Ice stories


For most of Winter in the Northeast, skating is possible only during the somewhat rare times when the ice is thick and not covered with snow or other unwelcome surface conditions. And bad skating has been the story, typically, for most of this Winter around Boston. After an earlier snow, there were some ad hoc skating rinks cleared by shoveling, but those were ruined by rains, more snow, more rains, and intermittent freezes that made a hash of the surface. But recent rains and hard freezes have formed wide paths between remaining islands of ruined snow. On most ponds there aren’t enough open spaces for real hockey games, but there’s plenty enough for skating, and for hockey practice, anyway. (A note to newbies and outsiders: nearly all lakes here are called ponds. Dunno why yet. Maybe one of ya’ll can tell me. Still a bit of a noob myself.)

Hockey practice is what I saw when I paused to take a sunset shot with my phone at Spy Pond, which I passed it late this afternoon on a long walk along the Minuteman Bikeway, which is one of my favorite walking paths (and thoroughfares — at least when it’s warm and clear enough to bike on). As it happens, Spy Pond ice has some history. There was a period, in the mid- to late-1800s, after railroads got big, but before refrigeration came along, when New England was a source for much of the world’s shipped ice. And Spy Pond itself was one of the most productive sources. This picture here…


… shows ice being harvested for storage in ice houses beside the railroad which is now the Bikeway. I stood near the left edge of this scene when I took the picture at the top, and the boy and his dad playing hockey were about where at the center left, where a horse is shown pulling what looks like a man with a plow. (That last shot is from this historical display alongside the bikeway.)

The brainfather of Boston’s ice industry was Frederic Tudor, about whom I have learned a great deal from The Ice King: Frederic Tudor and His Circle. Highly recommended, if you’re into half-forgotten New England history. The book came as a bonus with membership in Mystic Seaport, a terrific maritime museum down the road on the Connecticut coast.

[Later…] The industry you see depicted above can also serve as a metaphor. For that a hat tip goes to Robin Lubbock (@RLma), New Media Director of WBUR, who pointed me to this piece by Michael Rosenblum. Nails it. (I also love Rosenblum’s Maybe monetizing is not the answer and Edward III, Crecy and Local TV Newsrooms, also via Robin.)

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11 Responses to Ice stories

  1. Lou Josephs says:

    When I was helping WLKZ stay out of foreclosure in the 90.s we used to take bets on when iceout would occur on the big lake…when it gets frozen solid, you get guys with ice huts and drive on the lake..great fun…

    Can you say one term president? Canceling the entire Constellation project will save you 20 billion granted But the job less in states like Utah (ATK), Denver (Lockheed Martin) the jobs at the Cape…within NASA…one of the things the former administrator of NASA was worried about is how are you going to replace that knowledge…-

    Google about a cash prize for the first guy that gets a working space transportation system..manned rocket…into orbit…not just a we think it might work (Elton Musk)..something that Pete Conrad would have appreciated…when you get lemons make lemonade….

  2. Chris Daly says:

    Great post, Doc.

    Your photo reminds me of my childhood outside Boston, in Medford, where we skated most afternoons. I wrote about it once upon a time for the Atlantic, and your photo prompted me to retrieve it and post it on my site:

    As for the pond/lake issue, as a native I was always told that the way you could tell a lake from a pond is that a lake has a river running into or out of it (like the Mystic Lake, two blocks from my old house), whereas a pond does not (like Brooks Pond, where we did our skating).

    In winter, ponds were preferred for skating because there was no flow through them. With no flow, the water stood still and froze more readily. We were told to take extra precautions on a lake.

    It’s a useful distinction, but apparently not one that experts have taken to.

    I now live in Newton near Crystal Lake. It’s not a lake by the traditional, folk definition, and that bothered me when I first moved here. Then I found out that the lake used to be called Baptist Pond, back in the 19th C., when it was used for baptisms.
    According to local history, in the late 19th C., some folks wanted to cut the ice for the ice trade, and they realized that it would probably not have much marketing appeal to identify it as coming from Baptist Pond. So, the ice company changed the name to Crystal Lake.

  3. Doc Searls says:

    Thanks, Chris.

    So you’re from Medford. Did you know Billy West, by any chance? He’s a fellow former Medfordian, and likes to say that “Meffer” gave its Ds to Sesame Street.

    The Wikipedia entry on ponds does make the water-flow distinction, allowing for local vernacular as well. (Brooks, streams and creeks are also mostly a vernacular convention, I gather.)

    I had always thought that ponds had little or minimal moving water, and were smaller and more shallow than lakes. And it could be that it seems every big puddle around here is called a pond because, well, nearly every one of those is a pond, in the literal no-outlet sense. All of them were left here at the dawn of the Holocene. Geologically speaking, that was a few hours ago.

    Very interesting about Crystal Lake. I guess “Crystal Pond” was less box-office.

    An interesting climate-change item: Many small lakes (few are called ponds, even if they are) in North Carolina still had ice houses nearby, going into the last century — because they farmed ice there too.

  4. Jan Searls says:

    … and I’m beginning to believe we could again. Brrrrr… But at least our drought in NC is more than over and all the farm-dug livestock ponds will be full.

  5. amily says:

    The first photo reminds me of childhood,but When I grow up,I did not have so much fun in a long time


  6. Pingback: Doc Searls Weblog · Heavy Whether

  7. Al Stevens says:

    If you want to see ice harvesting in action, arrange a visit to the Museum at the Jason Russell House ( in Arlington. They’ve transferred an old film of ice harvesting on Spy Pond to DVD and can play it for visitors. It brings that Wikipedia image to life.

    Give them a call, or send an email in advance. I know they’d be happy to do it (my spouse is the museum administrator).

    They’re located on Mass Ave a couple of blocks from the bike path in Arlington Center.

  8. Jack Vinson says:

    I am a noob to the Boston area as well, and Spy Pond is visible (just) from our house. I was amazed the first time I saw that someone had cleared a space on the pond for skating. And then I saw a guy on racing skates when I went to the pond with my son. And with the conditions as Doc reports, the skaters were out in force over the weekend. Even a skate-sail boat.

    For people who don’t know it, Spy Pond is quite large. 103 acres, according to that wikipedia entry.

  9. Doc Searls says:

    Thanks, Jack. I saw a couple of little kids speed-skating there this morning while I was driving up the Concord Pike. Is school out, or are these kids enjoying a form of home schooling? Either way, looked like fun.

    I used to cover ice yachting on Greenwood Lake. This was at the turn of the 70s, almost 40 years ago. Not sure it’s changed much, except for use of helmets. Went out on one once with a local yachter (racer would be the better term). The things went from zero to sixty and more in what seemed like about two seconds. Then they go up on one runner and lean over to go faster. Scared the crap out of me. And they can go on ice too rough for skating. I think you need a bigger ice body than Spy Pond, though.

  10. Hey Doc
    Great to find your blog. Fascinating, insightful and pleasurable read. Mazel tov. Linking-the miracle of the web.

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