If I Had a Hammer: Activists Build Thoreau-Like Cabin to Stop Gas Pipeline

By Abbie Mood

April 21, 2016


Photos by Will Elwell

It looks like environmental activist Will Elwell can put down his carpentry tools for now. In March, Elwell and other New England residents living around Ashfield, Massachusetts, began construction on a simple, wood-frame cabin modeled after Henry David Thoreau’s famous Spartan dwelling near Walden Pond. But this wasn’t merely a historical reenactment. The cabin construction was organized as a creative blockade of a proposed gas pipeline that would have stretched across seven eastern states to transport gas from the fracking fields of Pennsylvania throughout New England. 

On Wednesday, the company behind the pipeline, Kinder Morgan, announced that it was indefinitely postponing its application for the $3 billion gas pipeline. Local environmental activists like Elwell are thrilled about the announcement but remain vigilant in case Kinder Morgan attempts to resurrect the proposal. “I am excited, but I am also cautiously optimistic about the news,” Elwell told Sierra.  “Why can’t they say they’re abandoning the pipeline? I hope it’s not a smoke screen to disperse the energy we’ve created to block the proposal.” 

New England environmentalists began organizing opposition to the proposed Northeast Energy Direct pipeline in February 2014, after they started receiving notices from the Tennessee Pipeline Company (a subsidiary of Kinder Morgan) seeking permission to begin surveys for the gas conduit. The original proposal called for a 30-inch, high-pressure natural gas transmission line that would have stretched 412 miles from the gas fields of Pennsylvania through New York and western Massachusetts on its way to the town of Dracut, near the Massachusetts/New Hampshire border. Along its route, the pipeline would have run through state forestland, wetlands, and many people’s private property. Residents along the proposed route expressed concerns about its effect on local landscapes, fears about possible explosions or leaks, and worries that much of the gas would eventually be destined for export

Elwell has owned a timber frame company for the past 30 years, and he wanted to create a tangible symbol of discontent and defiance. Inspired by Thoreau’s famous 1849 essay, Civil Disobedience, he decided to build a Thoreau-like cabin in the midst of the pipeline route. The cabin would be small (just 10 by 15 feet), but Elwell thought it would carry a big message. “If you put up a billboard, it’s up 24 hours, whether you’re there or not, so it’s doing it’s job,” he says. 

Over the course of three weeks, Elwell hand chiseled the frame of the cabin by himself. During that time, he says, he had a chance to contemplate Thoreau deeply, and reminisce about how important the area is to him. “I grew up here, fishing in the local pond,” he says.   

Elwell likes to quote this passage from Civil Disobedience: “Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it." He felt that the pipeline resistance movement would be much more powerful it if it were to physically put itself directly in the pipeline’s path. After checking maps and determining exactly where the pipeline would be, Elwell asked friend Larry Sheehan if he could put up the cabin on his property in Ashfield. 

On Wednesday, March 16, about 30 community members gathered at 8 A.M. at Sheehan’s property. In the spirit of an old-fashioned barn raising, by 2 P.M. the main frame of the cabin was completed. Though it wasn’t necessary, Elwell decided to get a building permit for the structure. He says that if the pipeline were ever to move forward, Kinder Morgan and its subsidiary would have to get approval to tear it down. 

The night before Kinder Morgan’s announcement, Elwell's wife, Donna, came up with another possible purpose for the protest structure. “What if the cabin could represent an energy-efficient dwelling, to show what we can do without natural gas?” she said. “We could bring the Thoreau cabin to the 21st century.” The Elwells imagine installing solar panels on the roof and buying one of the new Tesla Powerwalls for energy storage. 

Asked what’s next for the Northeast Energy Direct opponents, Elwell said, “I think the message got through to them [Kinder Morgan], but we’ll keep pounding away. This is really just the beginning of what we need to do to protect our environment. There is more to come.”