Recreation on Concord’s Rivers in the 19th Century
Concord Free Public Library
In his book Concord River, Laurence Eaton Richardson described the period from 1870 to 1900 as the "Golden Age" of Concord's riversâthe heyday of recreation on the Sudbury, Assabet, and Concord. The perception and use of the rivers during this period were very different from that in earlier times.
Concord's rivers were its defining landscape features long before the first English settlers arrived in the 1630s. Musketaquid, Concord's Native American name, signified both the Concord River and the surrounding grassy marshlands through which it flowed. The Native Americans used the rivers for transportation and food. The settlers and their descendants appreciated them for these uses and also for water power for their mills and for the river hay required to feed their cattle.
During the 17th century, Concordians of English ancestry were busy trying to carve a town out of the wilderness. The first settlers stayed close together because there were dangers in the wild, on the outskirts of town. As time passed, the dangers diminished. But nature was still more a force to be subdued than a resource to be enjoyed.
With the town's agricultural way of life well?established, Concord peopleâmost of whom were involved in farming to one extent or anotherâwere firmly tied to the land and to the cycles of the days and the seasons. No doubt farmers' sons fished on the rivers in the summer, and perhaps skated on them in the winter. But their fathers were for the most part occupied with ; working the land and with all the tasks relating to that occupation.
By the late 18th century, however, Concord people were starting to develop a less utilitarian approach to the landscape. Significantly, in 1895, George Bradford Bartlettâwell-known in connection with the Manse boathouseâwrote of the cliffs near Fairhaven Bay on the Sudbury River: "For more than a hundred years these cliffs have been a favorite resort for the nature lover, and the climax of many a Sunday walk or autumnal holiday trip, as no better view can be had of the waving tree-tops and gentle river."
By the mid-19th century, huge economic and social changes were taking place. Those who still farmed adapted themselves to a market economy. Moreover, farming was no longer the universal occupation. More people in Concord, as elsewhere, had some time and money to devote to leisure activities. Tourism developed in this period, and so did serious recreational use of the rivers.
Other, less tangible forces were at work, too. That expression of Romanticism known as New England Transcendentalism influenced the way people approached the natural world, of which the rivers were a part. Nature became man's ally in understanding his own connection with divinity, and experiences in nature became a way of cultivating the higher, more spiritual faculties.
Henry David Thoreau, who enjoyed an intimate relationship with Concord's landscape, provides a good starting point in talking about 19th century recreation on Concord's rivers. Thoreau not only swam, walked, boated, fished, and observed flora and fauna on the rivers, but he wrote about them, too. The title of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, published in 1849, suggests the importance of the rivers to him. .And his journal is full of references to his river excursions.
Thoreau's idealistic approach to the rivers is apparent in many journal entriesâfor example, that for May 1, 1851. Thoreau wrote: "All distant landsâseen from hilltops are veritable picturesâwhich will be found to have no actual existence to him who travels to themâ 'Tis distance lends enchantment to the view.' ... The distant river reach seen in the north from the Lincoln Hill, high in the horizonâlike the ocean stream flowing round Homer's shieldâthe rippling waves reflecting the lightâis unlike the same seen near at hand. Heaven intervenes between me and the object ... It redeems the characters of rivers to see them thusâ They were worthy then of a place on Homer's shieldâ." For Thoreau, the real and ideal converged in the Concord landscape, which for him elevated the human spirit every bit as much as did the mythic landscape of antiquity.
Thoreau was not only a writer, but a land and property surveyor as well, among other things. One of the best?known items in the Concord Free Public Library's collection of his manuscript surveys is his survey of the Concord River. Thoreau marked not only the bends, fords, bridges, sandy and muddy spots, and islands on the river, but also swimming places and his own boat landing on the Sudbury. This survey shows how familiar he was with every inch of the river.
Thoreau and his brother John built their own boat before their famous trip on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers in 1839. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who moved into the Old Manse on July 9, 1842, had Thoreau to dinner on August 31 st, a month and a half later, on the anniversary of the day that Henry and John Thoreau had set out on their river voyage.
