Sunday, May 22, 2011

Charles River Peninsula: Some historical information

View of Newell's Bridge (South/Willow St) before recent construction
I just finished up The Trustees of Reservations' Charles River Valley Hike of the Month at the Charles River Peninsula. The CRP is a site of some historical interest so I thought I might provide some information here for the benefit of those unable to join the hike.

Records indicate that the property was owned by the Fisher family, one of the founding families of Needham. Fisher Street and the Fisher Bridge on Central Ave over the Charles are legacies of this history. The fields were probably used as pasture for dairy cows and other agricultural purposes. There was also a saw mill on the current site of the Redwing Bay parking lot.

Significant members of the Fisher family include Alvan Fisher, the prominent landscape artist, and his brother, John Dix Fisher, physician and founder of the Perkins School for the Blind.

During the first half of the 20th century, Walker-Gordon Laboratories bought the land to use as a dairy farm (a more famous Walker-Gordon dairy, home of Borden's "Elsie the Cow," was in Plainsboro, New Jersey).  Walker-Gordon is known for their development of the "rotolactor," a rotating milking platform that supposedly made milking cleaner and more efficient. This invention was displayed at the World's Fair in 1939-40 and then moved to Needham, where it became a local tourist attraction.

The land was broken up in the 1950s. Walker-Gordon Field off of Charles River Street is a legacy of this history.  The farm buildings and barns, initially used to house convalescing children with long-term illnesses, became the Walker Home and School for special-needs children. And property that is now the Charles River Peninsula was donated to the Trustees of Reservations in 1960.

For much of its history the CRP was apparently accessible to the public by canoe only; in the 1990s additional land was acquired that allowed access from Redwing Bay (which is managed by Needham and the DCR).  In recent years TTOR has been managing the property as a grassland habitat for birds and wildlife, cutting down a large stand of trees that used to divide the land and aggressively eliminating woody growth encroaching on the meadow. TTOR mows the land annually, usually around the first week in November.

Here is the official TTOR CRP page. Here is a link to the Needham Historical Society, the source of much of this information.

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