Saturday, January 22, 2011

Our Relationship with Mother Nature

A photo of the storm of 1898 taken near
Washington and Pond Streets by
George Burt (courtesy of the
Canton Historical Society.)

If you live in New England and you do not love the snow, at the very least you have to appreciate the amazing forces of nature that converge upon us and present themselves in the form of a Nor’easter. The recent storm that dumped 18.2 inches of snow as recorded at the Blue Hill Observatory ties for the third largest amount of snow in January ever measured at this renowned meteorological station.

This was an intense snowstorm and it is amazing how quickly we recover from such a storm. Snowplows begin work early on, and our intrepid DPW crews work day and night to ensure that we are hardly interrupted by Mother Nature’s fury. Criticism over snow removal today is echoed in a Canton newspaper commentary of 1898: “If the critics had the handling of the job probably they would be criticized just as harshly.” So while we may complain about the weather, there is little we can do about it. There are, however, several notable snowstorms to look back upon that provide a historical glimpse of the relationship between man and nature.

Most significantly is the Great Snow of 1717. The storm began on February 27 and lasted until March 9. What was thought of as one long storm was actually four storm systems back to back that crippled Boston and our town of what was then Dorchester. Just seven days prior, a storm had already dropped a significant amount of snow, so when the Great Snow bore down, the cart paths and roads were already hampered. The severity of this storm is hard to fathom today. Colonists had little warning, and in their memory there was never an event like this one. The natives who lived alongside the early colonists shared that there had been no snow in over 200 years that equaled this storm.

A woodcut depicting the storm of 1717
The damage was severe and brought incredible hardship as a result. Vast numbers of cattle were lost — buried where they stood they died in place. Nearer to the ocean, the wind brought driving rain, snow and sleet, and when combined with the wind-chill actually formed rime over the animals’ eyes such that they wandered blindly into the sea and drowned. Cotton Mather, the politically influential Puritan minister, wrote of the devastation: “One gentleman, on whose farms were now lost above 1100 sheep, which with other cattel, were interred (shall I say) or innived, in the snow, writes me word that there were two sheep very singularly circumstanced. For no less than eight and twenty days after the storm, the people pulling out the ruins of above 100 sheep out of a snow bank, which lay 16 foot high, drifted over them, there was two found alive, which had been there all this time, and kept themselves alive by eating the wool of their dead companions.”

By many accounts the storm wiped out 95 percent of the deer population. Many houses, smaller then for sure, were covered completely over and not even the chimney showed over the drifts more than 25 feet deep. It would take months to recover from this storm. Orchards were destroyed, bird populations were disrupted, and transportation was all but limited to walking.

It would be the advent of modern science that brought a keener study of storms and their affects. The Blue Hill Observatory figures prominently in the annals of atmospheric science. Founded in 1885, it would be the perfect place to record storms as they rolled through the Neponset Valley. The year 1898 was a particularly bad season for winter storms, including two major storms that brought death and destruction to our area.

The first “great storm” recorded at the observatory came in late January 1898 and was classified as a blizzard. This storm caused $82 million in damage. Ships were driven ashore, and in Boston alone more than 200 horses were killed. In Canton, thermometers dropped to 15 degrees below zero on February 4. At the height of the storm, two trains collided head-on at Canton Junction at the terminus of the Stoughton Branch. Several passengers were injured and the cowcatchers in front of the engines were destroyed.
The local paper wrote about the effects of the storm: “Wires succumbed everywhere. The telephone operator sat before a silent switchboard. In the depots the telegraph instruments were mute. Electric light wires gave way and on Sherman Street several poles were down. All over town trees were broken down and windmills suffered severely. The snow clung to the sides of buildings in heavy sheets and made many beautiful pictures and the oldest inhabitant has been busy with reminiscences all week to match this storm with ‘those when we were boys.’” The damage was considerable and the town spent more than $1,000 cleaning up the mess.

That same year, in November, what would become known as the Portland Gale produced a storm surge of about ten feet in Cohasset harbor and hurricane-force winds in Nantucket. The storm killed more than 400 people and sank more than 150 boats and ships. The storm dumped 15 inches of snow, and it took two dozen men 48 hours to dig out Randolph Street by hand. Most notably, this storm destroyed the S.S. Portland, which wrecked off of Stellwagen Bank with 192 passengers on board. Fortunately, no Canton residents were on board, but many locals reported that they “felt a sad familiarity with the scenes that must have occurred” that fateful evening. In a small leather diary, Frederick Endicott takes note of “a snow storm with very high winds.” Continuing on, he writes of “immense drifts,” adding that it “took nearly the whole morning to get shoveled out.” And the final entry that week mentions the “great loss of life at sea in Sunday’s storm. Steamer Portland wrecked off Cape Cod.”

February 1899 on Chapman Street.
Photography by I.C. Horton
(Courtesy of the Canton Historical Society)
Canton has always “weathered” the various storms much like surrounding towns. The photographs taken by local shutterbugs show classic street scenes with houses covered in snow up to the first floor windows. The views looking down the “Turnpike,” now Route 138 in Ponkapoag, are idyllic scenes of winter. The images of the blanketing of fields across the meadows looking toward Blue Hill are among the most splendid views in the collection of the Canton Historical Society.

The view across meadows towards the Blue Hill.
Photo taken in 1898.
(courtesy of the Canton Historical Society)
An observer of 1898 wrote: “Standing at the turn of the road just beyond the old Fenno house a wide stretch of country is spread out at one’s feet and the effect is the more striking from the steepness of the slopes. The ice covered surface of Ponkapoag Pond and the frowning projections from Blue Hill make this gorge seem far deeper and more picturesque than can be expressed in measurements in feet and inches, while to the west the eye may range for miles without meeting a barrier in the way of overtopping heights. On a clear day the view rivals many famed mountain scenes and the beholder never wonders that here men grow old contentedly and maintain their health and strength and good nature through a green old age.” 

