Jamaica Pond

Old winter pleasures on Jamaica Pond
By Walter H. Marx

It would be highly appropriate for anyone by an ice - covered Jamaica Pond to hear echoes of the famous Skaters' Waltz from Meyerbeer's ballet, The Skater. Older residents can recall lengthy skating periods on the Pond, and their parents would have mentioned ice being cut for local distribution for the family icebox. One enterprising Massachusetts Yankee, Frederick Tudor, organized rural ice cutters so well that the product was sent to Boston and sent around the world after being packed in insulating sawdust.

Skating on Jamaica Pond. Winslow Homer, 1859.

Skating was the activity focused upon by Mrs. Samuel Cabot of the Pond's north shore in a 1940 lecture. Her text, along with some of the originals of the slides she used, is preserved in the JP Branch Library and has been published by the JP Historical Society. Mrs. Cabot began her collection of Pond materials when she moved into what is now the Cabot Estate in 1919. She quotes from the 1855 - 59 diary of Elizabeth R. Mason (later Mrs. Walter Cabot, which in part has recently been published by the Beacon Press. Here are her quotes, which show a far different Jamaica Pond than the one readers know at present:

January 26, 1855 - A new amusement has arisen on the Boston horizon: skating. Last Wednesday, having heard of the performances of some of the ladies who live on Jamaica Pond, we determined to go out in the omnibus to see them. The weather was fine, and we proceeded to the omnibus on Park Street corner. Arriving at Green Street in little more than half an hour, we walked onto the Pond, where we found a crowd of people skating.

I put on skates and was able to stand on them very well and to be pulled around; that I by taking the arm of someone who skated well, I could follow, making no motion myself but without losing my balance.

In coming home it snowed hard, and the walk to the cars, which is more than half a mile was by no mean delightful. Neither can I say much for the walk from the Providence Depot through Charles Street.

January 30, 1855 - Good skating again. I was glad to arrive at the omnibus. The Pond was covered with people amounting to 500 or 600. The afternoon was brilliant, and I enjoyed it excessively.

January 31, 1855 - I raced down at 10 to the Providence Depot. The weather was brilliant, the skating splendid. We met a good many people on the pond. We all had a very grand time; one sees people in such an easy, pleading way. Returned by the omnibus at 1 p.m.

February 1, 1855 - I proceeded in the omnibus to Jamaica Pond. I enjoyed the afternoon more than ever before. The sun had checked the wind; it was mild and good skating. I crossed the pond several times. We were pushed in a sleigh belonging to the Bacons. Altogether it was splendid. I never felt a sensation of cold even in my feet and was in high spirit. I had my first real fall: I came suddenly to very rough ice without perceiving it and measured my length without injury except to my bonnet and in getting very wet from the snow.

February 27, 1858 - Went out to Jamaica Pond this morning, but the ice was very poor.

March 4, 1858 - Went out to Jamaica Pond today, but the skating was poor excepting a little patch 20 feet long.

March 5, 1858 - Went to Jamaica Pond, but it was so bitterly cold that I was perfectly exhausted when I got home.

January 25, 1859 - Went out coating to Jamaica.

January 26, 1859 - Went out today to some meadows near Jamaica Pond. Perfect ice and hot weather.

January 31, 1859 - Went to Jamaica Pond to skate after dinner.

February 1, 1859 - Went out this morning to Jamaica.

February 6, 1859 - A snowstorm came on Thursday and buried the skating, rather to my relief, for one cannot stay at home when it is good.

Reprinted with permission from the Jamaica Plain Gazette. Copyright, Gazette Publications, Inc.

Diary tells of skating on Jamaica Pond
By Cynthia Foster

The article about Jamaica Pond in the February 14 Gazette renewed old memories. My first husband, Carl Anthonsen, and his family bought a little house on Spring Park Avenue in 1922. I came to live here in 1938 when we were married. The pond was one of our favorite haunts, summer and winter. I remember skiing around and across the pond when winters were cold and snowy. Before we were married I lived in the Fenway on Park Drive. We did a lot of skiing through the park between JP and the Fenway.

Carl kept a diary. The reference in the article to the carnival in 1925 reminded me of his account of that event. He was there. I enclose two excerpts from his diary relating to the skating carnivals. It boggles my mind to think of 50,000 people at Jamaica Pond!

Excerpts from the Journal of Carl Anthonsen, February 8, 1923:
Tonight I fulfilled my vow to go skating. The weather being ideal, skated for several hours on Jamaica Pond. Only a small part, however, due to yesterday's snow, was available In addition the ice was rough and cracked in places, and several times, in trying to display my speed, came close to breaking a bone or two. It was uncomfortably crowded, too, it being the night of the annual municipal carnival. Paid little attention to the festivities and was quite oblivious of the 50,000 gathering. I distinctly recall a similar occasion about six years ago. That was when, for what reason my creator only knows, I was breaking away from acquaintances and keeping more and more to myself. Not that I was happy in my own thoughts. For they were rather dismal to say the least. That night, it seems to me, was the first time I had that aching, lonely, bitter feeling, which has so often possesses me since. If only there had been some experienced person to guide me, how different things might have been!

