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For the past 16 years, Dan Small has witnessed Lynn Woods Reservation evolve from a rundown thicket to the recreational park it is today. At the start of his tenure, the ranger recalls, “The place was in pretty rough shape.” Neglect and disrespect had turned the acreage into something of a dumping ground, and, Small notes, “There were questions about whether the city should even have the place.” Things have changed quite a bit over the last decade, as evidenced by the regularly overflowing parking lots at the start of the trailheads. “[It’s much] more popular than it was when I started here,” says Small. “I think we’ve put all that behind us. Now it’s just a park.”

In reference to its origins, the reservation has been called a kind of “colonial common.” Back in the 17th century, the land was used as a community woodlot. In 1706, the then-town divided the land among private property owners, stipulating that community members had rights to cross the land, providing they did not log trees. The heavily wooded tract remained largely untouched through the first half of the 19th century. By the late-19th century, utilitarian use of the woods gave way to recreational activities, which ultimately resulted in community support for the creation of a permanently protected municipal forest park.

Today, the park is protected by Friends of Lynn Woods. Formed in 1991, “the Friends” played a large role in bringing the woods back from degradation. The group assembled to oppose a plan to expand a bordering golf course by another 18 holes, which would have occupied the very center of the park—about 400 acres. They fought that proposal and cleaned up the place in the process. Today, the Friends are working to get a permanent conservation restriction on the entire park. “The conservation status on some of this land is pretty suspect,” explains Small. “They are in the process of getting a restriction on the whole place so it will all be protected.”

At roughly 2,200 acres, Lynn Woods is the second largest municipal park in the greater Boston area. Deciduous and evergreen forest, wetlands, streams, rocky outcroppings, and three pond-like reservoirs comprise its topography. Additionally, well over 100 species of birds inhabit or seasonally frequent the woods. Some of the features that date from the 17th and 18th centuries include stone walls, roads, and pastures. Dungeon Pasture and Ox Pasture even have a series of stone-lined holes called Wolf Pits, most likely built to trap predators. There is also a handful of areas with foundation remnants, indicating old settlements, though, Small points out: “Not a lot of people lived up here, everybody was down by the beach. It was rocky and useless for agriculture. That helped to protect it.” There were some “rustic camps” on the private woodlots before they became parkland—little cottages for weekend stays. Most weren’t much more than shacks with outhouses. “Some of the most affluent people of Lynn used to go up there to camp out—they were some of the people who got involved in the whole free public forest movement.” That movement, those efforts, lasted 10 years before the city turned the woods into a park. Small notes that back in 1880, there really weren’t a lot of city parks—they just weren’t a priority. “Thoreau advocated for every city to have pristine acreage set aside, but it really wasn’t done.”

Among those working to save the woods was the Lynn–based Exploring Circle, New England’s first hiking club, founded in 1850—long before the Sierra Club, the Appalachian Mountain Club, and other such groups. “Those guys were trying to preserve the place, which is amazing because they had nothing to base it on. It was an original idea,” says Small. Ten years later, the park movement went nationwide, and the city of Lynn passed the Park Act, taking over management of the reservation.

“I think one of the most interesting things about the place is that the people who originally purchased it, [naturalist and poet] Cyrus Tracey and the Exploring Circle, [did so] with private funds. Their intention was to protect it, and rather than trying to go the government route, they raised money, purchased land, and kept it open as a free public forest. They owned it but everyone could use it for free. I think that’s pretty cool.” The Exploring Circle used the land for botanical studies. Eventually, they splintered into the Trustees of the Free Public Forest, a group concerned with industrialization’s swallowing of natural lands. The city’s population was exploding as the shoe factories boomed. To preserve the woods, they bought approximately 160 acres surrounding Dungeon Rock.

