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Laurence Breed Walker History

When I first met Laurence Breed Walker in 1964, he was living in a fourth-floor walk-up apartment (really really a single all-purpose room) at 304 Essex Street in Salem, Massachusetts. This location became a clearing house for those interested in New England transportation history, as it was located on the busy corner of North and Essex Streets, directly across from the Witch House. A regular stream of visitors and correspondents kept “LB” (as he was known to many) busy at all hours of the day and night.

Russell Munroe of Marblehead organized my introduction (whom I had met about 1963). Russ Munroe is a railroad enthusiast who specializes in rail photography. Munroe had been a frequent visitor to LB’s residence for quite some time, and he suggested that I pay him a call one evening to meet Walker. So one Friday evening, we made the long walk to Room 18 up the old wooden stairs. Beyond the door at the top of the stairs, an adventure of incredible proportions awaited me – but I didn’t realize it at the time.

Before we continue, we must first learn more about LB and how he came to be limited to a one-room, destitute existence in what was effectively a “flop home.” The story begins on June 7, 1895, when he was born in Lynn, Massachusetts, to Charles and Laura (Breed) Walker. Walker was eighth in line from Allan Breed, the first settler in Lynn, and also eighth in line from Peter Walker, the first settler in Taunton, according to his own records. On his grandmother Walker’s side, he was a direct descendant of Robert Treat Paine, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Because his father was corporation counsel for both the Boston & Maine and the New York, New Haven & Hartford railroads, LB was exposed to many types of transportation at a young age. Meanwhile, he graduated from Lynn Classical High School, attended Huntington Preparatory School, Boston University College of Liberal Arts, and Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. L. B. Walker studied for the ministry at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York and Pexley Hall Divinity School of the Diocese of Ohio, following in the footsteps of his uncle, Rev. Walter Russell Breed, Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and his great-grandfather, Rev. John Thompson Burrill, D. D., Rector of Christ Church of Boston (ne Old North Church). He also had the opportunity to study in England, Germany, and Japan. Walker went on to serve as a preacher in Ohio, as well as locally at the First Parish Church of Saco, Maine, and the Roxbury Universalist Church in Boston. He followed an unconventional ministry style that involved a lot of public relations hype, media advertising, and shockingly daring and odd preaching regarding current events, history, and politics! A look at Walker’s surviving church programs (he saved hundreds), for example, gives a decent understanding of his revolutionary and unorthodox style.

He was diagnosed with Infantile Paralysis in the late 1930s. Though he never said it, it is clear from the facts that he suffered from the same crippling effects as President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he lost the use of his legs. Walker was able to walk around with crutches to some extent, but his activities were severely limited. In an age before medical insurance, he spent much of his family’s inheritance in a failed attempt to better his physical condition. Walker’s opulent lifestyle vanished along with his money. Since he had never learned to drive, he had amassed a collection of exquisite automobiles, including a Cord, as well as drivers. He grew disillusioned.

Walker subsequently moved on, working as a radio commentator, a public relations consultant, a public speaker, a political campaign organizer, a newspaper columnist, and even a hotel manager in Boston. Throughout this time, he had been photographing trains and street railways as a pastime, and compiling them into historical archives. All of Walker’s belongings were put into storage when he first fell ill, until he was well enough to live on his own. When that time came, Walker was saddened to learn that his photo collection, among other things, had been taken. It was never located, and the person or persons responsible were never identified, despite Walker’s unprovable suspicions. In any case, his doctor advised LB to start over and put up a better collection after learning of his unfortunate situation. This was especially useful because it would distract him from his tragedy. And so it began… the massive collection that currently fills Cabot House’s basement!

To start over, Walker contacted all of his friends and associates with whom he had previously corresponded and supplied photos. He requested that they make copies of some of the images and give him reproductions so that he could begin the new collection. With time, this had the desired effect, and more came in from an ever-expanding circle of new friends and contacts from all over New England. Russell Munroe and I were called in at this point.

The first time I went to Room 18, it was both an eye-opener and a terrible experience. All of LB’s worldly things were housed in one little room, the most of which were subjugated to the picture files! His universe was completed with chairs, a folding bed, a tiny hot plate burner, and a lifetime of miscellaneous items that had escaped the pilferer of his stored furnishings 20 years before. The plaza below was visible through two windows cut into the Mansard roof. Loud conversations from adjacent rooms could be heard, indicating that some of the other tenants sharing these spartan quarters were inebriated. LB appeared to be completely ignorant to everything, maintaining in touch with the outside world via a little radio that he kept on all day.

We were soon seated across from his untidy desk. He would sift through stacks of letters and images and pass them on to us, along with stories about the subject. This would frequently go on into the early hours of the morning. In fact, you had to make a concerted effort to leave, rising slowly and moving toward the door for an hour or more before finally getting away. So enthusiastic was Walker in his pleasure of excellent company that he was often still talking with you as you began your descent down the lengthy flights of stairs.

Throughout the 1960s, many visits were made. Eventually, the question of what would happen to his collection came up. Walker had been looking for a safe haven for it for a long time, but had no luck finding someone he could trust to look after it. Many people wanted pieces of it, but Walker wanted it all! He’d seen far too many examples of collections being thrown to the winds when their owners died without making plans to safeguard them. I had been a member of the Beverly Historical Society since 1962 and had a good relationship with Ruth Hill, the longstanding librarian at the BHS. I told her about Walker’s problems one day. She knew right away that Beverly would be a good site to receive the donation because it would be unique, something that few other similar organizations could boast about.

It would also appeal to a diverse group of people from many walks of life. Arthur Appleton, the Society’s president at the time, was approached. Miss Hill agreed, and that same week in 1966, she wrote to LB to tell him that Beverly would be delighted to acquire the entire collection. Walker was ecstatic, to say the least. Regrettably, the collection was transferred sooner than intended. In the spring of 1969, it became clear that LB was not feeling well, yet he continued to entertain people and work on his collection despite his persistent refusal to seek medical help. By August, LB had deteriorated significantly and had fallen into a coma. He was taken to Salem Hospital at that point, where he died on August 15, 1969, without regaining consciousness. On August 20th, LB’s burial was held, and he was buried in a city lot at the local Greenlawn Cemetary, with no marker at the time.

In the 1960s, LB Walker

Mr. Walker, in his chamber, as found by his visitors at any time of day…ready to discuss trains! Around 1960, this photo was taken. (Collection of Walker Transportation)

The collection was packed and relocated to the Beverly Historical Society and Museum’s basement, which was essentially a filthy fieldstone-walled junk hole at the time. Years of voluntary labor by regular Walker Collection Society members have converted the building into what it is today, while the collection has grown in size and scope to become a real legacy to this magnificent individual. Oh, and there is now a grave monument in Greenlawn Cemetary; we all chipped in a few years after LB’s death and paid for both the whole funeral fees and the grave site. A flush monument was also erected in the earth.

Aside from the extensive collection, we are fortunate to have a cassette recording of LB made during one of our 1966 visits. LB is excited, full of humor, and happily leading us on a continuing adventure in transportation history, as he recalled it.