On July 12, 2018, David Mark presented a short talk "A Walk to Boon's Pond in Stow" at the 2018 Thoreau Society Annual Gathering, in Concord, Massachusetts, USA. The topic is Thoreau's journal entry for September 4, 1851.
Thoreau's journal entry: 2,800 words
Introduction and Annotation: 6,300 words
|U.S. postage stamp issued May 23, 2017 honoring|
the bicentennial of Thoreau's birth.
Among Henry David Thoreau's many journal entries are a few
pertaining to Sudbury
small towns in eastern Massachusetts
miles west of Concord
On Thursday, September 4, 1851, Henry David Thoreau was 34 years old; four
years past the end of his two-year sojourn at Walden Pond
and three years before that experience was published as Walden; or, Life in the Woods
. He was writing in his journal nearly
every day. On September 4th he set out with a friend to walk to Boon's Pond (in
) and back,
a distance of 20 miles.
The trip took them from Concord
included parts of the last two towns that 20 years later would become Maynard.
The region was primarily agricultural, interspersed with woodland and wetland.
On a few rivers there were various types of
mills typical of the early stages of the industrial era (wool, cotton,
gunpowder, paper, leather...). Concord
had trains, newspapers, and has just been wired for telegraph. This document
contains the transcript of his journal entry with annotations to place content
in historical context of the time and present day status.
: In his journal entry the day before the Boon Pond walk Thoreau describes
an afternoon walk in the rain. He commented on the telegraph wires which were
new that week to Concord
He quotes Wilkinson on benefits of pathways before ranting about Wilkinson's
proposal to pave same: "'As for walking, the inhabitants of large English
towns are confined almost exclusively to their parks and to the highways. The
few footpaths in their vicinities are gradually vanishing,' says Wilkinson, 'under
the encroachments of the proprietors .' He proposes that the people's right to
them be asserted and defended and that they be kept in a passable state at the
public expense. 'This,' says he, 'would be easily done by means of asphalt laid
upon a good foundation' ! ! ! So much for walking, and the prospects of walking,
in the neighborhood of English large towns." 
JOURNAL ENTRY: THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 4, 1851
"A Walk to Boon's Pond in Stow"
as it appears in
Volume 2, Chapter VIII, September 1851 (published 1906)
Sept. 4. 8 A. M.
clear and pleasant day after the rain. Start for Boon's Pond in Stow
with C. [2,3] Every sight and sound was the more interesting
for the clear atmosphere. When you are starting away, leaving your more
familiar fields, for a little adventure like a walk, you look at every object
with a traveller's, or at least with historical, eyes; you pause on the first
bridge, where an ordinary walk hardly commences, and begin to observe and
moralize like a traveller. It is worth the while to see your native village
thus sometimes, as if you were a traveller passing through it, commenting on
your neighbors as strangers. We stood thus on Wood's Bridge, the first bridge,
in the capacity of pilgrims and strangers to its familiarity, giving it one
more chance with us, though our townsmen who passed may not have perceived it.
There was a pretty good-sized pickerel poised over the sandy
bottom close to the shore and motionless as a shadow. It is wonderful how they
resist the slight current of our river and remain thus stationary for hours.
He, no doubt, saw us plainly on the bridge, in the sunny water, his whole form
distinct and his shadow, motionless as the steel trap which does not spring
till the fox's foot has touched it. 
_____'s dog sprang up, ran out, and growled at us, and in
his eye I seemed to see the eye of his master. I have no doubt but that, as is
the master, such in course of time tend to become his herds and flocks as well
as dogs. One man's oxen will be clever and solid, another's mischievous,
another's mangy, in each case like their respective owners. No doubt man impresses
his own character on the beasts which he tames and employs; they are not only
humanized, but they acquire his particular human nature. How much oxen are like
farmers generally, and cows like farmers' wives! and young steers and heifers
like farmers' boys and girls! The farmer acts on the ox, and the ox reacts on
the farmer. They do not meet half-way, it is true, but they do meet at a
distance from the centre of each proportionate to each one's intellectual
power. The farmer is ox-like in his thought, in his walk, in his strength, in
his trustworthiness, in his taste. 
Hosmer's man was cutting his millet, and his buckwheat already
lay in red piles in the field. [7,8]
The first picture we noticed was where the road turned among
the pitch pines  and showed the Hadley house , with the high wooded hill
behind with dew and sun on it, the gracefully winding road path, and a more
distant horizon on the right of the house. Just beyond, on the left, it was
pleasant walking where the road was shaded by a high hill, as it can be only in
the morning. Even in the morning that additional coolness and early- dawn-like
feeling of a more sacred and earlier season are agreeable.
The lane in front of Tarbell's house , which is but
little worn and appears to lead nowhere, though it has so wide and
all-engulfing an opening, suggested that such things might be contrived for
effect in laying out grounds. (Only those things are sure to have the greatest and
best effect, which like this were not contrived for the sake of effect.) An
open path which would suggest walking and adventuring on it, the going to some
place strange and far away. It would make you think of or imagine distant
places and spaces greater than the estate. [Thoreau had explored this idea of an
abandoned road as symbolic of every road to anywhere in his journal in 1850 as
a poem "The Old Marlborough Road."]
It was pleasant, looking back just beyond, to see a heavy
shadow (made by some high birches) reaching quite across the road. 
Light and shadow are sufficient contrast and
furnish sufficient excitement when we are well.
Now we were passing the vale of Brown and Tarbell, a
sunshiny mead pastured by cattle and sparkling with dew, the sound of crows and
swallows heard in the air, and leafy-columned elms seen here and there shining
with dew. 
The morning freshness and
unworldliness of that
domain ! The vale of Tempe
and of Arcady
is not farther off than are the
conscious lives of men from their opportunities. Our life is as far from corresponding
to its scenery as we are distant from Tempe
; that is to say,
they are far away because we are far from living natural lives. How absurd it
would be to insist on the vale of Tempe in particular when we have such vales
as we have! 
|Click on photos to enlarge. Parts of|
the walk were on the at-that-time
abandoned Old Marlboro Road. The
above sign from road in Maynard.
