NOTE: The third (and the longest) of three posts in a series titled “A Drover’s Tale”
A “most novel and interesting walk”
Henry David Thoreau was an exemplar and prophet of American pedestrian exploration. In his classic essay “Walking,” published shortly after his death in 1862, he famously declared “that in Wildness is the preservation of the world.” He had regularly observed from Concord hilltops the skyline of the “Peterboro Hills” to the northwest, the ridge (also once known as the “Boundary Mountains”) that extended from Mt. Watatic in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, northward into New Hampshire to Pack Monadnock Mountain and North Pack Monadnock Mountain. Thoreau could easily imagine the opportunities for mountain walking along the future route of the Wapack Trail. “It would evidently be a noble walk from Watatic to Goffstown perchance, over the Peterboro mountains,” he noted in his lengthy journal entry for August 9, 1860, “along the very backbone of this part of New Hampshire,–the most novel and interesting walk that I can think of in these parts.”
The eventual Wapack Trail did not reach all the way north to Goffstown, but the 21-mile-long trail as it was blazed a century ago and exists today is truly a “most novel and interesting walk.” Marion Davis and Frank Robbins, erstwhile cattle drovers, cleared and blazed the Wapack Trail. Marion named it, coining a new word, as the Guide to the Wapack Trail puts it, “from the route’s bookend mountains Watatic and North Pack Monadnock.” Eventually the name of the trail would be applied to the range of modest but inspirational mountains it traverses. Thanks to Marion Davis, the “Wapack Range,” which yet embodies a spirit of “Wildness,” is how these mountains are now described on US Geological Survey topographic maps.
I used a couple of those USGS topo maps while walking the southern fifteen miles or so of the Wapack Trail in 1987, from New Hampshire Route 101 just north of Temple Mountain to Massachusetts Route 119 just south of Mountain Watatic. My southbound route along the Wapack Trail that day is highlighted in yellow on the two maps below, sections of the Peterborough NH quadrangle (1953 edition) and the Ashburnham MA-NH quadrangle (1979 edition). As best I can tell, the route of the Wapack Trail indicated on those maps has been altered only slightly since 1987. I vividly recall the exhilarating sense of space and wildness the trail offered (including more than a few snakes warming themselves on sunbaked ledges), as if along and among a chain of much more substantial and remote mountains. In any case, Marion Davis and Frank Robbins have left their mark on this landscape.
From pastures to path
“The next morning we’d make for the mountain,” Marion Davis had recalled of their destination, as she and Frank Robbins set out from the Townsend Poor Farm on the last day of their cattle drives from Concord, Massachusetts, heading into their home terrain among the hills of western New Ipswich and other neighboring New Hampshire towns. Once there, “[i]t took us two to three days sorting out the cattle to go to the different pastures,” she reported. “We’d take fifteen to twenty head over to Sharon pasture; there were about two hundred acres there. Some went up into the north end of Barrett Mountain to the Haines pasture, and the rest over to the Reed and Wheeler near the old Livingston place.”
Her reference to “the north end of Barrett Mountain” clearly indicates the nature of the pasture lands that had been a valuable economic and environmental resource for many generations, benefiting and linking Concord farmers and their southern New Hampshire counterparts. These were high, rocky, hillside and hilltop pastures (Barrett Mountain, 1,853 feet), not too valuable for other agricultural and commodity purposes–especially after being substantially stripped of their forest cover. The masterful interpreter of mountain and New England landscapes, Tom Wessels, in an essay titled “Parables of Place,” describes the “sheep fever” that consumed the region during the early nineteenth century. The “wool-growing mania, often described as similar to religious fanaticism,” writes Wessels, between 1810 and 1840 “completely transformed the central New England landscape from one that supported self-reliant farms to one dominated by market farms that produced wool.” During this three-decade span, by Wessels’s account, half the region’s forest “was removed and the cleared land put into sheep pasturage.”
The “sheep fever” paralleled the existing and continuing tradition of cattle pasturage in the hill country of southern New Hampshire, with significant and long-term impacts on the region’s economy and natural environment. The persistent practice of renting pastures for grazing “downcountry” cattle had provided an incentive for local landowners and farmers to maintain their hill pastures. “After the Revolution the pasturing of cattle belonging to Massachusetts farmers at so much a head during the season also developed into a profitable business,” writes the prolific author and influential conservationist Allen Chamberlain, whose 1936 book, The Annals of the Grand Monadnock, chronicled the history of the region that was home to Marion Davis and Frank Robbins. “To care for all that stock it was necessary to keep the pastures up by the periodical sowing of forage plants, and Joel Poole once told the writer that he remembered the days when the pastures on the Jaffrey side [of Mt. Monadnock] were knee deep in good feed, though heavily grazed at the time.”
