Josna Rege

10. Ghosts of New Boston

In 1930s, 1980s, history, places, Stories, United States on March 5, 2010 at 4:35 am

little red wagon      (photo by Thuyhn at

The Hurricane of 1938 had wreaked havoc in north-central Massachusetts, and when we moved to Winchendon in 1983,  less than fifty years later, the memories were still very much alive. Old-timers told us stories of being rescued from second-floor windows, and our farm bordered on the flood-control zone that had been created in the aftermath by the Army Corps of Engineers, a large area of land that would be sacrificed to save Route 2 and the town of Athol in the event of another deluge.  Driving down River Street toward the farm, we passed the floodgates which, though usually open, had to be closed for one high-water period in the seven years we lived there. Then Charlie Gamble took out his canoe and paddled the boys down our street to the river. How exciting when the rutted old road suddenly became a waterway!

But when the Corps first built the Birch Hill Dam and commandeered the flood control acreage by eminent domain, it cannot have been so exciting for the residents of the little community of New Boston. Since the land on which they had built their homes was to be inundated in the event of another Great Hurricane, they were obliged to pack up and move, leaving their homesteads to be reclaimed by the forest.

The resulting Birch Hill Wildlife Management Area lay just to the south of our land and, turning off River Street onto a well-maintained dirt road, we passed right through what was left of New Boston. In the spring, old lilac bushes marked the sites of abandoned homesteads, and in the fall our eyes were peeled for the wizened apple trees whose small, pockmarked, but tasty fruit we collected for cidering. One day we found an old dump in the woods behind one of the cellarholes, and brought home as treasures the remnants of another family’s life—glass bottles that had once contained patent medicines and a wooden bicycle wheel.  Another day we found a foundation with the brick chimney still standing and a child’s red wagon, still only a little rusty, lying in the yard as if the family had left in a hurry not so long ago, and had always intended to come back for it.

  1. You were living in Winchenden when you came down with Nik to visit in NYC. Nik was, what 4 or 5? He rode a bus for the first time, do you remember his beatific smile?

    • Yes we were. And actually, he was two. “Bus” was one of his very first words, and he had quite a number of toy buses, so actually riding in one was akin to a religious experience. You should have seen him the first time he rode on a double-decker bus! x J

  2. Abandoned toys are always so haunting… We did make a trip to the Harvard Forest Museum, btw. Very much worth the drive, and the whole family had a nice hike that afternoon.

    • Yes, the departed families of New Boston really did have a ghostly presence for me. So glad you made it to the Harvard Forest Museum. Did you see the upstairs, where they had photographs of some of the ’38 hurricane damage (and a beautiful birch bark canoe)?

  3. We arrived late in the day, so we did get to see the upstairs, but with not as much time to linger as we would have liked. What I really liked about the upstairs exhibit was how it appeared to have been put together right after the storm… so it was historic unto itself.

  4. Our forestry course visited Harvard Forest in Petersham, where we learned about the 1938 hurricane. Supposedly the Director committed suicide after seeing all the damage to his trees; then it became a focus of research: how the 100 year storms determine the New England landscape, where big tree-throw mounds decay to moguls.

    • The upstairs room of the forest’s museum focuses a great deal on the damage inflicted by the ’38 Hurricane and damage to trees in general. Some of the pictures of trees with lopped-off limbs are painful to look at; whoever put the exhibit together clearly identified strongly with their plight. I love the dioramas there (especially the series that shows the changes in the New England forest every sixty years from precolonial times), and so did Nikhil and Eric as children, who actually cried when we had to leave! But what is a mogul, in forestry lingo?

      • Actually, I was thinking of skiing moguls, which resemble the undulating forest floor after the tree-throw mounds have worn down.

        • Ah, I get it–but know even less about skiing than I do about forestry! What comes to mind when I think of the rocky, root-riddled forest floor is the incredible amount of work the early settlers had to do in order to clear the fields and build all those stone walls.

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