Saving the shoreline and conservation areas…

Around the end of October a simple glance at the Lead Mills Conservation Area from  Lafayette Street would have shown that the narrow chip-covered pedestrian trail crossing the length of the area had become a fifteen-foot wide muddy road. A short trek from this entry point to Harbor Glade just off the former rail bed revealed that the path to the harbor shoreline had become a bed of rocks not fit for walking. These dramatic changes, unfortunately, were necessary for the access of heavy equipment. Trucks, excavators, and front end loaders had to reach the shore for a badly needed rework of the slope at the harbors edge along the rail bed. What happened?

An early March storm passing through Marblehead brought high winds along with precipitation, arriving at a time of unusually high tide. Trees were downed and sea walls were damaged in Marblehead Harbor and at Grace Oliver beach. It wasn’t until late April, however, that a survey of conservation areas found that the Salem Harbor shoreline bordering Lead Mills, an embankment of the rail bed, had also been extensively damaged. Trees and shrubs that had been planted along the water-facing slope during the 2010 – 2011 area remediation had been washed free of the earth. Much of the original slope was simply gone. The top of the slope even now is barely six feet from the rail bed, threatening a deeper washout if another such storm arrives.

To protect the shoreline slope from further erosion with normal tides and storms, a barrier of large stones has been created from the foot of the slope several feet upwards along most heavily damaged area. A layer of sand, just above the new barrier of stones, remains a concern. This layer, more than a foot thick, was exposed when the rest of the slope washed away. If that layer had extended down the original slope, it may well have contributed to the collapse. At this time, the rock barrier gives protection to the slope. We must wait to see if another untimely storm will cause further removal of the remaining sand layer and collapse of the earth above.

The need to bring in and position a large volume of stones for the new barrier resulted in damage to the neighboring conservation areas. Heavy equipment can be hard on any surface, and repair is necessary to restore access for walkers. The Conservancy submitted recommendations for remediation to the Town Engineer and by early November, a plan for the conservation areas was underway. Loam now covers the path from the rail bed to the harbor shoreline. The trails across Lead Mills out to Lafayette Street will be smoothed. Re-seeding is in the plan, weather permitting, but it is likely that the plan will extend into next spring.

Thanks to the Municipal Light Department for supporting the shoreline repair, to Charles Quigley, Town Engineer and Conservation Agent, for initiating remediation on the conservation lands and to Andrew Petty, Director of Public Health, for his assistance in obtaining material and equipment for that remediation.

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.

Perambulation 2017 – Where do we go from here?

The 2017 Perambulation of Marblehead’s downtown “Secret Passageways” realized the largest attendance ever – a combination of residents and visitors totaling 102 as they left the upper grounds of Abbot Hall! Donald Doliber, Town Historian, guided this enormous group up and down hills, following paths originally made in colonial times as the most direct routes connecting waterside to the interior of the peninsula.

Even though it was difficult for those on the fringe of the crowd to hear the guide, they stuck with him for much of the way. However, this difficulty along with the obvious problem of more than a hundred people trying to navigate the streets as a single group show that we will have to change the logistics before offering another public Perambulation.

Railbed Rehab Continues!

In June Swampscott voters approved a plan  to design and build a recreational easement along the line of a former rail bed that runs from Marblehead through the town. The plan, when completed, would be a pedestrian and bike path connecting with Marblehead’s utility corridor easement at Seaview Avenue and extending  to the current Swampscott rail station.

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 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 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 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 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.