Old Bacon Academy, Colchester, Connecticut

The Bacon Academy building at 84 Main Street in Colchester, around 1896. Image from Connecticut Quarterly.

The building in 2020:

Bacon Academy is one of the oldest public high schools in the United States, and the second oldest in Connecticut. It was established in 1803 following the death of Pierpont Bacon, a Colchester resident who bequeathed $35,000 to maintain a school for the town’s residents. At the time, a high school education was rare in the United States, and few towns had a high school, even here in the relatively well-educated northeast. For Bacon Academy, the main purpose was to prepare boys for college, so the school offered what was, at the time, regarded as a well-rounded education. An 1803 newspaper advertisement declared that students would “be accommodated with suitable instruction in Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, the learned Languages and Sciences.” Tuition in 1803 was $2.00 per quarter in the summer, and $2.50 per quarter in the winter.

The school opened on November 1, 1803, here in this brick, three-story Federal-style building. It is situated right in the center of Colchester, on Main Street directly opposite Norwich Avenue. Behind the school, visible in the distance on the left side of the scene, is the town’s old burying ground, which dates back to 1713. The opening of the school was widely reported in newspapers across the region, and the New York Morning Chronicle provided the following description of the building and its location:

A large and elegant brick building is erected for the accommodation of the scholars; being 75 feet in length, 34 feet in breadth, and three stories high. It is divided into a large hall, and convenient apartments for the different branches. . . . Colchester is a very healthy and pleasant town situated on the turnpike road leading from Hartford to New-London, being nearly equi-distant from each. A more eligible situation for an institution of this kind, could not have been chosen.

The first principal of the school was 31-year-old John Adams, a Connecticut native and Yale graduate who had previously taught at Plainfield Academy in New Jersey. He went on to become a prominent educator, serving here in Colchester until 1810, followed by 23 years as principal of Phillips Academy Andover. Later in life he moved west, serving from 1836 to 1843 as principal of Jacksonville Female Seminary, a school that would eventually be incorporated into Illinois College in the early 20th century.

During its first year, Bacon Academy enrolled 206 students. The majority of these were from Colchester, but 63 of them were from out of town. In its early years, the school even attracted students from out of state. Perhaps most notably, this included 11-year-old Stephen F. Austin of Missouri, whose father Moses Austin enrolled him in the school starting in the fall of 1804. Stephen Austin attended the school for the next three years, and he would eventually go on to become one of the founders of Texas and the namesake of its capital city.

Aside from Austin, Bacon Academy saw a number of its other students go on to achieve prominence in the 19th century. These included at least five future governors: William Larrabee of Iowa, Edwin D. Morgan of New York, Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, and William A. Buckingham and Morgan Bulkeley of Connecticut. With the exception of Larrabee, all of these men also served as U.S. senators, and Trumbull had a particularly distinguished career in the Senate, serving from 1855 to 1873. During this time, he co-authored the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery. Other distinguished Bacon Academy students included Eliphalet A. Bulkeley, who became the first president of Aetna Insurance Company, and Morrison Waite, who served as chief justice of the United States from 1874 to 1888.

By the mid-1830s, the school had grown to 425 students, including 137 who were from out of town and 32 from out of state. For the first few decades, the student body consisted of white males, with a separate school here in Colchester to educate African American children. However, at least one African American, the prominent educator Prince Saunders, was associated with Bacon Academy only a few years after it opened. He ran the African American students, and he is said to have taken courses at Bacon Academy, although it does not seem clear as to whether he was formally enrolled at the school, or was taught outside of school by some of its teachers.

In any case, by the 1840s Bacon Academy was racially integrated, and it had begun to enroll female students. This period in the mid-19th century was a high point for the school, which had aspirations of becoming a top-tier college preparatory school similar to Phillips Academy. However, the school ultimately saw a decline in enrollment, in part because of this deviation from its original mission. Unable to compete with the more established private schools, by the late 19th century Bacon Academy had settled into the role of the public high school for residents of Colchester.

