William Cullen Bryant Homestead, Cummington, Mass

The William Cullen Bryant Homestead on Bryant Road in Cummington, around 1890. Image from Picturesque Hampshire (1890).

The scene in 2020:

These two photos show the childhood home—and later the summer home—of William Cullen Bryant, a prominent 19th century poet and newspaper publisher. The house was built in 1783 by his grandfather, Ebenezer Snell, who had moved to Cummington from North Bridgewater a decade earlier. At the time, Cummington was a small, remote settlement in the Berkshire Mountains, located along upper reaches of the north branch of the Westfield River. The first colonial settlers did not arrive here until 1762, and it was not formally incorporated as a town until 1779.

Ebenezer Snell and his wife Sarah were both in their mid-30s when they moved to Cummington. They brought four young children with them, including William Cullen Bryant’s mother Sarah, and they subsequently had a fifth child while living in Cummington. By the time they moved into this house in 1783, the younger Sarah was about 15 years old. She continued living here as an adult, and in 1792 the family took in a boarder, Dr. Peter Bryant. Like the Snell family, he was from North Bridgewater, and he he was a year older than Sarah.

According to tradition, Peter Bryant had fallen in love with Sarah while the Snells were still in North Bridgewater, and he subsequently followed them here to Cummington. This seems rather improbable or exaggerated, since he and Sarah were about five or six years old when the Snells left North Bridgewater. Either way, though, Peter and Sarah soon fell in love here in Cummington, and they were married in October 1792. They subsequently moved into their own house in town, where their first child, Austin, was born six months after their marriage.

Peter and Sarah’s second child was William Cullen Bryant, who was born at their home on November 3, 1794. Soon after, the family suffered financial trouble after Peter lost money in a risky investment. They lived in the nearby town of Plainfield for several years, and they ultimately moved in with Sarah’s parents here at their home in Cummington in the spring of 1799, when William Cullen Bryant was four years old.

The move here to the family homestead proved to be a transformative experience for the future poet. The house is located about two miles west of the town center, on a northeast-facing slope that overlooks the Westfield River Valley. The land around the house was mostly open fields and pastureland, but the outlying portions of the property were largely forested. Most famously, this included the Rivulet, a stream that flows past the house and through an old growth forest on the northeastern edge of the lot. This stream was a favorite childhood haunt of Bryant, who wrote some of his earliest lines of poetry along its banks, and he later memorialized it in his poem “The Rivulet.”

Writing many years later in 1872 in a letter to a friend, Bryant provided the following description of the landscape surrounding his childhood home:

The site of the house is uncommonly beautiful. Before it, to the east, the ground descends, first gradually, and then rapidly, to the Westfield River flowing in a dep and narrow valley, from which is heard, after a copious rain, in the roar of its swollen current, itself unseen. In the spring-time, when the frost-bound waters are loosened by a warm rain, the roar and crash are remarkably loud as the icy crust of the stream is broken, and the masses of ice are swept along by the flood over the stones with which the bed of the river is paved. Beyond the narrow valley of the Westfield the surface of the country rises again gradually, carrying the eye over a region of vast extent, interspersed with farm-houses, pasture-grounds, and wooded heights, where on a showery day you sometimes see two or three different showers, each watering its own separate district; and in winter-time two or three different snow-storms dimly moving from place to place.

Peter Bryant practiced medicine in an office here in this house, and during the early 19th century he achieved some success as a politician. In 1806 he was elected to a one-year term in the state house of representatives, and he subsequently served in that same capacity in 1808, 1809, and 1813, before serving in the state senate in 1818 and 1819.

Throughout this time, Peter Bryant was a staunch Federalist, and he instilled these political beliefs in young William. Although he would become famous for his nature poetry, some of William Cullen Bryant’s earliest poems were political. Among these was “The Embargo,” a satire that criticized Thomas Jefferson and the financial crisis caused by his infamous Embargo Act of 1807. Published in 1808 when Bryant was just thirteen, the poem is more than 500 lines in length. In one particularly scathing stanza, Bryant declared Jefferson to be “scorn of every patriot name, / Thy country s ruin and thy council s shame!” Bryant even alluded to the rumors about his affair with Sally Hemings, telling Jefferson to “sink supinely in her sable arms; / But quit to abler hands the helm of state.”

