Bussey Brook Meadow
A site for long-term study of urban ecology
The 24 acres that make up Bussey Brook Meadow–a 24-acre parcel of the Arnold Arboretum located between the Forest Hills MBTA Station and the Arboretum’s South Street Gate–are preserved with minimal human interference as a site for research into the complex interactions that characterize urban environments. Protected through the Arboretum’s indenture and not subject to loss from future development, this “urban wild” supports studies in a range of disciplines, generating abundant data about the ecological functioning of a modern city.
A walk down the Blackwell Footpath in the Arboretum’s Bussey Brook Meadow presents opportunities to observe a spontaneous wildflower meadow, a flourishing wetland, and a diversity of both native and introduced plants and animals. In 1996, the Arboretum Park Conservancy partnered with the Arboretum to preserve this landscape, assembled from neglected parcels of land that formerly belonged to the MBTA, the City of Boston, and Harvard University. Under the current management regimen, the meadow serves as a site where Arboretum scientists and visiting scholars can document long-term changes in plant succession and measure ecosystem functions including vegetation structure, wildlife abundance, phenology, and biogeochemical cycling.
In addition to aiding recent studies conducted by researchers from a number of universities including the Harvard Medical School and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the Arboretum has also become a participatory member in ULTRA (Urban Long-Term Research Area) exploratory projects funded by the National Science Foundation and USDA Forest Service. As such, Bussey Brook Meadow will serve Harvard University and science as a permanent site for monitoring spontaneous urban ecology that will become more valuable over time.
History of an Urban Wilderness
Timeline compiled by Peter Del Tredici, Jill Desimini, and Jenny Corlett
The parcel of Arnold Arboretum land now known as Bussey Brook Meadow has a long history of use and abuse going back to the late 1600s. Originally part of an extensive wetland system, it has slowly been filled in by it various owners to the extent that it now has become a complex mosaic of hills and valleys where once there was only marshland.
The Colonial Period
The Bussey Brook watershed consists of 977 acres, roughly bounded by Allandale Road, the VFW Parkway and the Forest Hills Station, and encompasses much of the Arnold Arboretum. Bussey Brook was originally known as Sawmill Brook because, as early as 1692, a dam and mill that were located on the stream near the base of Hemlock Hill. Within the Arnold Arboretum, Bussey Brook flows through the valley that separates Bussey Hill and Hemlock Hill, crosses South Street and enters Bussey Brook Meadow (BBM). South Street is one of the oldest roads in Boston (dating back to at least 1662) and was the first of many infrastructure projects to impact the ecology of BBM. Early settlers drained parts of the meadow for pasture and field crops by digging channels into the peaty ground. Today BBM consists of 24 acres bounded by South Street on the north and west, the MBTA Needham Commuter train line on the south and the Forest Hills Station on the east.
The Dedham Turnpike, the stretch of road connecting Dedham to Providence (and Dedham to Roxbury), is financed and constructed by a group of private citizens with authorization form the Massachusetts General Court in 1802. The road passed through the wetlands along the south side of Stony Brook and its tollgate was located a bit south of the current location of the Forest Hills Station.
In 1806, Benjamin Bussey purchases the homestead farm of Eleazer Weld in West Roxbury from Mary Weld, heir to the estate; the parcel includes the northern portion of Harvard’s land in BBM (northeast of Bussey Brook). In 1832, Bussey purchases the southern portion of Harvard’s land in BBM (southwest of Bussey Brook) from the farmer Ezra Davis, who had used the land for pasture and hay production, bringing his total holdings in BBM to 18 acres. John G. Hales’ 1832 Map below shows Bussey Brook flowing freely into Stony Brook surrounded by a large wetland. The “Dedham Turnpike” is clearly shown on the south side of Stony Brook.
Construction of the 44-mile-long Boston to Providence Railroad line, more or less parallel to the Dedham Turnpike, but on the opposite side of Stony Brook. It passes through the wetlands between Stony Brook and Bussey Brook on an earthen causeway supported by heavy timbers stuck in the peaty soil. The “Tollgate” stop (a platform) was located just south of the present site of the Forest Hills Station. The train line and its berm were expanded in 1850 and again in 1873. (The construction of this train line is the second piece of infrastructure to directly impact drainage in BBM.)
Benjamin Bussey dies, leaving a portion of his estate to Harvard University to promote the scientific study of agriculture. The bequest includes a significant portion of BBM. Bussey had become interested in agriculture as early as 1803, when joined the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture.
Charles Whitney’s 1849 map shows the Roxbury Branch Railroad cutting Bussey Brook off from Stony Brook just at the point where the two come together. Henry Francis Walling’s 1859 map shows the recently expanded Dedham Branch of the Boston and Providence Line, with Bussey Brook now running along much of the length of the berm–almost to the site of Forest Hills Station–before disappearing under the tracks. This map shows Bussey Brook making a northward turn after crossing South Street before curving east and passing through the meadow. (This is the earliest evidence for an alteration in the course of Bussey Brook, probably to create more arable farmland adjacent to South Street.)
