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Elizur Wright's work for the Middlesex Fells.

By Ellen M. Wright.


No man, however gifted, sets his pen to work for right against might or mammon with any great chance of becoming anything but poorer, and in 1839, after seven crowded years of such work in the anti-slavery cause, two events occurred which brought Mr. Wright so near destitution that for a number of years his life was a hand-to-hand fight with the wolf at his door. In 1837, while secretary of the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York, he chanced, at De Behr's repository of foreign books, to come upon a cheap copy of La Fontaine's Fables in the French, with some 200 wood cuts in it. His little son, he tells us in his introduction to his translations, was just ‘beginning to feel the intellectual magnetism of pictures,’ and, to please him, he bought the book. The pictures alone, however, were not enough to satisfy the child; he must have the stories, too; and from putting them into English by word of mouth, the father became quite as fascinated as the child; and finding no English version, ‘resolved to cheat sleep of an hour every morning till there should be one.’ A year later, at the call of the ‘political action’ abolitionists, of Which he was one, he left the national society to become editor in Boston of the Massachusetts Abolitionist, the state organ of his party. The committee under which he acted, however, did not feel sustained in employing him a second year. As they were poor as well as prudent, they were also unsustained in paying him fully for the first. In this strait, the publication of the fables, the music and merit of which had [30] so beset him in his translating as to turn his task into the most irresistible of pleasures, did not seem so forlorn a hope, or an investment so very unpromising, and under the encouragement of his generous and well-to-do brother-in-law, who was ready to help him financially, he ventured upon the undertaking,—doing editorial work for other anti-slavery papers in the meanwhile, and importing for his fables the expensive and speaking illustrations of Grandville. While the publication was in process, his brother-in-law failed, and the cost became wholly Mr. Wright's. His earnings were hardly enough for home needs, and there was nothing to do but to take his book from door to door. He did this, going from city to city, first in his own country, and then in England and Scotland. It took three hard, desperate, courageous years, but every copy of the edition was at last sold, and his debts paid,; not wholly from the proceeds of his sales, but from them and later earnings.

It was while pushing this cruelly slow work in London that Mr. Wright first realized the great necessity of parks to crowded and growing cities. In England he kept sharp watch on all from which he could get knowledge or inspiration.

Mr. Wright's discovery of the Fells was not till 1864, when he came to live in Medford, and until 1880 his time was still pressed with other important work, but he did not forget the city's need of a park. In Medford, with his home on Pine Hill, and from its top rock a glimpse of the city and ocean, and on all other sides rocks, dells, hills, and the almost unbroken woods, another site, nearer Boston, richer and more varied in its wild pictures, and with a larger promise of a future forest, had revealed itself in the :‘Old Five Mile Woods,’ or Middlesex Fells. Loving nature and humanity, and knowing the interdependence of each with each, it is little wonder Mr. Wright should very soon have made himself master of the extent land resources of this great waste and wasted region, or that he should have seen in it the grandest possible future park for Boston, or later should have made its cause his own.

Had the Fells been taken in the Way he urged, we should have had under a wholly unitary control its entire natural [31] acreage, for by his law of 1882 nothing of the people's fresh air and other benefits went into the pockets of any man, and his plan, by stimulating public spirit in the Fells owners, and by taking all the land at one time, was as well secured against money greed as it is possible in the nature—or, father, human nature—of things for la plan to be. But at first his hope for his object lay in the city government; and tall undaunted — if he ever heard of it—by A. S. Hilliard's remark to H. W. S. Cleveland, who in 1857 urged on one occasion the same object, that ‘you might as well try to persuade the Common Council to buy land in the moon as the Fells,’ his first step was this very trial. No man of the city's executive, who could be persuaded to go, but was taken through the Fells, and there seconded by the multitudinous facts of its glorious predestination. Mr. Wright urged its claims to be secured at once. When Mr. De las Casas, of the present Park Board, in his historical sketch for the New England Magazine of 1898, says of Mr. Wright, ‘He was trained in his line of thought by association with the anti-slavery movement and by a residence in England, where he had watched the use of the common lands by the masses,’ he says truly, for the former had certainly taught him that until some determined man or leader of men, ready to wear the thorns, and let others take the laurels, has gone ahead to pave the way, the last thing the ‘masses’ have anything to hope from is this mammon-ruled administration. Before it was possible to inoculate a single grain of anti-slavery manhood or abolition action into, legislative halls anywhere, he and his anti-slavery co-workers had seen their petitions flung under legislative tables, their presidential candidates reviled, and earlier their homes mobbed, presses destroyed, and their most dispassionate arguments burned. But Mr. De las Casas does not speak truly when he says that Mr. Wright, in behalf of his Fells, ‘naturally enough began to agitate and seek the assistance of those with whom he had worked in the anti-slavery cause.’ The Fells cause and the cause of the slave were common causes and the interest of all, and he therefore invited the assistance of all; but it was only the money men and the politicians that he [32] sought—or had to seek; the men of soul came of their own accord, and, in so far as they were his anti-slavery co-workers, consisted of Theodore D. Weld, John G. Whittier, and Samuel E. Sewell. When Sylvester Baxter, in his ‘Boston Park Guide,’ said of What Mr. Wright's persistence had created, ‘The public sentiment aroused by this agitation finally led to the Metropolitan Park System,’ he was writing history, not politics.

