a landscape lover's blog

garden tales from a Brit abroad

The Unexpected Joys of Quarrying

One of the pleasures of landscape history is the often surprising places where information can be found. Trainspotters’ model drawings,  last wills and testaments, records from a convent, romantic novels, legal opinions, photographs on Facebook – all have in their time helped me understand and interpret historical landscapes. And this month I was shown another unexpected example.

A couple of years ago, I published a book on Fresh Pond, a historically rich landscape in Massachusetts, now the main source of the water supply for the city of Cambridge. No central archive exists on the landscape, and so I had spent several years digging around in obscure places for information and images. The task was made harder because in the late 1800s, to protect the purity of the water, the city had rapidly cleared the land of all its historical buildings, and quarried the surrounding glacial hills for gravel to make the shoreline more regular. This left steep, raw wounds over much of the landscape, ugly gashes of exposed rock and sand, much criticised by the Olmsted firm of landscape architects which was subsequently brought in to ‘beautify the borders’ of a new park planned on the shores.

The quarrying left the landscape unattractive and unloved. Virtually no photographs seemed to exist from this period, and my book had to rely largely on descriptions and occasional 2D plans. Then last week a colleague in Cambridge sent me a link to a cache of rediscovered photographs put on line by Harvard University, 23 of them of Fresh Pond, all from the winter of 1887/88. It turns out that the exposed gravel and sand had appealed to a new group of visitors: the Harvard geology department had sent professional photographers to capture images of contorted glacial gravels, shored kames, faulted sands, and upturned and overfolded shore-strips of ice at Fresh Pond. The man-made structures caught by the lens were of no interest to the geologists, and were left unlabelled and unremarked, but for many of the historical buildings at Fresh Pond these long-forgotten images serve as the only known photographs. Within five years all such structures had been swept away by the city.

I spent a couple of very enjoyable hours matching the dwellings, icehouses and bridges suddenly brought alive in the photographs to the plans so familiar to me from years of research. And I thought again of the unexpected reasons why people document and photograph the land, and how we landscape historians need to seek out and relish every example.

1888 map

An 1888 map of Fresh Pond, showing the ice houses and dwelling owned by the Fresh Pond Ice Company. Image from the Massachusetts Archives.

A newly rediscovered image from 1887/88 of the Fresh Pond Ice Company’s properties on the shoreline, from the George Augustus Gardner collection of photographs, Cabot Science Special Collections, Harvard University.

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6 comments on “The Unexpected Joys of Quarrying

  1. Catherine Stewart
    November 26, 2012

    It does make you wonder about the boxes of old photographs that no doubt sit around in archives or people’s lofts and garages that nobody has the time to sort through and catalogue. What treasures of information must lie just out of reach! I subscribe to Retronaut, which features collections of old photographs unearthed and shared. There are often garden and horticultural gems.

  2. Chris U
    November 26, 2012

    I’m regularly amazed at the rate at which materials like this are made available on line; collections seem to appear more quickly than I can view them. Still, I agree…there must be so much more out there…

    • landscapelover
      November 28, 2012

      Catherine and Chris

      Thanks for the comments – and the link to Retronaut, which is new to me.

      Even though there is an amazing wealth of stuff now being put on line, it still seems to me that it is hard to encourage people to see the value in archive materials. It almost broke my heart that the City of Cambridge water department apparently ‘disposed of’ [i.e. threw away] a number of 19th century glass plate photographs of Fresh Pond, when it moved buildings a few years ago.

      From my experience, I think the information relating to designed landscapes tends anyway to be less valued than architectural records – although architectural historians may feel the reverse…

  3. Donna@Gardens Eye View
    November 30, 2012

    I love discovering the history of the land…what a special find to go with your research…I think if I had to do it over I would be looking more at the areas of landscape history, botany and who knows. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thomas Mickey
    December 3, 2012

    You found the photographs complementing your work. amazing. that means that a passion for landscape history drives you to the kind of work you pursue. good job.

  5. Lula - botanical photography
    December 6, 2012

    It is a complete joy when you find documents that let you digg more in your studies, I can imagine what a wonderful time you must have working on these images and matching them with your research. So lucky!

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This entry was posted on November 26, 2012 by in History, Parks, United States and tagged , , , .

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