May 25, 1861
W.A. Garbett’s 1861 “Plan of Part of the Bussey Estate, West Roxbury” shows a short, bifurcated segment of Bussey Brook just after it crosses South Street an enters BBM. Along the eastern property line (with land owned by Samuel Rodman) is a long channel (“ditch”) which carries runoff from South Street across BBM. (It seems unlikely that Bussey Brook was connected to this eastern ditch at this time.)
Trustees of the Bussey estate transfer the deed for a large portion of the Bussey farm and mansion to the President and Fellows of Harvard College, including a portion of Bussey Brook Meadow (about 200 acres altogether).
1870 to 1900
Sometime after BBM was transferred to Harvard College, the Bussey Brook channel was shifted northeast to link up with the drainage ditch that ran across the eastern boundary of the property. In the Sewer Board’s maps from 1900-01 and the Bryant map from 1920, the Bussey Brook channel is shown as running abruptly northeast after crossing South Street, following the base of the hill, and then making a sharp right turn at the eastern boundary of Bussey property and cutting across BBM (following the property line). It then turns sharply north again when it gets to the railroad berm, which it follows for a distance before entering its conduit. This highly artificial, “z-shaped” channel lasted until 1921. The linear “pond” that is shown along the edge of the railroad berm in some maps probably dates back to the 1850s and is the product of surface drainage and not connected to the flow of Bussey Brook, except perhaps when there was high water.
The Plain-field portion of the Bussey Estate is deeded to Harvard College; this is the area Benjamin Bussey designated as the site for the future Bussey Institution. The University constructs the Gothic headquarters building–designed by the architecture firm of Peabody and Stearns—which opens in spring 1871. Francis Parkman is appointed the first Director of Horticulture and is succeeded by C.S. Sargent in 1872.
March 29, 1872
Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University is established; the property encompasses much of the former Bussey estate land.
December 30, 1882
Arnold Arboretum indenture takes effect establishing a thousand year lease between the City of Boston and Harvard University.
Major flooding in the Stony Brook Valley.
New York, New Haven and Hartford (NY, NH & H) Railroad leases the entire Old Colony Railroad for 99 years.
1899 property map shows the “Peters” parcel which encompasses the land where the future Asticou neighborhood and Arborway Court apartments will be built. The “West Roxbury Rail Line” runs below this property. The matching 1898 property map shows “Cordis” parcel adjacent to the Peters property with one building near the road another at the end of a long driveway.
1900 to 1906
Metropolitan Water and Sewerage Board (later the Boston Water and Sewer Commission (BWSC)) constructs a 9-foot diameter high-level sewer line that cuts across the west side of Bussey Brook Meadow. Flowing from north to south, it follows South Street from Jamaica Plain center close to the Forest Hills intersection and past the Asticou neighborhood. The pipe leaves South Street near the middle of the current landfill site and flows down hill into BBM. From here, it cuts across BBM, parallel to but just “uphill” from the Bussey Brook channel. It crosses over Bussey Brook under South Street near the Arboretum gate and then follows the roadway into Roslindale. Construction of this sewer line necessitates some adjustments of the Bussey Brook channel.
The 1905 property map shows Asticou neighborhood plotted out on the upper portion of the former Peters land, but only a few houses are built; Chocorura Road is shown below the Asticou neighborhood, which dead ends after extending a short distance. The undeveloped portion of the Peters land with its house and barn is shown along with the adjacent Cordis property.
Fourteen two-family homes built along Asticou Road on former Peters land. The large, four-story “Arborway Court” apartment building near the base of South Street (also on Peters land) is built in 1910 and consists of 72 apartments and a one-story parking garage, built in 1915. (The apartment building and its garage were torn down in 1967 in anticipation of the I-95 extension project.)
1914 property map shows Asticou neighborhood fully built-out and the adjacent Cordis parcel now owned by Alice M. Lincoln. The path of the BWSC sewer line is clearly marked on the map, as is the Stony Brook conduit that passes under the railroad tracks near Forest Hills Station.
Arboretum acquires the “South Street Tract” from Harvard College, who had acquired it from the Bussey Estate in 1861. It consists of 18 acres of mostly low, fertile land that had been the pasture and wetland before Bussey obtained it. The land is intended to serve as the location for a new nursery and for the willow and poplar collections. The Arboretum’s visiting committee and the trustees of the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture (Benjamin Bussey became a member in 1803) are largely responsible for purchasing the land from Harvard for use by the Arboretum.
Sargent hires the engineer Henry F. Bryant to study the drainage of the South Street Tract and recommend ways to lower the level of groundwater. From among three options ($500, $2,500 and $6,000), Sargent chooses the middle-priced plan that changes the course of BB from a man-made channel that follows the northern and eastern boundaries of the parcel to one that crosses the wetland directly and flows into pond before entering its conduit and crossing under the railroad tracks (“making the whole area less stagnant and more attractive”). Bryant’s map of existing conditions from October 8, 1920 shows 1) nine bore holes in the meadow registering peat depths of between 2 and 36 feet; 2) “ploughed land” and “gardens” on the southwestern part of the tract separated by a “driveway” that more or less follows the original channel of BB; and 3) the existing BB channel running along the NW portion of the property before making a right angle turn and flowing along the NE boundary to the railroad berm, which it flows along until it reaches its conduit.
