A Brief History of the Friends of Hemlock Gorge


This is the late Brian Yates’ History of the founding of the Friends. It was originally published online in May 2008 and after his death was edited by Vaunita Schnell and John Mordes. We invite readers to help correct errors and fill in omissions by writing to us at [email protected]


The Friends of Hemlock Gorge is a small, non-governmental community organization whose goal is the preservation and betterment of a small but, in our view, precious park.

Organizations like the Friends have been part of the fabric of American life since colonial times. They have arisen in response to a wide array of needs that government cannot meet. Their profiles are often low and their goals modest, but their impact on the quality of community life is often large. These organizations are created by volunteers who seldom seek recognition. For that reason, the histories of these organizations are seldom recorded and preserved.

The Friends of Hemlock Gorge is a typical community conservation group. It is small, completely dependent on volunteerism, and focused on one issue: the conservation of a precious community resource. Its history may not be at all remarkable, but it does say a lot about how a small number of volunteers can try to better their society.


Hemlock Gorge, the raison d’être of the Friends, is a 23 acre reservation that was acquired by the Metropolitan Parks Commission in 1895. Its acquisition had been recommended by the renowned landscape architect Charles Eliot who is said to have viewed it as one of the “jewels” of the MPC. Prior to its acquisition, the property was home to several defunct factories (that had once thrived on the waterpower at the gorge), at least one home, and a dance hall that was near what is now Hamilton Place.

The MPC transformed Hemlock Gorge into a park. Workers removed the dance hall and the factories, and the house became the site supervisor’s residence. A system of trails was laid out by the Frederic Law Olmstead’s landscape architure firm—possibly by the senior Olmstead or by Charles Eliot. Regrettably we do not have any photos of either the dance hall or factrories.

All indications are that the park prospered in its early days. It was eadily accessible by public transportation, especially the trolleys that ran on Chestnut Street, Needham Street, High Street and what is now Route 9, and it became a popular destination.


In about 1920 the MPC merged with the Metropolitan Water and Sewer Districts to form the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC). Unlike the State Department of Environmental Management, which had responsibilities focused on state parklands, the MDC had a diverse set of responsibilities. The MDC gradually came to construct and oversee a collection of swimming pools, skating rinks, boat houses, and the Esplanade in the Back Bay.

In effect, the MDC responded to the new and novel interests of its era by refocusing its activities on “active recreation.” From perhaps 1930 until the 1970s, Hemlock Gorge and other “non-activity” sites were neglected. People growing up in Upper Falls in the 40s and 50s recall making little use of the overgrown and unmarked trails that characterized the park at that time. At least one resident has recalled having nightmares about Echo Bridge. In the early 1950s, the site supervisor’s house burned down and was not rebuilt. The loss of a resident supervisor accelerated the decline of the trail system.


In the early 1970s the village of Newton Upper Falls was reeling from an economic downturn. Many of the small factories that had been the economic cornerstone of the community closed. Population declined and the only elementary school, the Emerson School were shuttered. The school is now condominiums.

To combat the decline, the Newton Upper Falls Improvement Association was formed. (Its successor organization, the Upper Falls Community Development Corporation or CDC, has been active since the late 1970s and is still in operation.

Under the aegis of the Improvement Association, the Upper Falls became a target area for community development block grants. These grants led to renewal in the Pettee Square area and at the Railway Depot.

Buoyed by its early success, the City of Newton provided staff to assist the CDC. The CDC then looked for additional projects that could revitalize the Upper Falls. Community historian Ken Newcomb suggested to the CDC that it focus on renewing Hemlock Gorge and making it a focus of the renewing community.

At about this time, Nan Lawrence was manager of the CDC. Working with a Professor at the Harvard School of Design, she wrote a history of Hemlock Gorge (which we have not been able to locate).

Also at about this time, Governor Michael Dukakis appointed Mr. Bill Geary as Comminnsioner of the MDC. Commissioner Geary established a Division of the MDC for Reservations and Historic Sites. This Division was entrusted with the management of most of the MDC properties acquired in the era of Charles Eliot, including Hemlock Gorge.