By the early twentieth century, though, Marion Davis and Frank Robbins would be among the last generation to pursue the local summer-pasturing tradition. “From these great cattle drives,” according to Wapack Trail historian John Flanders, “and the countless hours spent tending the animals in the mountain pastures, Frank and Marion acquired an unequaled knowledge and love of these hills.” As the pasturing era faded, the hills and mountains that had been laid bare of trees remained substantially open. As Robbins and Davis distributed to their neighbors’ pastures the cattle they had driven from Concord, they began writing their own influential chapter in the stewardship and use of the surrounding mountain environment. A catalyst for their new role was the appearance of Allen Chamberlain in nearby Jaffrey in the summer of 1922, where he was staying at the Shattuck Inn while working on his Monadnock book. Chamberlain’s presence proved to be the spark that quickly led to the creation of the Wapack Trail, a modest but consequential landmark in the history of American hiking trails. Trail historians Laura and Guy Waterman, in their epic Forest and Crag: A History of Hiking, Trail Blazing, and Adventure in the Northeast Mountains, observe that the Wapack Trail “represented one of the earliest completed through-trails outside of Vermont [the Long Trail had been initiated in 1910] and was a genuine interstate trail.”
Conceiving and blazing the Wapack Trail
Allen Chamberlain left his own mark on the regional landscape in many important ways. The outdoor writer for the Boston Transcript, Chamberlain was also a leader in many of New England’s conservation organizations and causes during the early decades of the 1900s, including, among others, the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, and the New England Trail Conference. He was also a strong and effective proponent of the Weeks Act, the 1911 federal law that authorized the creation of national forests in the East, such as the White Mountain National Forest and, later, the Green Mountain National Forest. In addition to his Annals of the Grand Monadnock, Chamberlain wrote other books about New England’s history and landscape, including Vacation Tramps in New England Highlands (1919), an early hiking guide.
Chamberlain during that summer of 1922 struck up an acquaintance with a prominent Jaffrey businessman, politician, and local historian, Albert Annett, according to John Flanders, who describes a moment of geographical revelation and the events that rapidly ensued:
From the porch of the Shattuck Inn, which commanded a splendid view of the Wapack Range, the two men mused about blazing a skyline trail from Mt. Watatic in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, to North Pack Monadnock in Greenfield, New Hampshire, a distance of twenty-one miles.
Convinced that such a trail would possess unusual beauty, Annett resolved to put the plan into action. His first step was to contact his friend Frank Robbins of Rindge, New Hampshire. Robbins farmed 1200 acres of land near Barrett Mountain in New Ipswich, New Hampshire, and knew the range well. Toward the end of the summer Annett approached Robbins, who was haying his fields with a companion, Marion Buck. Taking a break from the heat, the three rested in the shade where they could see the Wapack Range spread out before them. Annett described the trail idea and Frank and Marion agreed to assist their friend in any way they could. Within days of that first meeting, the trio began scouting the best route.
By “the first snows of December 1922,” Flanders recounts, Davis and Robbins had cleared and blazed most of the trail route, using the hand tools with which they were expert. Chamberlain, meanwhile, was reporting on the trail’s creation and virtues in the Boston Evening Transcript. The Wapack Trail was open in the spring of 1923, and immediately attracted hikers. Among them were cross-country skiing enthusiasts, from AMC and the Harvard Mountaineering Club, who worked with Robbins and Davis to widen the trail.
Davis and Robbins quickly recognized that this sudden influx of recreationists to their quiet domain offered an economic opportunity. They built, then expanded, a modest hostelry, the Wapack Lodge, at about the halfway point along the trail they’d made, at the point where the trail crossed the old turnpike (NH Routes 123/124) on the eastern flank of Barrett Mountain. Among Marion’s many talents was cooking. “Her reputation for fine food spread far and wide,” Flanders writes, “and soon trail-dusty hikers were rubbing elbows at the dinner table with automobile tourists.”
By all accounts, the young Marion Buck was a capable, independent, and confident woman. “While still a teenager, she had left home in Fitchburg, Massachusetts to seek adventure in the rugged outdoor life of her grandfather’s farm in Rindge,” writes Flanders, “and had mastered skills from haying and milking to wood chopping and cattle driving.” Indeed, in 1935, entering a contest on the spur of the moment, she won recognition as Women’s World Champion Woodchopper. Davis and Robbins were friends and partners in many enterprises over several decades, but their eventual marriage in 1946 was a brief one; Robbins died within a year. She later married a long-time acquaintance, Lawrence Davis.
