It never hurts to know a little more history. By visiting the Cambridge Historical Commission, and getting all sorts of help, beyond the call of duty, from Kit Rawlings, I learned that what I’ve been calling the Little River is in fact the new channel of the Little River. This channel was dug in 1909-1910. Interestingly, it runs right through what had been a planned subdivision in 1903, which never was built. Developers are still proposing projects in that area today; many have been planned, not so many built. Often they have stirred up a great deal of local controversy, which is true today of the so-called “silver maple forest” parcel in Belmont, where developers hope to build a 299-unit housing complex. If I read the old maps right, this parcel includes the original channel of the Little River, so it may partially owe its current status as a potential building site to the new channel, which drains the area by a different route. It still borders a wetland, however, and this is one of the strongest arguments against developing it.
[Click here to view an 1890 Geological Survey map of Boston and environs. When the site comes up, click on the map to open a larger, zoomable image. Fresh Pond lies between the words “Belmont” and “Watertown.” If you zoom in on it, you’ll see Spy Pond to the north of Fresh Pond, with Little Pond (unlabeled) just south of Spy Pond. The Little River flows southeastward out of Little Pond. Wellington Brook crosses the Fitchburg Railroad tracks at Hill’s Crossing and flows northeast into the Little River. The small pond just south of the tracks is approximately where Blair Pond is today.]
What were once called the “Fresh Pond Marshes” — the name encompasses a large area west of Fresh Pond, now mostly built up — have been significant to the town of Cambridge since its founding in 1630. The amount of actual marsh, or bog, has varied greatly. At times, plentiful marsh grass was cut and hauled off in hay wagons. This watershed provided Cambridge’s water supply for many years, and has been engineered over and over, by digging drainage ditches, damming Alewife Brook, etc., for different reasons at different times. In the 19th century the marshes, and ultimately Cambridge’s water supply, were subject to multiple types of pollution from sources like slaughterhouses, glue factories, tanneries, and brick kilns — not to mention plain human sewage. By 1900 conditions in the area that I’ve photographed a lot had become a recognized crisis. The Cambridge Chronicle of August 4, 1900, ran an article headlined “Wellington Brook Must Be Purified,” sub-headed “Petitioners Declare That Its Condition Is Offensive and a Menace to Public Health — Thursday’s Hearing at City Hall.”
Unexpected discovery: a map titled “Plan Showing Distribution of Malaria in the Neighborhood of Fresh Pond Marshes,” dated July 1904. On it are marked the specific houses where people lived who had contracted malaria. Two were within a block of where I live today. I had no idea malaria was ever a problem in Cambridge, and I find it fascinating that a hundred years later, we think of wetlands as a natural resource we need to preserve, an ecosystem that purifies water, rather than a public menace.
The new channel of the Little River was dug in response to the public health crisis and the need to drain the marshes better. It appears, from comparing old maps, that the western part of the new channel was the existing Wellington Brook, which then turned north and flowed into the Little River, but now does not. This makes sense on the ground today. Wellington Brook flows into Perch Pond (really just a wide place in the stream) and then out, a short distance away, as the Little River. The continuity is evident, regardless of what we name it.
On March 23, I went out to see what I could find of the original Little River, which is shown on at least one map that seems to date from the 1970’s, even though by then the new channel had existed for a good 60 years. Behind a motel by the side of Route 2, formerly the Susse Chalet, I saw this through the back fence:
To the left is a newly built office building called Discovery Park, and its parking lot.
This looked more than promising. Next to the motel is the ruin of a nightclub, once known as Faces (its decrepit sign is still there), deserted for years now. Nature is visibly reclaiming its parking lot; moss is growing on it, and grass is coming up through big cracks in the asphalt. It won’t be too long before this space is overgrown. The building is a wreck, and behind it is a wetland
where it should be, because this may well be where the Little River used to flow. It’s hard to be certain for a number of reasons. Mapmakers are not always most concerned with the exact location of a stream, and it’s difficult to match the present-day landmarks with a precise spot on an old map. People have always been modifying this area for human reasons, and in any case, a stream flowing through a marshy wetland would naturally have a poorly defined channel, or perhaps several channels of shifting configuration.