The first photo was taken around the mid-1890s, showing the main academy building in the foreground. On the far right side is Day Hall, an Italianate-style building that was completed in 1858 as a church hall for the adjacent First Congregational Church. By this point, the exterior of the academy had seen a few changes from its original appearance, including the door hood above the main entrance and the octagonal cupola atop the building. The photo shows shutters on the windows and a balustrade along the roof, although these may not have been original either; an 1836 engraving of the building does not show either of these features.

This building remained in use by Bacon Academy until 1962, when the school relocated to a new facility. The school subsequently moved again in 1993, to its current site a few miles to the west of here on Norwich Avenue, where Bacon Academy remains the town’s public high school nearly 220 years after it was first established. In the meantime, the old building here on Main Street is still standing, as is the neighboring Day Hall, which was acquired by the school in 1929. The exteriors of both buildings have remained well-preserved over the years, and the only noticeable difference to the academy building in this scene is the lack of shutters or balustrade. Because of its architectural and historic significance, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. In addition, both it and Day Hall are contributing properties in the Colchester Village Historic District, which was added to the National Register in 1994.

Berkshire Cotton Manufacturing Company, Adams, Mass

Workers outside of the Berkshire Cotton Manufacturing Company, facing east on Hoosac Street at the corner of Depot Street in Adams, in August 1911. Image taken by Lewis Wickes Hine, courtesy of the Library of Congress, National Child Labor Committee Collection.

The scene in 2020:

The first photo was taken in August 1911 by prominent photojournalist and social reformer Lewis Wickes Hine. In the early 20th century, Hine traveled across the country on behalf of the National Child Labor Committee, taking thousands of photos that documented and exposed child labor conditions in factories, mines, farms, and other workplaces. He made several trips to New England during this time, including a lengthy visit in the summer and fall of 1911, when he investigated the region’s prosperous textile industry. Among his stops was the town of Adams in the northwestern corner of the state, where the Berkshire Cotton Manufacturing Company had a large factory complex along the Hoosac River. This photo shows the view looking down Hoosac Street toward the river, with Mill No. 1 in the distance on the left and the corner of Mill No. 3 in the foreground on the right side.

The Berkshire Cotton Manufacturing Company was established in 1889 by the prominent Plunkett family. The family patriarch, William B. Plunkett, had owned several local cotton mills in the mid-19th century, and he also served for two years as the state’s lieutenant governor in 1854 and 1855. He died in 1884, and five years later two of his sons, William and Charles Plunkett, organized the Berkshire Cotton Manufacturing Company. They built a new mill, which became Mill No. 1 here on the left side of the scene. The building featured some 35,000 spindles and 700 looms, but the company quickly outgrew this facility. Just two years later, the company began construction of a second mill directly behind this one, which more than doubled the number of spindles and looms.

The second mill was completed in 1892, and it was dedicated in a ceremony that included a speech by William McKinley, who was then serving as governor of Ohio. McKinley was a close friend of the Plunkett family, who supported his platform of high tariffs to protect American manufacturers. He would later return to Adams several times as president, including in 1897, when he spent the night at William Plunkett’s house and then toured the factory buildings the next day. By this point, the facility had been further expanded with the completion of Mill No. 3, which was built in 1896 on the opposite side of Hoosac Street, as shown in the foreground of the first photo. The company would make one more major addition in 1899, with Mill No. 4, located beyond Mill No. 3 on the other side of the railroad tracks. President McKinley was again on hand for this project, and he laid the cornerstone of the building in June 1899.

McKinley was ultimately assassinated in 1901, but he was commemorated here in Adams with a large statue just around the corner from here, at the intersection of Maple and Park Streets. In the meantime, the Berkshire Cotton Manufacturing Company continued to prosper, thanks in large part to the protective tariffs that McKinley had championed as a congressman and as president. By the turn of the 20th century, the company employed over two thousand workers, representing about half of the town’s entire workforce. The October 1908 issue of the trade journal Textile American included an article about the company, which described the facility as “the largest plant manufacturing fine goods at this time.” These fine goods, according to the article, included “carded and combed cotton goods, comprising lawns, organdies, mulls, India linens, etc.”