The first manager of the Division of Reservations and Historic Sites was Garry Van Wort. Mr. Van Wort announced the creation of a task force to help direct the management effort.

Brian Yates saw the announcement for that task force. Having participated in the Upper Falls CDC and aware of Ken Newcomb’s advice regarding Hemlock Gorge, Brian applied to, and then became a member of that advisory task force. The group reviewed the status of many MDC properties and visited a large number of the historic sites. Brian took advantage of his membership on the task force to proselytize on behalf of the rehabilitation of Hemlock Gorge Reservation. Eventually Brian persuaded Van Wort to visit Hemlock Gorge. Brian recalls Van Wort describing the site as a “beautiful example of total non-management.”

The Golden Years

At some point in the early 1980s Van Wort decided to create management units to oversee the historic sites. He established the Hemlock Gorge and Elm Bank Management Unit, which was headquartered at the Elm Bank Property in Wellesley.

The first site supervisor appointed by the management unit was Lisa Vernegard. She was assisted by Rob MacArthur, who served as Director of Interpretive Services. They were assisted by additional staff members.

The combination of manpower and dedication initiated a brief golden era for Hemlock Gorge. The trails were restored and the trash cleaned away, and a bridge across the New Pond sluiceway repaired. These were glory days in other ways. The staff organized and ran an extensive series of interpretive walks. These recounted the geology of the gorge, the industrial history of the gorge, and the indigenous Native American populations that once lived by the Gorge. On some walks, the staff in full period costume recounted the life and times of the workers who labored in the water-powered mills that lined the gorge—some of which remain. Two walks in particular stand out in Brian Yates’ recollection: The Moonlight Walk and The Terror in the Trees Walk. The walks were extensively advertised and would sometimes draw more than 100 visitors.

The Golden Years lasted through 1987 or 1988. The end came with a reduction in state funding for the MDC (now the Department of Conservation and recreation or DCR).

Founding of the Friends

Director Garry Van Wort and the three on-site staff members continued to maintain the Gorge Property and related activities through the end of the 1980s. But sometime in 1989, Garry called Brian Yates to say that funding was going to be cut further. Site Supervisor Lisa Vernegard soon left. Rob MacArthur was promoted to be Site Supervisor, but there was no longer state funding for support staff.

Garry advised Brian that the continued preservation of the Hemlock Gorge property could not be guaranteed by the State. He suggested that a Friends group was needed to take back some responsibility for the Property.

Acting on Van Wort’s suggestion, Brian organized a group of volunteers. These were recruited from the Upper Falls CDC and from among people who had attended the many walks that had taken place in Hemlock Gorge and had asked to be on the Walks mailing list. The first meeting was held in the Emerson Community Center. The founding members included

  • Grant Balkema (The first president, in 1989. He served for less than a year because he was a university faculty and moved from the area for a new job)
  • Don Cusack (The Needham representative and for a time the treasurer)
  • Nina Koch
  • Ken Newcomb (The Upper Falls historian who authored the Upper Falls History Makers of the Mold)
  • Vaunita Schnell (The second president of the Friends until c. 1995)
  • Hannah Sherman
  • Jim Wright
  • Brian Yates (The founder and then third president who served from 1995 until his death 2019)

The Group’s first and simplest goal was to keep up the Property and uphold the maintenance gains made during the preceding decade. The first clean up of the property was held in 1990.

Those who came together to form the Friends recognized the need to supplement MDC management services, but they were also a creative group who wanted to enhance the improvements that had been started.

The Friends quickly decided that the restoration of the Stone Building, the last remaining industial-era building on the Property, would be a worthy undertaking. (Click here to read about the history of the Stone Building) This very concrete goal became a focus of the efforts of the nascent Friends. The barn project took several years and involved a host of people. Site Supervisor Rob MacArthur enlisted the Army Corps of Engineers to design and eventually to build a new roof. He also stockpiled over a number of years the materials needed for the construction effort. The Friends secured funding for the project from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and enlisted architects to help in the design.