This poem and other similar politically-charged works would later become a source of some embarrassment for Bryant once he matured, but these poems earned him some notability as promising young poet. Although its reviewer disagreed with Bryant’s critical stance on Jefferson, the Monthly Anthology nonetheless admired his talents, declaring that “[w]e have never met with a boy of that age who had attained to such a command of language and to so much poetic phraseology.”

However, despite this early talent as a poet, Bryant’s career goal was to become a lawyer. To that end, he enrolled in Williams College in 1810 at the age of 16, but left at the end of the school year. He intended to continue his studies at Yale, but his father’s still-precarious financial situation forced him to change his plans. Instead, he read law—essentially a legal apprenticeship—with two different lawyers, and he was ultimately admitted to the bar in 1815.

Bryant began his legal career in Plainfield, but he continued to live here at the family homestead for a year, walking seven miles a day in each direction to get to his office. Then, around 1816 he moved to the much larger town of Great Barrington in the southwest corner of the state, where he practiced law for the next nine years. However, he was still publishing poetry during this time, including his most famous poem, “Thanatopsis.” Bryant had actually written the poem around 1811 when he was just 17, but it was published in 1817 and eventually became Bryant’s most significant contribution to the American canon of literature. The poem approaches death from a naturalistic perspective, describing how death is not something to be feared since the body becomes part of the natural world. The poem includes many vivid descriptions of nature, which were likely influenced by Bryant’s time here at the homestead in Cummington.

“Thanatopsis” would prove to be the high point of Bryant’s career as a poet, but he subsequently went on to achieve prominence as a newspaper editor. Having grown tired of Great Barrington, Bryant moved to New York City, where he worked as a magazine editor before becoming editor-in-chief of the New York Daily Post in 1829. He would go on to hold this position for the next half century, until his death in 1878. Throughout this time, the Post was one of the nation’s leading newspapers, and he used the paper to advocate for liberal causes such as abolitionism, organized labor, and immigrant rights. In 1860, he played an important role in Abraham Lincoln’s nomination, using his influence to generate support in the eastern states for the relatively obscure former congressman from Illinois.

In the meantime, the rest of the Bryant family also began to look beyond the old family homestead here in Cummington. Just as Ebenezer Snell had moved his family west from North Bridgewater in the 1770s, the later generations of his family also saw greater opportunities further to the west. Farming was difficult in the rocky, mountainous hill towns of western Massachusetts, and many families were drawn to the newly-formed territories and states, lured by promises of better farmland and greater opportunities. Many of these towns experienced population loss in the mid-19th century, including Cummington, which peaked in population in 1830 with 1,261 residents, before entering a 90-year decline. By 1920, the town had barely a third of its 1830 population, and experienced only moderate growth in the second half of the 20th century. Even today, the population of Cummington and many other hill towns is substantially lower than it was in the mid-19th century.

Among those who joined the exodus from Cummington were William Cullen Bryant’s younger brothers Arthur, John, and Cyrus, who moved away in the early 1830s and eventually made their way to Illinois. This left only the eldest brother Austin here at the homestead with their widowed mother Sarah, who continued to struggle financially and fell into debt. William helped with the interest payments on the loans, but Sarah and Austin ultimately decided to sell the property in 1835, much to William’s disappointment.

The new owner of the house was Welcome Tillson, a farmer who was in his mid-30s at the time. He lived here for the next 30 years, and at some point during this time he removed the wing that had once housed Bryant’s father’s office. This small piece of the building was, according to Bryant, subsequently moved down the hill to the banks of the Westfield River. During the 1860 census Welcome and his wife Sarah were in their late 40s, and were living here with their 28-year-old son Cyrus and his wife Elizabeth. He owned about 500 acres of improved land and 35 acres of unimproved land, and his agricultural output in 1860 consisted primarily of butter, cheese, wheat, corn, oats, potatoes, and maple syrup.

In 1865 Bryant, who was now 70, purchased the property from Tillson for use as a summer home. It was also intended to serve as a place of quiet rest for his wife Frances, who was in poor health. He soon set about making renovations, including adding a third story by raising the original section of the house and then constructing a new first floor underneath it. Bryant also added a replica of his father’s office to the southwest corner of the house. This one-story wing served as Bryant’s study, and it is visible on the left side of both photos here. However, Frances Bryant did not live long enough to see these renovations completed; she died in July 1866, just a year after her husband purchased the house.