The first photo was taken only a few years later, and it was one of at least 25 photographs that Hine took during his visit. Most feature interior scenes of the factory, showing teenagers working as spinners and spooler tenders, among other jobs. He identified the ages of most of these workers, who were typically between 14 and 16 years old. This particular photo was one of the few exterior views that he captured, showing a group of workers gathered around the entrance. He does not provide any ages, but most of the employees appear to be adults, with the exception of the child in the center of the scene. Regarding this child, Hine wrote in his caption:

While I was photographing these workers (Berkshire Mills) the watchman dragged out the smallest boy, saying, “Here, photograph ‘Peewee'” Location: Adams, Massachusetts.

“Peewee” appears in one of Hine’s other photos, were he is sitting on the curb outside one of the factory buildings. Neither caption identifies his name or age, which is somewhat unusual for Hine, who typically provided at least one of these pieces of information about his subjects. However, his appearance is characteristic of many of Hines’s subjects, particularly his small size and his lack of shoes. This is further emphasized here in this photo by contrasting the boy with the otherwise well-shod and relatively well-dressed adults who are gathered around him, laughing and smiling.

It is unlikely that any of the workers in the 1911 photo would have realized it, but by this point the textile industry in New England was nearing its peak, and within the next few decades it would face a steep decline. Much of this was brought on by competition from the southern states, in addition to overseas competition that McKinley and his tariffs had sought to stave off. Many textile companies closed in the 1920s, and those that survived were typically hit hard by the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Berkshire Cotton Manufacturing Company lasted longer than most here in New England, and in 1929 it merged with four other textile companies to form the Berkshire Fine Spinning Associates. In consolidating, the company hoped to be in a better position to compete with southern manufacturers, and over the next few decades it continued to acquire other mills. Most significantly, in 1955 it merged with Hathaway Manufacturing Company of New Bedford, forming Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

Despite these many mergers, though, the textile industry in New England was in an irreversible decline. Berkshire Hathaway produced textiles here in Adams for only a few more years, before ultimately closing these mills in 1958, leaving some 1,200 workers unemployed. The company closed many of its other facilities around this time, before ultimately being acquired by a young Warren Buffett in 1965. Under his ownership, the company steadily moved away from textile manufacturing and into the realm of insurance and finance, eventually becoming the modern-day holding company headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska.

In the meantime, the old Berkshire mills here in Adams were sold off to other owners. Mill No. 2 was demolished in the early 1960s to build a supermarket on the lot, and Mill No. 3 was demolished about a decade later. As shown in the present-day scene, the site of this mill is now a surface parking lot. However, Mill No. 1 is still standing today, partially hidden by trees on the left side, as is Mill No. 4, which stands further in the distance in the right-center of the photo. Mill No. 4 is currently vacant, but No. 1 was repurposed as an apartment building in 1987. Despite these many changes, the building’s exterior has remained well-preserved over the years, and in 1982 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Gravesite, Concord, Mass

The Emerson family plot at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, around 1900-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2020:

Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the most important American philosophers of the 19th century. Born in Boston in 1803 to a family of Congregational pastors, he attended Harvard and briefly served as a pastor, but ultimately left the ministry following the death of his first wife Ellen. His beliefs subsequently shifted away from organized religion, and starting in the 1830s he began writing essays and delivering lectures that helped to establish the beliefs of Transcendentalism. Among Emerson’s most famous works were the essays “Nature” (1836) and “Self-Reliance” (1841), in which he outlines core Transcendentalist beliefs such as individualism, nonconformity, and an appreciation of the natural world. Emerson lived in Concord for most of his adult life, and the town became the center of this new philosophy, where he influenced other writers such as Bronson Alcott and Henry David Thoreau.