It is interesting to note that the group consulted with landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who said the best thing they could do was nothing. He saw undisturbed forest as unique in a city setting. In his opinion, trying to turn it into something more like New York’s Central Park would be its ruin. They took his advice and didn’t do much beyond putting in a few roads and parking areas. “Once you get into the woods,” says Small, “there’s almost nothing in there. The Stone Tower was there for fire protection, but really they have done almost nothing to make it park-like, which is good because what we really need is woods. We don’t need another park.”

In addition to its natural graces and interesting origins, Lynn Woods has a bit colorful history tied to its name, beginning in 1658 when a ship carrying pirates appeared in Lynn Harbor. A series of swashbuckling adventures ensued and ultimately resulted in the pirates making camp in a place now known as Pirate’s Glen near the Saugus River. Nearby British soldiers sought their capture; three buccaneers were caught and hanged but the fourth, Thomas Veal, escaped into the woods and made camp in a natural cave, supposedly in possession of stolen treasure.

In time, an earthquake rocked the area, causing an enormous bolder—known now as Dungeon Rock—to block the entrance to Veal’s cave. It is speculated that he was either trapped inside or crushed to death. Whichever the case, his loot was sealed far below ground, and his remains were left undisturbed for nearly two hundred years.

In 1852, a man named Hiram Marble—a member of the Spiritualist Church—arrived at the cave believing he had received a message from Veal telling him dig to at Dungeon Rock, where he would become a rich man. Marble built a home and a number of structures around the cave, bits of which can still be seen today. He was then joined by his wife and son, Edwin.

The Marble family held séances with local mediums to find guidance while digging—the result of which is a zigzagging tunnel. (The spirits would lead the diggers in one direction and then abruptly in another.) In 1868, Hiram passed away without ever finding his treasure. His son Edwin dug on until his own death in 1880. 

Though no pirate booty was discovered, another kind of treasure was found. The Marble family shared a vision of a free public forest. Hiram had planned to use his riches to buy as much land as possible for the people of Lynn to enjoy. His vision came to fruition when, shortly after his son’s death, citizens of Lynn purchased the land surrounding the Dungeon Rock homestead and formed the park known as Lynn Woods.

Fast forward a century and we find the woods turned over to recreation lovers like the Lynn Woods Runners, who make use of the trails every Wednesday evening, and the New England Spahtens, an outside obstacle-course racing team that trains there on Sunday mornings. Small organizes Eagle Scouts for projects each year, and gets help from the GE employees, who regularly assist with trail maintenance. North Shore Community College does a big annual spring clean up—this year, volunteers also planted a few thousand trees. Good Samaritans pitch in while hiking, picking up litter or showing up after a snowstorm to clear broken branches off trails. Though, notes Small: “It isn’t a lot to take care. It’s trees and rocks and dirt. Fortunately, they heeded Olmsted’s advice and didn’t overcomplicate the place.” Nonetheless, people clearly enjoy pitching in.

On another front, Small has seen a remarkable resurgence of wildlife in the last 16 years. “The first week I worked here, I saw a deer and nobody believed me. Now, they are all over the place.” He has observed an uptick in minks, beavers, bobcats, and barn owls. “It seems like every year there is some new creature that comes in.” In 1904, a survey was conducted to determine the wildlife baseline. “There are way more [species] here now than there were back then.” Small believes that in the days before it was a park, everything was overhunted. It has taken time for wildlife to come back, in part, because of the park’s location—it is surrounded on all sides by major roads; there aren’t any wildlife corridors for animals’ safe passage in. “But little by little,” says Small, “the critters are coming back.”

Given its fascinating history and natural beauty, it is hard to believe more people don’t know about Lynn Woods. Small attributes that, in part, to the fact that an online search for recreational opportunities in the Boston area doesn’t yield Lynn Woods. “It’s a hidden gem,” he says. “If you look online, this place doesn’t pop up because it’s not a state park…People will find the Fells and Breakheart, but they aren’t going to find this. That makes it harder…but once they do find it and they see what’s here, they keep coming back.”

Small offers this piece of advice: “Get a map and come on up.” Seeing is believing.