JP Observer: Ice activities here show vivid, recent climate change

Crowds of people ice skated securely on Jamaica Pond daily in winters from the mid-1800s to less than 100 years ago. Thick blocks of ice were commercially harvested from it to sell locally and for export including by ship. The iced over pond supported trucks and teams of horses easily.

Earlier this month, after a checking out a scare that someone had fallen through the ice, the Boston Fire Department warned people not to go on the unreliable surface it as it has had to do every winter in recent decades.

Last February, a dog that fell through thin ice on the pond had to be rescued by the department.

People who grew up in JP during the mid-20th century vividly remember ice skating fun on dozens of flooded city-owned playgrounds and other lots around the neighborhood. But that long popular form of recreation came to a fairly abrupt end here in the late 1950s/early 1960s.

Kelly Rink—now “temporarily” near Stonybrook Station— was built by the state on the Jamaicaway in 1965. These days local skating is done only on rinks like Kelly that have refrigeration systems to support the ice.

“You cannot have ice skating in the Boston area today without a refrigeration system,” Steve Glickel of Friends of Kelly Rink stated. Larz Anderson and the Frog Pond both have it, too, he noted.

A new rink planned for the ground floor of a youth recreation center in Jackson Square would have a roof to shield from sun as well as refrigeration. Funds are still being raised to build the center.

“You can’t just flood and freeze” an area for skating nowadays because of the changing weather, Glickel said, speaking from years of experience with Kelly Rink.

Glaciers shrinking at the poles are very much in the news these days, but one does not need to go to the Arctic to see the effects of climate change on ice. Jamaica Pond, the largest body of water in Boston, offers dramatic evidence of similar rapid changes in ice conditions.

Gerry Wright of the Jamaica Pond Project pointed out in an interview that during the below 20 degree weather early this month, ice formed on the pond. But much of it thinned or disappeared the week after, as many Pond walkers observed.

“In summary,” Wright said of changes, “in the 1970s I sometimes walked across the pond on ice. It’s not possible now.”

Glickel, Wright and other observers often point to the drastic changes to the environment right around the Pond and threading through JP as what caused of our loss of ice. “So many cars on the Jamaicaway!”

Stephen Baird of Friends of Jamaica Pond and the Emerald Necklace Bird Club this month noted the environmental factors exemplified by the traffic that are causing rapid climate change here.

“Cities are heat sinks and generally have warmer temperatures for many reasons:

  1. Asphalt and other dark ground covers store daytime sun heat and release it keeping air temps 10 or more degrees warmer. (Just compare weather reports of Boston temps with areas 10 miles away temps.)
  2. Dense housing and buildings and other human activities emit heat.
  3. Cars and manufacturing emit heat.”

Global warming and the trapped heat by atmosphere gases plus the warming temperature of the huge ocean by even 1 to 2 degrees, Baird wrote, have all contributed to the shorter period of ice cover and thinner ice on the pond.

All of New England’s weather has grown warmer, faster than forecast just three years ago, according to a special science section of the National Climate Assessment, which Congress requires to be published. And, it was reported in the Boston Globe in August, the report says the Northeast will continue to also see bigger temperature increases than the rest of the country. More precise measuring devices also now indicate that, as local observers note, human activity, especially greenhouse gases emissions, are the main cause, scientists said.

Wildlife has also been affected. “I and other people have identified southern birds, butterflies and other wildlife that now reside here” that didn’t before, including red bellied woodpecker in the last 15 years, giant swallowtail butterflies the past five years, and opossums over the past 50 years, Baird said.

He and Wright noted that increased temperatures have also increased the frequency and intensity of blue green algae blooms, though pond water remains unpolluted.

Jamaica Pond was created by ice. Millions of years ago, according to Boston Geology, a colder earth produced huge continental glaciers in Canada. Each winter they got bigger and thicker, and the ice at the bottom of the sheets flowed south moving back and forth over New England.

The 68-acre Jamaica Pond is a kettle, or a deep bowl-shaped hollow, formed by the melting Wisconsin Ice Sheet, which retreated about 16,000 years ago, according to Geotimes, February, 2006. The last glacier left tons of debris in Boston.

Moraine Street on Pondside is named for the material deposited by glaciers.

