Over the Centuries, Indigenous Swamplands Evolve with the Town

March 21, 2024
The White Cedar Swamp and contiguous wetlands and uplands comprise about 90 acres, bisected by Davis Road and spreading behind the north side of Concord Road. Photo by Mike Rosenberg

Every day, hundreds of residents, commuters, and visitors drive, bike, or walk alongside a section of Bedford that can reasonably be described as “primordial.”

The White Cedar Swamp and contiguous wetlands and uplands comprise about 90 acres, bisected by Davis Road and spreading behind the north side of Concord Road. 

The swamp has evolved over the centuries, naturally and through human impact – agriculture, roads, and climate change. 

Still, it has been a fixture on the local landscape much longer than any structure, and continues to define much of the topography between Concord and Carlisle roads. 

Technically, the specific conservation area officially named White Cedar Swamp is on the north side of Davis Road, extending west of the Avalon apartment complex. The contiguous wetlands on the south side of Davis, where the town installed a boardwalk, sometimes has the same nomenclature, and it is definitely part of the same ecosystem. It extends to the backyards of Revolutionary Ridge, Battle Flagg, Norma and Selfridge roads.

The local historian Abram English Brown, in his 1891 “History of Bedford,” references the swampy terrain in the town’s western portion. His chapter on local topography describes trees in the region, such as “(T)he white cedar (that) takes kindly to the peat of the low lands in the vicinity of the Concord River.” He mentioned an 18th century road “over to Cedar Swamp …to Concord River meadow path.”

Elizabeth Bagdonas, Bedford’s first conservation administrator, who retired in 2020 at age 82, knows the area intimately. 

“I am totally enamored about the White Cedar Swamp,” she said in a recent interview. “That’s an old, old swamp. It was immense – it went all the way to Carlisle. I’m sure there was never any settlement there. It’s a wilderness.”

Indeed, on the north side of Davis Road, she recalled, “I led a trail walk in there once and it was almost a disaster. It was in the winter and people were sinking up to their knees in muck. I was wearing brand new hiking boots. That taught me a lesson: this was not a place to trail walk. You have to just bushwhack.”

Did the Bedford Minutemen pass by this landscape on their march to defend the armaments stored in Concord on April 19, 1775? Not exactly. 

“I’m sure it was there as all cedars in 1775,” Bagdonas said. “Over the generations, the land ended up divided in long linear strips to the Concord River so everybody could have river access and meadows.

“Go out there to a section off Davis Road behind the Avalon apartments. There’s a thick tangle and it’s hard to get through,” she said. “Go straight back and you come to an area where the trees are as straight as arrows. It’s dizzying, they’re so tall. There’s nothing else around.”

The Atlantic white cedar is described by one naturalist as a member of the cypress family, “with short branches, evergreen, scale-like leaves that form a soft, flat spray. It grows to 80 feet with a straight trunk with cinnamon-brown to gray peeling bark and a twisting grain.” The tree, which is rot-resistant, has been a favorite for posts and shingles.

Bagdonas recalled a state project to map unusual ecosystems, but Bedford was bypassed because “the state said it wasn’t big enough to interest them.” She was insulted. “This is the Atlantic white cedar, which is a coastal species, a very interesting ecosystem.”

In February 1992, John Zupkus submitted a notice of intent to the Conservation Commission – of which he was a member – for what he called a reclamation project “in the management of competing vegetation within the Atlantic White Cedar Swamp.” This would include “cutting and removal of tree and shrub species within a narrowly defined project area.”

In his site description, Zupkus wrote, “Most of the wetland north and south of Davis Road is a deciduous swamp dominated by red maple with occasional white pines and the Ulmus (elm). Cedar is limited to a narrow band just north of Davis Road with only a few small patches elsewhere. In the areas with cedar, maple overtops some of the cedars, and many of the cedars are dead or dying.” 

