Studying off-grid infrastructure

To get (and stay) in shape, I’ve been spending more time off-grid. Less blogging and twittering, more time communing with nature. Some of that time I’m not indulging my curiousities. Or at least I’m resisting them. No electronics, for example. It was on one of those walks that I became curious about the story of infrastructure, past and present. What were these metal plates doing in the ground? Why were they there? Why were there so many of them? What were their different purposes? Which ones were remnants of services or companies no longer in existence? Which ones had found new uses? Why do so many carry the signatures of companies and utilities long dead?

I started on the Minuteman Bikeway, which passes close to our home not far from Harvard, where I’m headquartered these days. With a minimal slope, it’s perfect for active but low-stress strolling or biking. And it connects a lot of interesting historic sites. At one end is the Alewife “T” stop on the Red Line subway. At the other is something in Belmont I haven’t reached yet, because I usually go only as far as Lexington. Most of the stretch runs through Arlington, which combines the former villages of West Cambridge and Menotony. This is roughly the path along which the British soldiers retreated from Lexington on April 19, 1775, losing men (mostly boys, actually) and killing colonials of many ages. Thus started the Revolutionary War.

The Middlesex Central Railroad was born in 1846 and died in 1982. Part of it was better known as the Lexington and West Cambridge Railroad. It began as a vein of commerce, carrying goods from mills and ponds along its path. The Earth was colder in the early days of the railroad, and the winters were longer. Ice cut from Spy Pond was shipped all over the world from docks in Boston. This past winter the pond was thick enough to support skating for about three days.

But I’ve become more interested in the infrastructure story. So, over the last couple weeks, as Spring breaks out along the trail, I’ve been shooting pictures, mostly of stuff on the ground, before it gets haired over with vegetation, in faith that patterns will start making sense to me. I’ve also shot a lot around Cambridge, Boston and other places, but haven’t put those up yet. Right now I’m adding descriptions to the photos in this set here.

This is part of a long-term project, methinks. We’ll see how it goes. If you’re interested in following the same threads, tell me in the comments below.


  1. Mike Warot’s avatar

    Doc, I really like stories about how we got to where we are, and how we stay here… keep up the good work.

  2. Richard Carter’s avatar

    Great post, Doc. More please – possibly in a separate blog.

    … But less of that British soldiers retreating stuff, please – we Brits don’t like to be reminded.

  3. John’s avatar

    I’ve been walking daily for the last few months for health reasons also–and have gotten fascinated with not only the remnants of old infrastructure but how people try and put their imprint on the land–names in the cement, odd plantings, handcrafted items, decorations and such.

    Interesting stuff…I, for one, enjoy it. If you post I will read. 🙂

  4. John Robb’s avatar

    Doc, Welcome. I live at the far end of the Battle Road, just beyond North Bridge. JR

  5. Tim Jarrett’s avatar

    ditto, especially when you’re writing about Ahhlington (as my neighbors, who are natives, call it). Thanks for the post!

  6. Lisa Gates’s avatar

    Doc, what I love about your post is the “pause” in it. The breathing. Methinks feet on the ground is a good thing for you. More digits, less digital.

  7. Russell Nelson’s avatar

    Consider that roads, pipelines (oil, gas, water, sewer), canals, railroads, trails, power lines, telephone lines, cable TV lines, and fiber optic lines are all forms of linear infrastructure. Their economics all have a certain nature that they share between them. They’re dominated by sunk cost and difficulty of access. Because they’re good at going long distances in straight lines, they’re poor (generalization) at going short distances.

  8. Mary Lu AKA HelloMaryLu’s avatar

    Doc– Glad to hear you’re doing the right thing healthwise. When I had my little encounter with my brain last year, it totally changed how I looked at things and I started taking better care of myself. It was about time, if I do say so myself. Until recently I started using my walk as an excuse to take my camera along and get a few pictures– and I need to get back to it.

    However my favorite place over at Puddingstone is one of LA’s entry fee parks. Personally it’s a major PITA in my not so humble opinion. It’s not like we’re not paying enough in taxes around here.

    I’m glad to see John R’s near you. Keep shooting and reporting. I want to see more of your view of Boston/Cambridge.

    Mary Lu

  9. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, everybody. Take notice also of the work along these lines (observation, thought, photography) by Stephen Lewis, at his Bubkes and Hak Pak Sak blogs. In addition to being an old college buddy, Steve is my mentor at these kinds of things.

  10. Espen’s avatar

    Loved that bikeway (it was created in the early nineties) when we lived in Arlington, in a house right above the Spy Pond baseball field. In fact, I did a double-take seeing the picture – the house we lived in was painted exactly the same as in the photograph.

  11. Andria Krewson’s avatar

    Flickr tag grouping? Or Flickr group?
    Brother’s in the hospital with leg clot and now a lung clot, so your posts and his health have me walking and balancing more. Thanks for inspiration and reconnection to the worlds around us.
    Of railroads: Parallels from the 1890s with current web are intriguing.

  12. Russell Nelson’s avatar

    Here’s an interesting perspective, in line with my suggestion that linear infrastructure has characteristics across all types: Volunteer Railways in Britain. If you’re not a railfan, skip the first half and start reading at “There may be a larger social lesson here.”

  13. zeno’s avatar

    As to what is at the other end of the bike trail…well, a bike shop, some sort of little train depot/museum, a water fountain, and nothing else. Disappointing really, I expected some great surprise or bustling town square or amazing sheer drop off a cliff. Ah well.

  14. Steve’s avatar

    If you’re interested in the railroad, pick up a copy of Arlington’s Little Local Railroad ($4; It has great info about the history of the railroad, old photos, and route maps.

    The bike trail continues past Bedford to Concord, though it’s not paved past Bedford. There’s also a trail that runs from Bedford to Billerica over the old Billerica & Bedford RR, an old narrow-gauge line.

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