Damage and Recovery

A year ago the Massachusetts coast was hit with three winter storms that arrived with a devastating combination of wind, precipitation, and abnormally high tides. Reports of damage in Marblehead focused immediately on highly visible and well known areas: sea walls around the harbor and Neck, Grace Oliver Beach, Little Harbor, and shoreline structures near these locations. Damage was serious, calling for quick but temporary repair to be followed soon after with both a plan for more robust repair and a long-range survival assessment should global warming increase the frequency of such destructive weather.

Damage to the Salem Harbor shoreline in Marblehead was not immediately obvious, but as it turned out, was quite serious. Walking the shoreline at low tide revealed substantial erosion of the banking along the section bordering the Wyman Woods and Lead Mills conservation areas. In particular, a good part of the banking that had been replaced and replanted as part of the Lead Mills remediation in 2010 – 2011 had washed away. Trees and shrubs that had been planted to anchor the slope were gone or fallen, and the top of the slope had been cut back in places to about six feet from the edge of the former rail bed. Since Marblehead’s electric power is routed under that part of the rail bed, the erosion was serious and threatening should additional erosion occur. All this was reported to the appropriate Town authorities.

Marblehead performed a survivability assessment in June in preparation for State support in addressing identified issues. The results included a statement from Marblehead Light Department that stabilization of the Salem Harbor shoreline at Lead Mills was their top concern. An immediate effort succeeded in placing large rocks along the damaged slope, but caused collateral damage to the adjacent conservation areas where a roadway and staging area were cleared to give heavy equipment working space and access to the shore.

With winter on its way after the shoreline repair, there was only enough time to do expedient repairs of the newly disturbed conservation areas. October and November brought considerable rain, enough to create a pond in a temporary staging area where Lead Mills meets Wyman Woods (See photo above). With the grass gone from the area and the soil crushed from passage of heavy equipment, collected rainwater drains slowly. A job for 2019 will be to take more corrective actions restoring the meadow and walking trails.

Learning the secrets of stone walls

By Greg Phipps
The Marblehead Reporter

Introduced as a “jack of many trades” by Library Director Patti Rogers, veteran stone wall builder Kevin Gardner kidded that it only proved he was “just another guy who can’t hold a steady job.”

The comment received a hearty laugh from the gathering of about 60 people Wednesday night, Oct. 17, at the Abbot Public Library. Along with his lifelong passion for stone walls, Gardner is an accomplished art critic, radio host, and writer, as well as theater actor, director and teacher.

“On a night when the Red Sox are playing (in the playoffs), you’re here to listen to a total stranger talk about rocks,” added Gardner with a smile. “You’re a dedicated group.”

All humor aside, Gardner, a New Hampshire native and stone wall builder for 40 years, had the utmost attention of the group, as he spoke about the history of stone walls in New England – the origin, peak period, decline and rebirth. He also talked about the technique of stone wall building and the crucial factors involved in creating a wall that will sustain itself for a long time, centuries in many cases.

During his presentation, Gardner busied himself constructing a miniature stone wall model for the attendees to see. They got a chance view the completed model close up after the presentation concluded.

“Stones, like people, tend to loosen up and spread out as they get older,” said Gardner while discussing the process of cross-hatching, where stones are placed over each other as tightly as possible to produce sustainability.

“Working with New England stones is difficult and challenging. Each stone needs multiple physical dependencies to hold it in place. A well-built wall can last literally for centuries,” pointed out Gardner, who said a six-foot high wall should have a width of about four feet in order to maintain itself.

In discussing the history, Gardner said fences in New England, early on, were basically built with organic materials that weren’t long-lasting. But the wealth of rock material available in the area and the advent of the post-Revolution sheep industry helped change that.

“Sheep were the prime farm animal in New England and they are wanderers, so the focus was on enclosing the landscape to keep them in place,” he explained. “There was a frenzy of stone wall building right after the Revolution. The years 1775 to 1825 were the peak period of construction.”

According Gardner, the sheep industry began to die away in the 19th century, and the emergence of the Industrial Revolution created wage jobs and took young people off farms. Changes in transportation, such as trains and canals, also resulted in New England losing some of its economic and cultural energy, Gardner added.

“Many of the farms went under and disappeared completely. New England didn’t really come out of this (economic) depression until the 1930s and ’40s,” he said.

Stone walls became known as an existing characteristic of the New England landscape instead of a practical necessity. Gardner said an old standard livestock-bearing wall still around today would probably be four to five feet high. Some have been buried beneath the ground, or significantly covered over, due to forest grade rises and accumulation of debris over many years.

“The walls went from being a necessary tool for land separation and spacing to being more of an aesthetic feature in the 19th century,” Gardner said.

The vocation was revived in the 20th century due to the arrival of immigrants from major stone wall building countries such as Ireland and Greece.

“These stone builders were highly skilled and they looked at the occupation as a profession,” Gardner observed. “They worked for the railroads, municipalities, and the wealthy and they began to thrive – enough to keep the craft alive, and many of them became teachers of the (trade).”

