Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Fabulous Baker Estate

From Dave Brigham:

During the time I've been wrestling with this post you could've written, cast, shot, edited, promoted, released, reaped awards from and released both regular and director's cuts on DVD a movie about how long I've been wrestling with this post.

In the early days of this blog I started chasing the ghosts of Ridge Hill Farms, an 800-acre amusement park/fantastic folly built by industrialist William Baker in the late 1800's in Needham, Mass., currently a well-to-do bedroom community of Boston but at the time a much quieter, more bucolic town. I'd read about the park in a Boston Globe article several years ago and kept its fascinating details in the back of my mind.

"There were monkey cages, bear pits, buffaloes, and a 'Sanitary Piggery,’ in which pigs slept in linen sheets," H.D.S. Greenway writes. "There were stables with animated stuffed horses that could nod their heads. There were elaborate mechanical jokes. You would be invited to drink at a fountain labeled 'Laughing Water,’ only to find the floor tilting to simulate drunkenness as you walked out. There were gardens, and shaded paths, and boats."

Take some time to read Greenway's article; it's fascinating. I've always loved his work for the newspaper.

Greenway mentioned that while nearly all traces of Baker's folly had been erased, there were, among other scattered remnants, some "classic columns...on the ground along Wellesley’s Sabrina Farms Road, looking as forlorn as Carthage after the onslaughts of Rome." After reading the article, I conducted a few half-hearted drive-bys to scope out Ridge Hill Farms.

Some of the remnants Greenway mentioned are located in the lush backyards of Needham and Wellesley (the park, also known as the Baker Estate, found itself straddling two towns after what was then known as West Needham seceded and in 1881 became Wellesley) and along private roads. I stopped at the end of one such road but could see a security vehicle parked just a short distance away so I retreated.

That was several years ago. After doing research online I pinpointed some locations to explore. In the meantime, I pursued other backside leads and wrote tons of posts about things in other parts of Greater Boston. I made my first foray to southwest Needham in May 2016, unaware that my pursuit of the fabulous Baker Estate would take another 18 months to complete.

For an idea of what I was chasing, check out this trailer for a documentary about the amusement park.

I had no idea whether I would find any signs that this quiet town had once played host to an almost-too-good-to-believe showcase for one man's imagination. I learned through online research that Baker had his very own railroad spur for his amusement park. This is where I began my quest, which eventually led me to other interesting bits of history of Needham and neighboring Dover (see December 30, 2017, "Rail Trail Mix" and January 6, 2018, "Look, Up in the Air! It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's a Nike Missile!").

The Charles River Railroad ran from Boston to Needham, until the railroad merged with the New York and Boston Railroad, which eventually continued the line on to the Rhode Island border, per Wikipedia. Our friend Mr. Baker built a spur line splitting off from the Charles River line and on to his private fun-o-rama at Ridge Hill.

While the main line has been converted in part to a rail trail, Baker's private railroad, which evidently used horses to pull trains along the tracks, has disappeared, like the rest of his park. The station at the southern end was along Fisher Street in Needham. I made two trips to this area trying to find the stone foundation of the old station, after reading an account online about it. I walked about 3/4 of a mile down the rail trail, kicked around the underbrush alongside the tracks, but saw no sign of the old station, which I'd read about on the Train Aficionado web site. I was frustrated, as you can imagine.

(Fisher Street, where once a railroad crossed and now exists a rail trail. The station for passengers continuing on to the Baker Estate was around here but is long gone.)

On my next visit to the area I checked out a large section of Ridge Hill Reservation, the western slice of which was once part of the Baker Estate. I knew I wasn't going to find any obvious ruins from the park -- no fallen-down saloon or abandoned restaurant, no secret passage to the former "underground crystal grotto featuring the Forty Thieves" that existed, according to this article from Needham History Center and Museum. Check out this map and you'll get an idea of the scope of the place.

At this point -- May 2016 -- I hadn't yet become obsessive about this place. This resulted in my wandering around the eastern and northern portions of the park, not at all close to where the Baker Estate had been. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed my ramble and took some photos.

(As with just about every conservation area I've explored over the years, Ridge Hill has stone walls.)

(Boardwalk over swampy parts of Ridge Hill.)