Benton MacKaye and “Outdoor Culture, The Philosophy of Through Trails”
Allen Chamberlain’s advocacy both reflected and contributed to the growing popularity of mountain hiking in New England during the 1920s. The proximity of cities like Boston and Worcester to the Wapack Trail and the Wapack Lodge provided an attractive destination for members of the Appalachian Mountain Club and other outdoor enthusiasts. One of the Lodge’s regular visitors, during that decade and thereafter, was Benton MacKaye, who lived not so far to the east in Shirley, Massachusetts. It was MacKaye who, in 1921, had first proposed the Appalachian Trail (AT). For MacKaye, the Wapack Trail came to represent a microcosm of the Appalachian Trail, a field laboratory for demonstrating the tenets of community-building on which he based his philosophy of trailmaking and what he came to call “outdoor culture.”
MacKaye first introduced his Appalachian Trail idea publicly and in print just months before Allen Chamberlain and Albert Annett envisioned the Wapack Trail from the porch of the Shattuck Inn. His influential article, “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning,” which appeared in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects in October of 1921, was a bold, backdoor manifesto for social reform, by means of harnessing the efforts of thousands of volunteer outdoor enthusiasts throughout the eastern United States. “The project is one for a series of recreational communities throughout the Appalachian chain of mountains from New England to Georgia, these to be connected by a walking trail,” he proposed. “Its purpose is to establish a base for a more extensive and systematic development of outdoor community life. It is a project in housing and community architecture.”
It was not MacKaye’s proposed “recreational communities” that inspired the enthusiasm of hikers, conservationists, and public officials throughout the region, though, but his envisioned “walking trail,” which would reach “from the highest peak in the north to the highest peak in the south,” from New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington to North Carolina’s Mt. Mitchell. As eventually built, the trail extended north beyond Mt. Washington to Maine’s Katahdin and south through the Great Smoky Mountains to Springer Mountain in northern Georgia. By 1937, primarily through the efforts of the volunteer army MacKaye had inspired, the trail was completed along the mountain ridgeline from Maine to Georgia. In 1968, the then 89-year-old Benton MacKaye was alive to witness the enactment of the federal National Trails System Act, which designated the popular and iconic AT as the first of two National Scenic Trails, along with the Pacific Crest Trail. (There are now eleven designated National Scenic Trails.)
The idea for a connected, large-scale system of eastern U.S. trails and parklands was not entirely original with MacKaye, however. Rather, the idea arose within the context of lively regional interest in the development and linking of hiking trails and recreational public lands throughout New England and the Northeast, a movement in which Chamberlain was an influential leader. The friendship between MacKaye and Chamberlain dated back to 1907, when MacKaye was teaching forestry at Harvard and also worked part-time for the U.S. Forest Service. Chamberlain at that time was serving as the Councilor of Exploration and Forestry for the Appalachian Mountain Club. One of his responsibilities was to manage the Rhododendron Reservation in Fitzwilliam, to the west of Monadnock, which had recently been donated to the AMC (who later transferred it to the state of New Hampshire). Chamberlain was referred to MacKaye as someone competent to develop a forestry and land-management plan for the reservation. When the two men met for the first time at the Fitzwilliam Inn that spring of 1907, they immediately struck up a friendship, based on their love for the outdoors and their intense interest in the politics of conservation, which were as controversial and contentious then as they remain today. In any case, they climbed Monadnock at the time. And that mountain and its surrounding region, for both men, remained a focus of and an inspiration for their own conservation efforts for the rest of their active and productive lives.
At the time MacKaye proposed the Appalachian Trail in 1921, he had been living and working primarily outside of New England for the previous decade, when he was headquartered in Washington DC and working for the Forest Service and the Department of Labor. Immediately upon publishing his 1921 article and returning to his Shirley home, he renewed contact with Chamberlain, who provided his key personal link to the regional trail community. In addition to his AMC affiliation, Chamberlain had been a key instigator of the creation in 1916 of the New England Trail Conference, a confederation of the region’s burgeoning number of trail clubs.
In the same year, 1916, Chamberlain had also published an article in the journal of the Society of American Foresters, titled “Recreational Use of Public Forests in New England,” in which he depicted the possibility of what he called “a linked-up system” of trails that might stretch from Quebec, across northern Vermont and New Hampshire, down through Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and into northern New Jersey, following the Berkshires, the Taconic Range, and the Hudson Highlands. MacKaye’s 1921 article took the next logical step, by expanding the idea of “a linked-up system” even further south, the full length of the Appalachian Range.