Excerpts from the Journal of Carl Anthonsen, January 8, 1925:
This eve, skating on Jamaica Pond, which was in holiday garb for annual municipal skating carnival. An elaborate program was laid out. But carrying it out was another matter. The fireworks and band concert went off without a hitch, and a couple of races were held. But then the ice, already weakened by a thaw of several days, cracked under the burden of tens of thousands of skaters and water flowed freely above the surface, thus putting a decided dampener on the festivities. This has been the case with all of these carnivals in past years. There are too many people in the world.

Reprinted with permission from the Jamaica Plain Gazette. Copyright, Gazette Publications, Inc.

Where did it come from? The true story of the Island in the Pond.
By Walter H. Marx

Five years ago on June 8, 1987, a multitude of JP citizens convened at First Church by the Monument to discuss and ultimately establish a historical society. During the summer interested volunteers set the wheels in motion.

The need for a seal for the society was expressed at that time. To enhance the early l9th century description of JP as "the Eden of America," artist Marsden Lore of the Christian Science Monitor was commissioned to feature the island in Jamaica Pond.

A view of the island in Jamiaca Pond taken from Perkins Street in 1938. Photograph by Walter H. Marx from the Jamaica Plain Historical Society archives.

Though this choice was hooted by some, as the island was allegedly "man - made", there is no doubt that the seal's feature drawn from the 1938 photograph shown here became historic on August 19, 1991, when Hurricane Bob blew over (but not out) the last of the seven willow trees that once had been planted there.

The island is now a sad sight with a prone but surviving old willow and will require years to correct, no matter how swiftly any human agency acts. The Jamaica Pond Project has already planted a companion willow, but in order to sustain more, the isle itself must be rebuilt for the soil to take on other willows.

Five years have produced much study of our area, and the full story of Jamaica Pond's island can now be told. Remarks made about the isle at the first birthday meeting of the JP Historical Society at the Boathouse in June, 1988 confirmed stories heard in childhood that it was a floating island. In the earliest days of the Park, the Parks Department indeed had made an isle each year, planted with vegetation and floated on oil drums!

The willow - covered area we knew until recently is no chance event at all. It was built upon a promontory in the Pond itself, which consists of two glacier - made bowls of two very different depths.

This was first shown graphically on a map produced by two civil engineers to accompany the case of the Jamaica Pond Aquaduct Corp. vs. the Brookline Land Co., tried before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in November 1880 and reported two years later. A copy exists among the papers of Pond abutter Francis Parkman, in the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Not seen during high water in the spring, the island was exposed when the engineers did their survey on July 9, 1880 (see plan), providing an aerial view of the pond. On this base of watery earth and rock the isle we know was built up with never a suggestion from Emerald Necklace jeweler, Frederick Law Olmsted. Tradition has it that that the Indians had arranged the rocks about the isle as a fish trap.

The entire Park has always been a place favored by the Parks department, and the vast majority of local postcards from 1890 to 1940 prove this. Thus, in the pre - World War I days, Perkins' Cove below Pinebank was filled in to create another Sugar Bowl and the isle was created. Credit for this goes to Mrs. Sargent, wife of the first Director of the Arnold arboretum and mistress of the former Holmes estate of Perkins Street backing into Brookline. When summers were long and hot, Mrs. Sargent would see the promontory appear as the Pond lowered like the fabled isle of Britanny.

Why not build a permanent isle out of this base that would forever remove its temporary, unsightly quality to enhance the Pond's unbroken expanse of water forever? She mentioned this to James V. Shea of the Parks Department. The project was approved, and that summer planks were nailed together, boated out to the island and positioned as caissons to shape and secure the island base. These are probably in as good shape today as in 1915, as fresh water preserves wood well.

Heartier winters then made the next stage of getting anchoring rocks across easy. During the autumn rocks were piled up on shore by the Hancock Stairs. When the ice in the cove was thick enough, horse - drawn sleds brought them to the point above the promontory (now submerged), and the stones, set in frames, were carefully positioned. The spring thaw dropped them into place. It took two winters to get enough rocks across to form a proper "Shea's Island."

Soil was then added by ferrying it out in a benign season. Then the half - dozen willow trees were planted. It is regrettable that they were not immediately replaced whenever one fell after 1918. It will take beyond our lifetimes to restore what was taken for granted.

Shea's Island needs to be rebuilt again despite our warmer winters just as the isle in the lagoon on the Public Garden in the Back Bay was just rebuilt and replanted. So our isle is not an artificial isle but rather a man - enhanced isle with quite a tale of daring - do.

Sources: JP Citizen April 2, 1965 and June 16, 1988
Reprinted with permission from the November 5, 1992 Jamaica Plain Gazette. Copyright, Gazette Publications, Inc.

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