The hearings before the City Council Committee took place in 1869. Of the General Court action, which in 1870 was the outcome of these hearings, Mr. Wright in his ‘Appeal’ called ‘The Park Question,’ wrote: ‘The well-guarded Park bill of last year, which submitted the whole problem of the future beauty and grandeur of our city to a competent and impartial commission, was defeated in the interest of projectors who have manifest private ends to serve. Everybody has private ends; and the public is not about to forego its own ends lest somebody should be privately benefited by it. It ought and it will do the best it can for its whole self without injury to any individual, and if any individual is enriched by it, so much the better for him or her. Let us have fair play and no dog in the manger.’

The report of the City Commission proved its impartiality, and the papers, of which there were a large number, were all strongly and ably in favor of a park or parks; but since the Fells was the only easily and cheaply accessible location then urged that had anything like the extent of territory, the woods, rocks, waters, and other requisites for the city's future beauty land grandeur, ‘Mr. Andrew Park’ alone offered the city problem a solution; and in the later working out of the problem, no greater proof of the necessity of just such means as Mr. Wright employed could be had than lies in the legislative results of the meetings, which are in brief as follows:—

With a proviso seventeen, by which as a law it couldn't take effect without a two-thirds vote of the city's legal voters, the bill was passed, and by its failure to get the vote, defeated. This law, section 4, empowered Boston to locate her park or parks ‘in or near her city limits’; and in so doing closed the door in the face of the Fells and Blue Hills, Boston's only chance of the [33] park continuity and forest benefaction, so indispensable in every healthful land happy way to her growth, present and future. From time to time Mr. Wright issued public invitations to the people at large to visit the Fells, offering himself to act as guide. He kept the subject alive through the papers, taking care to stimulate all the interest awakened, and before long a number of able writers had come to his laid.

His literary and mathematical powers at this epoch had so far got the better of his poverty that he was enabled during the years from 1870 to 1880 to purchase as his own contribution to the park some fifty or sixty acres of wild wood's. During this ten years of effort for the Fells, in addition to labors which hardly gave him time to draw a long breath, Mr. Wright hoped that younger men, and men! who, though wise and good, were not so strongly identified with unpopular good causes as to have incurred the enmity of the ruling mammon powers, would take the matter up. But no independent effort was made, and in 1880 he put his own tits to work. His hearing before the city council was twelve years later than the day of Mr. Cleveland's urging, and yet in 1880 Mr. Hilliard's governmental hopelessness must still have been true, for before the more practical Metropolitan movers ventured into the legislature, twenty-four more years had been added to the twelve. In 1880, then, the situation would seem to demand a measure by which, without further loss or delay, it would be practical for the people, if they wished, by their own effort and generosity, to secure their Fells for themselves, and which, should they fail in so doing, would by its co-operative, social, and educational character have overcome that stubborn governmental hopelessness. At any rate, Mr. Wright meant no effort on his own part should be wanting in furtherance :of this two-fold aim. His plan proposed to secure the Fells by a two-thirds vote and appropriation from the municipalities, and to encourage this vote it called for a voluntary contribution sufficient to extinguish private titles, which at the appraised value of that date he found to aggregate about $300,000. The contribution took the form of a pledge, the payment of which was conditional upon the vote being favorable. It was a contribution in which [34] he meant Boston to share in proportion to her benefits, if not her wealth. The Forestry Law, Chapter 255, which he caused to be passed in its behalf, vested the title of the Fells park in the commonwealth, and the park was to be held under unitary control, the Board of Agriculture acting as a Board of Forestry, in perpetuity for the benefit of the municipalities in which it was situated. It will be seen that, under this plan, there was not the same danger of defeat, or blocking to the wheels of its progress by the greed of owners, as there would have been had the Fells acreage not been wholly secured at the same time.

