Can This Recreation of Thoreau’s Cabin Prevent a Gas Pipeline?

A Massachusetts man built a recreation of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin from the book "Walden" in protest of fracking

Apr 5, 2016
Outside Magazine
Can This Recreation of Thoreau’s Cabin Prevent a Gas Pipeline?

The original illustration printed on Walden's cover.    Illustration: Sophia Thoreau


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When Will Elwell heard a natural gas pipeline was going to run through his little town in Franklin County, Massachusetts, destroying stands of old growth hemlock and other forest, he knew he had to stop it. But how can a simple timber framer stand up to to the energy industry? He found inspiration in the works of Henry David Thoreau and built a cabin. 

“He actually wrote the book on civil disobedience,” Elwell said over the phone. Civil Disobedience is the title of Thoreau’s famous 1849 essay, in which he rails against government over-reach. “He had a great one-liner that really resonated with me for this,” says Elwell. Quoting Thoreau, he continues: “The authority of government must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person or property but what I concede to it.”

Elwell stands beside the cabin's roof frame, outside his workshop in Ashfield, Massachusetts.   Photo: Will Elwell

“I didn’t just want to put up signs,” says Elwell, who grew up near Walden pond, fishing in it regularly. “I just finished a big barn project that took about a year, and was looking around for what to do next. This pipeline thing had been heating up, and I figured I had to do something about it, so I came up with the idea to build a cabin.”

The controversial pipeline in question is the 416-mile Kinder Morgan Northeast Energy Direct natural gas pipeline, which will supply the Northeast and eastern Canada with gas produced by fracking in Pennsylvania. The project is currently under review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but Elwell and others opposed to the pipeline’s construction don’t feel their voices are being heard. His concerns range from forest destruction to the potential for pollution of local water supplies, issues he doesn’t feel have been adequately addressed in Kinder Morgan’s proposal. He asks: “What will happen if construction starts, and the well where my drinking water comes from dries up?”

So, late last month, he built a cabin.

The framed cabin, as it stands now in a hay field.   Photo: Will Elwell

“I wouldn’t call it an exact replica, but it’s designed kind of the same size" as the cabin on Walden pond where Thoreau famously lived for two years, two months, and two days, Elwell says. It’s a 10-foot-by-15-foot timber frame cabin with an eight-foot ceiling and a sloping roof. I wanted to make it all from recycled wood I had left over from other projects, and a friend gave me four hand-hewn posts from a barn we took down that was built in the early 1800s. These beams are from the same era as Thoreau, so that’s pretty cool.”

Elwell wanted to erect the cabin precisely on the path of the pipeline, in a bid to force Kinder Morgan to have to apply for demolition permits to tear it down. Not only is it a symbolic protest, but creates a practical and bureaucratic obstacle too. But where exactly to locate it? “My friend Larry, he’s got a beautiful little hay field, and they’re going to go right through that,” he tells us, settling that question. 

A portrait of Henry David Thoreau hangs in the completed cabin frame.   Photo: Will Elwell

The framer spent three weeks in his workshop, preparing the timber, then sent out an email notifying friends and neighbors of his plans. “When I loaded up my trailer and went over there, there was nobody there,” Elwell says. “But by ten'o’clock, there were 30 people ready to help. We had the frame up by two'o’clock.”

“It’s just a bare bones structure at this point,” Elwell says. “But, people are really identifying with it. Larry jokes that he’s going to have to move out, with all the cars that are coming by. And people are asking me what’s next. To me, the cabin is already doing its work, but if it comes down to demolition, there’s going to be a lot of people there, and people will chain themselves to the frame.”

Elwell and his wife met Elizabeth Warren at the speech where she came out in opposition to fracking in Massachusetts.   Photo: Will Elwell

Is Elwell concerned that, should his protest be successful, he could be putting pipeline workers out of a job? “There are union workers who argue they need the work for their families, to feed the kids, to pay the mortgage,” he says. “That’s fine, but I think it would be much better for those unions to go fix our bridges and other infrastructure that’s so in need of repair right now.”

Elwell’s long term goal? “This cabin is a a symbol of our discontent and defiance,” he says. “What I’m hoping is we can get Elizabeth Warren to come out and give a rally speech on the steps of the cabin. Long term, we want a system of government that includes the public.” 

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