Amherst College Bicentennial 1821 2021

On the occasion of Amherst’s Bicentennial, we present a series of excerpts from Amherst College: The Campus Guide. This is the first of four. The book is one of the keepsake Bicentennial books commissioned by the College.

Trail passing through the Wildlife Sanctuary
Amherst College Wildlife Sanctuary: Accounting for about half of the college's one thousand acres, the sanctuary provides a beloved respite from the pressures of academic life.

This serene natural enclave, a hidden treasure of the campus, had its beginnings in 1929 or 1932 (accounts differ) when the wife of the College’s treasurer, Charles Andrews, asked him to fetch some pine cones for fireplace kindling.

Andrews headed to a patch of forested land on the campus’s eastern border; the College had purchased the land a few years earlier to serve as a buffer against unsightly, noisy industrial development. The outcome of that storied walk is the Wildlife Sanctuary, a vast tract of protected wilderness that constitutes about half of Amherst’s 1,000 acres and is used for both scientific research and recreation.

Here students and faculty can study the multitude of plants, insects and birds that inhabit the sanctuary’s open fields, wetlands, floodplain woods, upland woods, plantation pines, ponds and river. The sanctuary also contains networks of trails for walking, jogging and cross-country skiing.

For many, it is a cherished place, to which they can go to escape the pressures of academic life—and from which they can return refreshed. But few know that its origins are rooted in the economic calamity of the Great Depression.

Andrews was acutely aware that the financial hardships wrought by the Depression and his walk led to an inspiration: students in need of financial aid could earn desperately needed wages by cleaning and beautifying the forested land, then 60 acres. In 1933, some 40 students helped drain swamps, thin trees, clear undergrowth, build trails and dam streams to form ponds.

It was surely no coincidence that the effort began in the same year as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a popular program of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The CCC’s Amherst counterpart enabled the participating students “to continue with their studies, instead of having to give them up because of financial difficulties,” the Springfield Union and Republican reported in a 1933 story. Alluding to Andrews’ walk, that story was headlined: “Pine Cones Keep Students in College.”

The head of the College’s botany department, Alfred S. Goodale, class of 1898, oversaw the sanctuary’s development. He believed the sanctuary had two main purposes: to serve as an outdoor laboratory for observational and experimental studies by the College’s scientific departments and to provide a public park. A crucial element of the sanctuary’s success, he observed, was that it was literally in the College’s backyard, not miles away, as such facilities were at other institutions of higher learning.

Whether visitors enter for recreation or research, the sanctuary offers special sights and sounds. There are towering stands of pines and broad hay fields with views to the surrounding hills. “White-tailed deer frequent the western fields, and during the spring migration, strollers have observed blue-winged warblers, field sparrows, brown thrashers and eastern bluebirds,” William Sweet wrote in Amherst magazine in 2015.

The sanctuary’s significance extends beyond its borders, especially because it safeguards the panoramic views that are one of the hilltop college’s most beloved features. It is easy to take those views for granted, but they are the result of shrewd land acquisition and management. In the 1920s, for example, the College purchased about 80 acres along South Pleasant Street after it got wind that a local landowner planned to build one or more onion warehouses there. Later, Amherst had evergreen trees planted in the area to screen the campus from the Boston and Maine Railroad tracks. Without such farsighted steps, the revered view of the Holyoke Range from Memorial Hill would look very different.