According to C. S. Sargent’s 1921-22 Directors Report: “Work on the new Arboretum land between South Street and the railroad was begun during the year to prepare it for the Willow Collection. A new channel for the Bussey Brook has been made through the meadow and the water level has been lowered. A substantial wire fence a thousand feet long has been built along part of the railroad location, for protection against boys and other trespassers, and a supply of peat has been dug from the meadow for use in other parts of the Arboretum, and replace by ashes.”
Arboretum builds a new brick house for Assistant Director, E. H. Wilson at 380 South Street. Some cutting and filling is done to create level ground for the house and a new tree planting area on the sloping ground just to the south.
The excavation of Muddy Pond is completed; the surface drainage pond along the railroad tracks was filled in; and the new “South Street Nursery” area was planted. Also during this period material is brought in to fill in the old Bussey Brook channel that ran “below” the high-level sewer line. This fill material served as the base for an extension of the “wagon road” that ended near the Arboretum property line and for a level planting area nearby that extended into the meadow. [As far as can be determined, this road and the new planting area ended near where two large catalpas still stand, as evidenced by the steel cable attached to one of the trees to which a chain was probably attached.]
June 26, 1927
Aerial photographs by the Fairchild Aerial Service of South Street Tract clearly show: 1) Muddy Pond near the eastern edge of Arboretum property; 2) the wire fence and a nearby hedgerow of willows mark the Arboretum’s boundary with parcel 2824 (the site of the future landfill) as well as the boundary along the railroad track; 3) the future landfill site is covered with trees and grass; 4) 380 South Street and an extensive tree planting area on the adjacent slope; 5) the new “South Street Nursery;” and 6) a baseball diamond near the Arboretum’s South Street Gate. (Eight plants out of the forty or so that were originally planted adjacent to 380 South Street are still alive today.)
Prof. C. S. Sargent dies; Prof. Oakes Ames appointed Director of the Arnold Arboretum.
Dr. Elmer Drew Merrill becomes Director of the Arnold Arboretum.
In his land-use history of the Arnold Arboretum, Hugh Raup states: “At the time the tract [South Street] was added to the Arboretum, the northeastern part was only a wet meadow, but in 1922 work was started, and by 1923 the pond was formed by the excavation of masses of peat. Some of the surrounding land was raised by allowing it to be used as a dump, but beyond this and some border plantings the original project of roads, paths and plantings is still unfinished. With the growth of the trees which will eventually shield the tract from the adjoining railway, it can be made into a useful as well as beautiful addition.”
Aerial photos of Arnold Arboretum by Bradford Washburn of the Science Museum clearly show Muddy Pond in a low area relative to the surrounding land; the fence/willow hedgerow marking the Arboretum boundary with parcel 2824 and the railroad tracks; the South Street Nursery and planted poplars near South Street; a baseball diamond on the raised land above the pond near the railroad tracks; and the tree planting area adjacent to 380 South Street. The Asticou neighborhood is clearly visible and there is no sign of any landfilling or excavation on parcel 2824 (the site of the future landfill).
In June 1936, Harvard University ceases academic activities at the Bussey Institution.
Arboretum collections maps of BBM from this time period show the pond and a portion of the “wagon road” on top of a “dump” area that runs along the edge of the wetland. The maps also document the poplar plantings around the South Street Nursery, the extensive willow plantings in wet areas around the pond, along the railroad tracks and along the cart road, and the mixed plantings near 380 South Street.
Arboretum releases part of its South Street Tract to the Boston Victory Garden Committee (and Arboretum staff members) for growing vegetables.
Dr. Karl Sax becomes Director of the Arnold Arboretum.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts takes over the Bussey Institution buildings for its Diagnostic Laboratory; Arboretum continues to use the greenhouses and nurseries on adjacent land.
An aerial photo by Donald Wyman shows extensive excavation of soil from parcel 2824 (the future landfill) adjacent to 310 South Street. This material (sand and gravel?) was undoubtedly used as fill in another location. (The removal of the native soil from parcel 2824 was completed prior to October 1955, when aerial photographs show the early stages of dumping on the site.)
The Monsignor William J. Casey Overpass is constructed, which elevates Arborway traffic over the Forest Hills area, completely obliterating its complex intersection with Washington Street. Building the overpass necessitates removing 200 Olmsted-era red oaks that had been planted along the overtopped section of the Arborway. (The Casey Overpass was removed in 2018.)
In 1953, a nine-year-old boy drowns in Muddy Pond; local residents circulate a petition asking Harvard to fill in the 30′ x 50′ pond. Neighbors say over 300 people signed the petition, but no action was ever taken.
Mrs. Andrew J. Peters (widow of the former mayor) donates her property at 310 South Street to the Arboretum. It is directly across the street from the Bussey Institution headquarters and consists of a house and barn on two acres of land. The property runs alongside and below Asticou Road on one side and adjacent to parcel 2824 on the other.
Dr. Richard A. Howard becomes director of the Arnold Arboretum in 1954.
