maple water," i.e., pasteurized maple sap. The taste is faintly sweet (under 100 calories per quart, meaning less than half what's in coconut water). Given the source, it is organic, non-GMO and gluten-free.

NOT IN NEWSPAPER ARTICLE: For readers deeply interested in maple tree tapping science and practice, the Proctor, Maple Research Center at the University of Vermont has many articles posted at this website:

One of the most controversial ideas is to turn maple tree tapping from a gathering to a farming process, akin to Christmas tree farming. Maple trees would be selected for high volume and high sugar content, then cloned to create genetically identical seedlings. The seedlings would be planted close together on easy-to-access land that can be fertilized, managed, etc. When trees are about ten years old the tops are cut off four feet from the ground and a vacuum-powered collector attached across the top of the stump. Not clear yet whether this will kill the tree, of if a new trunk will sprout from the roots. Even if the former, just pull out stumps and plant new trees. When compared to collecting from mature forest trees, estimates are that a maple tree 'plantation' could yield 20X-30X more sap per acre.