I was swimming west on Walden Pond
towards the ghosts of pre-Famine Irish workers
near Concord village in the sun on the first day of September.
–After Paul Durcan’s “On the First Day of June.”
In late June 1844, New England newspapers reported that service on the Fitchburg Railroad had reached Concord, Massachusetts, birthplace of the American revolution. A new noise replaced “the shot heard round the world.”
The repose of that quite venerable town … was suddenly broken by the shrill note of the engine and a hundred passengers alighted from the train of freight cars laden with materials for the line. The route from Boston to Concord is most picturesque and pleasing, passing [among other locations] the clear waters of Walden Pond. The regular trains will now commence running to Concord, and the track is rapidly progressing towards Vermont, and Canada.
A year later, Henry David Thoreau moved into the cabin he built near the pond’s shoreline. As noted in his book, Walden, he procured the boards for his abode from the “uncommonly fine” shanty of Irish railroad worker James Collins, who was moving up the line with the transportation project.
Irish railroad workers, former slaves, and other outcasts lived in the Walden woods for years before Thoreau. And it wasn’t all bucolic wilderness, either, as many nearby acres had been cut for timber and cleared for farming and the railroad. As Thoreau noted, the Fitchburg Railroad “touches the pond about a hundred rods [a third of a mile] south of where I dwell.” He continued:
The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk over a farmer’s yard, informing me that many restless city merchants are arriving within the circle of the town, or adventurous county traders from the other side.
In another passage, Thoreau mused on the term “sleepers,” the wooden ties that support the railroad tracks, as a metaphor of the workers’ oppression and their potential redemption:
Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them and they are covered with sand, and cars run smooth over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. … And I am glad to know that it takes a gang of men for every five miles to keep the sleepers down and level in their beds as it is, for this is a sign that they may sometime get up again.
Waves of unskilled Irish arrived in America during a “forgotten era” of immigration before the Great Famine of the late 1840s. They were cheap labor for the dirty and dangerous work of building the nation’s canals and railroads. A decade before the Fitchburg line was laid, 57 Irish railroad workers died of cholera–though some were probably murdered–at Duffy’s Cut, near Philadelphia, where they were buried in a notorious mass grave.
Irish people are referenced throughout Walden. Thoreau described the “clumsy Irish laborers” who cut blocks of ice on the pond in winter, and “Poor John Field … born to be poor, with his inherited Irish poverty.” He wrote, “the culture of an Irishman is an enterprise to be undertaken with a sort of moral bog hoe.” Scholars have debated whether Thoreau was prejudice against the Irish. One University of Notre Dame professor blames such interpretations on “hasty reading” of the book.
I visited Walden on the first day of September, as near to the autumn equinox as the date of Paul Durcan’s poem is to the summer solstice. With the air and water temperatures each about 80 F. (27 C.), I welcomed the challenge from my wife and some friends to swim the half-mile length of the pond. In the book, Thoreau made several mentions of bathing in the pond during summer, even “swimming across one of its coves for a stint.”
I am a confident, year-round pool swimmer, but I rarely get the chance to stroke through open water. Given Walden’s smooth surface and historical significance, this was an exhilarating opportunity. I entered from the sandy beach at the east end of the 65-acre oval.
For the next 20 minutes, I alternated between freestyle and breast strokes, the former to cover the distance more quickly, the latter to make head up navigational adjustments. There are no lap lanes across Walden Pond.
About three quarters across, during a stretch of breast stroke, I watched a train streak left to right on the horizon ahead of me. It was the commuter line of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority on the former Fitchburg Railroad right-of-way. There was no shrill whistle; no belching smoke from a coal-fired locomotive; only the sound of steel wheels on steel rails, riding over the sleepers kept down and level in their beds by gangs of men. The rapid, unbroken notes drifted over the water:
“kA-thunk-A-thunk. kA-thunk-A-thunk. kA-thunk-A-thunk. … ”
Then silence. Then water rippling around my ears. My breathing. I dropped my head and stretched forward my right arm to begin the final segment of freestyle to the shore. There, I rested a few moments.
I thought about James Collins, John Field, and the other Irish who lived at Walden more than 170 years ago. Perhaps this spot is where Thoreau salvaged “a raft of pitch-pine logs with the bark on, pinned together by the Irish when the railroad was built.”
A raft for fishing? A raft for sledding blocks of pond ice? Or perhaps, looking eastward as I was, a raft for their imaginations to drift across Walden, across the Atlantic, all the way back to Ireland, even as their starving countrymen began sailing westward in the dark holds of equally dubious vessels.
Thoreau wrote “a million Irishmen starting up from all the shanties in the land [exclaimed], ‘What, is not this railroad which we have built a good thing?’ Yes, I answer, comparatively good, that is, you might have done worse; but I wish, as you are brothers of mine, that you could have spent your time better than digging in this dirt.”
I waded into the shallow and plunged into the pond to begin the half-mile swim back to my wife and friends. Back to the 21st century. I am now another ghost of Walden; one who never built a railroad, a shanty, or even a simple raft. I am digging with my pen, as poet Seamus Heaney wrote; I am building my railroad on sleepers of words.
Along the shores of Walden
once home to shanty Irish workers
on the first day of September in the heart of New England
my ripples disappeared.
“Forgotten era” is the section title for the immigration period 1700 to 1840, in Jay P. Dolan’s The Irish Americans: A History, Bloomsbury Press, New York, 2008. More than one million people left Ireland in the 30 years before the Famine (p. 35), and up to 60 percent were unskilled laborers (p. 37). Irish workers helped to build America’s canal system in the early 19th century, then shifted to railroad work as that mode of transportation became more practical and profitable to commercial interests. In both cases, migrant Irish laborers lived in shanty communities near the project sites (pgs. 42-46).