Aside from these changes to the house, Bryant also made improvements to the grounds, including planting some 1,300 apple trees and a variety of other fruit trees. Immediately to the west of the house, in the distance of the first photo, Bryant planted a row of pine trees to act as a wind break, and further down the hill from here he built a small pond to serve as a source of ice that could be harvested and stored for the summer. In addition, he made two different additions to the barn on the other side of the street, first in 1866 and then in 1875. This barn had been built by Welcome Tillson after he purchased the property, replacing an earlier one that Peter Bryant had constructed on the same site in 1801.

Bryant continued to spend his summers here in Cummington for the rest of his life, generally arriving in late July and staying until early September. He died in New York City on June 12, 1878 at the age of 83, but this property remained in his family for several more generations. His younger daughter Julia inherited the house, and she owned it when the first photo was taken around 1890, although she spent most of her later years in Paris, where she lived with her cousin and presumed romantic partner, Anna Fairchild.

Julia died in 1907 and left this house to Anna Fairchild, who owned it until 1917, when she sold it to Julia’s niece Minna Godwin Goddard, who was the daughter of Bryant’s older daughter Frances. Minna then owned it until her own death in 1927, and in her will she left the property to the Trustees of Reservations, with the stipulation that her son Conrad would have life tenancy rights. The family also donated furniture and other items to the Trustees, and in 1931 Conrad built a caretaker’s house to the north of the main house, just out of view on the far right side of this scene.

Today, nearly a century after the Minna Goddard left this property to the Trustees and more than 230 years after her great-great grandfather Ebenezer Snell built the house, this house is still standing as an important historic landmark. As shown in these two photos, very little has changed here in this scene since the first photo was taken around 1890. Even some of the trees are still standing from the first photo. The three large maples in the foreground are the same ones from the first photo, and they were originally planted here in the early 19th century by the Bryant family.

The Bryant Homestead is still owned by the Trustees, which owns a number of other historic sites and conservation areas throughout Massachusetts. Here in Cummington, this property features not only the historic house but also nearly 200 acres of surrounding land. Several hiking trails wind through this landscape, including one that runs alongside the Rivulet, through the same old growth forest that first inspired Bryant more than two centuries ago. Overall, the homestead looks much the same as it did when Bryant acquired it in 1865, and it is one of the many important literary landmarks here in New England.

Thoreau’s Cove, Walden Pond, Concord, Mass (2)

The view looking northeast toward Thoreau’s Cove in Walden Pond, around 1900-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2020:

This small cove at the northern end of Walden Pond is known as Thoreau’s Cove, and it is explained in more detail in an earlier post. The photos in that post show the view looking south from the far end of the cove, while these two photos here show the view from the opposite direction. The cove is named for Transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau, who famously spent two years, two months, and two days living in a cabin here in the woods at Walden Pond, about 200 feet to the north of this cove.

Thoreau lived here from July 1845 to September 1847, and he subsequently wrote about his experiences in his 1854 book Walden. In explaining his daily routine, Thoreau wrote how, “I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did.” Later in the book, he explained how he would return to the pond after completing his morning work, writing, “[a]fter hoeing, or perhaps reading and writing, in the forenoon, I usually bathed again in the pond, swimming across one of its coves for a stint, and washed the dust of labor from my person, or smoothed out the last wrinkle which study had made, and for the afternoon was absolutely free.”

Thoreau did not identify the exact location on the shoreline where he bathed in the pond. However, author Robert M. Thorson, in his 2018 book The Guide to Walden Pond, concluded that it was this spot here, where these two photos were taken. Although the northern end of the cove was closer to his cabin, it is also shallow, muddy, and weedy, so it seems more likely that he walked the extra distance here to this spot, where he could access the water by way of a gravel beach. From here, Thoreau could also observe the entire pond, rather than having the very limited views from the northern end of the cove.

Near the end of the book, Thoreau described how he had inadvertently created a path between his cabin and the shoreline, writing “I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct.” He used this path as a metaphor for the tendency of people to conform, and it served as an example for why he decided to move out of his cabin, because he needed to move on to something new.

By the time the first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century, it had been more than 50 years since Thoreau had lived here. His old path was likely long gone by that point, but many more undoubtedly appeared in the intervening years. The pond became a popular destination during the second half of the 19th century, and from 1866 to 1902 it featured an amusement park at the western end, directly behind where these photos were taken.  Then, by the early 20th century the eastern end of the pond was also developed, and became a popular local swimming area.

