Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Fowl Meadows: For Peat's Sake

The Fowl Meadows at the Neponset River circa 1890.
(photo by L.C. Horton, courtesy of the Canton Historical Society)

There is an ancient map from 1794 inscribed with the names of the selectmen of Stoughton — Elijah Crane, Jabez Talbot and Nathan Crane — and on this map there are more than six bridges that cross the Neponset River in what is now Canton. Today, we mostly cross the Neponset River along Neponset Street, yet this road is among the newer roads, historically speaking. When we drive past the old Canton Airport, we see wetland and what we now consider “open space.” To the early settlers, this land was well supplied for access to food and valuable pastures.
The early bridges were used to access land in the Fowl Meadows, our western boundary. The first mention of this land dates to 1646, and much of this area was granted to Dedham in grants of 1653. As the train to Boston runs through these meadows, you can see luxurious grasses, and in late fall the meadows turn almost reddish in color. The grass here is actually called “fowl meadow” and is also known as “false redtop” (Poa serotina). This grass is typical of New England and “makes a soft and pliable hay, of excellent quality.” It could be mowed late in the season and made nutritious hay that was used as winter fodder.
The bridges that were used to access these meadows for grazing were named for the men who built them and owned grants to the meadows. Holmses Bridge, Thorp’s Bridge, Woodards Bridge, Fishers Bridge, and Majors Bridge — all ancient owners of meadows across the Neponset River. Vestiges of these structures are long lost. I know of a small arched double row of stones that is almost hidden by time and quite near the railroad tracks off University Avenue that I believe once played a part in the loading of carts filled with hay, but for the most part these crossings have been long lost.
What lies below the soft fields of grass is a thick, rich soil abundant with nutrients enriched by the river and thick with peat. After the retreat of the last ice age, the peat formed as the grasses decayed and were compressed by time. The peat is quite thick and Daniel Huntoon (History of Canton) observed, “Should our supply of coal ever become exhausted, fuel can here be obtained in an unlimited abundance.”
The peat is dense, and because of a lack of oxygen it inhibits the decay of archeological artifacts. In fact, some of the oldest artifacts in New England have been discovered along the Neponset River. Spots along the Fowl Meadows have served professional and amateur archeologists with a view that spans almost 18,000 years of human occupation. Amazing stories tied to the worksites, campsites, and migration of humans through this land will be shared in future articles.
The peat bogs gave rise to a little known and hardly mentioned industry in Canton. In 1908, J. Harry Hartley purchased 100 acres of land in Canton and Norwood. Hartley was the military editor of the Boston Globe and an esteemed member of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts. This “newspaper man” had a vision that peat would become a new “cheap and inexhaustible fuel” for Boston.
Various attempts at harvesting peat had already been tried in New England. Peat, known as “bog fuel,” is the earliest stage of the creation of coal. The Boston and Maine Railroad tested this fuel in 1904. A large supply of peat was harvested in Lexington, and the railroad experimented over the winter of 1905 and found the fuel burned exceptionally well, but faster than coal. Also, in 1907, Mathew C. Sharpneck of Boston patented a new machine and assigned his patent to the American Peat Machinery Company of Portland, Maine. The machine used a series of blades to chop the peat and mix it such that it forms “ribbons of dark mud” that would be dried on a rack and cured with a current of air.
Hartley, the newspaper man, was well aware of the use of peat fuel in Europe and purchased one of Mr. Sharpneck’s machines. A plan was conceived along with Hartley’s son, Charles H. Hartley. Together these two men began the process of harvesting peat in the Fowl Meadows. In June 1908, all preparations were placed into operation. A small railroad track was laid deep into the Fowl Meadows and carts were connected via a steel cable to a series of sheds at the edge of the bog. A 100-foot-long building contained an engine house and the peat machine. Workers shoveled the heavy, wet peat into the hopper cars, and a winch pulled the cars along the rail to the main factory building. The contents were dumped onto a conveyor belt and processed through the peat machine. Drying sheds were also built on the property and the finished product was bagged for sale. This pioneering operation left little record. We would imagine that it soon thereafter failed, for no records exist that show otherwise.
The other reminder of the peat in the Fowl Meadows is the enormous fires that have historically consumed this land. Many times summer lightning storms would strike the ground, and the ensuing blaze would be all consuming. In 1923, a stubborn bog fire burned for several months. Norwood became “Smokytown” as the subterranean inferno blazed through the fall. This had been a year in which drought conditions had raised the alert to fire marshals throughout the commonwealth. More than 2,344 fires burned over 46,646 acres of fields and woodland, causing extensive damage.
In Canton, the summer of 1923 was particularly bad, and by all accounts the worst that had been seen in more than 40 years. Several tons of hay owned by Elijah White was destroyed in mid October by a fire that was set by two boys. That same day three tons of hay was burnt at William Murphy’s house on Bailey Street. In one day alone, fires were reported on Everett, Turnpike, Pecunit and Walpole streets, as well as Spring Lane and six other locations. In all, more than 13 fires burned on Friday, October 12, 1923. This set a record for the most working fires in one day in the Canton Fire Department’s history.
The bog fires burned for nine weeks. The smoke was excessive and more than 1,700 acres were ablaze through 1923. Hiking deep into the underbrush, firemen cut a four-mile-long ditch through the meadows and kept water pumping through the cut to create a fire line. The fire burned five to six feet underground, fueled by the never-ending supply of peat. Firemen on horseback worked their way into the deepest reaches of the meadows to access the edges of the fire and reported hellish scenes where the fire undercut root systems such that trees would collapse. “Through the smoke wreaths the bare branches of the trees showed gaunt and spectral … tongues of yellow flames were burning briskly amidst the tangle … rain was ineffective, breathing was difficult, eyes smarted and shed involuntary tears, and the heat of the ground felt hot through the sole of one’s boots.” The smoke from these fires caused such darkness that auto accidents became commonplace. After nightfall, travel became treacherous; you “literally could not see your hand in front of your face.”
The fires, although less frequent, are still a problem today. If you talk with Jim Fitzpatrick, our former fire chief, he can tell many stories of the meadow fires that were started by lighting or train sparks or errant cigarettes thrown from moving cars. More than 170 brush burn permits have been issued this year, so as you smell the wafting smoke from the spring burning season, recall the stories of the great fires in the Fowl Meadows and think about our history for peat’s sake.
This story ran in the Canton Citizen on March 24, 2011

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