Henry David Thoreau's visits to Boxborough

(Click here for the map.)

There are three documented visits by Henry David Thoreau to Boxborough:

1. Return from Wachusett - 1842

2. Inches Woods visit - November 9, 1860

3. Inches Woods / chestnut visit - November 16, 1860

A map is included which plots the routes of Thoreau's 1860 visits as reconstructed from his journals.

 

1. Return from Wachusett - 1842

The first visit was a "pass through" on July 19 or 20, 1842 on his return from his trip to Mt. Wachusett. As documented in "A Walk to Wachuset" in Thoreau's Excursions one can infer that he returned from spending the night in Still River (Harvard) traveling through Boxborough on the Union Turnpike (Mass. Ave.) on his way back to Concord. This is of interest because he would have passed through the middle of Inches Woods, which he returned to visit in 1860.

 

Inches Woods

Thoreau made two visits to Boxborough and Inches Woods in November 1860. Excerpts from Thoreau’s descriptions of these visits are contained in Boxborough's 1983 Bicentennial Town History. Inches Woods is described as "just the most remarkable and memorable thing in Boxboro." Thoreau in his lengthy journal entries remarked:

"The handsomest thing I saw in Boxboro was this noble stand of oak wood. I doubt if there is a finer one in Massachusetts. Let her keep it a century longer, and men will make pilgrimages to it from all parts of the country..." And further: "Though a great many of those white oaks of the Inches Wood branch quite as low and are as spreading as pasture oaks, yet generally they rise up in stately columns thirty to fifty feet, diminishing very little... When, in the midst of this great oak wood, you look around, you are struck by the great mass of gray-barked wood that fills the air.... consisting of sturdy trees from one to three and even four feet in diameter, whose interlacing branches form a canopy... A peculiarity of this, as compared with much younger woods, is that there is little or no underwood and you walk freely in every direction, though in the midst of a dense wood. You walk, in fact, under the wood.... Seeing this, I can realize how this country appeared when it was discovered. Such were the oak woods which the Indian treaded hereabouts."

 

2. November 9, 1860

From reading his complete journal entries one is able to draw a very accurate map of Thoreau's visits. A copy of this map is attached. Portions of text of his republished journals appear below:

From his entry of November 9, 1860, "We walked mostly across lots... some one and three quarters miles from West Acton, whither we went by train... to a point about a half mile north of the turnpike [Massachusetts Avenue]."..[This route would have taken him across what is now Reed Farm Estates and brought him across Liberty Square Road near the Henderson Inches sawmill site on Guggins Brook, which he may have visited]. Further he would have arrived just north northeast of Blanchard School at the northern end of the drumlin known locally as Hager Hill. It is near the end of Box Mill Road on Town land or in the southern end of the Liberty Hills development off Joseph Rd. From here Thoreau states the woods extended another half mile north, putting it up to or just beyond Depot Road, on the south shoulder of Patch Hill near the Liberty Square Road intersection. Next Thoreau "walked in the midst of the wood... southwesterly by west... about three quarters of a mile, crossing the turnpike [Mass. Ave.] west of the maple swamp..." This course put him on the western edge of the Guggins Brook wetlands, [crossing near the present Highway Barn or Apple Country Market] and ending up on Stow Road near the present location of the Boxborough Marketplace. This plots exactly to Stow Road which was the western boundary of Inches' land holdings! From here Thoreau describes walking "south by east nearly as much more...[three quarters mile]" to a vantage point "from a bare hill". This plots to a point near the summit of Pine Hill above Cedarwood Lane. From storm falls, pines on that portion of Pine Hill are presently approximately 75 years old, making it quite feasible that the hill was bare in Thoreau's time. In addition, this land is part of the old Burroughs Farm, one of the oldest farms in town (site of a colonial tavern) and very likely cleared in Thoreau's time. From this view point, which Thoreau says is "at the south end [of the woods]" he further describes the woods extent: "at least a mile and a half from north to south by a mile to a mile and a quarter possibly from east to west." These dimension correspond nicely with the Burroughs Road to Depot Road and Stow/Middle Road to Liberty Square Road descriptions passed on to us by oral tradition, as well at the bounds of Inches land from the deed maps.

 

3. November 16, 1860

Thoreau returns on November 16, 1860 proceeding "first from Harvard turnpike [Mass. Ave.] at where Guggins Brook leaves it... due north along near the edge of the old wood... to the cross road, a strong mile [to Depot Rd]. He proceeds along Depot Road describing the woods and trees as he proceeds. He ends up eventually walking "across open land to the high hill northeast of Boxboro Center [off Picnic Street]. He finds: "In this neighborhood are many very large chestnuts... "beyond a new house, 13 11/12 feet in circumference..." plus other specimens. "These nine (or thirteen) specimens are evidently the relics of one chestnut wood of which a part remains and makes the northeast part of Inches Woods..." These were remarkable trees which now only remain in Thoreau's writings. Any of these which survived the ax would have fallen to disease earlier in this century.

 

What brought Thoreau to Boxborough in 1860?

Thoreau came to Boxborough doing natural history research, in particular observations on the succession of forests. His efforts have been published as Faith in a Seed by Henry David Thoreau, edited by Bradley P. Dean. Boxborough and Inches Woods are each mentioned in this book. Observations from his 1860 visit surely formed the basis of these references.

On November 10, 1860, Thoreau lamented:

 

"How little there is on an ordinary map! How little, I mean, that concerns the walker and the lover of nature. Between those lines indicating roads is a plain blank space in the form of a square or triangle or polygon or segment of a circle, and there is naught to distinguish this from another area of similar size and form. Yet the one may be covered, in fact, with a primitive oak wood, like that of Boxboro, waving and creaking in the wind, such as may have the reputation of a county, while the other is a stretching plane with scarcely a tree on it. The waving woods, the dells and glades and green banks and smiling fields, the huge boulders, etc., etc., are not on the map, nor to be inferred from the map." It is hoped that the map in this Web site, along with the words written here will help rest Henry's lament.

 

Henderson Inches Millsite

The Henderson Inches sawmill site, on Guggins Brook where it crosses under Liberty Square is marked by a plaque and stone marker. It commemorates the Woods, the millsite and Thoreau's visit to Boxborough.

 

References:

 

Boxborough: Portrait of a Town, by Talmadge, West, Calhoun & DeStefano, published by the Boxborough Bicentennial Commission, 1983.

 

Excursions, by Henry David Thoreau, Vol. 9, pp. 163-186, Thoreau's Works, Concord Public Library, 1884.

 

Thoreau's Journals, pp. 223-249, Houghton-Mifflin, 1906.

 

Faith in a Seed, manuscript by Henry David Thoreau, edited Bradley p. Dean, Shearwater Books, Island Press, 1993.

Submitted by Alan B. Rohwer

Boxborough Historical Society, 1998.

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