Aerial photographs by Bradford Washburn from October 1955 show that all of the soil originally making up parcel 2824 (the future landfill) had been removed and the initial stages of dumping on the parcel (large granite blocks?) had begun—the birth of the present landfill. The photos also show the old Bussey Institution buildings and its adjacent nurseries; Muddy Pond (with debris floating in it) and its adjacent wetland; the “Arborway Court” apartment building and its adjacent parking lot; Chocorura Road and the land immediately below the Asticou is neighborhood filled with parked cars.
The Arboretum decides to sell the 310 South Street property in 1957. “After expending a considerable sum to fence the property and tear down a rambling frame addition to the basic brick house, it was discovered that the house was not structurally sound and could not be used as a staff residence. The property was on the Boston tax rolls at an inflated valuation, the taxes exceeding $1500 a year. Protecting the property from vandalism proved difficult and its sale was recommended.” The house is torn down and the property sold to James C. Martin, who lays out a new, unpaved road (Martinwood) off Asticou Road. He subdivides the property in 1958 and builds 13 small, Cape Cod and ranch-style homes. (Martinwood Road is still unpaved.)
The Legislature authorizes the purchase of Bussey Institution land from Harvard University by eminent domain. The Arboretum begins making plans for the relocation of nursery and greenhouse plantings and the Larz Anderson bonsai collection.
On 8 September 1959, an act passed by State Legislature (Chapter 564) authorized the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) to acquire the Harvard University-owned [Arboretum] portion of Bussey Brook Meadow in order “to construct and maintain thereon a recreation area with suitable structures and facilities therefor.” Plans including a swimming pool, picnic area, and small tots play area. It suggests the land can be acquired via eminent domain, purchase, gift, or other method.
According to Richard Howard’s 1960-61 Director’s Report: “In October 1960, the Arboretum staff was notified that legislation filed by Representative James J. Craven Jr., of Ward 19, had been approved by the General Court. This act provided for a swap of land involving a 17-acre tract of property owned by Harvard but adjacent to Arboretum property, between South Street and the New Haven Railroad [BBM] for land owned by the Metropolitan District Commission in Randolph, Massachusetts, and a cash settlement. The Randolph property would then be used by the Medical School with another cash settlement to the Arnold Arboretum. There was considerable publicity during the election campaign of the benefits to the public of the playground and picnic area planned adjacent to the Arboretum. Although this transfer of land title may occur eventually, legal considerations have delayed positive action. All of the Salix and Populus species which grow in the marshy tract have been propagated for replanting elsewhere on the grounds.”
Arboretum staff removes collections (including the Larz Anderson Bonsai Collection) from the grounds of the former Bussey Institution to the newly constructed Dana Greenhouse complex.
State of Massachusetts takes possession of the 7-acre Bussey Institution land and buildings as the site for its new Diagnostic Laboratory.
In January 1965, Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall announces that the Arnold Arboretum is designated a National Historic Landmark (along with 500 other places). Harvard and the City of Boston agree to preserve its historical integrity as far as possible and to continue to use the property only for purposes consistent with its historical character. In May 1966, a bronze plaque commemorating this designation is placed on one of the stone pillars of the Arborway gate. (This action was undertaken with support from the Visiting Committee as part of a strategy to protect the Arboretum from future attempts by the city and/or the state to take over portions of Arboretum property, such as that which occurred in 1959.)
In November of the same year, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) proposes using BBM as a potential site (along with two others) for a new “campus” high school. This plan was part of the city’s larger redevelopment initiative associated with the proposed construction of the “Southwest Expressway.” The new road would have extended Interstate 95 through the Forest Hills area, following the train line, and totally transform this part of Jamaica Plain. (The project, which was initially proposed in 1948, was finally killed by governor Francis Sargent in 1972, but not before irreparable damage was done to many neighborhoods in Roxbury and JP.)
This Lockwood aerial photo clearly shows the recently constructed Martinwood neighborhood and the completed landfill. Based on this photograph and those of Bradford Washburn, active landfilling occurred between 1955 and 1965. (Who or why the BB landfill was created is something of a mystery, but it’s possible that it was a speculative project that anticipated the construction of the “Southwest Expressway.”)
On October 25, the Director of Public Facilities for the City of Boston gives written notice to the Superintendent of Schools that he proposes to recommend the acquisition of the two parcels that make up the landfill as a site for a new school. The Superintendent of Schools files his approval of the proposal on November 6.
Public Facilities Department issues an Order of Taking of the landfill parcels “for school purposes” on June 30, 1970. [A Public Facilities Dept. map in the Arboretum Archives dated August 25, 1970 shows two parcels taken over by the City of Boston on 6/30/70, one belonging to Calvin B. and Rita A. Faunce (3.67 acres) and second belonging to Zelda M. Wilson (1.92 acres). [Earlier property maps show this land as belonging, in sequence, to Samuel Rodman (1859), Edward Cordis (1874), Alice M. Lincoln (1914), and Maurice Simon & Sidney Insoft (1928).]
Shortly after 10:30 on a Saturday morning in May 1971, two children drown in pond after the makeshift raft they built overturns. Clyde Johnson (age 9) and Margaret Johnson (age 8) die; brother, Leslie (age 10) survives.