The land around Walden Pond was ultimately donated to the state in 1922, and it became the Walden Pond State Reservation. Today, the pond is far busier than it had ever been during Thoreau’s time, particularly on summer weekends. However, the it attracts crowds throughout the year, and the 2020 photo shows plenty of people walking along the shoreline, despite it being a cool day in mid October. Overall, though. not much has changed here in this particular scene. The cove looks essentially the same as it did when the first photo was taken more than a century ago, and it likely looks similar to what Thoreau would have seen as he waded into the water here for his morning swim.

Thoreau’s Cabin Site, Concord, Mass

The site of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond in Concord, around 1908. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2021:

As explained in the previous post, Walden Pond was made famous by Transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau, who spent two years, two months, and two days living in a cabin here on the northern shore of the pond from 1845 to 1847. At the time, Concord was at the center of the Transcendentalist movement, and it was the home of several of its leaders, including Thoreau and his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. They placed a strong emphasis on values such as being self-reliant, living a simple and nonmaterialistic life, and having an appreciation for the natural world. Because of this, Thoreau decided to embark on an experiment here at Walden Pond, in order to determine whether he could, as he put it, “front only the essential facts of life” by living in a small cabin with only the basic necessities of human life.

Thoreau wrote about his experience in his book Walden, published in 1854. In the first chapter, titled “Economy,” he described how he selected this site and began constructing the cabin in the spring of 1845, writing:

Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. . . . It was a pleasant hillside where I worked, covered with pine woods, through which I looked out on the pond, and a small open field in the woods where pines and hickories were springing up.

He steadily worked on the cabin throughout the spring, and it was finally ready to be occupied by early July. His first night here was on July 4, a coincidence that marked the start of his own personal independence:

When first I took up my abode in the woods, that is, began to spend my nights as well as days there, which, by accident, was on Independence Day, or the Fourth of July, 1845, my house was not finished for winter, but was merely a defence against the rain, without plastering or chimney, the walls being of rough, weather-stained boards, with wide chinks, which made it cool at night. The upright white hewn studs and freshly planed door and window casings gave it a clean and airy look, especially in the morning, when its timbers were saturated with dew, so that I fancied that by noon some sweet gum would exude from them. 

Thoreau ultimately completed the cabin by winter, including shingling the exterior and constructing a chimney and fireplace. The finished structure was, as he described it, “a tight shingled and plastered house, ten feet wide by fifteen long, and eight-feet posts, with a garret and a closet, a large window on each side, two trap doors, one door at the end, and a brick fireplace opposite.” In Walden, he itemized his construction costs, which added up to $28.12. The single largest expense was $8.03 for wood, much of which was recycled materials. In April he had purchased the shanty of James Collins, an Irish laborer who worked on the nearby Fitchburg Railroad, and he used this as a source of building materials.

The interior of the cabin was as spartan as its exterior, consisting of only minimal furnishings and personal possessions. Of these, he provided the following description:

My furniture, part of which I made myself, and the rest cost me nothing of which I have not rendered an account, consisted of a bed, a table, a desk, three chairs, a looking-glass three inches in diameter, a pair of tongs and andirons, a kettle, a skillet, and a frying-pan, a dipper, a wash-bowl, two knives and forks, three plates, one cup, one spoon, a jug for oil, a jug for molasses, and a japanned lamp.

Throughout the “Economy” chapter, Thoreau meticulously recorded his income and expenses, and concluded that, by simplifying his life, he was able to meet all of his expenses by working just six weeks out of the year. In contrast to his assertion earlier in the chapter that “[t]he mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” Thoreau argued based on his experiment here at Walden that:

In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely; as the pursuits of the simpler nations are still the sports of the more artificial. It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do.

One popular misconception about Thoreau’s time here at Walden Pond is that he lived the life of a hermit in the wilderness. In reality, he was only a mile and a half from the center of Concord, and he often walked into town by way of the railroad, which ran just a quarter mile from here. As suggested by the presence of three chairs in the cabin, he also entertained guests here, although he found that the distance from town discouraged people from visiting for trivial reasons. In his book, he also wrote about interactions with other people who came to the pond for its natural resources, including fishermen and ice harvesters.