With the Stone Building project as a catalyst, the Friends’ expanded their efforts to include cutting trails and restoring the rustic bridge over the sluiceway. It was the announcement of the celebration of the completion of the Stone Building renovation that caught the attention of John Mordes in the late 1990s. His efforts led to the creation of the web site that is now one of the major tools of the Friends. He succeeded Brian as President in 2019.

In their early days, the Friends received assistance from the Cooperating Association of New England Parks, Inc., or “CANEPI”. CANEPI, principally through the efforts of Jo-Anne Carr, assisted the Friends with organization and was the financial fiduciary managing our dues and helping with the application to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. CANEPI served as the fiscal agent for the trust funds invested in the Stone Building Project. The Friends became independent of CANEPI in the mid-1990s and later became a 501(c)(3) organization with recognition by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as a charity in 2019.

The activities of the Friends continued under Brian’s leadership until his untimely death in 2019, at which time he was succeeded in the presidency by Dr. John Mordes.

The story of the Friends since 1992 is recounted in detail in the Minutes of our Meetings, which we hope someday will be of interest to new generations committed to preserving Hemlock Gorge.

The first site supervisor was Lisa Vernegard and her successors were Rob MacArthur in 1898, Kevin Hollenbeck in 1995 and Erica Aubin in c. 2014. Secretaries have included Hannah Sherman, Bobbi Demers, Bonnie Pearson and most recently Sheila Purdy. Treeasurers have included Vaunita Schnell, Don Cusak, Jim Purdy, and most recently Robin Dexter.

Here is a partial listing of the accomplishment of The Friends of Hemlock Gorge, most achieved through public/private partnerships or polictical activism

  • From 1990 on, annual spring and fall cleanups of the Reservation
  • From 1990 on, an annual Summer Picnic
  • Restoration of the Stone Building (1989-1990, recounted above)
  • Publication of The Makers of the Mold in 1998
  • A website in 1995
  • The rotted wooden fence bordering the Reservation on Ellis Street, near Echo Bridge, was demolished and replaced in 2001
  • Installation of widows to replace bricks in many of the Stone Building bricked-up window openings. In October, 2000 John Sangiolo and Amy Mah Sangiolo, through the Charles River Neighborhood Foundation Trust, made a gift of $1,000 to the MDC to help pay for new windows for the Stone Building. The new windows for the Stone Building were eventually fabricated in 2008, and installed in 2011.
  • Restoration of the Echo Platform in 2004
  • Installation of a proper concrete floor in the Stone Building in March, 2006
  • Acquisition of proper picnic benches for our picnics and clean up lunches
  • Construction of a parking lot for park visitors at the intersection Route 9 and Ellis Street. This project was initiated by Vaunita Schnell and Ken Newcomb who petitioned the city c. 1992 for such a lot and got it approved in 1994 and built in 1995
  • Digitization and publication of Ken Newcomb’s book, The Makers of the Mold
  • Fabrication and installation of new railings across from the Stone Building in October, 2018
  • Applications of natural predators (1999) and later an insecticide () to retard the destruction of hemlock trees caused by the woolly adelgid. Anti-adelgid efforst had started as early as 1994.
  • A second reconstruction of the footbridge connecting the Needham and Wellesley sides of the park near the Stone Building and New Pond in 2005
  • Successfull petitioning of the MDC to re-open Echo Bridge after it was closed due to unsafe railings in 2006.
  • Restoration of the Ellis Street Stairwas up to Echo Bridge in 2020
  • Restoration of the walkway on the top of Echo Bridge in the 1990s after a schoolgirl complained to Vaunita that it was unsafe, leading to a news article and then a quick safety response from the MDC.
  • The 106 year old spillway dike was replaced with a very nicely designed structure and new landscaping in 2012
  • New security lighting for the Stone Building installed under the supervision of Ranger Rob McArthur in 1994
  • New kiosk at Hamilton Place in 2015