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Idea of landmark trail stirs hope

As fans of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau mark important anniversaries this year and next, there is talk in Concord about creating a walking path that connects Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond, Emerson's house, and town center.

Still in its early stages, the conversation has come as people around the world celebrated the 200th anniversary of Emerson's birth last May and as the 150th anniversary of the publication of Thoreau's "Walden" nears.

No firm plans have been made and no funds have been raised, but the idea has been floated in several quarters, and exploratory inquiries are being made.

"Everyone in town who is interested in history or tourism wants to see some better connection between the town and Walden Pond," said John Mack, cochairman of the Mill Brook Task Force, which has talked about the proposal.

The idea being discussed is a 1 1/2-mile-long trail through woods and along the Mill Brook, emerging from the natural setting only to cross Route 2 and to join the sidewalk on Walden Street in Concord Center.

"I would really like to see this happen, and it has been discussed at various committee levels," said Markus Pinney, Concord's natural resources administrator. He said he expects it will be a multiyear effort to create the path, which he calls the Thoreau Amble. "We have the utmost patience," he said. "We expect to be working on this to see it through to fruition."

All of the land that would be crossed by this route is already in town or state control, except for two privately owned properties: the Emerson House on Cambridge Turnpike, which is owned by the nonprofit Ralph Waldo Emerson Memorial Association, and the Concord Ice Company on Walden Street.

Jayne Gordon, executive director of the Thoreau Society, said the idea of a walking path was informally discussed at a meeting of the Concord Historical Collaborative, a group with representatives from the area's historical organizations.

"Thoreau is about walking," Gordon said. "If there were a group that could pull it all together and make it work, I think it would be marvelous."

Concord's Mill Brook Task Force, which helps protect the brook and make it a resource for public enjoyment, likes the footpath idea, but has no immediate plan to propose the project to the Board of Selectmen.

"We don't want to bother them until we have a plan and a way of funding it," Mack said. "It's a longer-term dream. There's a lot of work to be done, but it looks feasible if there's interest."

At its meeting last week, the Task Force decided to first propose a smaller-scale project to selectmen: building a bridge across the Mill Brook behind the Main Street's Market and Cafe, which is down an alley off Main Street. This bridge would serve the Thoreau Amble walkers after they reach the town center as well as other pedestrians going from the Main Street shops to the Colonial Inn. The Task Force has not yet set a date to present this project to the Board of Selectmen.

The Thoreau Amble, as Pinney envisions it, would use the Walden Street sidewalk, then enter the town's Heywood Meadow and follow along the Mill Brook. Behind the barn on the Emerson House property, a bridge on which Emerson once crossed the brook would be reconstructed. A boardwalk would also be built on the Emerson House property for wetlands protection.

Margaret Emerson Bancroft, president of the association that owns the house and an Emerson descendant, said the Mill Brook Task Force broached the subject of the path and bridge to the association last spring, and the idea was discussed at the association's annual meeting.

"There was a sense of enthusiasm generally for the concept," she said. "We look forward to working with the Task Force to see if a plan for the footpath is feasible." She said the association would want the path to be sited so that the privacy of the caretakers who live in the house is protected.

Barbara Mongan, director of tours at the Emerson House, said there is a short path that goes from the yard to the brook, and she tells visitors that Emerson used the path when he headed to Walden Pond. Sometimes the visitors inquire if they can take the same walk themselves, and she tells them it can't be done.

Past the Emerson House, the path would cross land owned by the Concord Ice Company. Company officials could not be reached for comment. The path would then enter the Hapgood Wright Town Forest, which was called Hubbard's Close in Thoreau's and Emerson's day, according to Thoreau scholar Brad Dean. In the forest, the path would follow a trail that Pinney has laid out but not yet constructed, then join existing town forest trails.

The path would use the trail that passes the manmade Fairyland Pond, which Dean said was created after the authors' time. After the pond, the path would pass Brister's Spring, which Thoreau mentioned in "Walden" and from which he frequently drank.

The path would emerge from the forest near the intersection of Route 2 and Route 126, where there is a stoplight. On the other side of Route 2, the path would enter Walden Pond State Reservation. Dean said he has seen a proposal for a wildlife bridge that some nonprofit organizations want built across Route 2 that could be used by walkers as well. There has also been talk of a tunnel under Route 2.

Dean said that Thoreau and Emerson, who occasionally walked together but usually walked alone, did not have the same preferred paths and did not always use the same path. For instance, Thoreau often walked along the railroad tracks and Emerson was apt to use a path near today's Brister's Hill Road. Dean said it would be next to impossible to trace their exact footsteps, but the proposed path would closely approximate where they walked in their day.

Sally Heaney can be reached at

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