In the Marlborough road,  in the woods, I saw a purple
streak like a stain on the red pine leaves and sand under my feet, which I was
surprised to find was made by a dense mass of purple fleas, somewhat like
snow-fleas, a faint purple stain as if some purple dye had been spilt. 
What is that slender pink flower that I find in the Marlborough
road, smaller than a snap dragon
? The slender stems of grass which hang over the ruts and horses' path in this
little-frequented road are so laden with dew that I am compelled to hold a bush
before me to shake it off. The jays scream on the right and left and are seen
flying further off as we go by. 
We drink in the meadow at Second Division Brook, then sit
awhile to watch its yellowish pebbles and the cress (?) in it and other reeds.
The ripples cover its surface like a network and are faithfully reflected on
the bottom. In some places, the sun reflected from ripples on a flat stone
looks like a golden comb. The whole brook seems as busy as a loom : it is a
woof and warp of ripples ; fairy fingers are throwing the shuttle at every
step, and the long, waving brook is the fine product. The water is wonderfully
To have a hut here, and a footpath to the brook ! For roads,
I think that a poet cannot tolerate more than a footpath through the fields;
that is wide enough, and for purposes of winged poesy suffices. It is not for
the muse to speak of cart-paths. I would fain travel by a footpath round the
world. I do not ask the railroads of commerce, not even the cart-paths of the
farmer. Pray, what other path would you have than a footpath ? What else should
wear a path ? This is the track of man alone.
What more suggestive to the pensive walker ? One walks in a
wheel-track with less emotion; he is at a greater distance from man; but this
footpath was, perchance, worn by the bare feet of human beings, and he cannot
but think with interest of them. 
|Founded 1835, southernmost part of Acton, MA.|
The grapes, though their leaves are withering and falling,
are yet too sour to eat. 
In the summer we lay up a stock of experiences for the
winter, as the squirrel of nuts, something for conversation in winter evenings.
I love to think then of the more distant walks I took in summer.
At the powder-mills the carbonic acid gas in the road from
the building where they were making charcoal made us cough for twenty or thirty
Saw some gray squirrels whirling their cylinder by the
roadside. How fitted that cylinder to this animal! "A squirrel is easily
taught to turn his cylinder" might be a saying frequently applicable. And
as they turned, one leaped over or dodged under another most grace fully and
unexpectedly, with interweaving motions. It was the circus and menagerie
combined. So human they were, exhibiting themselves. 
In the Marlborough
road, I forgot to say, we brushed the Polygonum
with its spikes of reddish-white flowers, a slender and tender
plant which loves the middle of dry and sandy not-much-travelled roads.  To
find that the very atoms bloom, that there are flowers we rudely brush against
which only the microscope reveals!
It is wise to write on many subjects, to try many themes,
that so you may find the right and inspiring one. Be greedy of occasions to
express your thought. Improve the opportunity to draw analogies. There are
innumerable avenues to a perception of the truth. Improve the suggestion of
each object however humble, however slight and transient the provocation. What
else is there to be improved ? Who knows what opportunities he may neglect ? It
is not in vain that the mind turns aside this way or that: follow its leading;
apply it whither it inclines to go. Probe the universe in a myriad points. Be
avaricious of these impulses. You must try a thousand themes before you find
the right one, as nature makes a thousand acorns to get one oak. 
He is a wise man and experienced who has taken
many views; to whom stones and plants and animals and a myriad objects have
each suggested something, contributed something.
And now, methinks, this wider wood-path is not bad, for it
admits of society more conveniently. Two can walk side by side in it in the
ruts, aye, and one more in the horse-track. The Indian walked in single file,
more solitary, not side by side, chatting as he went. The woodman's cart and
sled make just the path two walkers want through the wood. 
Beyond the powder-mills we watched some fat oxen,
elephantine, behemoths, one Rufus-Hosmer-eyed, with the long lash and projecting
Now past the paper-mills, by the westernmost road east of
the river, the first new ground we've reached. 
Not only the prunella turns lake, but the Hypericum Virginicum
 in the hollows
by the roadside, a handsome blush. A part of the autumnal tints, ripe leaves.
Leaves acquire red blood. Red colors touch our blood, and excite us as well as
cows and geese.
|A casualty of King Philip's War|
1675-1676. Boon's Pond is now
Lake Boon, in Stow and Hudson.
And now we leave the road and go through the woods and
swamps toward Boon's Pond, crossing two or three roads and by Potter's house in
; still on
east of river.  The fruit of the Pyrola
 in the damp woods. Larch trees in Stow
about the houses. Beyond Potter's we
struck into the extensive wooded plain where the ponds are found in Stow
, and Marlborough
. Part of it
called Boon's Plain. Boon said to have lived on or under Bailey's Hill at west
of pond. Killed by Indians between Boon's and White's Pond as he was driving
his ox-cart. The oxen ran off to Marlborough
garrison-house. His remains have been searched for.  A sandy plain, a large
level tract. The pond shores handsome enough, but water shallow and muddy
looking. Well-wooded shores. The maples begin to show red about it. Much
|The railroad was active 1850-|
1965. Last of the rails removed
in 2014 preperatory to creating
the Assabet River Rail Trail.
Saw a load of sunflowers in a farmers [sic]. Such is the
destiny of this large, coarse flower; the farmers gather it like pumpkins.
Returned by railroad down the Assabet.  A potato-field
yellow with wild radish. But no good place to bathe for three miles, Knight's
new dam has so raised the river.  A permanent freshet, as it were, the
fluviatile trees standing dead for fish hawk perches, and the water stagnant
for weeds to grow in.  You have only to dam up a running stream to give it
the aspect of a dead stream, and to some degree restore its primitive wild appearance.