In his September 1, 1842 journal entry describing Thoreau's visit the evening before, Hawthorne admired Thoreau's skill in maneuvering his boat. He wrote, "Mr. Thorow managed the boat so perfectly ... that it seemed instinct with his own will, and to require no physical effort to guide it. He said that, when some Indians visited Concord a few years since, he found that he had acquired, without a teacher, their precise method of propelling and steering a canoe. Nevertheless, being in want of money, the poor fellow was desirous of selling the boat, of which he is so fit a pilot, and which was built by his own hands; so I agreed to give him his price (only seven dollars) and accordingly became possessor of the Musketaquid. I wish I could acquire the aquatic skill of its original owner at as reasonable a rate." And so the Musketaquid became Hawthorne's, and was renamed the Pond?Lily, and Hawthorne began his own exploration of the rivers??very different from Thoreau's, but equally sensitive and observant.
The river experiences of Thoreau and Hawthorne were individual rather than communal in nature. But around 1870, activities on Concord's rivers became organized community events. By the 1870s and 1880s, there were many privately owned boats in Concord. George Bradford Bartlett wrote in 1885 that there were seventy boats belonging to families along the two miles of shore between the South Bridge and Flint's Bridge. This level of boat ownership provided the critical mass necessary for elaborate river events.
One favorite summer activity was the "Moonlight Float." People would gather together in their boats at a designated spot, arrange themselves from one bank of the river to the other several rows deep, tie their boats together, and drift downstream, singing all the way. George Bradford Bartlett frequently organized such floats. He also arranged picnics at the various scenic locations along the rivers. The area around the Leaning Hemlocks on the Assabet was a favorite picnic place, as was Martha's Point, near Fairhaven Bay on the Sudbury River, which was named for Bartlett's sister Martha. Egg Rock, at the confluence of the Sudbury and Assabet Rivers, was a preferred spot for summer holiday breakfasts.
No doubt the best known recreational river events in late 19th century Concord were those associated with celebrations of the Fourth of July. Throughout the day, there were swimming meets, tub races, jousting competitions from canoes, picnics, and parties. The crowning event was the Carnival of Boats, which Bartlett described in wonderful detail in his Concord Historic, Literary and Picturesque (an expanded version of his famous guidebook of 1880).
In the 1870s, spectators from all over came to see Concord's Carnival of Boats??as many as 8,000 people by one count. The boats gathered near Egg Rock and proceeded down the Concord River as far as Flint's Bridge. The Red Bridge at Lowell Road and the North Bridge were decorated and lit up. The boats in the procession were decorated with Chinese lanterns and with painted transparencies, and the occupants of some of them were dressed and posed in tableaux. Fireworks were set off at the North Bridge, concluding the day.
Canoe clubs and their boathouses sprang up in this period, as well. These private clubs sponsored their own events and sometimes acted as hosts to some of the many visitors to town who wanted to go out on the rivers.
The Concord Canoe Club was formed in 1887 and maintained a boathouse on the bank of the Sudbury River just below the B. & M. Railroad bridge. The 1892 Concord Directory included a detailed description of this club: "This club was formed to keep control of certain points bordering on the river; to prevent their sale, or use by objectionable people for camps, etc., and thus shut off Concord people from them. The club controls by lease a number of the most charming picnic grounds on the river. Once or twice during the season, on some holiday, the club has an all?day picnic, with canoe and boat races, at Fairhaven Bay."
One of Concord's most photographed boathouses was the Musketaquid Boathouse, which sat on the bank of the Concord River, slightly downstream from the Lowell Road bridge, on the right?hand side when facing in the direction of the North Bridge. This spacious boathouse appears from late 19th century photographs to have been better furnished than most houses are nowadays. Laurence Eaton Richardson wrote in his Concord River that the Musketaquid Boathouse was built in 1888 "for four young men from Boston to spend their week ends and holidays from April to November, and to entertain guests from far and near who came by train, carriage, bicycle or boat. For their comfort they had bed rooms in the village but they got their meals at the boat house or at picnic spots on the river. They entertained their guests on the river, and were as proud of their craft as any yachtsman . ... As these young men grew up and retired from business they continued their summer life on the river." So, while the focus of the Concord Canoe Club was local, the Musketaquid Boathouse was built for use by out?of?towners who entertained out-of-towners, in the days before Concord had a full?scale commercial boathouse. The Musketaquid Boathouse was later owned by Henry Keyes.