After Ridge Hill Farms was sold and split up, one of the buyers was John Torrey Morse III, whose father’s summer home was at the south end of Webster Street, according to the Ecological Management Plan for the reservation I found on Needham's town government web site. Morse bought a large tract east of Pine Swamp for his summer estate and in 1906 built the stucco house that is currently on the Ridge Hill Reservation. The building is now used for summer programs.

(Former Morse homestead at Ridge Hill.)

(Outbuildings from former Morse estate.)

Before this hike I consulted a map online and realized that the Baker Estate rail spur had crossed land across Charles River Street from Ridge Hill Reservation. So I trekked through the woods, heading toward the Charles River.

When I saw this path I assumed right away that it was the former railroad right-of-way. When I got home and looked at the map again, I wasn't so sure anymore. I thought maybe the train had chugged along to and from the amusement park closer to the river. But I didn't return to this site for quite some time. Eventually I dragged my teenage son along and we strolled along further south than I'd done the previous trip.

(I know that the bench isn't historic, but I found its placement off the beaten path quite pleasing. As for the sewer drain, again I'm sure it hasn't been in this area since the time of the Baker Estate, but I found it photo-worthy.)

My son and I didn't find any evidence to convince me that the train tracks had once lain close to the Charles River. I went back home and poked around online again. The folks (or maybe it's just one guy) at the Train Aficionado web site agree with my original hypothesis: the Baker Estate railroad ran along what is now a pleasant walking path through the field, a picture of which you just scrolled past. To read the blog's research and see more photos, check out this post.

Ten days after my son and I tromped around the old railroad right-of-way, I made what I figured would be my final foray into the Baker Estate mystique. My mission that day in November 2017 was three-fold: explore the western section of Ridge Hill looking for any sign whatsoever of the old amusement park; meander around Guernsey Conservation Area to check out the man-made lake; and try, once again, to find the ruins of the Baker Estate train station.

I was rewarded relatively quickly in Ridge Hill with this cellar hole. Was the structure that once stood here part of Baker's folly? Highly unlikely, I'd say, but that doesn't make it any less exciting to me. So many questions swirled in my head: How old is this foundation? What was the building? Who lived or worked in it? Did they believe in UFO's?

Prior to this visit, I'd looked at Ridge Hill on Google Maps and noticed a wide swath separating the conservation area from nearby homes. In comparing that view to an old map of the Baker Estate (click on the map to enlarge it), it seemed to me that the straight line I was seeing through the woods corresponded with a road that once ran past the amusement park's Beaver Pond.

(Now a right-of-way for an Algonquin Gas Transmission pipeline, this might be the remnants of an old Baker Estate road, which ran close to the Civil War Diorama, Minnehaha's Wigwam and the Pavilion Hall Saloon. I still find it hard to believe that all these structures once stood here and there's just about nothing left to see.)

I saw plenty of other cool sites during my Ridge Hill trek....

I'm not sure if the stone walls pre-date the Baker Estate, are from the amusement park, or were constructed after the amusement park went out of business and the land was sold off for other estates.

Eventually I came back around to the old Morse estate buildings that I'd seen on a previous visit. It was time to mosey on over to the Guernsey Sanctuary, located just a short drive down Charles River Street. A small slice of this conservation area is located in Needham, with the bulk of it in Wellesley.

Donated by Mr. & Mrs. William Guernsey in 1961, this 25-acre haven features Sabrina Lake, the man-made body of water that was a centerpiece of the Baker Estate. I'm going to take a wild guess that the Guernsey's neighbors were none too pleased with the idea of common folk traipsing through their fairytale forest.

(The William Guernsey Memorial Bench offers a great view of the lake, and the mansions on the other, non-accessible shore.)

(This bridge is post-amusement park. It connects the mainland -- aka some rich person's back yard -- to Swan Island. During the Baker Estate era, the mainland here featured the Ladies Cottage, the Pagoda and the Gnome Drinking Fountain, among other attractions, according to the previously linked map.)

I'd like, if you don't mind, for you to play a mental drum roll right now. Or maybe this will suffice:

I stumbled across a lot of remnants/ruins/artifacts during my slog through Needham and Wellesley, in search of the almost-mythical Baker Estate. I saw stone walls, cellar holes, rail trails, old houses with outbuildings, a natural gas right-of-way that might have once been a road in the park, perhaps the former path of the railroad spur, a man-made lake that was definitely once part of the folly. But finally, as I stared across Sabrina Lake, I spied something that I knew, for certain, had to have once been part of Ridge Hill Farms.

