JP History: How swimming in Jamaica Pond became history

July 18, 2014
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On those sultry summer days, some people might eye that crystal-clean body of water known as Jamaica Pond and ponder the prohibition that prevents them from taking a refreshing dip.

For centuries, generations of sweltering Bostonians swam in the pond. Swimming was shut down only about 40 years ago.

The City says that that prohibition has its roots from a Boston Parks and Recreation Department (BPRD) regulation dating from the early 1900s, which had lax enforcement until two drownings in the mid-1970s.

Jamaica Pond, which is a kettlehole formed by a glacier and has a depth of more than 50 feet, has long been a mecca for summer activities. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Boston wealthy citizens built summer homes along the water’s edge, all which have since been demolished.

Swimming was popular, and bathhouses dotted its shore.

In the late 1800s, the City of Boston even handed out medals to the winners of swimming contests held in the pond as part of massive Fourth of July celebrations held there.

A beach area at Jamaica Pond. (Gazette Photo by Peter Shanley)

A beach area at Jamaica Pond. (Gazette Photo by Peter Shanley)

The pond’s surface also was once a popular scene for winter recreation, including ice-skating—which is also now banned. Ice-skating restrictions for children began in the early 1800s when two boys fell through the ice and drowned.

The pond is used today for sailing, rowing, fishing, concerts and jogging—but not swimming. Ryan Woods, spokesperson for the BPRD, said that the prohibition stems from Section 3 of the BPRD rules and regulations, which bans swimming and bathing in any park or public space under BPRD’s control.

He said that that regulation was enacted in the early 1900s, but it was loosely enforced, and people continued to swim at the pond at their own risk. Woods said two people drowned in 1975, leading the City to begin strict enforcement of the regulation.

“The kettle pond drops like a black hole, creating a dangerous situation,” he said.

Asked if the City would ever consider lifting the prohibition, Woods responded that there would have to be a “whole discussion,” weighing the pros and cons; a study would have to be conducted; and a committee formed.

“A million things would have to be checked, and we’re not anywhere near that,” he said.

Woods said swimming at Jamaica Pond is a liability issue. Asked if the City could just place “swim at your own risk” signs, he responded that the City would not do that and any change to a BPRD regulation would have to go through a public review process.

“Our main concern is the safety of Boston’s residents and park users,” said Woods.

Michael Reiskind, a member of the Jamaica Plain Historical Society, said in an email to the Gazette that there was a public debate in 2008 about bringing swimming back to Jamaica Pond. But City officials said at the time that it would be too unsafe and some residents were against the proposal because it would bring too many people to the pond and possibly damage it.

“My personal thoughts are that swimming would be dangerous at Jamaica Pond because there is presently no safe beach anywhere around the pond, even though it looks safe,” he said.

The most recent drowning death in the pond occurred two years ago. In 2007, a Roxbury woman drowned while swimming fully clothed from the beach on the pond’s northern end.