Island in the Jamaica Pond

Courtesy Digital Commonwealth.

Courtesy Digital Commonwealth.

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.

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.

By Walter H. Marx