The boathouse that you're all naturally most interested in was, of course, George Bradford Bartlett's boathouse behind the Old Manse. Bartlett was at the center of all of this recreational river use in the late 19th century, and for this reason alone, his boathouse would have significance even if it had been located somewhere other than behind the Manse. Let me read what Bartlett himself wrote in his Concord Historic, Literary and Picturesque: "At the next bend is the antique canoe?house owned by Mr. George B. Bartlett, where many guests from many States pause on their voyages, or are ferried across from the Minute Man, to take a hasty cup of coffee before embarking from the little wharf, to explore the rivers in the Squaw Sachem canoe, or the dainty Red Wing, immortalized in song and story by the many artists who have enjoyed lazy hours among its comfortable cushions. Noted people from England and America have left their autographs or photographs on the canoe?house walls, which legend says came from the barn owned by the man at whom the shot was fired which made the bullet?hole which attracts so much notice. The same authority says that the minute?men were posted behind a stone wall. Where could this wall have gone to, if not into the massive foundations of the old canoe?house? As much history rests on a less firm foundation." So Bartlett's boathouse, like the Musketaquid, also served as a center for river tourism long before the South Bridge Boathouse. There is wonderful documentation in the Special Collections of the fact that Bartlett entertained visitors from all over in his boathouse guest log for 1895.
Certainly there were other river boathouses??many of them simply private boathouses in which individuals or families kept their boats??in the last quarter of the 19th century. But these are sufficient to give you some idea of how boating on the rivers was managed at the time.
Although the Concord Canoe Club did its best to prevent out-of-towners from buying up land along the rivers and preventing access to scenic spots, people from closer to Boston couldn't be kept away altogether. Fairhaven Bay was a popular vacation place for certain Watertown families. Some of you may know that Concord historian Ruth Robinson Wheeler, who was born and grew up in Watertown, vacationed with her family at Fairhaven as a girl. Late in life, Mrs. Wheeler lived in the Fairhaven cottage earlier owned by Sam Staples, Thoreau's jailer, who had maintained facilities there for boating and other outdoor activities.
If you're willing to stretch the definition of recreation to include aesthetic appreciation and artistic interpretation, the work of a number of late 19th century artists and photographers constitutes another recreational use of the rivers. Since art expresses and nourishes the human spirit rather than fulfilling a practical need, you can make the case that the creative response to the rivers is recreationalâthat is, it restores both the artist and the viewer?even if the artist sometimes makes money in the process.
The Concord Free Public Library Art Collection includes Concord riverscapes by a number of artists??for example: a small oil painting done by J.H. Greenwood in the mid-1880s, showing Clamshell Hill on the Sudbury River, where Thoreau hunted for Native American artifacts; a watercolor by Concord artist Mary Wheeler titled The Cliffs and Fairhaven Bay, painted in 1896; and the large and handsome oil painting The Hemlocks by Stacy Tolman, commissioned by the Library Trustees in 1896 and currently on loan to the Town House, where it hangs in the Selectmen's Office. Tolman, like Mary Wheeler also a Concord artist, was partial to painting Concord's rivers, and the Library owns several other Tolman riverscapes in addition to The Hemlocks. Moreover, the Special Collections include many pre-1900 river images by photographers Alfred Winslow Hosmer, Alfred Munroe, and Herbert Wendell Gleason, all of whom not only documented but also interpreted the rivers through their medium.
Finally, the interests of late 19th century birders and naturalists also fostered recreational use of the rivers. Ornithologist William Brewster was the best known of these. His use of the rivers was more professional than avocational, but there were other more amateur birders for whom the rivers supported a true hobby. For example, we have in the Special Collections a wonderful set of diary volumes kept by a Concord grocer named Silas Herbert Holden, whose strictly amateur interest in birds took him out onto the rivers.
Today, we still enjoy boating and birdwatching on the rivers, an occasional lunch or dinner cruise, even some fishing, and the rivers still provide painters and photographers with subject matter. But our use of the rivers is not nearly on the same scale as was that of George Bradford Bartlett and his contemporaries. For one thing, the pace of life has changed tremendously since the late 19th century. There aren't many people out there now who could find the time to plan and to enjoy leisurely river picnics and floats on a frequent basis. For another thing, given all the threats to river ecology during the intervening century between Bartlett's time and our own, we are now at least as aware of environmental significance as of recreational potential. A sense of environmental stewardship is built into our modern approach to the rivers. As important as the rivers remain to us today, it's hard not to envy??at least a little bit??the innocence and exuberance of Bartlett and his comrades on the rivers.