On October 15, 1880, Mr. Wright called together some 200 people, and on Bear Hill in the Stoneham Fells formed a small association to devise plans and to discuss the means of carrying out any one that might be agreed upon. Two plans were sketched, Mr. Wright's and that of Wilson Flagg, who, years before Mr. Wright's discovery, had pleaded the Fells cause and made his own successless appeal to the government in behalf of its salvation as a Forest Conservatory, a wild, natural garden for the indigenous fauna and flora, and for the purposes of science and natural history. Mr. Wright's plan might well be made to embrace this distinct and yet harmonious feature, and was the one adopted. During the next two months these able advocates had made such headway that the mass meeting held in Medford January 1, 1881, was crowded and addressed by speakers who, having just returned from a smart drive through the Fells, were strong for action in its favor. 1881 later on was the year of the Ravine woods desecration, and this disastrous destruction Mr. Wright fried hard to prevent, but the proprietor of the woods, in an attempt to take advantage of his public spirit for the Fells, charged a price evidently beyond what could be hoped for from any other source, and far beyond Mr. Wright's ability to pay, or in the prescribed time—although he and one other of his associates were ready with $1,000 from their own pockets—to get subscribed.

A tree with Mr. Wright was something almost human and wholly divine, and in no other part of his Fells had God blessed a spot with trees older and grander than in the Ravine woods. [35] ‘Possibly,’ he writes in an appeal of 1884, ‘those health-giving trees were destined to be sacrificed to save their race. If Boston could see them as they lie there, tears would flow, if not dollars.’ And he determined it should be no fault of his if they did not at least prove the saviours of their own little Fells brotherhood. By 1882 he had obtained in his Forestry Law all the legislation necessary to his plan and the taking of lands in behalf of forests anywhere in Massachusetts, and had enlisted a competent board of trustees to take charge of the conditional obligations. This done, the object of his labors was to direct as broad a public attention as possible to the fact that a way was now open to secure the Fells, the practical success of Which lay within the power of the people themselves. This he did through the press, by the strength and argument, science, wit, earnestness, and frequency of his appeals, and socially, by a series of yearly ‘Forest Festivals,’ held in different parts of his Fells, that the able speaking which it was his care to procure might be supplemented by its different attractions, and that his trees, ‘most eloquent in the golden silence of their sunlit branches,’ might still help to plead his cause and their own.

The Fells as a park, glorious among the parks of nations, made appeal quite as strong to the ambition of the wealthy as to philanthropy and public spirit; and although little outside his own personal influencing Was achieved toward the indispensable voluntary pledge, the spring of 1883 had hardly begun before Mr. Wright's words of March 17, ‘Everybody seems to be enthusiastically in favor of having the thing done—at the expense of somebody else,’ had become literally the truth. In other words, the popularity, including the favor of wealth so indispensable to administrative action, of the Fells cause, or park cause, had become an established fact. How well established I have some reason to know, for, hoping to help a little myself, as well as to save Mr. Wright some of the many little expenses which he so constantly and gladly met out of his own purse, I undertook to conduct an entertainment in each of the Fells municipalities and in Boston. And, in Seeking the co-operation of other ladies, of the sixty or seventy calls I made, most of them [36] at the palaces, city or country, not a door was closed against me. The words ‘For the Fells’ on my card was ‘open sesame’ enough, and I left no house, rich or poor, without its ‘Godspeed’ to Mr. Wright, in the great and good end he was so nobly struggling to gain. Quite a number, too, with whom I corresponded responded with voluntary contributions of their own, and all took hold with right good will in selling the tickets. Finding the old saying, ‘What's everybody's business is nobody's,’ too unkindly true in his case, in 1.884 he determined his plan should have the benefit of canvassers, and his next step was to begin himself the work of organizing ‘public domain clubs’ in the Fells municipalities and in Boston, which, acting in concert with the Fells Association, might elect committees and employ them. Such a club, comprising some 200 members, he organized in Medford; and it only needed that some ten or twenty others as enterprising and as willing to work should, without his aid or prompting, effect the other organizations. Such help was not forthcoming; and his last Forest Festival, held, I think, in 1885, the year of his death, had for its object so to strengthen his little Fells Association as to help him in gaining this help. In 1885, too, by his invitation, the National Forestry Congress was held in Boston. Towards its success, and still that of similar forest parks for other cities, he made every effort. This Was in September, and feeling his strength lessen, his work till the morning of his death was to see such men as he hoped after it might take his place. And on November 21 he died, bequeathing to the Metropolitan plan the success his own had earned, land with it, through the love of his children, the beautiful woods of Pine Hill and its neighborhood.