Thoreau moved out of the cabin on September 6, 1847, having decided that it was time to move on to the next stage in his life. It took another seven years before he completed his famous memoir about his stay here, and in the meantime his old cabin was put to a new use. Two years after Thoreau left, Ralph Waldo Emerson—who owned this land—sold the cabin to his gardener, who in turn sold it to two farmers. It was moved to a new location elsewhere in Concord, and it was used for grain storage for the next few decades, before ultimately being dismantled in 1868 and used for scrap. Thoreau did not live to see this, as he had died in 1862 at the age of 44, but he likely would have approved, considering he had built it from scrap lumber salvaged from an earlier structure.

In the meantime, the old site of Thoreau’s cabin began to attract attention as early as 1872, when Bronson Alcott—father of Louisa May Alcott—brought a visitor, Mrs. Mary Adams of Dubuque, Iowa, here to Walden Pond. At the time there was no marker here, so Mary suggested that a cairn might be an appropriate memorial. Writing in his journal, Alcott explained:

Mrs. Adams suggests that visitors to Walden shall bring a stone for Thoreau’s monument and begins the pile by laying stones on the site of his hermitage, which I point out to her. The tribute thus rendered to our friend may, as the years pass, become a pile to his memory. The rude stones were a monument more fitting than the costliest caring of the artist. Henry’s fame is sure to brighten with years, and this spot be visited by admiring readers of his works.

By the time the first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century, the cairn had grown to a considerable size. The view faces essentially due south, with the pond visible beyond the trees in the distance. In the center of the photo is Thoreau’s Cove, the northernmost part of the pond, which comes within about 200 feet of the site of the cabin. The types of trees here are similar to what Thoreau would have seen, with a mix of pine and deciduous trees, but these actual trees were likely not old enough to have been here during Thoreau’s stay in the 1840s.

The cairn does not actually stand on the exact site of the cabin, although it is within a few yards. The actual location of the cabin was discovered in 1945 by archaeologist Roland W. Robbins, who uncovered the foundation of Thoreau’s chimney. These two photos were taken from right about the spot where the house stood, and it is now marked by an inscribed stone above the foundations of the chimney, along with nine cut stones that mark the dimensions of the cabin.

Today, aside from the stones marking the site of the cabin, the cairn is also still here. It is much larger than it was in the early 1900s, but it was briefly removed by state officials in 1975, before being returned here in 1978 after a public outcry over the loss of the “unsightly” memorial. Aside from the enlarged cairn, other changes since the first photo have included the path on the left, along with the sign next to the cairn, which features Thoreau’s famous quote about going into the woods because he “wished to live deliberately.” Overall, though, this scene still looks much the same as it did when the first photo was taken, and it is not all that different from what Thoreau would have seen from his front door some 175 years ago.

The pond and the surrounding land are now part of the Walden Pond State Reservation, which was established in 1922 after the Emerson family and several other landowners donated property around the pond to the state. Since then, the pond has continued to draw visitors for a variety of purposes, including swimming, fishing, walking the perimeter of the pond, or making a pilgrimage here to the site of Thoreau’s cabin. Although it is not located here at the original location, the park does feature a full-size replica of the cabin, which stands next to the parking lot a little less than a half mile from here, on the other side of Route 126. The following photos show the exterior and interior of the cabin, and were taken in 2021:

The exterior of the replica cabin, with the woodshed behind it

 

The interior of the replica cabin from the doorway

Thoreau’s Cove, Walden Pond, Concord, Mass

The view looking south from the northern shore of Walden Pond, around 1908. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2020:

Walden Pond is one of many glacially-formed kettle ponds scattered throughout the landscape of eastern Massachusetts. Despite its relatively small size, it is notable for being the deepest natural pond or lake in the state, with a maximum depth of 103 feet. However, it is best remembered for having been the subject of Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 book Walden. In this book, Thoreau describes the two years, two months, and two days that he spent living in a small cabin near the shore of the pond, from July 1845 to September 1847. His cabin was located about 200 feet behind where this photo was taken, just to the north of this cove, which is now known as Thoreau’s Cove.

Writing in Walden, Thoreau outlined his reasons for living here at Walden Pond, explaining how, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” With this minimalistic approach, he constructed a one-room cabin that measured 10 feet by 15 feet, and had a chimney and fireplace at one end. It cost him a total of $28.12 to construct, mostly using recycled materials, and it was located on land owned by his mentor, fellow Transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. He furnished the cabin with only the basic necessities, such as a bed, a table, a desk, and three chairs.

