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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

January 6, 2015: Waltham Histories: The Waverly Trail

[Two years ago this week, I moved to my new home in Waltham, Massachusetts. Since then I’ve learned a lot more about the histories and stories of this great town, and wanted to share a few of them this week, leading up to a Guest Post from one of my favorite Walthamites!]
On three profoundly American moments found along a scenic path.
The Waverly Trail, a beautiful and historic bit of forest and path that connects Waltham to neighboring Belmont, passes through the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR)’s Beaver Brook Reservation. As one of the markers along the trail narrates, Beaver Brook was named by none other than John Winthrop, leader and first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Company and coiner of the phrase “city on a hill” to describe the Puritan project in New England. Winthrop tends to be remembered in our anthologies and narratives for his sermons and philosophies, but like his Plimoth Plantation counterpart William Bradford he was also part of the first English explorations of the region, and helped define what the area would be and mean for this new community. And like his naming of a small river for the many beavers he and his expedition saw there, many of those initial definitions have endured into our current moment and world.
Two hundred years later, two of the 19th century’s most influential American authors (in their very different respective genres) engaged with and wrote about the trail’s natural wonders. Poet and editor James Russell Lowell waxed lyrically about the area in “Beaver Brook,” a poem that acknowledges the necessary but limiting presence of mills along the water but concludes with a hope that “Surely the wiser time shall come/When this fine overplus of might/No longer sullen, slow, and dumb/Shall leap to music and to light.” And in an 1864 article in Lowell’s Atlantic Monthly, pioneering natural historian and Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz delineated the area’s deeper history, noting that “the Waverly Oaks, so well known to lovers of fine trees in our community, stand on an ancient moraine” (a rock formation left behind by receding glaciers). Taken together, these two texts and voices reflect the century’s enduring American fascinations with but evolving perspectives on nature, from a Romantic idealization of its beauties to a scientific study of its realities.
Both of those perspectives came together a few decades later, when the desire to preserve the beautiful and significant Waverly Oaks led to the 1891 creation of both the world’s first land trust (known today as the Trustees of Reservations) and the first public park authority (the Metropolitan Park Commission, which evolved into today’s DCR). The plan was first proposed by prominent local landscape architect Charles Eliot, in his 1890 letter “The Waverly Oaks: A Plan for their Preservation for the People”; it received significant support from the Appalachian Mountain Club, a recently organized outdoors and conservation group; and it gained the vital imprimatur of none other than Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the nation’s and world’s foremost advocates for public parks and natural preservation. Like Olmsted’s City Beautiful movement and the era’s creation of the National Park System, this moment and plan were complex and informed by numerous factors and disciplines—but at their core, they all were designed to preserve and maintain the kinds of beauty, science, and history that can still be found along the Waverly Trail.
Next history tomorrow,

PS. What do you think? Any histories and stories from your hometowns you’d share?


  1. Great piece, Ben! Wondering if we might chat? I'm starting a podcast very soon and you'd be a terrific person to explain this history. Shoot me an email if you get a moment -

  2. I especially love that the Waverley Trail includes Lowell and Agassiz in their wayside interpretation signage, too!

  3. Absolutely, Rob--those signs are what got me started on this post!