Zupkus said he once was told that to navigate the swamp and reach arable land, early farmers “had to cut down hundreds of trees and put them side-by-side to make a road.” They called this a “corduroy road, a pioneerish way to cross a swamp. Farmers had to be creative about how to connect the pieces.” That may have been “the ancient grandfather of Davis Road,” which appears on Bedford maps as early as 1830.

“White cedars were harvested several times over the past 300 years, and they would always leave sentinel trees to reseed the crop,” Zupkus related. Through his project, he learned “that doesn’t work anymore.”

In his project area, Zupkus “put on hip waders and hopped hummock to hummock.” He girdled the white pines and red maples, eventually killing them “so the canopy blocking the sun from the forest floor would disappear. I went back in and there were tons and tons of white cedar seedlings.” A year later he returned, and “the deer had browsed up all of them to nothing. Without getting rid of the deer, American white cedars will never come back the way they were.”

The top of Davis Road crosses the wetlands with the 1,200-foot boardwalk on the south side. A retired DPW Grounds Division staffer once said that the boardwalk contractor had to drive the pilings through 35 feet of peat before finding solid ground.

“We had to do everything from the roadway,” explained Joe Cataldo, whose Littleton firm was the boardwalk contractor. “Once we went through the peat and hit hard bottom, we knew we had gotten the pile onto stable soil underneath. It was a fabulous project, giving people access to the wetlands.”

Retired Town Engineer Adrienne St. John designed the boardwalk, which opened in 2020. She said that stretch of Davis Road actually split down the middle decades ago because the subsurface was so unstable. More than 35 years ago, she said, the town strengthened that stretch of the street with “a geogrid in the gravel that had a tensile strength.” Even now some of the utility poles along the north side stand at an angle, she pointed out. 

The main drainage route within the swamplands is a channel called Mongo Brook. There’s no reference to such a waterway in the Brown book. But he describes the area known in the late 18th century – and now – as Pine Grove Farm, just west of the white cedars. The area of Revolutionary Ridge Road, bordering the southwest corner of the wetlands, was part of Pine Grove Farm in the 20th century.

“The cedar swamp, divided into lots, is separated from the estate by ‘Mingo Ditch,’ the historian reported. “The swamp is designated in a deed in 1728 as ‘Sancta Domingo Swamp,’ which in our language may be called Sacred Dominion.” That’s as close to Mongo as it gets.

The outflow of Mongo Brook from the swamp is helped with fencing and piping rigged by the DPW. Photo by Mike Rosenberg

Mongo Brook flows from west to east through the wetlands and a culvert under Concord Road to Elm Brook. St. John said that when the Shawsheen River is running high and can’t accommodate the outflow from Elm Brook, one of the results is Mongo Brook actually flows backward as the swamp serves as a holding area for the waters.

The DPW has been spending some time over the past year in the wetlands alongside Concord Road, where beavers’ activities have affected the outflow of Mongo Brook. 

“We try to control how much water passes through” the culvert under Concord Road, said Michael Sprague, St. John’s successor as DPW engineer. The department has installed fencing around the culvert as well as a pipe and drain network, which maintains a level of water “that allows us to live with the beavers,” he said.

Climate change appears to have contributed to the situation, as there was no history of beaver activity in that part of the swamp. But the magnitude of storms now results in a higher water level for a longer period of time there, Sprague said, “which directly affects the ecosystem. It’s a balance to protect the environment and protect people, their homes, and ways to get around.”

A representative of the Eastern Middlesex Mosquito Control Project said larval control efforts focus on the White Cedar Swamp region, but the application is by low-flying helicopter because so much of the area is inaccessible on foot. He explained that the technicians deposit a solid product that is ingested by mosquito larvae “so they never become adults.”

The Bedford Department of Public Works is asking Annual Town Meeting to authorize spending $950,000 to correct periodic flooding on and around Richard Road tied to a brook channeled into the neighborhood through culverts that are degraded. Read more about that proposal here.

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Leo Cierpial
March 22, 2024 11:33 am

Thank you, Mike! Great article (as usual).

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