Thoreau’s Vacation

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EARLY IN THE afternoon of the last day of August 1839, Henry David Thoreau and his brother John put a homemade dory in the Concord River, not far above the bridge where the Minutemen had fired on British troops sixty-four years before. They traveled light. For food they took melons and potatoes grown in their own garden and a few other provisions. For shelter they had a tent, also made at home, and for warmth a pair of buffalo skins. They had a few tools, some pots and pans, two pairs of oars, a sail, and a set of wheels to portage their boat.

The brothers planned to follow the Concord to its junction with the Merrimack, then row up that river as far as they could. For Henry, who was twenty-two and not long out of Harvard, and John, who was twenty-four and teaching school, this was a vacation. But Henry, as always, kept a journal, recording his minute observations of nature, along with reflections on history, philosophy, and the universe. Ten years later the story of this trip would be published as his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers .

The Concord in August was then, as it is today, about as placid and sluggish as a river can be. In ten miles it falls ten inches. When Nathaniel Hawthorne lived in Concord, he was always complaining about the current: “One dip into the salt sea would be worth more than a whole week’s soaking in such a lifeless tide.” To the Indians the Concord had been the Musketaquid, or Grass-ground River, because of the wide meadows through which it flowed. The brothers glided down the gentle stream, past borders of willows and floats of water lilies, sometimes starting a least bittern from the bank or a pickerel from its shady pool. Tortoises jumped from fallen limbs, as they do today, when the oars came near.

But this primeval idyll was already flawed. Thoreau had heard tales of an earlier time when the Concord was filled so thick with shad and salmon and alewives during the spring run that a man could scoop them up with a bushel basket. Now the immemorial migrations of these river-spawning fish had been blocked by a dam at Billerica. “I for one am with thee,” Thoreau assured the shad. “Who knows what may avail a crow-bar against the Billerica dam?”

Some three miles above the dam the brothers camped on a high bank, where they picked huckleberries to have with their bread and cocoa. After dark they listened to foxes trotting over the dead leaves and then caught the sound of a muskrat nosing about the potatoes and melons in their boat. Thoreau, no man to deny a fellow creature a share of his food supply (“His presumption kindles in me a brotherly feeling”), started down to make friends. But the muskrat, not knowing that it was dealing with Henry David Thoreau, swam off.

 

The dam at Billerica supplied power for a small woolen mill, while its millpond provided water for the Middlesex Canal, one of America’s first large-scale engineering projects. Built in the first decade of the nineteenth century, the canal connected the Merrimack River with Boston Harbor, giving barge traffic from up-country a fast, efficient route to the sea. From the dam at Billerica, which stood at the high point on the canal route, Concord River water flowed in both directions, north to the Merrimack and south to Boston.

The Thoreaus might have portaged around the dam and continued on down the Concord to the Merrimack. But the lower Concord is full of rocks and rapids, and with some of its water diverted to fill the canal, there was hardly enough left in August to float a dory. For all his devotion to wilderness, Thoreau was not one to refuse the works of man when they gave convenience. After breaking camp on Sunday and rowing through the millpond, the brothers were glad to put the dory in the canal.

THE MIDDLESEX CANAL , though barely four decades old when the Thoreaus passed through it, was already obsolescent. The engine of its doom was the locomotive that ran along the same route on the tracks of the Boston and Lowell Railroad. In a kind of industrial suicide, canalboats had carried the rails and ties to build the railroad. Many of the railroad entrepreneurs had also backed the canal. Pioneers of corporate finance, they did not hesitate to pull the plug on the canal, as they would later shut down the Merrimack textile mills, when they found better uses for their money.

The Thoreaus’ passage through the six miles of canal was quickly made, with one brother running ahead to pull the boat by a towline, while the other used a pole to fend it off the banks. Today the canal has all but disappeared. A few stretches may still be seen, stranded by roads and buildings. Near its Merrimack end it runs between fairways of the Mt. Pleasant Golf Club, where it has been preserved as a water hazard. But then its course plunges into an urban-fringe wasteland of garbage dumps, glass-strewn parking lots, filling stations, fast-food restaurants, and an automobile graveyard. The very mouth has been sealed beneath the tracks of the Boston & Maine Railroad.