Tracts made inaccessible to man and at the same time more fertile. Some
speculator comes and dams up the stream below, and lo ! the water stands over
all meadows, making impassable morasses and dead trees for fish hawks, a wild,
stagnant, fenny country, the last gasp of wildness before it yields to the
civilization of the factory, to cheer the eyes of the factory people and
educate them. It makes a little wilderness above the factories.
The woodbine now begins to hang red about the maples and
|White Pond Road bridge, 2007, is|
newest version of bridges spanning the
Assabet River, 1716, 1800 and 1929.
As I looked back up the stream from near the bridge, I on
the railroad, I saw the ripples sparkling in the sun, reminding me of the
sparkling icy fleets which I saw last winter; and I saw how one corresponded to
the other, ice waves to water ones ; the erect ice-flakes were the waves
stereotyped. It was the same sight, the reflection of the sun sparkling from a
myriad slanting surfaces at a distance, a rippled water surface or a
crystallized frozen one.
Here crossed the river and climbed the high hills on the
west side.  The walnut trees conformed in their branches to the slope of
the hill, being just as high from the ground on the upper side as on the lower.
|Fall brush fire|
On all sides now I see and smell the withering leaves of
brush that has been cut to clear the land. I see some blackened tracts which
have been burnt over. It is remarkable, for it is rare to see the surface of
the earth black. And in the horizon I can see the smokes of several fires. The
farmers improve this season, which is the driest, their haying being done and
their harvest not begun, to do these jobs, burn brush, build walls, dig
ditches, cut turf. This is what I find them doing all over the country now;
also topping corn and digging potatoes. 
Saw quite a flock, for the first time, of goldfinches.
On the high, round hills in the east and southeast of Stow
, perchance they are
called the Assabet Hills, rising directly from the river. They are the highest
I know rising thus. The rounded hills of Stow
A hill and valley country. Very different from Concord
It had been a warm day, especially warm to the head. I do
not perspire as in the early summer, but am sensible of the ripening heat, more
as if by contact. Suddenly the wind changed to east, and the atmosphere grew
more and more hazy and thick on that side, obstructing the view, while it was
yet clear in the west. I thought it was the result of the cooler air from over
the sea meeting and condensing the vapor in the warm air of the land. That was
the haze, or thin, dry fog which some call smoke. It gradually moved westward
and affected the prospect on that side somewhat. It was a very thin fog
invading all the east. I felt the cool air from the ocean, and it was very
refreshing. I opened my bosom and my mouth to inhale it. Very delicious and
We sat on the top of those hills looking down on the new
brick ice-house.  Where there are several hills near together, you cannot
determine at once which is the highest, whether the one you are on or the next.
So, when great men are assembled, each yields an uncertain respect to the
other, as if it were not certain whose crown rose highest.
Under the nut trees on these hills, the grass is short and
green as if grazed close by cattle who had stood there for shade, making a
distinct circular yard. Yet, as there is no dung and the form corresponds so
closely to the tree, I doubt if that can be the cause.
On hillside north of river above powder-mills the Pycnanthemum incanum
calamint) and the Lespedeza violacea
Saw what I thought a small red dog in the road, which
cantered along over the bridge this side the powder-mills and then turned into
the woods. This decided me this turning into the woods that it was a fox. 
The dog of the woods, the dog that is more at
home in the woods than in the roads and fields. I do not often see a dog
turning into the woods.
Some large white ( ?) oak acorns this side the last-named
bridge. A few oaks stand in the pastures still, great ornaments. I do not see
any young ones springing up to supply their places. Will there be any a hundred
years hence ? These are the remnants of the primitive wood, methinks. We are a
young people and have not learned by experience the consequence of cutting off
the forest. One day they will be planted, methinks, and nature reinstated to
some extent. 
I love to see the yellow knots and their lengthened stain on
the dry, unpainted pitch-pine boards on barns and other buildings, the Dugan
house, for instance. The indestructible yellow fat! it fats my eyes to see it;
worthy for art to imitate, telling of branches in the forest once. 
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 5,
: The day after his Boon's Pond excursion, Thoreau starts his journal
entry with the idea that we are sensitive to the air we breathe, the smells...
Several more mentions of Wilkinson as an observer of nature.  Last entry of
the day is about a night walk by moonlight, at Potter's Field toward Bear
Garden Hill, 8 p.m., and hearing the whip-poor-wills sing.
wires: Samuel F.B. Morse conceived of the idea of sending electric
signals over wire in 1832. Working models were achieved circa 1836. Short
and long clicks (dots and dashes; comprising Morse Code for letters and numbers)
were used to construct messages. In 1844 Morse successfully connected Washington to Baltimore
with the initial message "What hath God Wrought!" Within a few
years telegraph wires connected New York
and between many other eastern cities and towns. By 1851, the year Thoreau
noted that the telegraph had reached Concord,
there were over 50 separate telegraph companies operating in the United States.
(Within 20 years all of this had merged into the Western Union Telegraph
Company.) Morse and Thoreau were contemporaries, Morse being born before
(1791) and dying after (1872) Thoreau (1817-1862).
Wilkinson: James John Garth
Wilkinson (1812-1899). Emerson was an admirer of the scholarship and writings
of Wilkinson, including his 1851 book The
Human Body and its Relationship to Man. Likely that Thoreau read the book at Emerson's
house. Wilkinson supported the idea of preserving footpaths by identifying them
as public property, and making these paths accessible in all seasons by paving
with asphalt. From his September 3rd journal entry, Thoreau found the idea of
being confined to paved paths such an anathema that he suggested he should die
from mere nervousness at the thought of such confinement, perhaps even hesitate
to be born if those terms were made known to him beforehand. Source accessed
May 2015: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/bloomsbury-project/articles/events/conference2009/lines.pdf.
"Asphalt," a word so
commonly used today as to be unremarkable, was a novelty back in 1851 - in
fact, very unlikely that Thoreau had ever seen asphalt, let alone walked on a
so-paved path. The first British patent for the use of asphalt/bitumen was
issued in 1834. The process became common in England
in the 1840s and 1850s, but appears to
have not come into use in the United
until around 1870.