Boston Globe article, “Raft tips, 2 children die” by Judy Bagles and Lou Kaufman reports that Leslie Johnson was rescued by an unidentified passerby and revived by Boston Police patrolman William Meehan. Parents James E. Sr. and Margaret Johnson live in public housing at 60 Brookway Road, Roslindale.
Harvard Crimson article, “Two Drown in Harvard’s ‘Muddy Pond.'” The next day, another Crimson article covers community response to drowning “Victims’ Aunt Calls Pond ‘Death Hole.'” One neighbor is quoted as saying, “That makes four dead in 15 years.”
Parkway Transcript article, “Craven Blasts MDC For Not Taking Tragic Pond,” reports comments from Representative James J. Craven that the area was supposed to have been used for recreational purposes according to the legislative act passed in 1959. “Sgt. John A. McCarthy Jr. Playground” is mentioned as the name of park, with a $2.5 million dollar appropriation. A separate Parkway Transcript article, “2 Children Drown in Pond As Tragedy Hits 3rd Time” reports the tragic circumstances of the Johnson family that had already lost two older children in separate tragedies and the fact that James Johnson, Sr. suffered a heart attack after pulling his daughter’s body out of the pond.
Jamaica Plain Citizen article, “Fire Department ‘requests’ Harvard cleanup at Muddy Pond,” includes three graphic photos of trash-strewn pond and stream banks and raft. It cites a Fire Department representative as stating that there were many drownings in the pond. On the same day, the Harvard Crimson publishes an article by Robert Decherd with the headline, “Harvard Liability is Low for Drownings at Pond.”
Harvard Students demonstrate on behalf of Jamaica Plain residents; flier calls for students to assemble at University Hall and march to the Real Estate office.
A letter from engineer to William Murphy, Director of Harvard Department of Buildings and Grounds, outlines three possible courses of action for making the Muddy Pond site safer, involving different degrees of dredging and filling the pond area with very different costs. Letter notes that some of the relevant wetlands on the site belong to New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad.
In an internal memorandum dated 7 June 1971, Harvard’s Assistant to the President of Community Affairs, Edward Gruson, warns Arboretum Director Richard Howard that MDC Commissioner John Sears is under “considerable political pressure” to take the Arboretum’s South Street tract by eminent domain in order to fulfill the requirements of the legislative act passed in 1959. “It will take very persuasive arguments on our part to convince him not to take the land.” He recommends meeting with MDC Commissioner [sic] Julie O’Brien.
Parkway Transcript article, “Three Law-Makers Urge MDC Take Death Trap Pond at Forest Hills,” reports that Senator Robert L. Cawley and Representatives James J. Craven Jr. and Arthur K. Lewis Jr. have urged MDC Commissioner John Sears to take South Street Tract by eminent domain as proposed in 1959.
Boston Herald Traveler article, “City, Harvard Begin Work To Make Muddy Pond Safer” reports that “. . .work has begun on Muddy Pond in Arnold Arboretum to reduce its size and depth and make it safer.” Article ends by noting, “Fire officials claimed there have been 15 to 20 drownings in the area in 23 years and hoped that the newest measures would help avert drowning in the future.” (Photo of bulldozer with pond in background is from this time.)
Harvard University Gazette article, “Muddy Pond Area To Be Filled In,” reports that “The University has agreed to move large granite blocks from City land adjacent to the Arboretum into the Pond and to cover these blocks with earth. In this way, the depth of the Pond will be reduced to a maximum of 12 to 18 inches from its present estimated maximum depth of five to six feet.” Also, “The City of Boston, represented by the Departments of Public Facilities, and the Boston Fire Commissioner, has agreed to continue its efforts to clean up and clear the channel draining the Pond. In addition the debris, lumber, and pieces of wood scattered in the area will be removed.”
According to Richard Howard’s 1970-71 Director’s Report: “One section of the Arboretum known as the South Street tract is low land with a pond of immediate interest as a wildlife area, which was reserved for future expansion of the collections after improvement in drainage, contouring and fencing. The area has been mentioned in previous reports when it was considered by city committees for school locations or recreational playgrounds. In 1959, as a result of an election, the land was to be taken by eminent domain proceedings, but the necessary legal action was never completed. In May of this year two small children were drowned when they fell from a raft they had constructed with material from a dump on adjacent city-owned property. There was considerable unfavorable newspaper publicity, reporting comments of local politicians. After serious consideration, the pond was filled during the summer.” (It is ironic that the pond dug by C.S. Sargent in 1922 was filled-in fifty years later by his successor.)
According to Dr. Howard’s 1974-75 Director’s Report: “The previous fiscal year saw an attempt by the City of Boston to acquire the South Street tract of the Arnold Arboretum for a campus-style high school. No sooner had the City agreed to seek an alternative site, than a bill was filed in the legislature of the commonwealth to acquire the same site for athletic facilities for Boston State College. Much time is required of the Arboretum staff, the officers of the University, and even representatives of the National Historic Site Commission in Washington to combat such bills. . .Convincing legislative committees that open land is useful for current biological studies and is needed for future plantings seems to be difficult.”
