As if a meteorite bared a huge sand square near the Billerica-Chelmsford line, heavy equipment roars and a mega truck muscles its load into a cloud of dust. A yellow dinosaur stops its stump ridding, and cranes its neck to watch a doe trotting frantically along orange fencing – lost in her deforested world.
Centuries before, the Middlesex Turnpike was chartered in 1805 by the Massachusetts legislature to slice those same primeval woods. As was the practice of that time, the road was to be as straight as possible, with ‘turnpike’ barriers to collect toll from users like horse drawn stagecoaches. The unpaved path was in business from Cambridge, through Billerica to Tyngsboro, where it connected with other turnpikes to Nashua and Concord, New Hampshire.
The Middlesex Turnpike closely paralleled its namesake Canal, which was operational from 1803 till 1852. After 1835, both the turnpike and the canal suffered stiff competition from the railroad and its steam powered locomotives for freight and passenger traffic. Although both were feats of traffic engineering at the time, neither the canal nor the turnpike was particularly profitable. The last canal tolls were collected in 1851, and the Middlesex Turnpike charter was repealed in 1841. It became a free road in 1846.
The right of way of that free road in Billerica is fragmented. Still acknowledged in GIS maps, the ‘Old Middlesex Turnpike’ – a dirt path – crosses Rangeway Road, and it beelines into Chelmsford, nearly connecting Billerica Rangeway Town Forest with Chelmsford’s Russel Mill Pond & Town Forest Reservation.
The path cuts through wetlands and woods alike, and separates Rangeway Town Forest from the dreaded Aspen Apartments 40B development site. Since 2010, nearby auto auction facilities paved the former Swanson paradise along Rangeway Road, and a portion of the 211 year old historic path got flooded year round. Busy beavers got the blame. Word got out that beaver management would take care of it, and a couple of weeks after that it was time to explore:
Let’s see how the construction site preparation is coming along; see if the beaver management has brought down the water levels yet! With the Turnpike still submerged, we choose the meandering paths, recently cut through Rangeway Town Forest by a mountain bike group. Soon we reach higher ground, and find ourselves on the Old Middlesex Turnpike trail again. We walk until an obstruction halts our stroll: Orange fencing barricades the path, zigzagging back and forth. When a turnpike is by definition straight as an arrow, and the lot line is bounded by the turnpike, what or who allows the fencing to zigzag?
Construction fencing locks in / locks out wildlife and local town forest recreation. We watch on the sidelines as the big money heavy equipment roars and kicks up its clouds of dust; the digger stops its stump ridding, and cranes its neck to watch a doe trotting frantically along the orange fencing. The doe, lost in her deforested world, and we, sidelined in our deforested town?
Now, winter season, work continues. Retaining wall blocks form bits of Great Wall of China, elevator shafts rise, heated cement mills roll on the snowy landscape. Sounds like business as usual.