MacKaye attended the December 1921 meeting of the New England Trail Conference in Boston, where trail activists discussed a variety of proposals for expanding and connecting trails and other public recreational lands. A plan under consideration to expand the NETC into a “Northeastern Trail Conference,” Chamberlain wrote MacKaye, “really grew out of a desire to thread various public lands and reservations on a trail system so as to arouse wider interest in public forests. . . . The motorists own the roads now. Why isn’t the walker entitled to a road of his own at public expense?”
MacKaye and Chamberlain were in regular contact, personally and by correspondence, as both the Appalachian Trail and the Wapack Trail were being conceived and created during 1921 and 1922. For a map accompanying an article titled “Progress Toward the Appalachian Trail,” published in Appalachia in December of 1922, MacKaye depicted a number of proposed Appalachian Trail “side trails,” including, among others, the route of the Wapack Trail and a Monadnock-to-Sunapee trail, the idea for which has been credited to Chamberlain. In his article MacKaye explained the method by which such trails, whether 2,000 miles long or 20 miles long, could be created by amateurs and volunteers. “In almost every locality along the Appalachian ranges a greater or less amount of trail-making is going on anyhow from year to year,” he wrote. “Various local projects are being organized, and in one way or other financed, by local outing groups. The bright idea, then, is to combine these local projects–to do one big job instead of forty small ones.”
In October 1926, when Benton was living in Shirley and working on his book, The New Exploration: A Philosophy of Regional Planning (1928), he also spent a season as a part-time teacher at the short-lived Bridgman School for boys just across the town common from his own modest home. Over the Columbus Day weekend that year, he led his young charges on a trail-surveying expedition laying out a side trail to Kidder Mountain, working beside Marion Davis and Frank Robbins. In a detailed and lively letter to his friend and collaborator in many projects, the writer Lewis Mumford, he described the experience and its significance:
The spiel which I have written on “The Kidder Mountain Trail” relates only to the primeval environment. I have written this as the result of a little experiment which I have been conducting up here this autumn. The Bridgman School (for boys) is located here…. I have made several trips with a group of them up on the Wapack Range. We have put in a branch trail on one of the mountains–Kidder Mountain. Here is a laboratory experiment, in the field of education, of the development of the primeval environment. (Of course no such terms are used–all we have done is to cut the trail and make a panorama as a first step in a real survey).
I consider this Wapack Range as a very significant bit of country. In the first place it is already equipped ‘for play.’ A footpath has been cut and marked from one end to the other–20 miles. A permanent camp has been built midway on the route. The Range is about 50 miles, air distance from Boston–the same as the Hudson Highlands country from New York. Someday it must become an Interstate Park (or public reservation of some kind). It will be for Boston what Bear Mountain Park is for New York. But it should be better. And now, before it becomes an institution, is the time to visualize and “plan” its proper usage. The foot-path mentioned is called the Wapack Trail. It is to the Wapack Range what the Appalachian Trail would be to the whole Appalachian Range. Here then we have in miniature the equipment for our whole Appalachian scheme. Here is a chance, on an epitomized basis, to develop the primeval environment.
MacKaye further developed the lessons of his excursions into the gentle Wapack Range with the Bridgman School boys for a variety of audiences and publications, including his book The New Exploration and a meeting of the NETC, in a high-minded talk titled “Outdoor Culture: The Philosophy of Through Trails.” “A Boy’s Projects for a Balanced Civilization,” the title he gave a Christian Science Monitor article on the Wapack project, suggested how seriously he took the notion that young people and amateurs could play an important role in transforming both the physical and social landscape. “This development is not so much of changing the Wapack Range,” he wrote at the time, “as of changing ourselves who look upon it.” For Benton MacKaye, leading a group of schoolboys on a trail-making trip on the miniature Wapack Range was a project equal in its significance to the planning and creation of the entire Appalachian Trail.
“Marion spoke to me many times of Benton and what good friends they were,” her niece Connie Hall recalled in a 1986 letter to me. “Her favorite story was that she told Benton he must stop getting up at 5 a.m. and taking cold showers in the lodge, where he woke up all the other guests. In fear that she would lose her guests she told him he must go out to the shed with a bucket of cold water and shower there–which he did from then on.”