According to an internal Harvard University memo dated 10 July 1975, G.L. Homsy of the Harvard Planning office approached Arnold Arboretum horticulturist, Gordon DeWolf, “relative to the dumping of excavation material taken from the Seeley G. Mudd Building Site.” [The building was under construction at the Harvard Medical School.] “Mr. DeWolf expressed a desire to fill in a low area at the undeveloped sector of the Arnold Arboretum.” The memo continues: “The dumping and grading continued until noon on Thursday, 7/10/75, when a call from Dan Steiner suggesting that any further dumping cease until clarification is obtained from Mr. Alan Weinberg of the Boston Conservation Commission was received . . . approximately 25′ wide by 140′ long and 12′ deep (approximately 1550 cy) had been placed.” (The area being filled is clearly visible in aerial photos from 1976 and 1978 and lies between the roadway and the former site of the Muddy Pond. The area was probably selected because water was still ponding there despite the filling of Muddy Pond in 1971.)
Boston Conservation Commission (BCC) issues a Cease and Desist Order to Harvard University to stop the filling because it conflicts with Wetlands Protection Act (Funeral Laws, Chapter 131, section 40). The letter is addressed to the President and Fellows of Harvard College and is signed by Alan Weinberg. At a meeting held on site, “Mr. Weinberg expressed his views that no further dumping should take place and that application for permit should be made to the City of Boston for that material which had already been placed.” (The filling continued after the proper permits were obtained.)
Boston Redevelopment Authority issues its Urban Wilds report listing nearly 150 significant sites, including natural areas, undeveloped or underdeveloped land and community gardens; Bussey Brook Meadow is listed and describe in the inventory.
Boston Natural Areas Fund (BNAF) formed by Eugenie Beal and John Blackwell and four other people in response to BRA Urban Wilds report. (BNAF later changes name to Boston Natural Areas Network, BNAN.)
In response to a request from the Massachusetts Division of Agricultural Land Use, the Arboretum offers a piece of land in Bussey Brook Meadow for use by community gardeners (through Boston Urban Gardeners). Arboretum staff plows 3/4 of an acre in the fall of 1977; this is top-dressed with lime and 20 loads of leaf-mold and then disc harrowed in the spring of 1978. Garden is called “Pheasant Run” and lasts through 1981. (The availability of water for irrigation turned out to be a major problem.)
Swiss Air photos show Muddy Pond completely filled in (tire tracks are visible on the former site); the wetland illegally filled by the Arboretum/Harvard in 1975, between the Arboretum roadway and the Muddy Pond site; and the area below the Asticou neighborhood consists of two linear, mostly empty parking lots.
In December of 1978, Dr. Peter Shaw Ashton becomes Director of the Arnold Arboretum.
Acting on a tip from Vice-Mayor Edward T. Sullivan (Kevin White was Mayor), Arboretum Director Peter Ashton helps fend off proposals from the Public Facilities Department to use the BB landfill site as a place for parking. [The landfill had been taken by the PFD “for school purposes” in 1970, but the failure of that plan left the site available for other purposes.]
According to Peter Ashton’s 1979-80 Director’s report: “During the year the Southwest Corridor Project. . . began reconstruction operations on the section of the line abutting our South Street tract. The line was removed and the embankment lowered [and a large concrete retaining wall erected]. . .Gary Koller assisted John Frey, the landscape architect for the new station, in plant selection and worked with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority architects in site planning for a projected land link between the new station and the arboretum through the South Street tract. Two further negotiations involving use of the tract are in process. The city’s water department is searching for downstream sites in the Stony Brook drainage, where dams can be constructed for temporary impoundment of floodwater, to reduce the back-up of polluted water that occurs in the back Bay Fens following heavy rain. . .The dam has been suggested along the boundary between the South Street tract and adjacent city land, and this would lead to periodic short-term flooding of the wetlands that occupy the northern sector of the tract.”
On July 15, 1980, The MDC formally proposes constructing a detention pond in BBM for temporarily holding 8 million gallons of CSO overflow. It is calculated that at full capacity the pond would be four feet deep.
Sources: PDT conversation with Peter Ashton. PDT correspondence with Richard Heath. PDT conversation with Eugenie Beal. The Director’s Report: The Arnold Arboretum During the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1980 by Dr. Peter Ashton. Arnold Arboretum Archives: Hardscape Project Box
Forest Hills Station renovation begins in order to accommodate the reconfiguration of the Orange Line, dramatically altering the topography of the area and the layout of the roads. The berm supporting the suburban south rail line is completely rebuilt, including the construction of a 500-foot-long concrete retaining wall to protect it from being undermined by water flowing through the adjacent BBM.
According to Peter Ashton’s 1984 Director’s Report: “Agreement was reached with DeMatteo Construction Company of Quincy, Mass., to use fill resulting from subway construction under the Southwest Corridor Project to build a berm between the railroad track and the collections on Peter’s Hill. When completed, the berm will be 10 feet higher than the rail bed, and on the Arboretum side will gently taper into the natural contours. Its purpose is to prevent the incursion of stolen vehicles, to enhance the esthetics of the area, and to act as noise barrier for future high-use rail traffic. Once the mound is finished, it will be planted with meadow grasses and evergreens. This project is the largest single physical change made to the Arboretum in many years.”