Pond: Matthew Boon and his family were early settlers of land west of Sudbury. Around 1660
they started a homestead on a hill between the Assabet River
and what came to be called Boon's Pond. In 1675-76, King Philip's War,
Indians attacked and burned settlements in an attempt to stop colonial
expansion. Boon moved his family to the colonists' garrison in Sudbury, then
returned to his homestead with an oxcart to get his furniture and other
valuables. He was presumed killed by Indians, his body never found.
There is a stone marker on the west side of Barton Road
, about 1000 feet north of Lake Boon
with an arrow and words BOON
. In the woods, about
150 feet farther west is the stone monument which reads: ON THIS HILL LIVED
MATTHEW BOON. ONE OF FIRST TWO SETTLERS IN STOW
. WAS KILLED BY THE INDIANS ABOUT
Thoreau does not provide enough information to determine if he and C.
walked north along the eastern shore of Boon's Pond, or skirted the south shore
and walked north on the west side. If the latter, they would have had to ford
the small brook that connected the pond to the Assabet River
so they could return by walking along the railroad tracks.
Drainage from the pond to the Assabet River
was later blocked by an earthen dam, creating the much larger Lake Boon
which exists today. The exact date is not known, but an 1856 map clearly shows
only the original body of water, as Boon's Pond. The original intent of the dam
was to create more water reserved for powering the woolen mill, down river, but
this function ceased and the lake was subsequently maintained at a
near-constant water level throughout the year, allowing development of
waterfront campsites, summer cottages, and later year-round homes.
William Ellery Channing, referred to in journal entries as W.E.C. or C. He
was a classmate at Harvard, a neighbor in Concord and the author of the first
biography of Thoreau, published in 1873. Also a walker and wanderer.
Bridge: Refers to Concord's South Bridge,
which carries Route 62 over the Sudbury
River. (Or is it the Elm Street bridge?) There is a Wood Street
close by, and the Wood family had houses at 41 Wood Street and 631 Main Street.
Possibly Elijah Wood and Elijah Wood, Jr. On older maps bridges may be
named after a prominent family that lived close by, no ownership implied.
This fresh water torpedo of a fish has larger relatives - pike and
muskellunge. There are actually three pickerel species - the chain
pickerel being the largest, with adults of one to two pounds common,
exceeding five pounds, rare. Pickerel will catch and eat any living thing
in the water, including smaller pickerel.
Grass, redfin and chain pickerel are three species native to
North America.Adult length 15-20 inches for the first
two, larger for chain pickerel.
Thoreau was a big fan of this fish. From WALDEN (Chapter: The Pond in
Winter): "Early in the morning,
while all things are crisp with frost, men come with fishing-reels and slender
lunch, and let down their fine lines through the snowy field to take pickerel
and perch... Here is one fishing for pickerel with grown perch for bait... The
perch swallows the grub-worm, the pickerel swallows the perch, and the
fisher-man swallows the pickerel; and so all the chinks in the scale of being
pickerel of Walden! when I see them lying on the ice, or in the well which the
fisherman cuts in the ice, making a little hole to admit the water, I am always
surprised by their rare beauty, as if they were fabulous fishes, they are so
foreign to the streets, even to the woods, foreign as Arabia to our Concord
life. They possess a quite dazzling and transcendent beauty which separates
them by a wide interval from the cadaverous cod and haddock whose fame is
trumpeted in our streets. They are not green like the pines, nor gray like the
stones, nor blue like the sky; but they have, to my eyes, if possible, yet
rarer colors, like flowers and precious stones, as if they were the pearls, the
animalized nuclei or
crystals of the Walden water.
They, of course,
are Walden all over and all through; are themselves small Waldens in the animal
kingdom, Waldenses. It is surprising that they are caught here — that in this
deep and capacious spring, far beneath the rattling teams and chaises and
tinkling sleighs that travel the Walden road, this great gold and emerald fish
swims. I never chanced to see its kind in any market; it would be the cynosure
of all eyes there. Easily, with a few convulsive quirks, they give up their
watery ghosts, like a mortal translated before his time to the thin air of
OTHER MISC JOURNAL ENTRIES: “Swiftest, wariest, and most ravenous of
fishes . . . stately, ruminant . . . lurking under the shadow of a pad at noon
. . . still, circumspect . . . motionless as a jewel set in water.” He said he
had “caught one which had swallowed a brother pickerel half as large as itself,
with the tail still visible in its mouth,” and he noted that “sometimes a
striped snake, bound to greener meadows across the stream, ends its undulatory
progress in the same receptacle.”
oxen, cows, young steers, heifers: Heifers (females) are bred after
their third year, are then milk cows. At present, the average dairy cow in
produces 8-9 gallons of milk a day and produces for ten months before
being dried off two months and then bred again. Back in Thoreau's day the
numbers were 1-2 gallons a day for six months. This was prior to the
invention of pasteurization, so milk was used raw or made to cheese and
Steers went to the butcher after a few years or else were trained as
oxen. Oxen were the preferred work animal for tasks such as pulling stumps,
moving stones out of fields and hauling timber, but were slower than horses for
plowing fields or taking goods to market (or the family to church). Oxen were
castrated young to make them more docile than bulls, but not considered
properly trained and in adult strength until around four years old. Their
working life was another three to four years, at which time retired from work
and fattened for butchering. Each ox would consume about 75 pounds per day of
silage and other food stuffs. A trained pair of oxen had significant value - at
the time human labor on roads and highways paid $1.25/day the use of a pair of
oxen cost $2.50/day.
man; the Hadley house; Tarbell's house; vale of Brown and Tarbell;
Potter's house: [Is it possible
the correct name was Puffer?] In
Thoreau's era families moved less frequently. Eldest sons inherited the
houses of their fathers (unless the family 'daughtered out,' a Yankee term
describing what happens to a surname if no sons survive to carry it
onward). His reference to houses by names of owners made good enough sense
at the time, especially for journal entries he had no expectation that
others would be reading.
and buckwheat: Millet seeds can be processed for human consumption,
but is possible here that the plant was being grown as forage for cattle. Buckwheat
is a grain crop with a short growing season.
pines: Pinus rigida is a
specific pine species, fast-growing and appreciated for its high resin
content. This quality helps slow decay, but also means that the wood does
not hold paint well. Use in Thoreau's time would have been for bridge
beams, railroad ties and rough-cut planking for barns. In a plank, the
knots are cross-sections of branches from when the tree was younger; as
the tree trunk grows wider over time these branches became embedded in
newer wood. Knots retain a higher resin content than the surrounding wood.