Although Thoreau’s time here at Walden Pond is often portrayed as him living off the land in solitude, it was hardly a wilderness experience for him. The pond is just a mile and a half south of the center of Concord, and the Fitchburg Railroad ran along the western shore of the pond, a quarter mile from Thoreau’s cabin. Far from living in solitude, he frequently entertained visitors at his cabin, and he remarked in his book that he had more visitors during this period than any other time in his life. And, despite conducting an experiment in self-sufficiency, he was not above traveling into town for a home-cooked meal, or occasionally having his mother clean his dirty laundry.

Throughout the book, Thoreau frequently makes observations about the natural environment around the pond, including occasional laments about the changes that humans have made to the landscape. He contrasts the “thick and lofty pine and oak woods” of his younger years with the subsequent deforestation along the shores of the pond, and he criticizes the arrival of the railroad, describing it as a “devilish Iron Horse, whose ear-rending neigh is heard throughout the town.” However, despite such intrusions, Thoreau was confident in the unchanging nature of the pond, writing:

Nevertheless, of all the characters I have known, perhaps Walden wears best, and best preserves its purity. Many men have been likened to it, but few deserve that honor. Though the woodchoppers have laid bare first this shore and then that, and the Irish have built their sties by it, and the railroad has infringed on its border, and the ice-men have skimmed it once, it is itself unchanged, the same water which my youthful eyes fell on; all the change is in me. It has not acquired one permanent wrinkle after all its ripples. It is perennially young, and I may stand and see a swallow dip apparently to pick an insect from its surface as of yore.

Although Thoreau was  the only person living along the shores of the pond at the time, he was hardly the only one to understand the value of its natural resources. He often interacted with fishermen on the pond, and in one chapter he also provided a lengthy description of the ice harvesting that occurred here on Walden Pond. At the time, naturally-produced ice was the only way to preserve perishable foods, and Boston merchant Frederic Tudor enjoyed a near monopoly on the trade, sending ships filled with New England ice to destinations as far away as India. Thoreau observed this work, likely from this vantage point here on the shore in front of his cabin, and drew parallels between the methods used for ice harvesting and farming:

In the winter of ’46–7 there came a hundred men of Hyperborean extraction swoop down on to our pond one morning, with many car-loads of ungainly-looking farming tools, sleds, ploughs, drill-barrows, turf-knives, spades, saws, rakes, and each man was armed with a double-pointed pike-staff. . .

To speak literally, a hundred Irishmen, with Yankee overseers, came from Cambridge every day to get out the ice. They divided it into cakes by methods too well known to require description, and these, being sledded to the shore, were rapidly hauled off on to an ice platform, and raised by grappling irons and block and tackle, worked by horses, on to a stack, as surely as so many barrels of flour, and there placed evenly side by side, and row upon row, as if they formed the solid base of an obelisk designed to pierce the clouds. They told me that in a good day they could get out a thousand tons, which was the yield of about one acre. . . .

Thus for sixteen days I saw from my window a hundred men at work like busy husbandmen, with teams and horses and apparently all the implements of farming, such a picture as we see on the first page of the almanac; and as often as I looked out I was reminded of the fable of the lark and the reapers, or the parable of the sower, and the like; and now they are all gone, and in thirty days more, probably, I shall look from the same window on the pure sea-green Walden water there, reflecting the clouds and the trees, and sending up its evaporations in solitude, and no traces will appear that a man has ever stood there. Perhaps I shall hear a solitary loon laugh as he dives and plumes himself, or shall see a lonely fisher in his boat, like a floating leaf, beholding his form reflected in the waves, where lately a hundred men securely labored.

Thoreau then concluded his description of the ice harvest with an observation about how interconnected the world had become, thanks to innovations such as trans-oceanic ice shipments:

Thus it appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well. . . . The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges. With favoring winds it is wafted past the site of the fabulous islands of Atlantis and the Hesperides, makes the periplus of Hanno, and, floating by Ternate and Tidore and the mouth of the Persian Gulf, melts in the tropic gales of the Indian seas, and is landed in ports of which Alexander only heard the names.