During a question and answer session following the presentation, Gardner was asked about learning the profession.

“It’s not a complicated process,” he said. “It’s basically made up of simple techniques that have been around for thousands of years. In fact, you can learn the basic principles in a couple of hours… What takes time is mastering the proper application and technique, but there’s nothing particularly magical about it. It does take years of practice before you can achieve efficiency.”

Gardner was also asked about his books on stone walls, which were displayed at the presentation. He said his 2001 release, “The Granite Kiss,” was written for two kinds of people: “Those who would like to build stone walls and those who wouldn’t.” He added that his recent book “Stone Building: How to Make New England Style Walls and Other Structures the Old Way” (2017) was “exclusively aimed at aspiring builders.”

Used with permission of GateHouse Media New England / The Marblehead Reporter

Eagle Scout project at Seaside Park






On an unusually warm Saturday in May, Eagle Scout candidate Jarrod Langton formed and led a team  through his plan to upgrade the loop trail around the Seaside Park wooded area behind the ball field and grandstand. Inspiration for Jarrod’s project came from problems reported by school Cross Country teams training in the area.  Trail improvement focussed on removing rocks and covering roots with soil and woodchips to reduce tripping hazards.  In addition, one length of the trail that becomes rather muddy after heavy rain was raised and wood chipped. In spite of the warmth of the day, and the discomfort this brings to field work, the results of this Eagle Scout project clearly reduce the likelihood of tripping and injury, particularly for runners.

Earth Day 2018 – Let a thousand flowers bloom!

Thanks to all who participated – Scouts, families, and individuals – this year’s Earth Day recognition event at Lead Mills was quite a success with everything we set out to do finished beautifully and on time before anyone got soaked. .

The Numbers: We had over sixty individuals signed in plus the Scout groups. Participants collected 5 large bags of trash, 1 large container of recyclables, planted about 350 wildflowers, 9 red twig dogwoods, 4 elderberry shrubs and  laid out 2 truckloads of wood chips on the trails.

Our thanks also to the rain. It stayed away most of the morning then came along to help set all the plantings. All in all, it was a wonderful day! Visit the area and see how the changes toward a flowering meadow are coming along.

Railbed Rehab Continues!

At the 2018 Town Meeting, the Selectmen were given a right of way for pedestrians and bicycles on the former rail bed and committed to improve it. A grant from the State has provided funds, and work is expected to begin in the spring of 2019. Rail bed rehabilitation will include removing certain barriers to the disabled, surface regrading where necessary, and removal of protruding stones.

Meanwhile, Salem continues to develop a bike path extending from the other end of Marblehead’s railroad bed at Lafayette Street crossing Rt. 1A, Loring Avenue, and passing through the Salem State University campus. When finished, this Salem branch will reach Riley Plaza in the downtown area. Eventually, the rail bed begun in the nineteenth century by the Eastern Railroad will be available to pedestrians and bicyclists from Riley Plaza in Salem, through Marblehead, all the way to the Swampscott MBTA commuter rail station.

Smile on the Conservancy with AmazonSmile!

Are you an Amazon shopper? Have you heard of AmazonSmile? AmazonSmile provides buyers with a simple and automatic way to support their favorite charitable organizations without adding any cost. The AmazonSmile Foundation will donate 0.5% of the purchase price of an item to whatever charitable organization you designate on the Foundation list. The Conservancy has added its name to the AmazonSmile list of charitable organizations. Eligible products are marked “Eligible for AmazonSmile donation” on their product detail pages.

Visit smile.amazon.com today!  If it’s your first visit, simply select a charitable organization to receive donations from eligible purchases before shopping. Every eligible purchase after that will result in a donation. We hope you select the Marblehead Conservancy!

If you’ve already signed up for AmazonSmile, visiting smile.amazon.com will show you which charity you have selected.  Note that purchases must be made with a web browser (not your phone or tablet/iPad) and you must use the smile.amazon.com URL to shop.  Amazon will remind you to select AmazonSmile if you go to the normal Amazon URL.  Unfortunately, orders from the Amazon app on your mobile device (phone or tablet/iPad) are not eligible for AmazonSmile. AmazonSmile is not associated with AmazonPrime, so AmazonPrime members must still go to smile.amazon.com to activate AmazonSmile.

The Marblehead Conservancy appreciates your interest and contributions!

Marblehead continues to be a Tree City

Unless you have seen the small roadside sign on Lafayette Street identifying Marblehead as a Tree City, you may not be aware that Marblehead has been on the Arbor Day Foundation’s list of Tree Cities for the past seventeen years.This distinction is given to those communities that meet the Foundation’s standards for creating and maintaining a commitment to a greener, healthier community through attention to its trees. Paying attention to the health of trees, and replacing those damaged or aged beyond saving are part of that commitment. The Conservancy Trails Committee supports Marblehead’s Tree Department and Tree Warden, Doug Gordon, with Earth/Arbor Day plantings. The Tree Department, in turn, supports the Conservancy Trails Committee in handling the larger downed trees along conservation area trails. This partnership continues to work well to the Town’s benefit.