For years and years after the wood surface has become dry, resin will seep
out of the knots in hot weather and streak downward.
shadow...high birches: Sunrise
would have been about 6:15 a.m., so only taller trees
would still be
casting a shadow across a road. Best guess is white birch, which can
exceed 60 feet in height. It is the largest birch native to North America. Its bark was used to make birch bark
canoes. Grey birch also have white trunks but are shorter-lived and
smaller, rarely exceeding 30 feet in height and six inches in diameter.
|Trunk of a white birch tree, about 18" diameter. In this|
December photo, female (wingless) winter moths are
climbing the tree, to mate with winged males. When the
white bark is peeled away it exposes a light tan underbark
which soon bleaches to white in the sunlight.
Tempe or the dales of Arcady":
Line from a poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn (1819), by John Keats. Tempe: a beautiful valley in Greece, it
was sacred to Apollo, the god of poetry and music. Arcady: the literary
word for Arcadia, in the central Peloponnesus. Zeus was born there, in one account.
The word connotes a place of rural peace and simplicity because of the
ancient reputation of its inhabitants as innocent and peaceful.
- Marlborough Road:
What is now Old Marlboro Road
starts in Concord, close to Emerson Hospital,
wends across northwestern Sudbury
as Powers Road
and then Route 117 before reverting to Old Marlboro Road in Maynard, only
to end at the border of the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge. Within
the Refuge it continues as a trail named Winterberry Way. Where it picks up
again, in Marlborough,
it is named Bruen Road
and then Concord Road.
This was typical of the era when roads were known by the towns they went
to. On a 1794 map in the Archive of the Sudbury Historical Society it is
identified as the Marlborough-to-Concord
Road. Present day there is also a Marlboro Road
parallel to but further south than Old Marlboro Road. See the Coda for
how the Old Marlborough Road
was incorporated into a poem in Thoreau's essay, Walking.
fleas/Snow fleas: Thoreau was spot-on here in describing what he saw
as akin to snow fleas, although both are actually springtails. These very
small, insect-like species prefer moist woodland ground cover. After rainy
days they may be found congregated on the surface in such high densities
as to look like spattered or streaked paint - in his instance purple. The
springtail name comes from anatomy and means of escape from predators. A
tail-like appendage is kept under tension under the body. When released,
it propels the springtail up to ten times its body length. Snow fleas are
a winter-hardy springtail species. On sun-warmed days they can be seen
atop snow-cover, feeding on plant detritus.
Thoreau was prone to referring to plants by Linnaean name, but not
animals. The blue- and white-feathered blue jay is the only jay in the
northeast; it is a distant Corvid relative to magpies, crows and ravens.
Blue jays are very vocal about strangers (humans, crows) in their midst.
Division Brook: The headwaters of this tributary to the Assabet River are
in Maynard and Sudbury. In Thoreau's time the land was owned by the Hayward family, who
damned the brook and operated a mill. He does not say how they crossed,
but there might have been a simple foot bridge. Present-day there are
three dams and three ponds. The northernmost is Musketaquid Pond, then an
unnamed pond, and then Kennedy's Pond (formerly Haywood Pond), after the
Kennedy family that owned/operated a children's camp. Elevation at the
headwater pond at Maynard's Rod and Gun Club is 185 feet, dropping to 115
feet above sea level at the point the brook enters the Assabet River.
The name of the brook stems from
the 1655 expansion and division of land amongst Concord
residents. When a colonial town was
established there were appropriations of land to the founding families, plus
land held in common. For Concord
this took place in 1635. Twenty years the population had grown and there was
need for more land appropriation.
cart-path, woodman's cart and sled, railroads of commerce: Those
collecting wood for timber or burning would use a cart in the snowless
months and a sled in winter. Winter was preferred, as no mud! A logger's
sled was a low-to-the-ground contraption that could be harnessed to a single
horse or a pair, more rarely four horses. On hard-packed snow and level
ground a pair could pull what looks in old photos like impossibly large
loads. Marlborough Road
may have no longer been a route for commerce, yet still providing access
Thoreau (born 1817) was older than railroads. In 1930 this nascent
industry had fewer than 100 miles of track in the U.S.
, increasing to approximately
2,800 miles by 1840 and exceeding 9,000 miles by 1850. The Fitchburg Railroad,
service between Boston
, started operations in 1844. A
branch off the Fitchburg
line extended southeast
from South Acton - as far as Hudson
later extended to Marlborough
These are the tracks along the Assabet
that Henry and his
friend walked along for the first part of their return trek.
though their leaves are withering and falling, are yet too sour to eat":
The local wild grape was Vitis
labrusca, commonly known as fox grape. Early September would have been
too early for the grapes to be ripe. These grapes are very
astringent/bitter, the taste only partially compensated by a rise in sugar
content as the grapes reach full maturity.
Thoreau was likely aware of the efforts of Ephraim Wales Bull to develop
a superior American grape. Bull lived in Concord
neighbor to the Alcotts. He began a grape breeding program in 1843. Out of
thousands, one vine had larger grapes in larger bunches which he named Concord
cultivar was commercialized in 1854 and became a major crop in upstate New York
, near Lake Erie
where it benefits from a long, cool growing season. Concord
grapes are used in jams, jellies and
|Remnant frames, trees growing up through, are all that is|
left of the scattered gunpowder mill buildings.
the powder-mills the carbonic acid gas in the road from the building where
they were making charcoal made us cough for twenty or thirty rods.":
Thoreau worked on and off as a surveyor for hire. As such, he was familiar
with a rod as a unit of measure. One rod was 16.5 feet; four rods equal to
a surveyor's chain (66 feet). Thoreau uses a plural here (powder-mills)
because the making of gunpowder involves many steps, often conducted in
widely separated buildings so that if one caught fire or exploded it would
not set off the others. The mill complex occupied close to 400 acres of
the southernmost part of Acton.
