Henry David Thoreau's Concord
Some sites walking distance, others best by bike or car; various times.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was born, lived and died in Concord, Massachusetts. Except for several trips in New England and New York described in his writings, he spent his entire life here.
These are the places he dwelt, lived in, and loved. Most are in the center of Concord, an easy walk. To visit his birthplace at Thoreau Farm and his cabin site and replica at Walden Pond you may want a car or bicycle.
Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817 at what was known as the Wheeler-Minot Farm at 341 Virginia Road, 2.5 miles (4 km) northeast of Monument Square.
He was christened David Henry Thoreau, after a recently deceased uncle. (The last name is pronounced THOR-roh, not thoh-ROH. He reversed his first and middle name while at Harvard. He liked it better that way.)
Built in 1730 by John Wheeler, the farm and its house passed to Henry Thoreau’s ancestor Jonas Minot on his mother’s side.
The house has been changed in many ways through its long history.
Its historic importance recognized, in 1995 it was acquired by the Thoreau Farm Trust, restored, and opened as a museum and cultural center. It’s usually open to visitors on weekends from May through October.
Henry David Thoreau came to Concord’s Walden Pond in 1845 “to live deliberately.”
He built his little one-room house in a clearing just uphill from a quiet cove. The cove, now named for Thoreau, is northeast of the present parking lot and public beach, near Wyman’s Meadow, a swampy area that’s really a smaller subsidiary pond.
He moved into his little house on July 4, 1845, and made it is home until September 6, 1847, except for a trip to Mount Katahdin in Maine, and one night in Concord Jail for refusing to pay the poll tax.
The house site is a quiet, pretty spot which would have had good views of the lake when Thoreau lived there. Thoreau wrote:
I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor…. My house was on the side of a hill, immediately on the edge of the larger woods, in the midst of a young forest of pitch pines and hickories, and a half dozen rods [100 feet, 30 meters] from the pond, to which a narrow footpath led down the hill.
Thoreau House Site
The approximate site of Thoreau’s house had been known for years. His old friend, the Concord sage Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott) had walked out from Concord in 1872 with a visitor and placed a stone at what he remembered to be the site of Thoreau’s house.
This began the custom, and later visitors—ecological and literary pilgrims, really—also brought stones until the stones formed a substantial cairn.
Exactly a century after Thoreau built his little house and moved here, amateur archeologist Roland Wells Robbins spent three months digging the ground near the cairn until he discovered the footings for the chimney of the house.
Today an inscribed stone marks the place of the chimney, and granite standing stones frame the area the little house covered. A wooden plaque next to the cairn bears Thoreau’s most famous words:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Replica of Thoreau's House
A replica of Thoreau’s house (he called it that, not a hut or a cabin) is next to the parking lots of Walden Pond State Reservation on MA Route 126 near the intersection of MA Route 2. Thoreau built the one-story, one-room, 10-foot by 15-foot (3 x 4.6-meter) structure mostly of used materials: old shanty boards; used shingles to cover roof and walls; plaster, lath & horsehair for interior walls; two second-hand windows; and a thousand old bricks for the chimney and fireplace. Total out-of-pocket cost was $28.12-1/2, with the boards, shingles and bricks being over half the cost ($16).
Inside were a bed, table, small desk, lamp, and three chairs: “one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”
(For comparison, a Chevy Suburban SUV is 19 feet long—longer than Thoreau’s house!)
Behind the house was a woodbox for firewood.
The replica is usually open to the public during park hours.
Thoreau moved out of his house at Walden Pond in September 1847 and into “Bush,” the Emerson family home, when Ralph Waldo Emerson left for a trip to Europe. He helped Lidian Emerson with house chores, repairs and gardening, and tutored the Emerson children.
The Emerson-Thoreau Amble is a footpath recreating the route Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott and other Concordians may have followed on walks between Concord MA and Walden Pond. It starts behind the Emerson House and follows a winding route for 1.7 miles (2.74 km) to the site of Thoreau’s house. The walk takes 40 to 60 minutes.
The unpaved path is uneven in places, may be somewhat muddy after rain (though wood chips and boardwalks reduce this), and requires climbing some short but steepish hills. Sturdy footwear is recommended.
Thoreau - Alcott House
In July 1848, Thoreau moved out of Emerson’s house to stay in a house on Belknap Street in Concord. Then, in 1850, he moved around the corner and into the house at 255 Main Street, with others of his family.
Built in 1849, the house was his home until his death from tuberculosis in May 1862.
Louisa May Alcott and her sister Anna purchased the house in 1877 after their mother’s death, and they lived here with their father Bronson Alcott.
The house, now a private home not open to visitors, is known as the Thoreau-Alcott House and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1976.
Henry David Thoreau’s grave on Authors Ridge in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is severely plain: just a marble headstone engraved Henry.
But Thoreau looms large in the minds and spirits of thousands of readers, ecologists and plain folks the world over, and for them (or me) a visit to his grave is a special event, summer or winter.
Among the votive offerings it’s common to find pencils, because Thoreau and his father John Thoreau ran a company that developed and manufactured the best pencils in the USA at the time. Pencils supported Thoreau in his studies at Harvard, during his life, and in his literary efforts.
The graves of Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson and his wife Lidian, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, his wife Sophia and daughter Una, are all nearby on Authors Ridge.