The hum of traffic always fades. Even when it’s still there, beyond the trees—Interstate 495, Route 2, the Mass. Pike—my mind filters out the buzz and focuses on the soundtrack of the Bay Circuit Trail. In Sharon and Concord and Hamilton it’s the same: Songbirds sing and woodpeckers peck. Occasionally a turtle or fox stops in the path, listening to the crunch of my approaching feet. Only the periodic rumble of a train reminds me of Boston’s presence.
From Plum Island in the north to Framingham in the west to Duxbury in the south, the Bay Circuit Trail and Greenway cuts an arc through Boston’s suburbs. Ten thousand white plastic rectangles blaze the path. They steer hikers, runners, bikers, and skiers through woods and across farmland, over and around cranberry bogs and vernal pools. Boston’s skyscrapers pierce the horizon in the distance. A more traditional New England skyline emerges in the foreground: church steeples glowing white against brilliant foliage.
Shades of green and brown, accented by crumbling stone walls, define property lines. It reminds me of the patchwork appearance of the landscape from a plane. Trees and grass and furrowed fields create the varied textures that would be visible from above. The trail changes abruptly, too. A rocky scramble up a hill gives way to a pleasant, meandering single-track. A wide gravel path leads to a winding boardwalk over a swamp.
The Bay Circuit was a product of a particular time. It was conceived when there was still land around Boston to protect, outlived economic depressions and wars, and was realized before urban sprawl fragmented the region. Over almost nine decades it’s been many things to many people: a recreation corridor, an open way, a greenbelt, a scenic motorway, a dam against sprawl. Now it’s finally a reality.
“Oh Gee, what a day to go somewhere!”
It is the voice of little Larrie Jones as he spies the blue sky upward out of the window of a Columbus Avenue apartment on a sunny Sunday morning in late August.
“Say Dad, what’s the matter with goin’ out in the country for a good long hike?”
“Nothing, God knows, would suit me better,” cries the tired head of the household…. “But where in the hell can we find this Eden on nine gallons of gasoline?”
Crisis in the Jones family. But little Larrie comes to the rescue. “See here, Dad, here’s a book that tells all about it…. That’s what this scheme’s for—this Bay Circuit scheme—to get a string of places all around Boston so folks can always have a happy Sunday.”
—Benton MacKaye, in a “Bay Circuit” draft, 1937
Benton MacKaye grew up in Shirley, Mass., 30 miles west of Boston. A childhood of local explorations inspired a life in forestry and regional planning. MacKaye understood that automobiles would reshape the landscape. He predicted urban sprawl and realized the need to protect special open spaces as a resource for the public. His multifaceted theories also involved using conservation land to contain sprawl, protecting the immediate parcels and everything that lay beyond.
MacKaye ensured his legacy by proposing the creation of the Appalachian Trail in 1921 and helping to get that monumental monumental project under way. “Here is marked the main open way across the metropolitan deluge issuing from the ports of the Atlantic seaboard,” he later wrote. But another project captivated him for much of his career: the Bay Circuit, which he hoped would halt that deluge before it reached Shirley.
By 1925, MacKaye was focusing on Massachusetts. He may have conceived of the Bay Circuit then. That same year, a “Committee on the Needs and Uses of Open Spaces” set out to create a comprehensive plan for the state. Two committee members—Charles Eliot II and Henry Channing, both of The Trustees of Public Reservations (which later dropped the “Public” from its name)—have also received credit for the idea. Regardless, following an uncertain genesis, the parties worked closely on the project.
The committee employed MacKaye in 1927 to conduct a statewide study of open spaces. The Bay Circuit emerged as the top priority in his final report, but the Depression prevented immediate action. MacKaye was hired again in 1937. This time he wrote “The Bay Circuit,” a slick report to inspire The Trustees’ members.
The proposed circuit, a 120-mile semicircle, consisted of “places of little economic value.” Protecting it from development would be easy, the report suggested. Yet even while MacKaye wrote, work was commencing on Route 128; Interstate 495 followed by mid-century. The highways hastened the process he hoped to halt. Boston sprawled north and west and south—and real estate prices climbed. Before any cheap land was protected, World War II pushed the Bay Circuit to the background.
Occasionally a new advocate repurposed the idea. “The joint schemes of enlarging the Parks District and developing the Bay Circuit would be united under a forceful title that…can be sold to the public,” a state official wrote in 1944. “Such a title might be…War for World Freedom Memorial Bay Circuit.” But even a patriotic repackaging didn’t attract funding.
MacKaye maintained an interest long after his employment on the project ended. “I’m specially taken with our old friend, the Bay Circuit. How it takes me back to grand adventures,” he wrote to The Trustees in 1954. “I’m glad the project is still going + look to see it one of your crowning projects.”
Two years later, Charles Eliot II—the Bay Circuit’s primary advocate for much of his 93-year life—won a small victory. Governor Christian Herter signed a bill implementing the Bay Circuit, though the legislation provided no funding. Nearly three decades passed before an unlikely figure found a solution to that problem.
In 1984, Bob Yaro was working for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management, planning a historic open space bond. It would fund conservation projects and land purchases from coastal Cape Cod west to the Appalachian Trail. “The Big Bang,” they called it.
A legislator approached Yaro about protecting a Chelmsford farm with bond money, sparking an idea. Yaro, a self-proclaimed “big fan” of Benton MacKaye, had a staffer compare the farm to the original Bay Circuit proposal. “Bingo!” Yaro says. “It was one of the missing links.” Instead of protecting just the farm, Yaro negotiated the inclusion of a Bay Circuit initiative, citing the 1956 legislation as justification. The final bond included $3.125 million for Bay Circuit land purchases and small open space planning grants.