The founder was Nathan Pratt, the company name American Powder Company
(incorporated 1841). Gunpowder was made at this site from 1835-1943. The
present-day name for the road is Powder
Mill Road, although most people know it as
Route 62. The ingredients for gunpowder are charcoal (preferred from willow
trees), potassium nitrate (from saltpeter) and sulfur.
Two years later Thoreau was back at the gunpowder mills. From Concord,
he had heard an explosion, and hitched a ride on a horse-drawn wagon. From his
journal: "Arrived probably before half past 10:00 a.m. There were perhaps
30 or 40 wagons there. The kernel mill had blown up first and killed three men
who were in it said to be turning a roller with a chisel… and fragments mostly
but a foot or two in length were strewn over the hills and meadows, as if sown,
for 30 rods [165 yards]. Three other buildings were destroyed or damaged. Some
of the clothes of the men were in the tops of the trees where undoubtedly their
bodies had been and left them. The bodies were naked and black. Some limbs and
bowels here and there, and a head at a distance from its trunk. The feet were
bare, the hair singed to a crisp. I smelt the powder half a mile before I got
was the circus and menagerie combined": By 1851, traveling tent shows
featuring animal acts, exotic animals, acrobats jugglers and clowns were
commonplace, first traveling by horse and wagon, later by train.
Squirrels, unlike most smaller mammals in North
, are active during the day and not people shy. Their
natural activity had the appearance of putting on a show. However, Thoreau's
attempt to coin a phrase, "A squirrel is easily taught to turn his
cylinder." has no frame of reference. Squirrels were not kept in cages
with exercise wheels, nor used in wheels to turn meat on a spit over a kitchen fire.
The latter was a job for turnspit dogs, a long-bodied, short-legged breed.
italicized names are Linnaean taxonomy, named after Carolus Linnaeus,
who in the 1750s popularized giving all plants and animals two-part names,
signifying genus and species. Polygonum
articulatum is jointed knotweed; Hypericum
Virginicum is marsh St. John's wort (native
to North America, distinct from European
St. John's wort); Pyrola
rotundifolia is round-leafed wintergreen; Pycnanthemum incanum is mountain mint; Lespedeza violacea is violet bush clover. Thoreau names 15
other plant species by their common names (millet, buckwheat, birch,
must try a thousand themes before you find the right one, as nature makes
a thousand acorns to get one oak": The thought verges on natural
selection, presaging Darwin's
book "On the Origin of Species" (1859). Darwin's theory did not spring from
nothing. Malthus had pointed out in 1798 that all species create more
offspring than can possibly survive; what Darwin brought to the concept
was that the rare survivor might not reflect blind chance, but rather a mutational
change that makes it better suited to reach reproductive age. Thoreau did
book in 1859 and was known to comment on it favorably.
past the paper mills: Thoreau mentions that this is the first new
ground reached, suggesting that earlier walks have gotten at least this
far west of Concord.
[A September 1850 journal entry describes a walk to White Pond, Stow, on the Marlborough Road.
That appears to conflict with "...first new ground we've
reached."] In 1842 Thoreau and a companion had walked across the
north side of what would become Maynard, on Concord
and Summer Streets, on his way to Mount Wachusett.
This time he will return on those familiar roads. The route is old – on
April 19, 1775, Minutemen from Stow marched
this route in the early morning hours on their way to confront the British
soldiers at Concord.
’s course is from southwest
to northeast, so Thoreau's "...east of the river..." , which he does
not call by name yet, means south of the river. At the time land south of the Assabet River
was part of Sudbury
; land north of the river
part of Stow
, even though the cluster of close
to 1,000 people living near and working at the various mills referred to their
hamlet as Assabet
. This was the
core of what became the town of Maynard
paper mill was at what is now the site of a convenience store near the intersection
or Routes 62 and 27. William May built a paper mill on the Sudbury side of the Assabet
River in 1820. His dam on
the Assabet predated the wool mill dam by almost 30 years. May sold to John
Sawyer, who in turn sold the mill to William Parker. In February 1831, Parker
and his partners Samuel Townsend and Peter C. Jones incorporated the operation
as the Fourdrinier Paper Company. Why that name? At the beginnings of the
nineteenth century the Fourdrinier brothers, in England, were perfecting and patenting
a papermaking process that made a continuous roll of paper versus the old
method of making paper one sheet at a time. Historical records state that the
first Fourdrinier machine imported to the United States arrived in 1827. Parker's
choice of name for his company promoted the message that he was using the most
advanced paper making technology available at the time.
Parker's mill ran for sixty years. At the
time of Thoreau's walk-by it worked off a water wheel but later by coal-fired
steam engine. The mill burned in 1894. The chimney was knocked down in 1914. The
dam was destroyed by a flood in 1927. Remnant stones can be seen about 50 yards
upstream of the Waltham
These was a bridge here, over the Assabet River, built circa 1840, but instead
of crossing north and then walking west on what is now Main Street, Maynard
(constructed 1849), Thoreau and C headed south on what is now Route 27.
- ...leave the road...Potter's house in Stow: Thoreau neglects to write that his trek
started in Concord, then crossed part of Sudbury before reaching Stow. On the way back it crossed part of
became a named town in 1635. Sudbury became a named town in 1639, Stow in
1683, Acton in 1735. At the time of this journal entry the populations
were 2250, 1580, 1455 and 1605, respectively. Maynard, created in 1871,
took land and population from Sudbury and Stow; prior to that the settlement growing around the
woolen mill was called Assabet
Village. As of 2010,
the population total for the five towns (the four plus Maynard) was 75,000;
very different from back in 1851.