Connie Hall provided me with a digest of MacKaye’s visits to the Wapack Lodge, as recorded in the registers maintained by her aunt. His first recorded stay was in October 1926, with the Bridgman School boys. He returned regularly, usually with friends or family members, throughout the 1920s and 1930s, except for periods in the latter decade when he returned to full-time employment with the Tennessee Valley Authority. Flanders reports that “the lodge and the trail continued to prosper” during the World War II years, a period when MacKaye lived in St. Louis, Missouri, while employed by the Rural Electrification Administration. He retired in 1945. His last recorded visit to the Wapack Lodge was in May 1946, for a gathering of a dozen or so of the “Woodticks.”
Marion and her second husband closed the lodge in 1958. Trail use had declined, its maintenance lapsed, “and the great days of the Wapack came to a gradual close,” according to Flanders. Soon after Lawrence Davis died in 1964, Marion sold the lodge and moved into a trailer across the road. The young man who bought the property and other surrounding acreage, Al Jenks, operated the site for almost 50 years as the Windblown Cross-Country Skiing and Snowshoeing Center. Now the property functions as Windblown Camping, a campground consisting of a handful of open shelters and modest cabins. The Wapack Trail traverses the perimeter of Jenks’s land.
Founded in 1980, The Friends of the Wapack is an all-volunteer non-profit organization “dedicated to the maintenance and preservation in perpetuity of the Wapack Trail and associated side trails, as well as preservation of public access to these trails and public education about them,” according to the group’s Guide to the Wapack Trail. The Friends of the Wapack will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Wapack Trail during 2023.
Other conservation groups and government agencies have been at work to preserve permanently lands comprising the trail and its surrounding environment. These organizations include, but are not limited to, the New England Forestry Foundation, the Northeast Wilderness Trust, The Nature Conservancy, the Monadnock Conservancy, the State of New Hampshire, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Railroads to Rail Trails
The introduction and expansion of the region’s railroad network–beginning in the 1830s, accelerating during the 1840s, and continuing through the rest of the century–extinguished the era of intensive travel by stagecoach along the region’s roads and turnpikes during the first decades of the nineteenth century. For some towns in the region, the railroad was a boon. Other communities, by reason of geography, economics, and fate, were left feeling stranded if they were not included along a railroad route. New Ipswich historians Kidder and Gould, writing in the 1850s, lamented the town’s disorienting sense of isolation as its residents watched virtually every town in the region but theirs enjoy a connection to a new railroad branch line:
First came the Lowell Railroad; and then Concord, Lexington and Acton were passed by; coaches then ran daily from Lowell through Chelmsford to Groton, and soon twice a day. Next came the Fitchburg Railroad, approaching still nearer; Groton and Townsend were then passed by, and travel took a direction which had never before been dreamed of. Then the Lowell road was extended to Nashua, and many found that the most convenient route to Boston, though in a direction nearly opposite, in the outset, to the route by Fitchburg; and the roads through Ashby and Wilton, which had scarcely been known to any except the ministers, as they performed their annual exchange, and the lawyers, as they went to the courts at Amherst, now became familiar to every one. And finally, the road to West Townsend, eked out for a few years by stages through Mason village, until its completion to that point. For the honor and interest of our town, we trust this is not to be its nearest approach to the central village.
A Fitchburg papermill magnate owner, Alvah Crocker, was the driving force behind the creation of the Fitchburg Railroad, chartered by the state in 1842 and completed to Fitchburg in 1845. By merger with other railroads, by extensions of the line westward, and completion of the Hoosac Tunnel in 1879, the route became a major east-west trunk line traversing northern Massachusetts, from Boston westward into New York State, where connections for passengers and freight led westward to Chicago and beyond. The route of the Fitchburg Railroad, which arrived in Concord in 1844, nicked the southwest corner of Walden Pond. There, a year later, using lumber from the “uncommonly fine” shanty he bought from James Collins, an Irish worker on the Fitchburg Railroad, Thoreau erected his own cabin.
Thoreau was ambivalent about the arrival of the railroad. In Walden, in the chapter “Economy,” he reported an exchange with a Concord neighbor: “One says to me, ‘I wonder that you do not lay up money; you love to travel; you might take the cars and go to Fitchburg today and see the country.’ But I am wiser than that. I have learned that the swiftest traveler is he that goes afoot.” Thoreau calculated the time he would have to spend earning a wage when he could be walking. “Instead of going to Fitchburg, you will be working here the greater part of the day.” In fact, to earn money as a lecturer and to reach other landscapes to explore, Thoreau came to rely on the railroad.
Further westward along the Fitchburg Railroad, Groton Junction in the southern part of that early settled inland town, became an important focal point in the intricate spider web of new railroad lines that expanded to other destinations in all directions. The junction’s significance as a railroad town was acknowledged when the new town of Ayer was carved out of Groton in 1871. Railroad lines that intersected with the main Fitchburg Railroad line in Ayer included the Worcester and Nashua (originating in 1846); Stony Brook, to Lowell (1847); and the Peterborough and Shirley (1847), which never actually reached either town.