And that is why we live in Canton.

This story ran in the Canton Citizen on January 20, 2011.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Trespassing: A Bridge to the Past

Stone Bridge over Ponkapoag Brook
 (photo by George T. Comeau)

You really should not trespass. And yet, while it is indeed risky to admit to this fact, sometimes the prize is worth the risk. Let me place by way of disclaimer the fact that you should in no way follow in my footsteps; let this be fair warning. You should leave the trespassing to well qualified Canton historians who are happy to tramp through backyards, fields and swamps in search of historic sites and long lost cellar holes. In fact, that is what we will do this week. Let’s take a virtual tramp through Canton and discover a hidden artifact that is still intact and pretty much inaccessible to all but the trespasser.

There are some wonderfully hidden sites in Canton that have been lost to both time and memories. I have always been fascinated with the old stonewalls that crisscross throughout the town. Many of these walls served as both boundary lines and pens for livestock. As you ride the train to Boston from Canton Junction you will see plenty of old stonewalls in the swamps heading toward the Fowl Meadows. As you drive down York Street or meander down Chapman Street, look between the old house lots and see the ancient walls that are reminders of an agricultural Canton when the stonewall was a staple of a small farm and garden.

Take Elm Street for instance — a perfect example of one of our most beautiful streets in Canton. Go slow, not only for the curves, but to take in the splendor of this colonial roadway. As for trespassing, that is just what I did recently when I parked my truck along the intersection of Greenlodge and Elm and took off on foot after the recent snowstorm. I was looking for a very old bridge that crosses Ponkapoag Brook on what was originally Back Street — the “back” road to Dedham Street.

 On my right, climbing a gentle hill, were the remnants of the old country road disappearing even deeper into private property. This road dates to 1738 and follows the layout of an earlier road called the Packeen Path. If you bought your Christmas tree at the Pakeen Farm on Elm Street, this is the same property that was part of the original 12 Divisions shown on the 1696 map of what would become Stoughton and Canton.

Situated well above the marshes of the Fowl Meadow, this path was used extensively as a native trail and later became a colonial cart path. By 1798, the old road was discontinued and in the process created a time capsule of sorts as it has been largely untouched for over 200 years. The pathway is bordered by stonewalls that measure one rod wide (16 ½ feet) and a deep upland of white pine. I decided it would not be proper to travel further than necessary onto private property and instead sought after the stone bridge spanning the Ponkapoag Brook.

I had been to this bridge a few times before, but only in the summer when it was hardly possible to see the structure due to the overgrowth. As I tramped further and the snow got a bit deeper, and the afternoon light got dimmer, I was almost forced to give up for the day. The fresh snow was only marked by the occasional rabbit track and now my footfalls. The only sound was the running of the stream — pure, clean and cold — a layer of ice running up the side of the banks. This trespass was made easier by the fact that the path I was on was the new interceptor project for the Greenlodge Street sewer project.

Ancient Stoughton Record of 1744 in the collection of
the Canton Historical Society (photo by George T. Comeau)
About half a mile up on the left was the old stone bridge — hidden in the woods in an improbable place, since any use for this structure ended in 1798 when the old Country Road was abandoned. The bridge was as wonderful as I recalled. Dating to between 1738 and 1744, this is a quintessential cart bridge over a babbling brook. It is hard to imagine, but this bridge was the highway between the iron forge, built in 1717 on Walpole Street, and the Blue Hills. There is a series of huge volumes of Ancient Stoughton Records in the Canton Historical Society and within a dusty tome is an obscure reference to the bridge in 1744. The brittle paper details the laying out of the road by the selectmen of Stoughton and has a single line that reads in part “from thence to Puncapogg Brook where ye Bridge now is & over ye Brook Marked a large Maple tree by ye Brook.” Our bridge is more than 266 years old and may in fact be approaching 275 years old.

Dropping down the icy bank of “ye Brook” to take a photo for our non-trespassing readers, it was a joy to see this relic in such wonderful condition. The deck is a series of four stone slabs of Dedham granite, each measuring three feet in width and eight feet in length. Although covered in snow, I recall that there are no quarrying marks and they are likely natural in form. The abutments built on the north and south banks of the brook are dry fieldstone. This is a superbly crafted bridge and would have had to support the weight of animals and carts loaded with iron destined for Boston. The abutments are built up of five courses of rough stone and were likely completed by skilled masons in the “traditional English form.”

In 1875, the Canton Historical Society organized its annual Fast Day Walk (Patriots Day) and described their “trespass” to this site thus: “turned abruptly down a neglected lane, along the line that once divided Lot No. 5 of the Twelve Divisions from the Indian land. We examined with care an old stone bridge, which has stood, where it now stands, long anterior to the memory of those now living. It is remarkable for the size of the top stones, the largest measuring eight feet by seven and nine inches. These stones were selected in the adjoining fields and have never been touched by chisel, wedge or hammer.”

So little is written about this bridge that it is hard to even know if there was an earlier bridge at this spot. What we do know is that this is one of the few remaining examples of a mid-18th century slab stone Colonial period bridge in eastern Massachusetts. Dr. Arthur Krim, who has researched Canton for the Historical Commission, believes that this bridge is worthy of inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places; it is just that important.

This story ran in the Canton Citizen on January 6, 2011.