Around the time 27-year-old Henry David Thoreau moved to Walden Pond, the Fitchburg Railroad opened on its banks, about a third of a mile from his cabin. Thoreau didn’t appreciate it.
Nor would he have liked the amusement park built across the pond, or the parking lot proposed a century later.
People have long celebrated Walden Pond as a bucolic retreat. However, images over the decades show it hosted plenty of commercial activity along with the solitary philosopher.
Thoreau published Walden, or Life in the Woods, on Aug. 9, 1854, seven years after he left his one-room cabin on land owned by his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson. His sister Sophia illustrated the original title page. Though the book cemented Thoreau’s literary reputation, it didn’t sell too well: only 2,000 copies over five years.
It has since become one of the most celebrated works of literature in America, a philosophical treatise on the virtues of living simply amid nature. ‘
“The book risks being as revered and unread as the Bible,” John Updike once said.
Thoreau explained in the book why he decided to spend two years, two months and two days in a cabin in the woods. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” he wrote. “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”
Walden lies at the edge of Concord, Mass., where Thoreau lived most of his life. He didn’t earn much from his books, and helped support himself working for his family’s pencil business. He also earned money from surveying, which he taught himself. Thoreau created the first accurate survey of Walden Pond, ‘before the ice broke up, early in ’46, with compass and chain and sounding line.’
What people now call Thoreau’s Cove is marked ‘D’ in the map above and his cabin site is marked ‘House.’
The Fitchburg Railroad opened to Fitchburg in March 1845. In Walden, Thoreau wrote:
We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them.
Thoreau was a bit of a crank, and probably never visited the amusement park built on the other side of the pond after he left.
I had this advantage, at least, in my mode of life, over those who were obliged to look abroad for amusement, to society and the theatre, that my life itself was become my amusement and never ceased to be novel.
The park burned down in 1902 and was never rebuilt.
Frederic Tudor, Boston’s ‘Ice King,’ harvested ice on Walden Pond for export to Europe, India and the Caribbean. Thoreau used to watch the ice-cutters, describing a hundred Irishmen with Yankee overseers arriving from Cambridge, Mass.
Occasionally the ice-cutters fell into the pond. Thoreau would then let them warm up by his stove.
“The sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well … The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges,” he wrote.
Walden was a popular bathing spot, even in Thoreau’s day. This photo of a bathhouse at the pond was taken by Edwin Locke for the Farm Security Administration in September 1937. “At Walden Pond, haunt of Thoreau, Concord, Massachusetts,” reads the caption.
There was also a trailer park in 1937.
In 1945, archaeologist Roland Wells Robbins found the remains of Thoreau’s cabin. He then excavated it and then wrote a book about the experience.
In 1961, the Middlesex County Commissioners proposed leveling some of the woodland around the pond for a parking lot. They were sued. Massachusetts Superior Court Judge David Rose ruled the deed donating the land to the commonwealth required the preservation of the environment. He then barred any further development.
A replica of Thoreau’s cabin, along with a statue of him, now belongs to Walden Pond State Reservation, where people can swim, hike and boat. The pond belongs to the National Register of Historic Places as well as the list of National Historic Landmarks.
If you enjoyed this story, you may also want to read about the probable discovery of the Wheeler-Thoreau shanty, a predecessor to Thoreau’s famous cabin, here.
‘Site of Thoreau’s hut, Lake Walden’ by Detroit Publishing Co. Image available from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division; ‘Walden pond—A reduced plan, 1846,’ Image available Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division; ‘Fitchburg Railroad Tracks’ by D.W. Butterfield, photographer, for Fitchburg Railroad. Pic-Nic Grounds at Walden Pond, Concord, Mass., card stereograph showing railroad tracks (looking west), amusement park buildings at right, [late 1860s]. Photo courtesy Concord Public Library; ‘Entrance gate to Walden amusement park.’ Photo courtesy Concord Public Library. ‘Walden Breezes’ by Edwin Locke. Courtesy Library of Congress. Walden today By RhythmicQuietude at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16428603. This story was updated in 2023.