Dory Daze: The journey that launched Thoreau's writings

Chris Bergeron

Setting out in a trim dory he built with his brother, Henry David Thoreau took a 110-mile journey on the Concord and Merrimack rivers in 1839 that eventually launched his career as one of America's greatest writers.

Though he later sold the little boat to Nathaniel Hawthorne for $6, Thoreau clung to his impressions of two idyllic weeks rowing and sailing to Hooksett, N.H. After his older brother John died from tetanus two years later, Thoreau transformed those memories into his first book, "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers."

The Thoreau brothers' dory has docked once again in Concord, just down the road from Walden Pond where Henry David wrote the first draft of his poignant elegy to his lost brother.

Built according to his own specifications, a handmade replica of the dory "Musketaquid" is now displayed at the Concord Museum in an engaging exhibit "Building Thoreau's Boat."

Through historical objects, photos and Thoreau's own words, it examines the literary impact of the trip, the history of dories and the art of boat building.

The show includes a surviving dory built in Mystic, Conn., in 1850, boat-building tools, provisions taken on the trip and the actual 1839 New England Gazetteer the brothers used to plan their journey.

It features several interactive stations including Eric Roth's photos of the construction process and even a recording of "Tom Bowling," one of Thoreau's favorite songs.

Whether you're an Eagle Scout or a backyard camper who can't get the grill to light, "Building Thoreau's Boat" invites visitors to imagine they're on that crowded little dory, breaking a sweat, rowing upstream with Henry and John.

Museum curator David F. Wood described the replica dory and accompanying exhibit as "an experiment in historical material reconstruction."

He is the author of "An Observant: The Thoreau Collection at the Concord Museum," which examines the museum's collection through gorgeous photographs and cogent text.

The idea for the exhibit originated from a 2005 article by Stan Grayson in Wooden Boat magazine examining Thoreau's writings for clues about his boat's design.

The replica was built by master craftsman David Snediker, of Taylor & Snediker, in his boat-building yard in Pawcatuck, Conn., from the same white pine and red oak that would have been available to the Thoreaus 168 years ago.

Named for the Algonquin word for the Concord River, the dory, which will become part of the museum's permanent collection, is a marvel of lovingly crafted efficiency.

Not surprisingly, the verbose Hawthorne renamed it the "Pond Lily" and had so much trouble maneuvering it, he claimed it was possessed.

Though "Mr. Thorow" gave him lessons, Hawthorne confessed "the use of the single paddle is just beyond my present skill."

"The boat seemed to be bewitched and turned to every point of the compass except the right one," wrote the author of "The Scarlet Letter."

Based on Thoreau's writings, the new dory is 15 feet long, 3 1/2 feet wide and painted in horizontal bands of green to represent the river waters and blue for the heavens they'd sail beneath.

Wood said it weighs 185 pounds and while Thoreau packed two wheels and an axle in case they needed to portage it, the two rivers' locks were open and that was never necessary.

Wood pointed out the Thoreaus built their boat in a single week with their own tools and wood likely cut at nearby Barrett's Mill. Though a Harvard University graduate, Henry was a skilled carpenter who worked at the family pencil factory and helped build their house.

The exhibit features an Aeolian harp and geologic mineral sample box, both built by Thoreau, which display the same attention to detail as his writing.

"Henry was probably a better carpenter than John. He knew his way with tools. The sample box is neatly done. He definitely knew how to cut a dovetail," said Wood.

Describing the dory, Thoreau wrote: "A boat should have a sort of life and independence of its own. It is a sort of amphibious animal - a creature of two elements - a fish to swim, a bird to fly."

While the brothers probably worked without a blueprint, Snediker followed the typical process of building a dory from the bottom, starting by laying several planks side by side.

Wood said Thoreau almost certainly used a flexible strip of wood called a batten to mark the curved shape of the dory's bottom. Next, strips of wood called cleats were nailed across the bottom to hold the boards together. Then the stem and transom, which form the front and stern, respectively, are nailed in place.

From this frame, carpenters like the Thoreaus built functional durable boats that could navigate local rivers and coastal harbors.

From the exhibit, visitors will learn surprising details about the Thoreaus' river adventure. At the time of the trip, John Thoreau was 24 and his younger brother was 22.

While local rivers were routinely used for commerce, Wood said the Thoreaus' approach to their trip for "its sense of adventure and fun" was "still kind of unusual" for their era. The Thoreaus were so ahead of their time as adventurous vacationers, Wood observed, "Their trip was like what we do today and that's what was so different about it."

Writing about them, Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, "My wise young neighbors have gone on this trek and relied on their wits, on the fish of the stream and the berries of the woods."

Wood observed the dory probably had two "trapezoid-shaped" sails that allowed the brothers to tack against the wind. The book recounts a humorous incident in which a barge passed the heavily laden dory and its crew joked "We'll throw you a line and tow you." Taking the challenge, the Thoreaus paddled and sailed past the barge, repeating the joke as they left it in their wake.

Wood stressed Snediker's replica represents the best informed guess of what the original "Musketaquid" looked like based on Thoreau's writing and time-tested building practices.

"Is this Thoreau's boat?" he said. "I like to think it looked like this."

THE ESSENTIALS:

The Concord Museum is located at the intersection of Lexington Road and Cambridge Turnpike.

ADMISSION: $10 for adults; $8 for seniors 62 and over and students with ID; and $5 for children.

HOURS: Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.

The museum is hosting the following events in connection with the current exhibit:

  • Sunday, Sept. 16 at 2 p.m.: Curator David Wood and boat builder David Snediker will discuss recreating a historic boat. Reservations requested.
  • Nov. 2, 3 and 4: Family Boat building weekend. Build your own 18-foot canoe and take it home with you. $1400 per family. Call for reservations by Sept. 26.
  • Saturday, Oct 6 at 10 a.m. Ages 5 and up by reservation: $10 for members; $15 for non-members.
  • Saturday, Oct. 13 from noon to 2 p.m.: Paddle the Concord River with Ron McAdow. Bring your own canoe or rent one. Guided outing leaves from Lowell Road boat landing in Concord. Call for reservations.

David Wood's award-winning "An Observant: The Thoreau Collection at the Concord Museum" which contains 120 color images is available at the museum bookstore for $39.95 or $35.96 for members.

MORE INFORMATION: Contact the museum at 978-369-9609 for taped information, 978-369-9763 for reservations or visit the Internet Web site, www.concordmuseum.org.