Massachusetts

Walden Pond, Then and Now in Pictures

Around the time 27-year-old Henry David Thoreau moved to Walden Pond, the Fitchburg Railroad opened on its banks, about a third of a mile from his cabin. Thoreau wasn't happy about it.

Nor would he have been happy about the amusement park built across the pond, or the parking lot proposed a century later.

He might have approved of Don Henley's efforts to preserve the woods around Walden Pond, though we can only speculate about his opinion of the Eagles.

Walden Pond has long been celebrated as a bucolic retreat, but images over the decades show it was home to plenty of commercial activity along with the solitary philosopher.

Walden

Thoreau published Walden, or Life in the Woods, on Aug. 9, 1854, seven years after he left his one-room cabin on  land owned by his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson. His sister Sophia illustrated the original title page. Though the book cemented Thoreau's literary reputation, it didn't sell too well: only 2,000 copies over five years.

It has since become one of the most celebrated works of literature in America, a philosophical treatise on the virtues of living simply amid nature. '

"The book risks being as revered and unread as the Bible," John Updike once said.

Site of Thoreau's cabin

Site of Thoreau's cabin, 1908

Thoreau explained in the book why he decided to spend two years, two months and two days in a cabin in the woods. "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation," he wrote. "I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life."

Thoreau's survey of Walden Pond

Thoreau's survey of Walden Pond

Walden lies at the edge of Concord, Mass., where Thoreau lived most of his life. He didn't earn much from his books, and helped support himself by his family's pencil business and by surveying, which he taught himself. He created the first accurate survey of Walden Pond, 'before the ice broke up, early in '46, with compass and chain and sounding line.'

The Railroad

What people now call Thoreau's Cove is marked 'D' in the map above and his cabin site is marked 'House.'

The Fitchburg Railroad tracks, late 1860s, with amusement park buildings in the background.

The Fitchburg Railroad tracks, late 1860s, with amusement park buildings in the background.

The Fitchburg Railroad opened to Fitchburg in March 1845. In Walden, Thoreau wrote:

We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them.

Entrance gate to Walden amusement park. 1870s.

Entrance gate to Walden amusement park. 1870s.

Thoreau was a bit of a crank, and probably never visited the amusement park built on the other side of the pond after he left.

I had this advantage, at least, in my mode of life, over those who were obliged to look abroad for amusement, to society and the theatre, that my life itself was become my amusement and never ceased to be novel.

The park burned down in 1902 and was never rebuilt.

Ice harvesting.

Ice harvesting.

Frederic Tudor, Boston's 'Ice King,' harvested ice on Walden Pond for export to Europe, India and the Caribbean. Thoreau used to watch the ice-cutters, describing a hundred Irishmen with Yankee overseers arriving from Cambridge, Mass.

Occasionally the ice-cutters fell into the pond. Thoreau would let them warm up by his stove.

Trailer Park

'Walden Breezes,' 1937.

'Walden Breezes,' 1937.

Walden was a popular bathing spot, even in Thoreau's day. This photo of a bathhouse at the pond was taken by Edwin Locke for the Farm Security Administration in September 1937. "At Walden Pond, haunt of Thoreau, Concord, Massachusetts," reads the caption.

'Walden Breezes,' 1937.

'Walden Breezes,' 1937.

There was also a trailer park in 1937.

In 1945, archaeologist Roland Wells Robbins found the remains of Thoreau's cabin. He excavated it and wrote a book about the experience.

In 1961, the Middlesex County Commissioners proposed leveling some of the woodland around the pond for a parking lot. They were sued. Massachusetts Superior Court Judge David Rose ruled the deed donating the land to the commonwealth required the environment be preserved, and he barred any further development.

Photo sources:

‘Site of Thoreau’s hut, Lake Walden’ by Detroit Publishing Co. Image available from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division; ‘Walden pond—A reduced plan, 1846,’ Image available Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division; 'Fitchburg Railroad Tracks' by D.W. Butterfield, photographer, for Fitchburg Railroad.  Pic-Nic Grounds at Walden Pond, Concord, Mass., card stereograph showing railroad tracks (looking west), amusement park buildings at right, [late 1860s].  Photo courtesy Concord Public Library; 'Entrance gate to Walden amusement park.' Photo courtesy Concord Public Library; 'Walden Breezes' by Edwin Locke. Courtesy Library of CongressThis story was updated in 2018.

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