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December 12, 2001

A glimpse into Fresh Pond’s History

In his recent commentary (Chronicle, Nov. 28), Jesse Gordon suggests opening Fresh Pond reservoir for additional recreational use, such as boating and swimming. Certainly it’s an idea, which has historic precedent.

Some time ago (Cambridge Current: " The Fresh Pond Hotel " ), I wrote about Fresh Pond, when it was both a vacation resort and source for commercial ice harvesting. These excerpts follow:

The blue plaque on the building caught my attention: " Fresh Pond Hotel, 1796. Built by Jacob Wyeth at Kingsley Park as a summer resort on Fresh Pond. Moved to Lakeview Avenue in 1892. "

Planning to develop a rural resort, Jacob Wyeth purchased that part of his family’s farm, which overlooked the pond. His timing was perfect — the West Boston Bridge had recently opened (1793).

The resort became popular with Bostonians wanting to escape the city for a country weekend. After such an outing, Charles Francis Adams wrote, " The hotel stands on a sort of headland and the thick shade of trees give it a very pretty effect. "

The hotel flourished in that pre-railroad era, remaining popular until after the Civil War. When people could travel with greater ease, they began going farther away on excursions. Yet, in its time, even foreign visitors to Cambridge considered it a place to see.

The area was a favorite place for strolling and for resting in the shade by the clear blue water. Boats were available to rent for rowing and sailing, or you could spend an afternoon bowling nine pins. There was also a riding stable — it was considered a great place for a winter sleigh ride.

Longfellow wrote about the " loveliness " of sailing on the " lake. " On early mornings, young Winslow Homer fished here before going to work as a copy artist in Boston. William James took Sunday walks around the pond with William Dean Howells, no doubt discussing philosophy and literature. As a Harvard undergraduate, Teddy Roosevelt would risk frostbite skating on the pond, at night in bitter cold weather.

During these high times, the hotel was famous for catering Boston social events. In his diary, Oliver Wendell Holmes praised the dinner he enjoyed here with classmates the evening before his Harvard commencement. He was especially pleased with the lengthy wine list, which included claret, champagne and Madeira.

In 1886, Cambridge passed temperance laws, bringing an end to the gala affairs. Sold to the sisters of St. Joseph, the hotel became a convent. Later, moved to its present site, it was converted into apartments.

Ice would make the pond world-famous. In 1805, Frederick Tudor began harvesting the crystal-clear blocks from the pond, shipping them all the way to Martinique. He became known as the " Ice King " when " Fresh Pond Ice " signs began to appear in the sweltering regions of the world from Cuba to India.

Nathaniel Wyeth, the son of the hotel owner, joined the enterprise, contributing to its success by devising new methods for cutting and storing ice. By 1846, Tudor could boast of shipping 65,000 tons of ice throughout the world.

Business tripled in the following decade. During the spring harvest, six-horse teams carried ice, from dawn to dusk, down the streets of Cambridge to the wharves. The coming of the railroad expedited these shipments, when a station was built near the pond.

This commercial success played havoc with the once-tranquil beauty of the pond. Tall ice houses and housing for workmen were built along the shore.

In time, water from the pond became a valued resource. In 1856, a private company began pumping " pure " water from the pond to residents who could afford it, as an alternative to private wells. The water company constructed a wood-lined reservoir at the top of the hill, which is now the intersection of Reservoir and Highland streets.

As Cambridge became increasingly congested, water pollution created a serious problem. Outbreaks of cholera and typhoid were traced to the use of contaminated well water.

The city purchased the Water Company in 1865 to create one of the first public water systems in the country. The " Great Pond Rights, " which dated back to 1647, were abolished. These rights had guaranteed everyone the freedom to fish, boat, bathe, or cut ice in any pond of 10 acres or more. Later, even duck hunting was banned.

Things were getting out of hand — 8,000 people would crowd around temporary beer tents by the pond during summer picnics. Police would turn a " blind eye " to anyone jumping in for a cool dip. The slaughterhouse standing within 100 feet of the shore didn’t help matters.

When Cambridge annexed the land around the pond in 1880, all the buildings were taken down. City engineers filled in coves and straightened the shore. In 1924, the city Water Board allowed the Park Commission to create Kingsley Park. Later, in 1934, wetlands were filled in for a public golf course.

Now, in winter snow, children slide down the hill where the hotel once stood. Geese use the pond as a resting place during migrations, and you can usually spot birdwatchers scanning the trees. Recently, an unknown donor placed a granite bench beneath the pines facing Huron Avenue. Its inscription, taken from Virginia Woolf’s novel, " Orlando, " speaks of promised rest in a quiet place.

During early morning runs, rabbits scurry across my path as birds call to the breaking dawn. Each of us uses the pond in our own way, grateful for this rural oasis hidden within a busy urban setting.

Watch MetroWest Daily News managing editor Joe Dwinell's live report on WB-56 every Thursday and Friday at 7:45 a.m.

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