After decades of fits and starts, the Bay Circuit finally had some funding. But what of little Larrie Jones’ hypothetical hike?
“I left my house in Andover on Sunday morning, October 28th and walked West to Lowell and then South to Southborough and then East…until I reached the ocean at Bay Farm on the Duxbury/Kingston border on Sunday, November 18th. I then traveled by commuter rail to South Station, Boston, by foot on the Rose Kennedy Greenway to North Station, and by commuter rail to Newburyport. Over the next three days I walked back to Andover and arrived on schedule…. I suppose I wanted to be sure that I did it while still physically able, and I wanted to check the status of the BCT from a user’s point of view.”
—Alan French, in a letter to friends and supporters, Nov. 26, 2007
Alan French leans back in a creaky chair, telephone pressed to his ear. He’s chatting about the Bay Circuit Trail, as always. A row of old furniture and a giant map dangling from the rafters divides the office—the very unglorified Bay Circuit headquarters for nearly two decades—from the retail floor of Moor & Mountain, French’s outdoors store in Andover, Mass. Across the room, a vast old factory space, kayaks hang from ropes and backpacks drape stout wood columns.
After Massachusetts’ “Big Bang” bond directed funds to towns along the Bay Circuit, French joined Andover’s planning efforts. He then attended a 1990 meeting hosted by AMC at its Joy Street office. The state, looking for help, had invited representatives from the National Park Service (NPS) Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program, and local and regional conservation organizations.
The Bay Circuit discussion, for decades, focused on regional planning and land protection. But Steve Golden of NPS wanted to change that. “We felt that the approach to take was to engage the communities in something more,” he says. He suggested focusing on a long trail at the heart of the circuit—and wanted to begin exploring immediately.
Golden, French, and Ron McAdow, then of the NPS, hiked existing trails, paddled rivers, and biked roads for 10 days, along their best approximation of the route a trail could follow. “This wasn’t just a shortcut connecting various little parcels of nice property,” Golden says. “It turned out to be an extraordinary recreational opportunity.” With state forests and parks, The Trustees purchases, and local land trust properties, a slightly longer version of MacKaye’s original circuit was already taking shape.
Following the meeting at Joy Street, the Bay Circuit Alliance, a volunteer organization made up of towns and conservation groups, including AMC, was formed. French became the chairman. Later that year the first official segment of Bay Circuit Trail was dedicated in Boxford State Forest. Today, a network of new and old trails covers 90 percent of the circuit. It passes close to French’s shop, and he offers to show me one of his favorite spots. We scrunch into his compact car. He pulls onto Main Street, pointing to the white blazes that usher the trail through town. French misses our first turn, then our second. “I got all excited,” he explains. We eventually reach the parking lot at Ward Reservation after a long detour.
French says he’s probably covered 1,000 miles on the trail. Though he’s slowed in recent years, he still looks the part of the outdoorsman, wearing worn low-top hiking shoes and a gray fleece vest over a fraying beige button-down. We climb gradually along a dirt road. He continues telling stories.
French takes obvious pride in the accomplishments of the past 20 years, and deflects credit to the alliance’s volunteers. From nowhere on the trail is the scope of their work more evident than where he’s taking me. “You can see the other side of the Bay Circuit from here,” he says, anticipating our arrival at the top of Holt Hill. “That gives me a little jolt.” Sure enough, a gray bump interrupts the horizon: Moose Hill in Sharon, 40 miles distant.
We stroll down the hill on a mowed path. White blazes guide us into the woods. French tells me that 16 miles of the trail pass through Andover, the most in any town on the route. That includes Mary French Reservation, he says, pointing east. It’s named for his late wife.
French calls the Bay Circuit “unusual in its high degree of grass-rootsiness.” The Alliance doesn’t own an inch of the 200-mile network. Yet, even without any state funding since the 1984 bond, the trail inspires local and regional conservation. While the trail has taken shape—about 180 of the 200 miles are dedicated—almost 5,000 acres of conserved land have also been added. And all along, French and the Alliance have driven this progress, cultivating volunteers, prodding legislators, and talking to anyone who would listen.
Now, though, French is ready to step back. In May, the Alliance approved a plan to restructure. AMC and The Trustees will assume expanded roles, and continue working with the Alliance to manage the Bay Circuit. AMC’s primary responsibility will be to support the Trails Management Advisory Committee. The Trustees will handle land protection coordination and planning. In some ways, this brings the project full circle. Both organizations sat on the Committee on the Needs and Uses of Open Spaces back in 1925.
Even with all of the progress of the past 20 years, the Bay Circuit remains something of a hidden gem. Heather Clish, AMC’s director of conservation and recreation policy, hopes to draw more regional attention to it. “This presents a really tremendous opportunity,” she says. “The Bay Circuit isn’t something that we would normally hope to find in heavily populated areas like this.”
“When people become aware that a half-mile away from the house there’s a trailhead, and there’s a walk in the woods that can take them out and back for whatever time they have, it opens their eyes,” says Wes Ward, vice president of land conservation for The Trustees. “They’ll use it with their kids, with their friends, and not always think they need to get into a car and go off to the White Mountains or Berkshires.”
Completing the trail and promoting the circuit are among the immediate priorities. The long-term goal is simple: to protect this resource for future generations, so the Bay Circuit can continue to be many things to many people.
LEARN MORE: LONG TRAIL LEGACY