Walden Pond: Not your average summer ‘swimming hole’

This piece of the Yankee Road story takes place just off US 20, a little west and north of Boston.

Walden Pond lies about 5 miles north of US 20 in the western suburbs of Boston. It is definitely a “pond” (61 acres) to those who are used to living near “lakes”, though a westerner might be prone to confuse the terms. It is somewhat of an oddity in that it is a ‘kettle hole’, having no surface source or exit.

Other than that, Walden Pond is unexceptional. It was used for fishing and swimming as early as the 1600s and its shores were logged for firewood and lumber then and since as well. In 1843, the railroad from Boston though Concord to Fitchburg touched its western shore. Later in the 19th century, the Concord town dump was built nearby and the railroad opened a summer picnicking and swimming facility next to the tracks. In the 20th Century, a trailer park was located nearby and suburban office facilities and subdivisions were proposed on its north and east sides. Not your promising wilderness retreat at any time in its modern history.

The Pond became a symbol of the value of nature because Thoreau, a taciturn, Harvard-educated misfit, lived next to its northern shore for 2 years, 2 months and 2 days in the mid-1840s, looking for solitude in which he could concentrate on his writing. While there, he finished a book on his travels on nearby rivers and a draft of Walden, a book that loosely touched on his experiences while living there.

Walden was a book whose influence grew only after its author was dead and whose message was reinterpreted away from transcendental philosophy into a reflection on post-Civil War America’s need to be in touch with wilderness and respectful of the natural environment. The first American literary pilgrimage, a tour to visit a place where a famous writer lived and worked, was to Concord and Walden Pond—and they have continued ever since.

A memorial to Thoreau’s stay was erected at the site of his cabin in the early 1870s, a decade after he died. A trio of Thoreau enthusiasts around 1890 launched a ‘Thoreau revival’ that firmly re-established his name and popularity in America and Europe. In 1922, some local families donated about 80 acres around the Pond to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as a reserve for ‘preserving the Walden of Emerson and Thoreau, its shores and nearby woodlands’. In 1941, enthusiasts created the Thoreau Society, the oldest professional society devoted to the legacy of an American writer. The site of the cabin was determined and excavated by a local amateur archaeologist in 1945.

In spite of this activity, the Pond was still used for picnicking and organized swimming events into the 1950s. The trustees enlarged the parking lot and cut a road down to the shore to allow more swimming in 1957, not quite what had been intended by the original donation. This led to a media outcry and the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 1960 decided that the County Commissioners had not acted according to the deed of gift. The fight led to a new Thoreau revival, including support by JFK, who had been elected President in 1960. Finally, in early 1975, the Walden Pond reservation was turned over to the State and work began to restore it in anticipation of Bicentennial tourism to the Concord area that year.

Lead singer for the Eagles, Don Henley, spent much of the following decades promoting and supporting The Walden Woods Project, that is devoted to conserving and restoring land around the Walden Pond area. In 1998, the Project opened a research and educational center in cooperation with the Thoreau Society. The Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods, was to promote environmental and humanities programs and to house Thoreau memorabilia and archives.

People come to the Pond in such numbers today that access has had to be controlled in order to assure future generations that something will be left of the milieu. I had to turn back from Walden Pond on my first visit as the parking lot at the State Park was full at 11 am. Later, I was luckier. Visitors come to pay their respects to a variety of ideas that Thoreau and Walden Pond symbolize.

If it weren’t a kind of American shrine, Walden Pond today would be at best, a little country park, with holly banks and a covering of forest all around. On the west, there is the double set of railroad tracks and to the north, hidden by a screen of trees, is a very busy highway. To the east is an old local road that leads past the entrance to the park that surrounds Walden Pond and memorializes Henry Thoreau’s time there. Less than a couple of miles distant to the north is the town of Concord, much bigger than it was in Thoreau’s day, filled with Revolutionary War monuments and other tourist attractions.

As the Western writer Wallace Stegner put it,

….Walden is the place for Thoreau’s monument as surely as Washington is the place for the temples we have erected to Jefferson and Lincoln. This little lake within sight of the tracks and sound of the train whistle should be part of the American iconography. But we need no marble columns. The pond itself, and the creatures that find life in it, and the woods that surround it, are the most fitting monument for the man who took so much from them, and gave it back in unforgettable terms to his countrymen.