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Elizur Wright and the Middlesex Fells.

[Extract from a paper read by Miss Ellen M. Wright, before the Medford Historical Society.]

IN his later years Mr. Wright deemed forest preservation among the most urgent of his causes. He was a member of the American Forestry Association, and whenever possible made his voice heard at its gatherings; but in this interest his most important achievements were the rescue of a territory of Minnesota land from a speculation criminally destructive of its forests, and in his widely known effort to secure the Fells as a forest park, of which the Metropolitan Park System is the outcome. In 1844, while in England, he was strongly impressed with the necessity of forests in or near every large city, and in 1847 suggested through his paper, the “Chronotype,” the establishment of a great “rural playground” for Boston such as Greenwich is to London. And premonitory of the Metropolitan effort he says: “A fine park might be had in two or three places on our harbor open to the sea breezes. A better one could be had by purchasing the noble Blue Hill from [p. 78] which the State takes its name. A whole mountain for a playground—only think of it!” But in 1864, the year he came to live in Medford, another site, richer and more varied in its wild pictures and with a larger promise of a future forest, revealed itself in the old five mile woods or Middlesex Fells, and though at no period of his crowded life harder pressed for time, with God's command in every breath-giving tree, and the cry of breath-starved children in every by-way of Boston, to neglect this fresh call was not in him. That rocky, rambling ground, good for nothing but woods, seemed to him the “predestined gift of nature,” and he had no sooner made himself master of its natural boundaries and resources than he began exhibiting it to others and in 1869 urged its claims to be secured before a committee of the city council specially appointed in behalf of a park or parks for Boston. The paper he read was one which bears the name he had given his Fells, “Mt. Andrew Park.” The outcome of the meeting which was held in December was the passage of a law in 1870 which allowed land to be taken by the city for its park or parks within or near the city limits; but unfortunately this bill had in its Section 17 a proviso by which it couldn't take effect without a two-thirds vote of the city's legal voters,—it was to have been a majority vote, but a grudging amendment raised it,—and as according to the city records, out of 15,149 legal voters only 5,916 wanted a park or to have others have one, the law was killed. Boston, in vulgar phrase, “had cut her nose off to spite her face.”

Mr. Wright, whose hope was for lungs,—large oxygen exhaling Fells and Blue Hills lungs,—wrote of this action April 26, 186: “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 [p. 79] about to forego its own ends, lest somebody should be privately benefited by it. It ought to, and 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.” But in 1875 Boston, in the passage of a law which, negatively expressed, restricted municipalities from securing park land outside their own limits, Boston again played “dog-in-the-manger,” and did not play fair, either to her own vital need of pure air and water, or to her future grandeur,—still less to the necessities of the case; for the Fells and Blue Hills, her only chance for anything like a forest, were under distinct jurisdictions. Without just such a course as Mr. Wright in 1880 had the foresight and the insight to pursue, and the courage to persist in, these two most beautiful and most vitally needed of our parks would have been wholly lost to us. The ordinary legislative programme, or process, used later in the Metropolitan idea, could not, or rather would not, have been carried out without its help. Mr. Wright had not done pioneer work all his life not to know that his purpose in the Fells was something too far outside the city limits as to philanthropy and comprehensiveness not to need its practicality manufactured for it. Until 1880, hoping younger men, and men who though wise and good were not, like him, so strongly identified with unpopular good causes as to have incurred the enmity of the ruling mammon powers, would take the matter up, he continued writing, lecturing, exhibiting the Fells, and in other ways preparing the way; but no independent effort was made, and in 1880 he put his own wits to work. Knowing the necessity of forest contiguity to the purity of the air and the protection of water sources, it seemed all important to him that the entire 4,000 natural Fells acres should be taken at one time, and thus be under a wholly unitary control, and to this end his plan proposed to secure the Fells by a two-thirds vote and appropriation [p. 80] from its 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. This contribution took the form of a pledge, the payment of which was conditional upon the vote being favorable. So large a tax on so small a thing as private or disinterested public enterprise did not promise the success his plan deserved; but the practical politicians to whom Mr. Wright had appealed, though unanimous in applauding his object, still echoed the governmental hopelessness which eleven years earlier had met the same appeal from H. W. S. Cleveland, and in overcoming this hopelessness, Mr. Wright knew the worth of his plan. Its social and educational force under the wit of his pen, and the inspiring influence of his direction, were factors that had been found effective in the working out of problems far more hopeless. When Sylvester Baxter in his “Boston Park Guide” wrote of it, “The public sentiment aroused by this agitation finally led to the establishment of the Metropolitan Park System,” he was writing history, not politics; but whether history in the future will fully realize the forestal grandeur and vital benefits sown by Mr. Wright in that public sentiment depends, to my thinking, on a different treatment of the woods than they have thus far received. A generous public sentiment and a tree are things far easier to destroy than to make grow; and the practical politicians whose wishes enter into the present park's control know just how to do it. Had the Fells park been established under Mr. Wright's plan nothing in the mutability of human affairs could have furnished a surer safeguard to its permanency, or that of its most important benefit, the forest, than the private ownership feature of that part voluntary purchase; but let us hope that enough of the public sentiment and of the woods may be spared, that the former growing yearly stronger on the increasing worth and beauty of the latter may still work to the same good end. [p. 81]