The various branch lines throughout the region variously flourished or failed. Throughout the 20th century, transportation technology and economics took another turn when internal-combustion-power automobiles and trucks gradually took over roadways and could reach any community. As railroad lines were gradually abandoned, their routes and rights-of-way left a permanent mark on the region’s landscape. Those dedicated corridors provided new opportunities to meet an evolving social demand for more public spaces for leisure and recreational activities. By the latter 20th century, some of these corridors were being repurposed for use as multi-purpose recreational trails by bicyclists and pedestrians.
Last fall, my older brother Bob and I attended a dedication of the first completed section of the Squannacook River Rail Trail, the western end of which is located near the site of the former Townsend railroad depot along the abandoned Peterborough & Shirley Railroad. The event was an evocative one for both of us. Our former house on Riverbank Terrace, beside the Squannacook River, is only a few hundred yards away. As the eldest of seven siblings, we could identify and vividly recall many of the nearby landmarks of our family’s eventful life in Townsend, where some of my mother’s Irish-descended family had lived.
The storage units pictured in the photo below occupy a portion of the site of what was once Townsend’s largest business, the Fessenden Cooperage Company, which manufactured the wooden casks and barrels in which many important goods were shipped. I have dim recollections of one of the several fires that eventually consumed the factory, accelerating the demise of a doomed business that closed for good in 1960. The grey-and-white building to the left of the parking lot in the photograph is now a home. It was once the office building for the Fessenden Company. My father rented the building briefly in the early 1960s as the office for a magazine he started at the time. The exterior of the building looks quite different than it did then. At the time my father occupied it, the interior, including the furnishings, had been left much as it was when the cooperage business closed–and just as it looked in photographs I have seen from earlier in that century. It was a ghostly museum of a dead industry. I still have a few pieces of wooden rolltop office furniture that I believe came from that building.
Other rail trails in central Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire have been taking shape in recent years along some of the Fitchburg Railroad’s former branch lines. Among these are: the popular 12-mile Nashua River Rail Trail, along the route of the former Worcester and Nashua Railroad from Ayer to Hollis, New Hampshire; the Mason Railroad Trail, a 6.7-mile route along a New Hampshire stretch of the Peterborough and Shirley Railroad; and the Monadnock Recreational Rail Trail, spanning 7.5-miles through Jaffrey and Rindge along the former Monadnock Railroad route. The Monadnock Region Rail Trails Collaborative has ambitious plans to continue expanding the rail trail network throughout southwest New Hampshire, especially west of Mount Monadnock. As this post appears, in mid-June 2022, the first section of the planned 4.5-mile Twin Cities Rail Trail will open connecting the communities of Fitchburg and Leominster, along the route of the former Fitchburg and Worcester Railroad.
The route along today’s Route 119 that Marion Davis and Frank Robbins followed while driving cattle closely parallels the Squannacook River, the abandoned Peterborough & Shirley Railroad, and now the Squannacook River Rail Trail through parts of Groton and Townsend. The idea of “linking up” trails and other public lands that visionary conservationists like Allen Chamberlain and Benton MacKaye advocated a century or more ago still flourishes today. Efforts to maintain and protect a mountain walking path like the Wapack Trail, a multi-use rail trail like the Squannacook River Rail Trail, or a river for paddling and fishing are complementary and all of a piece.
Indeed, they all echo an elaborate plan MacKaye sketched out in the late 1920s for a network of “Wilderness Ways” throughout the region, incorporating foot trails and canoe routes. His envisioned system would have linked the Wapack Trail; a foot trail south from its southern terminus to Mt. Wachusett (the route of today’s Midstate Trail); a foot trail along the Squannacook River; canoe routes along the Squannacook, Nashua, and Concord rivers; and a walking trail eastward toward Boston from Concord’s Walden Pond. This kind of environmental visualization was intuitive for MacKaye. When he tried to describe his method in his 1928 New Exploration, he resorted to near-mystical language. “[T]he synthetic art of developing environment consists in revelation in the realm of all the senses,” he declared. “Planning is revelation–and all-around revelation.”
From Sewers to Scenery, Waste to Wildness: Salvaging a Region’s Rivers
As Marion Davis and Frank Davis drove cattle between Concord and New Ipswich, they traversed the watersheds of the Merrimack River and several of its tributaries, including, from east to west: the Concord/Sudbury/Assabet system; the Nashua and its tributaries, the Nissitissit and the Squannacook; and, in New Hampshire, the Souhegan and Contoocook. The rivers were inland avenues of exploration and colonization, sources of waterpower, and, during the industrial era and well into the twentieth century, depositories of human and industrial waste.