Without GPS, how did Thoreau and C know
where they were going!? He had written a few sentences earlier that this was
the "...first new ground we've reached..." meaning the farthest he had ever walked in this direction.
There were maps (and Thoreau was an experienced surveyor, skilled in use of
maps). The easiest route would have been to cross the Assabet back at the paper
mill, then walk west along the railroad. That way was saved for the return
trip. Instead, they went south first, then left roads to travel due west to
Boon's Pond, a distance of a mile or so. In Walking,
his 12,000 word essay on that topic, first public reading in April 1851,
Thoreau bemoaned tame excursions in which "Half the walk is but retracing
- Returned by railroad down the Assabet: Not
on the train, but walking alongside the tracks. The Fitchburg Railroad,
with tracks from Boston to Fitchburg
(and points far beyond, to Vermont and New York), also had
a spur – a dead end branch – heading southwest from the station in South
Action. Most of the traffic was freight to and from the various mills.
Thoreau frequently wrote about walking
along railroad tracks. "The Fitchburg Railroad touches the pond about a
hundred rods [1650 feet] south of where I dwell. I usually go to the village
along its causeway, and am, as it were, related to society by this link. The
men on the freight trains, who go over the whole length of the road, bow to me
as to an old acquaintance, they pass me so often, and apparently they take me
for an employee; and so I am. I too would fain be a track-repairer somewhere in
the orbit of the earth." Thus begins a longish discourse on the
effects of railroads on Man, which takes up most of Chapter 4 “Sounds” in Walden.
|The Fitchburg Railroad merged with Boston & Main, hence|
the caption for this photo of a coal-burning steam engine.
Back in the era of wood- and coal-burning
steam engines, engine-started fires were common even though spent steam leaving
the pistons was channeled upward into the smokestack, to mingle with cinder and
ash. To reduce risk of fire, the railroads would have track-walkers head out
with kerosene sprayers, to conduct controlled fires, thus creating a brush- and
grasses-free border some ten yards wide on either side of the tracks. This made
for easy walking, as Thoreau well knew. Fitchburg-to-Boston
is part of the present-day MBTA railroad system, still running on the same
right of way on the west side of Walden Pond.
he names the river as the Assabet. Dating back to the mid-17th century, shortly
was settled, the river went through several names: Asibeth, Assabath, Assabett,
Elisabet, Elizabeth. Maps of Sudbury and Stow from 1830 show it as the Elizabeth
River, but 1856 maps are in concord
that the name is the Assabet
River. There are claims
that the origins are an Anglicization of a Native American name, meaning
uncertain. At the time he walked though the hamlet was known as Assabet Village. It became the center of the
Town of Maynard,
created April 1871.
- Knight's new dam: Known and shown on present-day
maps as the Ben Smith Dam. What is interesting here is that Thoreau knew
it as Knight's dam. William H. Knight (1792-1870) was the long-forgotten
partner of Amory Maynard, for whom the new town was named after in 1871. In the late 18th century, Calvin Maynard constructed
a gristmill on Fort Meadow Brook, in Marlborough.
The grist (grain) mill was soon converted to a sawmill and its operation
was eventually passed on to a relative - Isaac Maynard - whose death in
1820 left his young son Amory in charge. Amory, in addition to operating
the mill, expanded into the construction business. He employed as many as
50 men. One of Amory's clients was mill owner William H. Knight, for whom
he built the New England Carpet Mill in the Saxonville section of Framingham.
Knight had arrived
on these shores from England in 1824, age 32. He was an experienced mechanic with
skills in waterpower and textile machines. He started as a mill superintendant
in Framingham, moved to Tariffville,
Connecticut to partner in a carpet mill, but
soon relocated back to Framingham
where he married Elizabeth Stone and started his own mill in 1829, in
Saxonville. Knight's original successes were modest, but by 1845 his operations
had expanded to three mill buildings and 232 employees.
|William Knight (date unknown)|
Courtesy Framingham Historic Soc.
Some time around
1846 the City of Boston
purchased the land, dam and water rights to Fort Meadow Pond from Amory Maynard.
The amount paid is disputed - various website-posted accounts say as little as
$21,000 to as much as $60,000. Even at the low end of that range, Maynard, at
age 42, was a wealthy man. At the same time, Boston
also purchased Knight's mills and water rights to Lake Cochituate
(formerly Long Pond). Knight, at age 54, received $150,000; the largest sum
that had ever been paid by the City of Boston
for water rights up to that time. An aquaduct completed in 1848 conveyed the
water to Boston.
In 1846 the two men, builder and mill
manager, agreed to partner in a new mill operation on the Assabet River.
They started buying land and water rights, including Asa Smith's mill on Mill Street and
riverfront land from Ben Smith as a site for the dam. Maynard later bought land
around Boon Pond, to be dammed to form a larger body of water, renamed Boon Lake, and
also repurchased Fort Meadow Reservoir from the city of Boston. These upstream assets guaranteed a
year-round water supply to power the mill. Knight and Maynard completed a
wood-framed, three-story tall, 50x100 foot building which they named Assabet
Mills. The new yarn and carpet making operation prospered.
Knight retired in 1852 at age 60, just six
years after co-founding Assabet Mills. It is possible he had lost interest in
the day-to-day operations after the death of his wife in September of that
year. He may have never lived in what was then a crude hamlet on a rocky river
- one record has him moving to Boston in 1848 (downtown Boston initially, then
in 1858 into an impressive town house on Walnut Street, Beacon Hill). He and
Elizabeth had no children. History notes that he died in Boston, February 1870; heirs unknown, burial
|Osprey in flight|
- Fluviatile…fish hawks: Thoreau using his
Harvard education here. 'Fluviatile' stems from the Latin fluviatilis, meaning pertaining or peculiar to rivers; found in or near rivers.