After quoting the passage which I have given, and which was written in the July of 1883, Mr. De las Casas takes leave of Mr. Wright with, ‘His death was thought to have been hastened by overwork in this cause, and to be an irreparable loss to the whole movement. The agitation became more energetic when real estate speculators bought the woods along Ravine road, cut off the grand pines, land turned the scene of beauty into the hideousness of a logging camp. The Appalachian Club took up the [37] matter, and April 2, 1890, appointed Charles Elliot, George C. Mann, and Rosewell B. Lawrence to arrange for a meeting of all persons interested in the preservation of scenery and historical sites in Massachusetts.’ And this meeting, according to Mr. De las Casas, by a sequence of other efforts and events, resulted in the Metropolitan Park law of 1893. Mr. Wright was a member of the Appalachian Club, and somewhere between 1881 and 1885 he had the pleasure of escorting a very large portion of the membership through the Fells, and in 1884, the year he was trying to get organized help on his subscription, such as they as a club had the power to give, he lectured before one of the meetings on ‘The Functions of a Forest.’ Mr. Wright was not only open to conviction, as his record would show, but was as magnanimous as he was generous, and although the approval given his plan by many of the club had done much to encourage both his work for it and his hope for aid in that most important contribution, had the meeting in behalf of another been called while he was alive, he would have rejoiced. The magnificent and broadly beneficial Metropolitan idea, including as it did both his Fells and Blue Hills, would have made him supremely happy, and its carrying out, whatever the means, so long as they were honest, would have had his heartiest co-operation.

Rosewell B. Lawrence, secretary of the Appalachian Club, publishes the following from the pen of T. W. Higginson in his pamphlet, ‘The Middlesex Fells,’ of 1886, which was delivered before the club after Mr. Wright's death: ‘We miss from among us the face of that devoted friend of all outdoor exploration, Elizur Wright. I have known him almost all my life; first as the fearless ally, and at times the equally fearless critic of William Lloyd Garrison; then as the translator of La Fontaine's Fables,—a task for which he seemed fitted by something French in his temperament, a certain mixture of fire and bonhomie, which lasted to the end of his days; then as a zealous petitioner before the legislature to remove the lingering disabilities of atheists; and then as the eager, hopeful, patient, unconquerable advocate of the scheme for setting apart the Middlesex Fells as a forest park. I served with him for a time on a committee for [38] that seemingly hopeless object, and shall never forget the inexhaustible faith with which he urged it. In his presence it was almost impossible not to believe in its speedy success; all obstacles seemed little before his sanguine confidence. Scarcely any one was ever present at these committee meetings except the three told men in whom the whole enterprise appeared to centre, Wilson Flagg, John Owen, and Elizur Wright. They were all of patriarchal aspect; as they sat leaning toward each other, with long, grey locks flowing, I always felt as if I was admitted to some weird council of old Greek gods, displaced and belated, not yet quite convinced that Pan was dead, and planning together to save the last remnant of the forest they loved.’ That Mr. Wright Was enthusiastic to a greater degree than most men with large reasoning powers is not to be denied. I could quote many passages from his pen which in the light of to-day's events read as a prophecy.

To the motion of Philip Chase it is due that the Wright homestead, with the care and use of the immediately surrounding land, is allowed to remain in the family during my own, its former owner's, life. It is an affectional privilege which I dearly appreciate, and in token thereof, the public are as welcome on my grounds as in any other part of the park, and it is my effort to keep these grounds free from all that is unsightly, and as wild and beautiful as possible. Should visitors hurt my trees or throw banana skins and salmon cans on my grass, I should cry, ‘Janet, donkeys!’ but otherwise the place will never be more theirs than it is while I live. It was also the vote of the Board to make a fair allowance in my favor for loss occasioned by the delay in our settlement; but as there hadn't been any loss, and my wish was to keep to my own terms, it was again, on Mr. Chase's motion, decided that the money should go toward the erection of a little stone structure on Pine Hill in honor of Mr. Wright. The motion, in the contribution of such money as remained in its treasury, was seconded by Mr. Wright's Medford Public Domain Club of 1884; and as Mr. Wright did not let the stones of his Fells cry out in vain, it is fitting, but it is not necessary. To him the stones and all else cried, ‘Save the woods’; and, thanks to the [39] Metropolitan share in so doing, the sort of column Mr. Wright would best have liked is already in progress. In the words of his old friend Whittier to another unselfish worker for humanity, there are ‘grateful hearts instead of marble shaping his viewless monument.’ That any part of his share in this gratitude should be given to others would not in the least have troubled him. Indeed, could he be assured that its inspiration would always remain still the wild Fells forest, he would gladly pluck the last laurel from his own brow, and himself place it wherever it might be thought best for the good of the cause to have it.

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