In my own lifetime I have witnessed the almost miraculous transformation of the Nashua River. In my own memory, from the 1950s and 1960s, the river was grossly polluted by sewage and the discharges of factories, especially from its north branch in Fitchburg and further downstream. The paper industry, through the energies of Alvah Crocker and his successors, was well established in this region. But the economic activity and prosperity represented by the paper mills, and other industries, came at a steep price. The bridge over the Nashua River where Davis and Robbins once led cattle across the river on today’s Route 119, at the border between Groton and Pepperell, had once been adjacent to the site of a paper mill in the mid-19th century. Maps from that era identify the immediate area as Paper Mill Village. I can well remember the noxious odors emanating from the river that warned of its condition well before you reached that bridge while traveling along the road. The color of the river, it was often said, could change from day to day depending upon what was being discharged from the upstream factories. The scummy, clotted surface and texture of the water left no question that the river should be avoided for boating, fishing, or any other form of recreation. It was truly disgusting.
In 1962, another strong-willed Marion–Marion Stoddart of Groton–spearheaded the formation of an advocacy group the clear purpose of which was reflected in its name: “Nashua River Clean-up Committee.” The spirit of that effort was inspired by the era’s growing “ecology” movement. By the time Stoddart incorporated the organization in 1969, its new name, the Nashua River Watershed Association (NRWA), encompassed an increasingly holistic environmental perspective.
A shrewd and energetic organizer, she recruited the then 90-year-old Benton MacKaye as one of the NRWA’s original corporators. The passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act established strict regulations for the discharge of sewage and industrial waste into rivers and opened a spigot of federal funding for water-treatment plants. Within the decade new treatment plants were being constructed along the river. Some polluting factories were closed, others were upgraded. But the water quality of the Nashua River itself gradually and noticeably improved.
At the same time, the NRWA developed and promoted a “greenway” plan, to win support from the watershed’s communities, government agencies, land trusts, and other conservation organizations for a region-wide effort to protect land throughout the watershed, as a means to preserve the river’s water quality and to provide opportunities for recreation. Among the parcels and places preserved are state wildlife management areas along the Squannacook River in Groton and Shirley that MacKaye had proposed as a wilderness corridor in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as the meadows and wetlands adjacent to the Townsend Poor Farm where Davis and Robbins once pastured their herds for the night.
Exactly fifty years after Marion Stoddart spurred the creation of the Nashua River Watershed Association, sections of the Nashua, Squannacook, and Nissitissit rivers were in 2019 designated by the U.S. Congress as Wild and Scenic Rivers under the provisions of the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. I have known Marion Stoddart for many years. A 2010 film documentary, Marion Stoddart: The Work of 1000, tells her story. Though long retired as executive director of the NRWA, she remains active in her vigorous early 90s as an advocate for the NRWA and other causes.
Curating and Conserving “Heritage”
As the nostalgic, even antiquarian spirit of this series of posts might suggest, even in my childhood and youth I was aware that I lived in a landscape where the artifacts, spirit, and evidence of history existed close to the surface. Antique stores, summer band concerts on Townsend Common, historical societies, old homes and buildings, and firemen’s musters all suggested to a youngster perusing covers of the Saturday Evening Post that Norman Rockwell’s paintings faithfully represented wholesome, small-town New England reality. (Of course, in my callow innocence I was not aware of darker aspects of life in general, and small-town life in particular.)
Our rambling old house and barn in Pepperell, which my parents had purchased with all the buildings’ contents, comprised a sort of living museum, at least in my young eyes. Posters of old events were tacked to the attic walls, a three-hole privy at the rear of the house was maintained in working condition, old tools and mysterious agricultural implements were put to regular use, a backyard dump yielded odd treasures, a penciled message on a barn wall noted the first sighting of an airplane overhead early in the 20th century. The past was ever present.
The route Marion Davis and Frank Robbins traversed as cattle drovers, from Concord to New Ipswich, was infused with the spirit and physical evidence of history–that is, the history since white colonial settlement in the 17th and 18th centuries. Native American place names–Squannacook, Nissitissit, Nashua, Wachusett, Monadnock, and many more–were strewn across the landscape and were familiarly used. But a living Native American presence was absent–or at least virtually invisible, except perhaps for monuments and legends documenting bloody raids and conflicts.