The first evidence of ice being harvested commercially at Jamaica Pond appeared on a 1855 map that showed a row of icehouses near the current rotary at Jamaicaway and Prince Street, according to a talk given by Charlie Rosenberg of the JP Historical Society in November 2007. By 1874— the Jamaica Pond Ice Company, Rosenberg reported, also in an article on the JPHS website—owner E.M. Stoddard employed about 350 men harvesting scored areas of the ice into clear blocks up to 15 inches thick, packing the ice and delivering it to wholesale and retail customers. Iron ice ploughs pulled by teams of horses cut through the ice followed by final cutting with hand tools. By 1880, the company had a special department that supplied ice to breweries in the area and 600 employees, according the Rosenberg.

From the middle of the 19th century up until the end of World War II, many homes had ice boxes to keep food fresh. Some older housing units in JP still have their refrigerators in nooks near the back door or stairs, because that was where the ice box was put for easy access by ice block delivery people.

The 1855-59 diary of Elizabeth R. Mason (later Mrs. Walter Cabot of Cabot Estate fame), quoted on the JPHS website and in a previous Gazette article, talks about her coming here by bus to skate on Jamaica Pond:

“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… Arriving at Green Street…, 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.”

A major incident during a record-breaking carnival on Jamaica Pond on January 8, 1925 marked what turned out to the beginning of the gradual end to skating on ice in JP without the support of refrigeration.

The website “Remember Jamaica Plain?” contains a report reprinted from the next day’s Boston Globe with a headline that read, “Police Clear Jamaica Pond of Merry Makers When Mayor Sees Ice Threatens to Give Way.

“More than 50,000 young people were in the midst of a perfect evening of skating on Jamaica Pond last night,” the Globe reported, “at the annual ice carnival of the city of Boston, when, suddenly, about 9:30 o’clock, nearly 50 policemen appeared and ordered everyone off the ice. Mayor Curley, who had just arrived at the carnival to give out the prizes in the various contests, quickly noticed that large, black patches of water had appeared about the pond. Fearing that the ice, softened by the warmth of the last few days, was about to collapse under the weight of humanity it was bearing and precipitate the merry thousands to their deaths, he ordered the police to clear the pond…

“Before the firing off of the bombs to announce the opening of the carnival, the ice seemed to be in good shape. As the first race started, however, sounds of cracking ice were heard and water started to flow over the track near the starting point…”

It took some effort by police and fire departments to get the large crowd off the ice while not causing panic, the Globe reported.

Jamaica Pond was not the only popular ice skating venue in the neighborhood. Many shallower, smaller ones continued to dot the landscape after the Pond was no longer safe.

More than 30 people have shared memories of ice skating on playgrounds and vacant lots in sub-neighborhoods across of JP until the mid-20th century on the “I grew up in Jamaica Plain” Facebook page this month. People recollect that the City of Boston, actually the Fire Department, would flood City playgrounds that then froze into small natural “rinks” for winter recreation, including hockey. Crowds of kids took their own skates and tended to the snow and ice themselves.

Locations across the neighborhood people remembered skating on include the most frequently mentioned Murphy Field on Carolina Avenue as well as places on Rosemary Street, Day Street, the naturally flooded parking lot at White Stadium, Wachusett Street, Parkman Playground, a flooded yard on Burroughs Street, the end of Winchester Street in Moss Hill that kids flooded, Cornwall Playground, the Boston Gas parking lot where English High is now, Jefferson Playground, the concrete slab at a Hood delivery plant at the end of Anson Street, Mozart Playground, and a vacant school lot at Bromley Heath where people poured water out their windows that would freeze so they could skate.

People remember carrying their skates over their shoulders sometimes quite a distance with their hands in their pockets on the way to the little rinks. One woman recalls kids getting wet in the shallow ice at Murphy and an aunt who lived nearby helping them dry off. One man said he left his shoes in his mom’s car and had to walk from Carolina home to Lamartine in his socks.

It’s appropriate that JP is a hot-bed of environmental activism. The neighborhood has already been changed rapidly and drastically by climate. Maybe we will not restore natural ice to Jamaica Pond and our playgrounds in our lifetimes. But we need to continue to work to monitor our energy uses and support efforts to decrease the effects of fossil fuels on our neighborhood.

A celebration by Boston Climate Action Network (BCAN) of the City’s approval of Community Choice Energy for Boston residents and businesses was held at Nate Smith House here on Jan. 18. Implementation of the alternative fuel use encouragement program is beginning.

Sandra Storey is founder and former publisher and editor of the Jamaica Plain Gazette.

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