March 20, 2023 By Stephen Dempsey
After one hundred years, Hingham’s 110-acre George Washington Forest is one of the Town’s finest assets, worthy of remembrance, celebration and continued attention. Although the forest is facing several maintenance challenges now, the benefits to the community in this post-COVID era of renewed public interest in outdoor activities will be countless.
The forest’s creation began in 1922 with a gift of 48 acres of land along South Pleasant and Charles Streets from William Coombs Codman, the owner of Hingham’s largest farm at the time, for the purpose of a Town owned and maintained forest. Mr. Codman’s gift was accepted by vote at Town Meeting, March 7, 1922, with the condition that the land be used for forestation.
In 1923, an additional 14+ acres were gifted to the Town by John J. Moore and accepted at Town Meeting under the same conditions as Mr. Codman’s gift. A “Reforestation Account” was created and the Selectmen appointed Timothy L. Murphy to the position of Town Forester and placed him in charge of the Town Forest.
Murphy began the hard work of clearing and planting in 1924, which continued every spring until 1927. A total of 50-60,000 small white pines and spruce trees provided by the State Forester were planted on the South Pleasant and Charles Street lots.
The Office of the Town Forester was abolished in July of 1927 and the Town Forest or “Reforestation” Committee was appointed by the Selectmen. Subsequently, the Town bought more adjoining land around the original 62 gifted acres, nearly doubling the total acreage to 110. Timothy L. Murphy continued his work in the Town Forest, serving alongside Amy C. Howard and Francis H. Lincoln as members of the Reforestation Committee until 1946. Organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution worked with the committee in the planting of even more evergreens, like the red pine, to fill the acreage.
As the Town Forest began to mature, the majesty of its beauty was realized by everyone who saw it. Throughout the early 1940s, in its annual Town Reports, the Reforestation Committee urged the citizens to drive through the forest to see and enjoy what was accomplished! In 1945, regarding maintenance of the forest, the committee consulted the State Department of Conservation and asked District Forester Charles L. Cherry his opinion how to proceed with management. Mr. Cherry said that Hingham’s Town Forest had one of the best stands of trees in the State but advised regular pruning and thinning out of the trees.
The thinning out of trees came about in part by the illegal taking of Christmas Trees from time to time. Often times, the best trees in the forest were taken, to the dismay of the Committee. It was written in the 1946 Town Report; “The Committee hopes that in the future the willful destruction of Christmas trees will not exist. It is planned to have adequate patrol of the Forest day and night to prevent this. The only sanctioned cutting for Christmas decoration is for Churches, Schools and Organizations, and then only under the supervision of the Tree Warden. These trees are Town property, planted for a definite purpose and are not to be stolen.”
The Reforestation Committee became the Hingham Tree and Park Commission in 1949. They took over the maintenance of the forest under the direction of Superintendent John W Fee. Throughout the 1950s, work was performed in the forest primarily during the winter months. The fire roads were upgraded by adding gravel to deep holes and areas prone to wash-out. Thinning of the trees continued, and in 1953 alone, 24 cords of pulp wood were removed and sold. The money was turned back to the Town.
The Town Forest has been used for recreation by both the Boy and Girl Scouts, equestrian enthusiasts, dog walkers and nature lovers. Private weddings have been held there. I can say personally, having grown up on South Pleasant Street on its border, the Hingham Town Forest is a great place for kids to explore.
In recent years, several new challenges have arisen in keeping the forest well groomed, tidy and safe. The red pine beetle has caused significant damage to many acres of the forest off Charles Street and into the interior. Once trees are weakened or die, they become subject to being uprooted and blown over during storms, which can create a domino effect throughout the forest. This is already evident. The white pines off South Pleasant Street are now over 100 feet tall, making them very difficult to prune. Tree and Park crews are stretched thin as the need for maintenance along streets becomes a public safety priority.
One thought for restoring the forest to its former glory is volunteerism. Perhaps the Town could petition local licensed and insured contractors to volunteer a day or two at a time, working in the forest under the direction of the Tree Warden to help clean fallen trees and branches in exchange for contribution acknowledgment, a tax write-off or some other non-monetary incentive.
I encourage everyone to pay a visit, take a walk through, look beyond the fallen trees and see for yourself what a beautiful place the Town Forest really is. While you’re there, don’t forget to sing Happy Birthday!