At the suggestion of Landscape Architect John Frey (hired the MBTA) and with the prodding of John Blackwell of BNAF, the City of Boston agrees to construct a 737-foot-long berm and road skirting the base of the landfill. The berm supports a road that connects the recently constructed BWSC access road to the Bussey Brook trash rack with the 635-foot-long Arboretum road. The new berm is composed of rubble from the construction of a new downtown Boston office building and, at its highest point, is 25-30 feet tall with two storm drains. (The firm of Mason & Frey of Belmont, MA is listed as Landscape Architect on “Arnold Arboretum Access Pathway” drawings dated August 22, 1984. Annotations on the map indicate that 1) the design was paid for by BNAF; 2) the construction was done with the cooperation of the MBTA; and 3) the project was completed in spring 1985.)
The idea of a public supported “Arnold Arboretum Park Endowment” is developed by John Blackwell in discussions with Arboretum Director Peter Ashton.
The renovated Forest Hills Station opens as part of the Orange Line realignment; removal of elevated subway line running down Washington Street begins later in 1987.
Public launch of Arnold Arboretum Park Endowment Fund by John Blackwell. (Name later changed to Arboretum Park Conservancy [APC].)
Dr. Robert E. Cook becomes Director of the Arnold Arboretum.
BNAF is licensed by MBTA to manage BWSC parcel #749 in BBM. This is the land between New Washington Street and the Bussey Brook trash rack.
With prodding from Parks Commissioner Larry Dwyer, the Public Facilities Department votes that parcels #2836 and #2824 (5.6 acres encompassing the landfill and the adjacent wetland) are no longer need for “school purposes” and transfers the land to the Parks and Recreation Department. (See entries for June 30, 1970 and 1979.)
The APC organizes clean-up of BBM and removes ten tons of garbage and finds indications of homeless settlements and significant drug use.
The Arboretum transfers its 18 acres of BBM to Boston Parks and Recreation Department for future inclusion under the original Arnold Arboretum indenture.
Harvard University and the City of Boston sign a preliminary agreement to incorporate 24 acres of BBM into the 1882 Arnold Arboretum indenture.
Boston Parks Department and the State Transportation Department (with support from APC) jointly apply for $391,000 federal grant under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Enhancement Act (ISTEA) program to build a bike/walking path through BBM. [This program earmarks a small percentage of federal highway monies to support alternative forms of transportation.]
BBM pathway project approved with 70% federal, 20% state and 10% local funding; Parks Department to act as contract administrator.
Sources: Boston Globe, 26 September 1994
The Public Facilities Commission votes to incorporate the 24 acres of BBM into the 1882 Arnold Arboretum indenture.
MBTA grants a permanent public access easement on MBTA-BWSC property in BBM to the City of Boston, provided it builds a park or park-like facility on the adjoining land.
The Landscape Architecture firm Brown, Richardson and Rowe (with Nina Brown acting as principle) is awarded the BBM pathway design contract for $35,000 from the city/state; the plan calls for a pathway that is 1880 feet long and 12 to 15 feet wide. Arnold Arboretum staff member Peter Del Tredici approves the removal of “invasive exotics, to include buckthorn, bittersweet, multiflora rose, and tree of Heaven” along the proposed pathway route and City Year workers do the work.
Harvard University and the City of Boston finalize the agreement putting 24 acres of BBM under the 1882 Arnold Arboretum Indenture. The agreement is signed by Mayor Thomas Menino, Parks Commissioner Patrick Harrington, and Arboretum Director Robert Cook. [The parcel was referred to as Stony Brook Marsh at this time.]
Residents of the Asticou/Martinwood neighborhood, lead by Bernie Doherty and Robert Black, object to the proposed BBM pathway on security grounds, especially as it involves opening the locked gate at the Forest Hills Station.
A “hundred-year” storm produces 9.99 inches of rain and causes the manhole under the Archdale RR Bridge to blow with mixture of rainfall and raw sewage, flooding many homes in the Archdale neighborhood. Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) identifies the failure of buried manhole covers on section 71 of the high-level sewer line in BBM to blow as partially responsible for the flooding the Archdale neighborhood.
MWRA crew seals the high-level sewer manhole cover under the Archdale railroad bridge and then enters BBM to uncover two manhole covers on section 71 of the high level sewer line that had been buried [probably around 1921 when the old Bussey Brook channel was filled in]. One of the manholes is adjacent to the pathway, buried under about five feet of soil, and the other is located near the edge of the landfill, buried under about ten feet of debris.
7.85 inch rainfall (5.69 on the 13th) causes the recently exposed emergency relief cover on the high-level sewer line near the pathway [“old faithful”] to blow, flooding BBM with raw sewage; the second manhole near the landfill failed to blow because the landfill had collapsed on it shortly after it had been uncovered in 1997. The Archdale neighborhood floods again, angering local residents and businesses.
Federal ISTEA grant ($365,000) is awarded to the State and the City of Boston (Parks Department) for BBM footpath construction.
MWRA construction project to rebuild the manhole cover on the high-level sewer line adjacent to the pathway in BBM. This entails exposing a large section of the brick sewer pipe and encasing it in a cement “jacket.” The new manhole cover is protected by a granite head wall with its own stone drainage channel. [Construction lasts 45 days.]