And once I checked back on that oh-so-valuable map, I knew I was right. Right there, just a little north of Arboretum Knoll and Arboretum Lodge, a hop-skip-and-a-jump south of the Frog Fountain, stood, and still stands, Arboretum Bridge. I felt, right then, like all of my aimless wandering, more informed wandering and online wandering had paid off.

But there was still plenty more to see in Guernsey Sanctuary. And after that, I had to make one more effort to find the train station ruins.

(These steps lead to a path that eventually goes to somebody's back yard. In the woods between Sabrina Lake and the residential neighborhood someone has erected a ropes course.)

(Guernsey Sanctuary is nestled in among some very tony real estate.)

(At the northern point of Guernsey Sanctuary sits Oak Island, which was part of the Baker Estate. Not sure, again, if these stone walls had anything to do with the park or if they were already there, or erected afterwards.)

After finishing what turned out to be a really nice, and very fruitful, walk in the sanctuary, I steeled myself for my final task.

I parked at the end of Locust Lane. I dashed across Charles River Street, a road that wasn't all that busy but on which cars definitely gather up some significant speed. I knew -- finally -- from taking a closer look at the map online, and from doing a better job reading the Train Aficianado blog post that the Ridge Hill station ruins stood at this end of the rail spur, not the southern end near Fisher Street. The station was once located just west of an artificial fish pond that William Baker had built.

I walked west along the street, keeping close to the tree line to look for evidence. More than anything I wanted to walk right into the woods between Charles River Street and the river. But the "NO TRESPASSING" signs seemed like they were serious. This area is owned by the State of Massachusetts and is off-limits for some reason. Nonetheless, I knew that the station had been close to the road, so if anything remained of it, I'd spot it.

After a few minutes heading west, I remembered that the station had been close to the Artificial Pond of Baker Estate, with its pier and Fishing Pavilion. I retraced my steps and then kept heading east, looking all the while into the woods for something. Anything.

I began to think that the ruins of the station had been removed for some reason, and that the foundation I'd seen in that Train Aficionado blog post was the closest I'd ever get to the best evidence that there had once been an amazing amusement park in this area -- a park built by a man with a vision, and who had even petitioned the state to secede from Needham and establish what he called Hygeria, a "hygienic village" where he would develop ideas for healthier eating and healthier people. His petition was shot down.

Then....

Was this what was left of the train station? This scene didn't match what I'd viewed online, but I knew I had to be close. But I was at the edge of the fish pond that Baker had dug more than 125 years ago. The only way to go was back in the direction I'd just come from. So, ignoring the No Trespassing sign and venturing just a short distance down an old access road, I finally found the Holy Grail.

This was it! I knew the moment I saw it that I'd found the exact same spot that the Train Aficionado had stumbled across. Man, what a relief....

But somehow, after all of my trekking and research and doubling back I still wasn't done. I'd taken a photo of the site of the former Hotel Wellesley during my numerous trips, but I couldn't find it on my computer. According to the Globe article, "Like many of Baker’s buildings and monuments, the hotel was secondhand. It came from the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876, where Baker bought the structure, and had it dismantled and shipped to Needham. The classic columns came from a Boston post office damaged in the fire of 1872."

There's no trace of the stunning 225-room, luxury hotel, because it burned down in 1891. But I wanted to show my readers where it once stood, so I had to make one more quick hit.

(This driveway now leads to private homes, but once was the entrance to the Hotel Wellesley.)

(Located just off the former hotel's driveway were a windmill and steam pump, overlooking the artificial fish pond.)

I hope you've enjoyed learning about the Baker Estate as much as I did. And if you haven't already done so, I encourage you to click through the links I've provided to learn and see more.

For a good overview of the history of the Ridge Hill area, check out this Needham Conservation Commission document.

Here are the posts I've written about Needham and Wellesley in the past:

WELLESLEY:

May 18, 2012, "Aqueduct, My Friend," about the pleasant surprise I got when I discovered a segment of the Cochituate Aqueduct and a nice trail that runs below Route 128.

NEEDHAM:

November 20, 2011, "History Flows On, Part II," about my adventure in Cutler Park.

January 30, 2013, "Whimsical Woodlands," about the marvelous Martini Junction hidden in Needham Town Forest.

July 13, 2016, "Sad Gobble," about the loss of the iconic Owen Poultry Farm.

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