Near the end of the book, Thoreau explained his reasons for leaving Walden Pond in September 1847, citing a need to move on to the next phase of his life. He then described the path that he had followed from his cabin to the shore of the pond, using it as a metaphor for the tendency of humans to fall into conformity and consistency in their behaviors and ways of thinking:

It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!

The exact route of Thoreau’s well-trod footpath is left to some speculation, but it seems unlikely that it would have led to this particular section of shoreline here in these photos. Despite being the closest part of the pond to his cabin, this spot offers only limited views, and the shallow, muddy water here would have made it a poor choice for bathing or collecting drinking water. In his 2018 book The Guide to Walden Pond, author Robert M. Thorson theorizes that Thoreau’s path ran along the western side of the cove, ending at the sandy beach on the far right side of the scene. From there, Thoreau could have observed the entire pond, and he would not have had to wade through the mud and weeds here at the northern end of the cove.

After Thoreau left Walden Pond, Ralph Waldo Emerson sold the cabin to his gardener, who in turn sold it to farmers who moved it to a different location in Concord. It was used for grain storage before being dismantled in 1868. As a result, the $28 cabin ultimately outlived its famous resident, as Thoreau died of tuberculosis in 1862 at the age of 44.

Over the next few decades, Thoreau’s assertion about Walden Pond preserving its purity would certainly be put to the test. The cool, clear waters of the pond drew visitors here in increasing numbers during the late 19th century, and in 1866the Fitchburg Railroad opened an amusement park and picnic ground on the western shore of the pond. Known as the Walden Lake Grove Excursion Park, it had its own stop on the railroad, and it remained here until 1902, when it burned down.

The first photo was taken several years later, around 1908. By this point, recreation on the pond had shifted to the eastern side, along present-day Route 126. During the early 20th century that section of shoreline was turned into a large, sandy beach, and in 1917 bathhouses were constructed there to accommodate visitors. Five years later, the Emerson family, along with several other landowners around the pond, donated about 80 acres to the state, and the land became the Walden Pond State Reservation.

Over the next few decades, the number of visitors to Walden Pond would continue to increase. Automobiles made it easier than ever to access the pond, and by 1935 it had nearly half a million visitors over the course of the summer, including about 25,000 on busy weekend days. The result was a struggle between conservation and recreation here at the pond, which culminated in a late 1950s proposal to “improve” much of the land around the pond with amenities such as a new parking lot. However, these plans were ultimately halted by a Superior Court judge who ruled that they violated the stipulations of the 1922 donations.

Today, more than 110 years after the first photo was taken and nearly 175 years after Thoreau moved out of his cabin, Walden Pond remains a popular destination. The parking area fills up quickly on hot summer days, and the shores of the pond are often crowded with beachgoers, swimmers, and anglers, along with the occasional literary tourist making a pilgrimage to the site of Thoreau’s cabin. For the most part, a visit to the pond today is far removed from the experience that Thoreau had here in the 1840s, and as one New York Times writer put it, “there are more selfies than there is self-reliance.”

However, the woods along the shoreline do a remarkably good job at hiding the number of visitors. The second photo was taken on a very busy July morning, yet there is surprisingly little evidence of it in the photo, save for a few swimmers far off in the distance. Overall, the landscape from the northern end of Thoreau’s Cove is not dramatically different from what he would have seen here, and if he saw it today he would likely stand by his claim that “it has not acquired one permanent wrinkle after all its ripples.”

Franklin and Armfield Office, Alexandria, Virginia

The Franklin and Armfield Office at 1315 Duke Street in Alexandria, around the early 1860s. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Civil War Collection.

The scene in 2021:

The Franklin and Armfield Office at 1315 Duke Street in Alexandria, Virginia was built in 1810. It was originally built as a private residence for Brigadier General Robert Young of the Second Militia of the District of Columbia, but he was forced to sell the home in 1820 due to financial problems. By 1828, the home was leased, and eventually bought by infamous slave traders, Isaac Franklin and John Armfield. Franklin and Armfield were the largest slave traders in the United States between 1828 and 1836, and the Duke Street home was turned into their main office.