In recent decades, citizens and public officials have organized to cultivate public awareness and protection of the region’s historical identity. In 1994, a nonprofit Freedom’s Way Heritage Association was formed, declaring its commitment “to promoting, preserving, enhancing, and curating the natural, cultural, and historical resources that define its sense of place.”
Today, 45 communities in this region, in both Massachusetts and New Hampshire, comprise the federally designated Freedom’s Way National Heritage Area (NHA), one of 55 such areas throughout the country. NHAs operate under the auspices of the National Park Service in an advisory capacity, but they are not NPS “units” owned by the federal government. The 2009 Congressional designation also named the Freedom’s Way Heritage Association as the NHA’s “local coordinating entity.”
The National Heritage Area program was initiated in 1984, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, which was not generally supportive of environmental initiatives. In fact, his administration was sympathetic to the concerns of the “Sagebrush Rebellion” and other property-rights advocates, who often opposed federal acquisition of land for recreation and other public purposes. Reagan called NHAs “a new kind of national park.” The NHA program thus reflects an impetus not only to preserve historic and natural resources, but to promote “heritage” itself as a basis for economic activity and development.
“Heritage” is an amorphous concept. The term can be deployed, as is evident in the current historical moment both nationally and internationally, to justify nationalistic, racial, ethnic, religious, and other invidious ends. The Freedom’s Way Heritage Association, during its almost three decades of activity, appears to be working diligently to broaden the scope of cultural and historical knowledge and understanding about the region. Its website includes “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion” and “Land Acknowledgment” statements, which are pro forma for most nonprofit organizations. But words have meaning. The “Land Acknowledgment” statement, based on my own lifelong experience of the Freedom’s Way region, represents progress:
We acknowledge that Indigenous peoples and nations, including the Nipmuck, Massachusett, and Penacook, have stewarded, through generations, the lands and waterways that comprise the Freedom’s Way National Heritage Area. We honor and respect their enduring legacy in the region.
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Marion Davis told her niece Connie Hall decades later that she and Frank Robbins gave up the cattle-driving trade around 1920, as motor vehicles became the principal means of transportation along the region’s roads. In 1917 they bought a Model T Ford, which they used for the first time to lead the cattle back “downcountry” to Concord. “It wasn’t as much pleasure going down with the car,” she wistfully recalled. “It wasn’t like having old Sukie following along behind.” The rigorous demands of testing the cattle for tuberculosis also complicated the cattle-driving business. “But that was years ago. Once they started bringing the cattle up by truck, things were never the same again.”
For centuries–from the days when settlers reached upcountry towns by foot, then by horseback, ox-cart, stagecoach, and railroad, and until the era when Marion Davis and Frank Robbins bought their Model T–the passage of cattle between Concord, Massachusetts and New Ipswich, New Hampshire along the Great Road and the turnpikes proceeded no faster than the pace of the slowest cow.
Today, the Wapack Trail, which Marion Davis and Frank Robbins blazed in the early 1920s, offers pedestrian explorers moving at an approximately bovine pace the “most interesting and novel walk” envisioned by Thoreau in 1860, through what Benton MacKaye called the “primeval environment,” as represented by the Wapack Range which Marion Davis named. ♦
Portions of this post are adapted from two talks I gave about the region in 2003: “Benton MacKaye and the Wapack Trail: ‘Equipping a Region for Play,'” for the annual meeting of the Friends of the Wapack; “Benton MacKaye and Freedom’s Way: The ‘New Exploration’ of a Regional Environment,” for the annual meeting of the Freedom’s Way Heritage Association.
For information about Marion Buck Davis, Frank Robbins, and the history of the Wapack Trail I have relied primarily on: 1) the excellent Guide to the Wapack Trail, 2nd Edition (2020), published by and available from Friends of the Wapack, Inc., https://wapack.org/ ; and 2) a delightful article by John Flanders, “Afoot in Central New England: The History of the Wapack Trail,” which appeared in Appalachia, journal of the Appalachian Mountain Club, June 15, 1992, pp. 41-51.
Tom Wessels’s essay, “Parable of Place,” appears in Where the Mountain Stands Alone; Stories of Place in the Monadnock Region, edited by Howard Mansfield (Monadnock Institute of Nature, Place, and Culture / University Press of New England, 2006), pp. pp. 65-72.
I am grateful to Rick Blanchette, current President of Friends of the Wapack, for his assistance and generosity in providing several of the images used in this post. I am also grateful to Elizabeth Ainsley Campbell, Executive Director of the Nashua River Watershed Association, for permission to reproduce the image of East Pepperell, Massachusetts, from her personal postcard collection of Nashua River settings.