On the way back, there is a picturesque view of the ruins from what may once have been the riverside.
While working my way through the undergrowth, I picked up an old rectangular brown bottle with letters molded into it: Father John’s Medicine Lowell, Mass. Made in U.S.A.
Along Acorn Park Drive, there’s more left of the Fresh Pond Marshes than one might imagine while whizzing by in a car on Route 2.
This is across the road from the tract now known, by those who oppose its development, as the “silver maple forest.”
I returned to the ultra-manicured bit of stream beside Discovery Park, which is at the spot where, on one map, the original Little River flowed under the road. In a sense, it still does. There is a definite current of water leaving the roadside landscaping on one side
and emerging on the other.
This is just one more episode in the long chronicle of what has become of the area’s waterways since white people arrived in the 17th century. (I later found out where this particular flow goes next, which is described in this post.)
According to a map of Fresh Pond and its surroundings, circa 1866 — drawn in 1906 by Charles D. Elliot — the present-day Alewife T stop is in a spot that, in 1866, had marsh on 3 sides, with two clay pits to the southeast (the local brick industry was in full swing) and beyond them a “Wooded Island” (about where Danehy Park is today). To the south of the T stop is a “Maple Swamp” (currently Fresh Pond shopping center), to the southwest and west “Glacialis or artificial ice pond” and “Pine Swamp” (mostly offices, warehouses, stores, light manufacturing). To the northwest, all marsh, with the Little River running through it. Today it is office parks, industrial and high-tech firms, and the Alewife Reservation, which is where I keep photographing. Route 2 crosses “Cart path shaded by willows” and “Site of former Heronry of Night Herons, also of Robin Roost.” (I saw some remarkably fat robins, in fact, on this particular trip.)
There have been losses and gains. The losses are obvious; the fact that slaughterhouses no longer dump their waste products into the local water supply is not. The proposed subdivision that was on the 1903 map next to Perch Pond (street names and all), but never built, is not obvious. The fact that malaria was a threat here, but has ceased to be, is not obvious either.
A map from the Middlesex Registry of Deeds, dated October 7, 1908, shows the lands taken from private owners by the Metropolitan Park Commission to create “Alewife Brook Parkway,” which was not the major street we now know by that name, but rather what we call the Alewife Reservation. My wanderings in this area tell me that today it is mostly ignored. Some homeless people live in it, some people who have places to live go there to enjoy it, most people rush by. But it’s there, and though it’s certainly not nature primeval, it is nature. Its history says that it is both open to being shaped by human interventions, and persistently itself. The original channel of the Little River is still a wetland for a reason. We can go on altering the area’s geography but we can’t change the fact that water goes where it needs to go — or the fact that we need it. We’re steadily moving away from the worst excesses of 19th-century industry, and simultaneously creating excesses of our own, like our dependence on cars and our level of consumption. Our standards of public health are infinitely superior to those of a century ago, and still evolving. It is possible that our notion of public health, our notion of our own self-interest, may come to include the health of the Little River and the local marshes, Wellington Brook, Blair Pond, Perch Pond and all the rest of the ponds and waterways named and unnamed. I don’t think this is a sentimental notion. It certainly was not in 1900, when the public demanded action before the Board of Health.
People get used to everything, and the human time horizon is very close in. We tend to think that the way things are today “just is.” But the way things are today is a history of decisions, some good and some rotten, the outcome of a chronicle of consequences intended and unintended. There’s no way we’re going to “just leave nature alone” around here; it’s centuries too late for that. I’d like to be able to bike over to a maple swamp, a pine swamp, or a cart path shaded by willows, but I can’t; so be it. The arrow of time only points one way, and we have one choice: let go of the past. But don’t forget it.
We’re going to be someone else’s past pretty soon. Let’s not screw up.