Transcendentalism coincided with the broader Romantic movement, which placed a greater emphasis on the natural environment than previous Western art movements. Although early 19th century Romanticism is primarily seen in artwork and literature, it also helped to inspire new ways of memorializing the dead here in New England. Prior to this time, most burials occurred in graveyards, which were typically open fields near village centers. In keeping with Puritan beliefs, these graveyards tended to be utilitarian in design, with little thought given to the aesthetics of the landscape. Even headstones were not always used, and the ones that were carved during the 17th and early 18th centuries tended to feature skulls and related imagery, in order to remind visitors of the inevitability of death.

In New England, these trends began to change during the early 19th century, particularly after the establishment of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge and Watertown in 1831. The cemetery was laid out like a park, with attractive landscaping that featured winding paths, hills, ponds, and ornamental trees. This was the start of the rural cemetery movement, which focused on creating a tranquil, peaceful environment that would serve as both a final resting place for the dead and a pleasant park for the living.

By the second half of the 19th century, most cities—and many small towns—in the northeast had their own rural cemeteries, which were often modeled on Mount Auburn. Here in Concord, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery was established in 1855 on Bedford Street, just to the north of the town center. Rather than creating an artificial landscape, the cemetery was designed to incorporate the natural features of the site, including its hilly terrain and native plants and trees.

The design of the cemetery was very much in line with what the Transcendentalists believed about the importance of nature, and Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed this in his dedicatory address for the cemetery on September 29, 1855:

Modern taste has shown that there is no ornament, no architecture alone, so sumptuous as well disposed woods and waters, where art has been employed only to remove superfluities, and bring out the natural advantages. In cultivated grounds one sees the picturesque and opulent effect of the familiar shrubs, barberry, lilac, privet and thorns, when they are disposed in masses, and in large spaces. What work of man will compare with the plantation of a park? It dignifies life. It is a seat for friendship, counsel, taste and religion.

Later in the address, he spoke of nature in relation to the name “Sleepy Hollow,” which predated the cemetery by several decades:

This spot for twenty years has borne the name of Sleepy Hollow. Its seclusion from the village in its immediate neighborhood had made it to all the inhabitants an easy retreat on a Sabbath day, or a summer twilight, and it was inevitably chosen by them when the design of a new cemetery was broached, if it did not suggest the design, as the fit place for their final repose. In all the multitudes of woodlands and hillsides, which within a few years have been laid out with a similar design, I have not known one so fitly named. Sleepy Hollow. In this quiet valley, as in the palm of Nature’s hand, we shall sleep well when we have finished our day.

Finally, near the end of his address he offered a prediction for the future of this cemetery:

But we must look forward also, and make ourselves a thousand years old; and when these acorns, that are falling at our feet, are oaks overshadowing our children in a remote century, this mute green bank will be full of history: the good, the wise and great will have left their names and virtues on the trees; heroes, poets, beauties, sanctities, benefactors, will have made the air timeable and articulate.

More than 165 years have passed since Emerson presented this speech, and we are certainly in “a remote century” by comparison to his time. In many ways, his predictions have held true, and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery certainly has its share of “the good, the wise and great” who are buried here. Appropriately enough, Ralph Waldo Emerson is among them. He died in 1882 at the age of 78, and is buried here on a hill in the back of the cemetery, which is known as Author’s Ridge. This is the final resting place not only for Emerson but also for some of the nation’s greatest writers of the 19th century, including Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau.

Emerson’s gravestone, shown here in the center of these two photos, is a massive uncarved rose quartz stone. This seems only fitting for Emerson who, as he indicated in his dedicatory address, preferred natural beauty over manmade ornamentation. He is buried here alongside his second wife Lidian, who died in 1892. She is buried just to the left of his gravestone, and on his right is their daughter Ellen. She died in 1909, and her gravestone is not here in the first photo, which suggests that the photo was taken before her death, although it is also possible that the gravestone was placed here several years later.

Today, aside from the addition of Ellen’s gravestone and several others, not much has changed here in this scene. Sleepy Hollow Cemetery remains an active cemetery, with much of the same natural beauty that its 19th century founders had envisioned. It is also a popular destination for visitors to Concord, who come here to pay their respects to Emerson and the “heroes, poets, beauties, sanctities, benefactors” and other prominent individuals who are buried here.

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.”