Since the transatlantic slave trade was banned in 1808, Franklin and Armfield would send agents across Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware in search of slave owners who were willing to part with their slaves for relatively cheap prices. The enslaved people would then be shipped back and held in the high-walled courtyards surrounding the offices (Seen to the left and right of the house in the top picture). In these courtyards, the enslaved people were subject to brutal beatings, rapes, and countless other forms of cruel control. Rapes were so frequently done by Franklin and Armfield to their slaves, that they bragged about them in letters between each other, and both men would father children to enslaved women in their captivity. Franklin would later go on to sell the woman he raped and the child he fathered with her. A two-story extension was added to the back of the building to serve as jail cells. These cells could be used to isolate certain slaves but were more often rented out by travelling slave owners who wanted to keep their slaves on the Virginia side of the Potomac.

Due to a surplus of enslaved people in the Upper South, slaves did not fetch high prices in Alexandra. The enslaved people were typically kept in the home’s courtyards until enough of them were bought for them to all be shipped together or marched to their offices in Natchez and New Orleans. Once in the Deep South, they could be sold at much higher prices than they were bought for in Virginia. It’s estimated that Franklin and Armfield sold between 1,000-2,000 people each year, transporting all of them by way of cramped slave ships or forced marches across the South.
By 1836, Franklin decided to retire, and his partner Armfield decided to sell off most of the business. He sold the Duke Street offices to another slave trader, George Kephart. He would continue the practice of selling slaves until he sold it to yet another slave trading firm, Price, Birch & Co. in 1858.

Price, Birch & Co. would become infamous not for their volume of slaves sold, but rather for one particular man that they enslaved. Solomon Northup, a freed slave from Saratoga Springs, New York was kidnapped in Washington, DC in 1841. He was shipped down to New Orleans where we was bought by a planter and re-enslaved. It would take Solomon 12 years before he would once again gain his freedom with the help of Samuel Bass. A Canadian working on the plantation, Samuel was able to get word back to New York about Solomon’s re-enslavement. After an appeal to the Governor of New York, Solomon was granted his freedom in 1853. Solomon would later go on to write his famous memoirs, 12 Years a Slave. In his memoirs, Solomon named his kidnapper as “Burch”, but it’s largely been accepted that the man he was talking about was James H. Birch, of Price, Birch & Co. in Alexandria. It should be noted though that Solomon Northup does not appear to have actually passed through the Alexandria slave pens, only that Birch used the building as his offices. Price, Birch & Co. would go on to own the building until the Civil War, when it was occupied by Union Forces in 1861. During the Civil War the slave pens were ironically, used as jail cells for captured Confederate soldiers.

After the Civil War, a railroader by the name of Thomas Swann bought the property in 1870 and tore down the slave pen extension. The buildings exterior also underwent changes that give it its modern appearance, such as the fourth story windows being added as well as the arches over the windows on the front façade. The property changed hands multiple times over the last century, serving as apartments for most of that time before being sold in 2017 to the Northern Virginia Urban League. Today, the building has been re-named the Freedom House, and features a museum to the building’s history on the first floor, and offices for the Northern Virginia Urban League on the upper floors.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens at the Little Studio, Cornish, New Hampshire

Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens sitting on the pergola of his Little Studio in Cornish, around 1905. Image from The Reminiscences of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Volume 2 (1913).

The scene in 2019:

As explained in the previous post, this building was the primary studio of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens for the last three years of his life, from its completion in 1904 until his death in 1907. It was built on the site of an earlier barn, which Saint-Gaudens had converted into a studio. The new building was similar in size to the old barn, but with a higher roof with more windows for natural light. The barn also had a pergola that Saint-Gaudens had added to the south side, and the new studio featured a similar one, as shown here in these two photos.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens had begun spending his summers here at this property in Cornish in 1885, and it became his full-time residence in 1900, after he was diagnosed with colon cancer. Hoping that the rural setting and fresh air would improve both his health and his spirits, he continued his sculpture work here at Cornish. However, his health continued to deteriorate, as shown by his gaunt appearance in the first photo around 1905. By this point, he was working on an ambitious project to redesign American coinage, having been commissioned by Theodore Roosevelt a year earlier. He was only able to finish the designs for the $20 and $10 gold coins before his death, but his $20 coin would go on to become one of the most celebrated coin designs in American history.

After his death in 1907, the property remained in the Saint-Gaudens family until 1921, when his widow Augusta transferred it to the Augustus Saint-Gaudens Memorial. This organization maintained the house, grounds, studio, and other outbuildings until 1965, when the National Park Service acquired the property as the Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park. Throughout this time, the studio has remained well-preserved on both the interior and exterior, with essentially no visible changes here in this view of the pergola.