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Take a Hike: Exploring the Shaker Spring House trail

The Shaker Spring House trail, moderate in length and difficulty, was recently refreshed by Bromfield students seeking their community service credits. While situated right next to Route 2—sections so noisy it’s hard to hear yourself talk—it’s worth going over there to visit the historic Shaker Spring House and explore its intriguing story.

According to the Harvard Trails guide, a publication of the Harvard Conservation Trust: “The Shaker Spring House and water system was built in 1855 when a drought caused the supply of well water to fail. The Shakers laid an aqueduct about a mile long from the spring to a reservoir in Shaker Village. A slate stone marked each change in direction.”

I meet my walking companion in the spacious trailhead parking lot at the dead end of Green Hill Road, where snowplows leave their scrapings, disturbed invasives and all, at the base of the Harvard Conservation Land sign. The students have tidied up the area and it’s quite passable for now with yellow tags to mark the way.

At the first junction, we head north uphill a short way till we see what I first thought was a big moss-covered boulder beside a little undefined stream, but actually is an 8-by-6-foot structure constructed of mortared stones. The students have released it from a tangle of vines and forest debris to reveal a little house with a pitched roof and a small door. Inside, a spring still bubbles up from underground. I guess that the geometric concrete constructions on the ground outside the house were parts of a retaining wall for what was once a spring-fed pool.

We continue on the trail, uphill and into the woods and away from traffic noise. Along the trail we see a variety of hardwood and pine trees, ferns and mosses, glacial boulders, and rocks. The land is crisscrossed with stone walls and streams. Areas that are especially wet can be forded on strategically placed wooden planks.

Then we get to an open swath of land cutting across the trail. It is clearly an old road or cart path. It is winter so our views are not obstructed by foliage, and ticks are less of a problem; therefore, this is a good time to go off-trail and follow this old road downhill. It ends at the base of the huge Route 2 embankment constructed in 1955.

We seek higher ground to ascertain where along Route 2 we are. From a knoll, we are level with the highway on one side. And on the other, we look down over stone walls, glacial boulders, forest, and the old road in the woods, all abruptly interrupted by Route 2, like a dam cutting off the landscape’s undulating flow.

Remains of the aqueduct?

We pick up the trail and head back. Almost to the parking lot, next to the trail, we find a deep hole in the ground surrounded by large, deliberately placed stones. Beyond this hole we see a culvert surrounded by old-fashioned masonry buried under the highway embankment. Between the hole in the ground and the culvert, water flows in a shallow open ditch. Can this be the remains of the aqueduct? And where is the other end of the culvert?

To get to the reservoir in Shaker Village, the end point of the aqueduct mentioned in Harvard Trails, we drive over Route 2 on Littleton Road and turn onto Shaker Road. This intersection appears to have been built up to be level with Route 2, dampening hopes of finding the other end of that culvert.

Ahead to the north on Shaker Road, at the intersection with South Shaker Road and Sheehan Road, is a swamp that great blue herons inhabit in warmer weather. If the pipeline ran directly from the Spring House to the reservoir in Shaker Village, would it have run through this swamp? The Harvard Historical Society was given what is thought to be a slate stone marker indicating a turn in the pipeline from somewhere in or around the swamp. I wonder if this area was a swamp in 1855, the year of the drought and construction of the pipeline.

We continue through the village and stop just past the Square House, near a lane on the eastern side of Shaker Road that is guarded by two granite posts. The reservoir is now underground, in the field on the slope of a hill, just beyond the granite posts.

From where we are standing, at the northern edge of the village looking south down Shaker Road, the Spring House is a little over a straight mile away, but cut off by Route 2.


For further information

“The Harvard Shakers’ Water System,” a 1988 draft document by Margaret M. Stier that details her research, explorations, and questions about the water system, including exact measurements of various points from the Spring House to the reservoir. Available at the Harvard Historical Society from curator Judy Warner,

“The Shaker Holy Land,” 1978, by Edward R. Horgan, which says the pipeline took three turns off the straight course of the aqueduct and that each diversion was marked with a slate stone. A stone discovered years later by Bayard Underwood is thought to be the second marker and is now displayed at the Historical Society. Available at the Harvard Public Library.

“A New Map of Shaker Village of Harvard, Massachusetts” is a blog posted by J.R.Theriault and includes an 1875 map showing the route of the pipeline from the Spring House, overlaid by a contemporary map of Shaker Village and Route 2. Available at

The website shows 1875 and 1917 maps of the aqueduct and describes how the Shakers bottled and marketed water from the spring as a medicinal remedy.

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