In a move to placate the Asticou-Martinwood residents, an eight-foot high chain link fence is installed by the city along the lower perimeter of the of the neighborhood and planted with shrubs and vines.
BWSC (with Tom Daly as team leader) begins construction of a large drainage swale at the base of Peters Hill near the Archdale railroad bridge to correct drainage problems created in 1983-84 by spreading fill from the Forest Hills subway construction along the east side of Peters Hill. Drain pipes are “jacked” under South Street to carry water from the drainage swale at the base of Peters Hill across South Street into the Bussey Brook watershed. According to the plan, water from Peters Hill will collect along the “tail” of BBM to form a temporary wetland; during especially heavy rains, the water will rise and flow through second pipe into BBM. Construction work done by Feeney Brothers starts in spring 1999 and ends in fall 2000.
Arboretum hires Dashang Wang of Carr Research Laboratory (Wellesley, MA) to conduct a hydrological study of the Bussey Brook watershed. The report, published in May 2003, notes that Bussey Brook is one of the last remaining above ground streams flowing within the city limits of Boston and can be classified as a perennial stream; as such it should be covered under the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act. He calculates that the Bussey Brook watershed consists of some 977 acres, of which 120 acres are within the Arboretum.
Arboretum clears the top of the BB landfill, adds a layer of topsoil and sows grass seed to create a flat area referred to as the “mesa.” Granite blocks salvaged from the operation are used to build a wall along South Street to prevent future dumping.
In February 2001, bidding for the BBM footpath opens; D. Frangioso of Hyde Park is the low bidder at $365,000, the exact amount of the federal ISTEA grant.
In summer 2001, the Frangioso Company begins construction of footpath in summer and completes it in January. New granite entrance gates matching the historic Arboretum gates are erected at either end of the path; these are paid for with private money raised by APC from some 300 individual and institutional donors. Gates were constructed from Rockport granite salvaged from “big dig” demolition projects.
In May 2002, the refurbished 1,880-foot long “Blackwell Footpath” is dedicated. Mayor Menino attends the celebration.
APC sets up a stewardship account at Boston Foundation for the maintenance BBM; money is to be used mainly for wall repairs, planting, pruning and signage. A stewardship plan is written-up and jointly approved by AA and APC.
Botanical Survey of Bussey Brook Meadow is published, written by Joy VanDervort-Sneed and Ailene Kane of the New England Wildflower Society (Framingham, MA) for the Arboretum Park Conservancy (with funding from the Arnold Arboretum Committee). The document lists a total of 322 species, of which 172 (53.4%) are native and 150 (46.6%) non-native. Of this total, there were 170 herbaceous dicots (52.8%), 102 woody trees, shrubs or vines (31.7%), 43 graminoids (13.3%), 6 ferns (1.9%) and 1 horsetail (0.3%).
APC pays for the planting of nine red maple trees and various shrubs along the footpath at the base of the landfill.
John Blackwell dies at age 97 on September 20, 2010.
Dr. William (Ned) Friedman becomes Director of the Arnold Arboretum in January of 2011.
On August 28, 2011, Hurricane Irene seriously damages the old stand of Ailanthus growing on the landfill; about ten trees determined to be hazards are pruned to ground level in fall 2012. The largest cut trunk had a basal diameter of 48 centimeters and a ring count of 45 years. This age indicates that the trees became established around 1965 or 1966, a date which corresponds nicely with the estimate, based on aerial photos, of when the landfilling stopped.
In January 2012, Peter Del Tredici and Michael Dosmann present the Arboretum’s recently approved program for BBM to the APC board. It utilizes the site for long-term environmental monitoring and research on urban ecology and the new management plan calls for no maintenance of BBM beyond 1) keeping the footpath open and its edges mowed; 2) removing hazard trees that threaten public safely; and 3) annual mowing of designated meadow areas.
Bussey Brook Meadow is directly across Washington Street from the south end of the Forest Hills Orange Line Subway Station. Large granite piers and a cast iron gate mark the entrance. From inside the Arboretum, one can reach Bussey Brook Meadow by following Valley Road to where it ends at South Street. Go through the South Street Gate and cross the road to enter Bussey Brook Meadow. If driving, there is limited parking in front of the South Street Gate.
Blackwell Path is constructed of compacted stone dust and is wheelchair accessible for its entire length from the Forest Hills Subway Station to South Street.
How long should I explore?
It takes about 15 or 20 minutes to walk from one end of Bussey Brook Meadow to the other. If you want to look at anything or use the mobile app, it will take longer.
Plan your visit to the Arboretum.
- Connor, Sheila. 2010. Bird’s-eye Views: Aerial Photographs of the Arnold Arboretum. Arnoldia 67(1): 10–19. [pdf]
- Wilson, Mary Jane. 2006. Benjamin Bussey, Woodland Hill, and the Creation
of the Arnold Arboretum. Arnoldia 64(1): 2-9. [pdf]
- Del Tredici, Peter. 2004. Untangling the Twisted Tale of Oriental Bittersweet. Arnoldia 71(3): 2–18. [pdf]
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