On Oct. 15, 1880, Mr. Wright called together some two hundred people, and on Bear Hill formed a small association to devise plans and the measures for carrying them out. Two plans were sketched, Mr. Wright's and that of Wilson Flagg. Mr. Wright's embraced the distinct and yet harmonious purposes of both, and was the one adopted. During the next two months, these able advocates had made such headway that the mass meeting held in the Medford Town Hall on Jan. 1, 1881, was packed with eager listeners and addressed by speakers who having just returned from a smart drive through the Fells were strong for their preservation. Eighteen hundred and eighty-one later on was the year of the Ravine woods desecration, and this heartless and selfish destruction Mr. Wright did his best to prevent, but the owners in an attempt to take advantage of his public spirit charged a price so exorbitant, that he could neither pay it nor, in the time allowed, get it subscribed. Forced to abandon his hope, he determined those grand old saviors of mankind should perish only to save their brother trees, and his work for his Fells was redoubled. He had already established ‘Forest Festivals,’ which were held yearly and in different parts of the Fells, that its attractions might supplement the speaking, or rather might speak for themselves; and in 1883, in his ‘Forestry Law’ of 1882, Chap. 255, he had secured all the legislation necessary to his plan, and to the taking of lands by it anywhere in Massachusetts; had enlisted trustees to take charge of his conditional obligations; had obtained toward the subscription written pledges to the amount of $14,102, and verbal promises of more than twice that sum, and had begun the work of organizing ‘Public Domain Clubs’ in the Fells municipalities and in Boston, for he did not forget that Boston's obligation should be measured by her benefits, which acting in concert with the Fells Association might elect committees and employ canvassers. Such a club, comprising some two hundred members, he caused to be formed [p. 82] in Medford. What little help he had thus far had on the subscription had come solely from a few who loved the woods and a good deed, but at this stage of his progress an organized effort was of course a necessity, and to effect it needed that a few other men as enterprising as himself should, independent of his prompting or aid, form the clubs needed in the other places. Such cheering help did not reward him, but he did not cease trying to bring it about. If there was not enterprise enough for his own plan, he had its purpose still at heart. His last Forest Festival was held, I think, in 1885, the last year of his life; and its special object was so to strengthen the Fells Association as to help him in this work. In his last year too, by his invitation or influence, the National Forestry Congress was held in Boston. Toward its success, and that of his object, with the added hope of lending some little favor toward the establishment of similar forest parks near other large cities, he made every effort. This was in September. Feeling his strength on the wane, his work till the day of his death was to see such other men as he hoped, after it, might take the matter up. And on November 21 he died, bequeathing to the later undertaking the credit and the crown his own had earned, and with them, through his children's love, the beautiful woods of Pine hill and its neighborhood.

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