Henry David Thoreau | Thoreau at Walden


Henry David Thoreau was a 27-year-old former schoolteacher when he went to live at Walden Pond in the summer of 1845. His friend and fellow Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had recently purchased 14 acres of woodlot on the northwestern shore of Walden Pond, agreed to let the young writer conduct his "experiment in simplicity" there. Near the end of March 1845, Thoreau borrowed an axe and began cutting and hewing the timber for a small, one-room house. With help from friends, he raised and roofed the simple building and, on July 4, 1845, he moved in.

When Thoreau chose a site for the one-room house in which he would live, he decided on a slightly overgrown slope above a cove. He had "a distant view of the railroad where it touches the pond on the one hand, and of the fence which skirts the woodland road on the other." Although less than a half hour's walk along the tracks to his parents' house, Thoreau's spot in Walden Woods was nevertheless a solitary place in the 1840s.

For the next two years, Thoreau spent most of his time studying the natural world around him. He kept a regular journal, completed a draft of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and made the first accurate survey of Walden Pond. He took daily walks through Walden Woods, often stopping to visit family and friends in Concord village; on other occasions, he entertained visitors at his house in the woods. Having, in his own words, "as  many trades as fingers," he took on odd jobs as a carpenter, mason, and surveyor to earn the small amount of cash he needed to buy what he could not "grow or make or do without."

After two years, two months, and two days, Thoreau closed up his little house and returned to live in the village. When he left the woods, to become a "sojourner in civilized life again," he turned the house over to Emerson, who soon sold it to his gardener. Two years later two farmers bought it and moved it to the other side of Concord where they used it to store grain. In 1868, they dismantled it for scrap lumber and put the roof on an outbuilding.

Much of Concord had long since been cleared for agriculture by the time Thoreau was growing up there, but because the area around Walden Pond was too sandy for good farming, it had remained forested into the 1830s. A year before Thoreau moved to the woods, the Fitchburg Railroad reached Concord, running along the south side of Walden Pond. In the next decade, the wood-fired trains would create a demand for fuel that would leave even this part of Concord nearly stripped of trees. When Thoreau took up residence at the pond in 1845, much of the pond's shoreline was bare. Yet he could still boast: "I have my horizon bounded by woods all to myself."

Thoreau's timeless account of his life at Walden would not be published until 1854. In 1945, the centennial of Thoreau's move to Walden Pond, Roland Wells Robbins, an amateur archaeologist and Thoreau enthusiast, dug for three months before discovering and excavating the stones that formed the foundation of the chimney. In July 1947, the Thoreau Society, founded in 1941, dedicated the inscribed fieldstone that marks the hearth site today.