Burke: The ‘Memory House’ at Hemlock Gorge (Newton TAB)

By Bob Burke/Guest Columnist
Wicked Local Newton
Posted Jul 06, 2011 @ 07:00 AM

Original: https://web.archive.org/web/20110711150410/http://www.wickedlocal.com:80/newton/news/opinions/x230666382/Burke-The-Memory-House-at-Hemlock-Gorge

Newton —

In mid-April, I joined 25 other volunteers at the Friends of Hemlock Gorge’s Annual Spring Cleanup.  This was another fun-filled success for a community association that has helped transform Echo Bridge and the 23-acre Hemlock Gorge Reservation from a neglected eyesore into one of Newton’s most important natural areas and historic treasures.  Since 1989, the Friends Association has initiated strong volunteer programs and on-going partnerships with private sources and government to restore and preserve the Reservation’s unique assets.  Because of these efforts, no other area is as closely associated with a Newton village as Hemlock Gorge is with the Upper Falls community.

Hemlock Gorge is one of my very “special places”.  In the late 40s and early 50s, my friends and I spent countless hours roaming its woodlands and walking trails while marveling at Echo Bridge, the old “Stone Building” near Route 9 and other architectural gems in surrounding Upper Falls.  There was a transcendental effect here.  It’s what my favorite cultural historian Howard Mansfield calls a personal “Axis Mundi.”  He describes this as any small place that becomes the center of a person’s life.  It was here that I first felt a fundamental connection to the earth and to the people who were part of this land before I was born.

Mansfield expands on this with “In the Memory House,” a wonderfully uplifting book that is passionate about the practical and spiritual benefits associated with remembering local history and the people that came before us.  By any measure, Hemlock Gorge is a super “Memory House.” Over many centuries, this deep and beautiful gorge, the fast flowing Charles River and the two magnificent waterfalls have served as:

  • The major freshwater fishing area for Algonquin Indians who used nets and spears to catch huge quantities of fish traveling over the two waterfalls.
  • A source of abundant waterpower that made Upper Falls one of the area’s earliest industrial centers, decades before the mills at Lowell formally ushered in New England’s Industrial Revolution.
  • A stopover for Conestoga-type wagons as commerce was diverted away from Boston after the British Navy blockaded the Harbor during the War of 1812.
  • One of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “special places” when he lived close to Newton Upper Falls and preached his ministry in the old Methodist Church on Summer Street.
  • The site for historic Echo Bridge, one of the 19th Century’s greatest architectural marvels and Hemlock Gorge’s true centerpiece that once drew thousands of tourists and artists from around the World.
  • The setting for “Echo Bridge Park”, one of America’s first electrically wired amusement parks that lit up the entire bridge and attracted thousands of people each weekend during the 1890’s.
  • A backdrop for one of New England’s first golf courses at Newton’s long forgotten Quinobequin Club. It’s possible that some of the fairways and greens extended close to what is now the Rte 128/Rte 9 Interchange.
  • The place that Frederick Law Olmstead chose for the last of his many great metropolitan parks, a task he completed just weeks before he died in 1903.
  • A much frequented stop on a trolley line that ran from Boston to Framingham when the popularity of Echo Bridge was at its height.

I have a few recommendations for Newton residents who want to join our Hemlock Gorge community.

  • Visit the Friends website, www.hemlockgorge.org, where you will find more details about a very special association we hope you will join.
  • Add “Makers of the Mold” to your summer reading list.  This is the definitive history of Upper Falls and Hemlock Gorge by the late Kenneth Newcomb.  Our website has a copy you can download and information on where to purchase hard copies.
  • Come to our summer picnic and concert on Tuesday, Aug. 2 from around 6 p.m. to dusk.  Bring food to share, blankets and chairs. (Cross the Charles into Needham on Elliott Street and immediately turn right into Hamilton Place.)
  • Spend some quality time at Hemlock Gorge, particularly on a weekend morning when it is serenely quiet.  You just may experience the same transcending magic I have felt there.

Bob Burke is a resident of Newton Highlands.