An unknowing person coming upon this section of the Assabet might think it
a lake, but Thoreau knows these trees are standing dead because the dam had
blocked the river just a few years earlier. Fish hawks are ospreys, a
raptor that specializes in catching/eating fish. Ospreys prefer to nest in
dead trees near rivers or lakes, and so likely that Thoreau saw these
birds, and perhaps nests, during this walk.
- Here crossed the river. In doing so, leaving the
railroad route...: Today, “Here” is the site of the White Pond
most recently rebuilt in 2013. There has been a bridge on this site dating
back to 1715. At one time there were no other bridges over the Assabet River
between this bridge and Concord, making
this the only way to get from Sudbury and
points south to Stow
and points north. As of 2018 there are 12 road bridges, one footbridge and
one railroad bridge spanning the Assabet River from White Pond Road,
Maynard to Egg Rock, Concord, which is where it merges with the Sudbury
River to become the Concord River.
The railroad stayed on the south side of the
river for another mile before veering north to meet up with the Boston-to-Fitchburg route.
The railroad was active 1850 to 1960s, serving the towns and mills between
Marlborough and Acton. The old railroad right of way is now the Assabet River
- The farmers improve this season...: The time
between summer haying and fall harvesting was used for property
maintenance. Thoreau mentions burning brush, building walls and digging drainage
ditches – so as to convert wetlands to farmable fields or pasture.
- The rounded hills of Stow: Concord developed
at the fertile flatlands surrounding the Concord River. Northwest and
southwest was good land that would become Acton and Sudbury, respectively.
But due west was a region of glacially rounded hills, describe by early
surveyors as “meane” land, perhaps able to support only 20-30 farm
- New brick ice house: Nathaniel J. Wyeth who
built a brick ice house on the banks of Maynard’s mill pond in 1849. He probably
would have paid a fee to the Maynard family, who had created and owned the
pond. Taking ice once a winter off the top of the pond would not have
interfered with the mill's waterwheel power. In this season, water volume
was in excess of what the mill could use or retain, with surplus water
spilling over the top of the dam and into the Assabet River,
thus bypassing the mill. From the opposite side of the ice house the ice
could be loaded directly to railroad cars, for sale in Boston or elsewhere.
- "Saw what I thought was a small red
dog...that it was a fox.": By 1851, the fox, red or grey, was the
last sizeable mammal predator in eastern Massachusetts. Large prey had also been
hunted to local extinction. In a March 23, 1856 entry to his journal,
Thoreau wrote "But when I consider that the nobler animals have been
exterminated here - the cougar, panther, lynx, wolverine, wolf, bear,
beaver, turkey, moose, deer, etc., I cannot but feel as if I lived in a
tame, and, as it were, emasculated country."
is the exact term for locally exterminated. Some of these species have become
common again in eastern Massachusetts:
beaver, turkey and deer. The black bear population in the western part of the
state is growing rapidly, with sightings still rare but becoming more common in
the east. Likewise, moose are re-entering the area from the north. Coyotes,
which were not present in 1851, are now widespread. The local species is
actually a coyote/wolf hybrid, as coyotes moving east, north of the Great
Lakes, intermingled with a remnant wolf population in Canada before spreading south into the United States.
Estimates for the state as of 2015 are 100,000 deer, 70,000 beaver, 20,000
turkey, 10,000 coyote, 5,000 bear and 1,000 moose.
Thoreau's daytime sighting of a fox was
not unusual. The red fox has rust/red fur on its back, sides and head. It has
white fur under its neck and on its chest. It has a long bushy tail tipped in
white, pointed black ears and black legs and feet. The species is
omnivorous. Although primarily
crepuscular (dawn and dusk) hunters, red foxes will forage during daylight
hours. The expansion of coyote territory to the Northeast has been to the
detriment of fox (still present, but scarcer), and as secondary consequences,
an increase in small rodents and birds (fox prey).
- Trees: Thoreau was living through the end of
the great deforestation of New England.
The remnant large trees he commented on truly did pre-date the Colonial
Era. Visitors from Europe had commented
on the spendthrift ways of Americans with wood: log cabins, rail fences,
even having fires going in more than one room of a house at the same time.
His comment: "We are a young people..." reflects this. What
happened later was not so much a deliberate replanting of forests as an
abandonment of fields, subject to succession of wild growth. Valley fields
and hilltop pastures - clear cut of almost all trees - were let to go back
to forest as farmers moved to easier terrain in the mid-west, or else
abandoned their land to work in the new factories in cities and towns.
Today's woods are crisscrossed by stone fences that once kept cattle and
sheep from straying. In eastern Massachusetts a forest tree over 150 years
old is a rarity.
The exception in Thoreau's day, which he
described as great ornaments in otherwise-cleared pastures, were deliberately
left standing by the owners. In the hot days of summer, pastured cattle would
take their rest in the trees' shade.
"Walking" is the
title of a talk by Thoreau, first delivered at the Concord Lyceum on April 23,
1851. He spoke on the topic close to a dozen times, revising the piece as years
passed, so it is referred to in some descriptions has having been written
1851-1860. At times it was two topics - "Walking," and "The
Wild." As a written work, "Walking" was first published in the
Atlantic Monthly in 1862, shortly after Thoreau's death. And as published, the
work includes a poem, "The Old Marlborough Road." The poem is about a
symbolic road. In the text before the poem he wrote of himself as not a
roadster, but rather a person who eschews roads to walk across fields and into
nature. He went on to add "...there are [only] a few old roads that may be
trodden with profit, as if they led somewhere now that they are nearly
discontinued. There is the Old
Marlborough Road, which does not go to Marlborough now, me-thinks, unless that is Marlborough where it
carries me. I am the bolder to speak of it here, because I presume that there
are one or two such roads in every town." The poem follows.
At a factual level, Thoreau walked much of
the Old Marlborough Road
on September 4, 1951. He had been on parts of it before - his 1850 journal has
an early version of the poem he later incorporated into his essay. In his
journal entry he described the road as "little-frequented" and