Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Sixteen Acres Pond Suddenly Vanishes, Part 2

When the film On Golden Pond came out in 1981 we had a running joke, reeking with irony, that its title was actually On Putnam’s Puddle—because Putnam’s Puddle was anything but a setting for a movie about an idyllic summer home. This Sixteen Acres pond was algae-choked and polluted to the point of being unswimmable, not to mention the fact that it stank mightily after it rained.

But it was OUR puddle, dammit, and to neighborhood kids it was the perfect retreat from civilization. And then, a year after our little joke about the movie, Putnam’s Puddle was gone forever, thanks to a gigantic hole at the bottom of the dam. (See A Sixteen Acres Pond Suddenly Vanishes, Part 1). The structure is pictured below in a photo taken by Mick, a Hell’s Acres follower.

Today our late, great Putnam’s Puddle exists only on maps. An old map on terraserver shows it in the “North Branch Tributary Park.”

Surprisingly, here is the image of the conservation land that you’ll find on Google Maps. The pond long gone, but the map wasn’t updated.

On February 3, 1982, part of the 55-foot-long dam at Putnam’s Puddle gave way, allowing all its water to empty onto North Brook Road and into Breckwood Pond, leaving just a stream in its basin to date. Unfortunately, there has been no attempt to fix the dam and refill this pond. I’ve written about this event before, but I wasn’t privy to what exactly went down that day.

I had heard what happened on the radio around noon, and I checked out what was left of the pond later that afternoon, but I had never read an “eyewitness” account until I contacted Michael Poole, who lived on Pidgeon Drive, on the north side of the pond. He didn’t see the dam give up the ghost, but he sure as hell heard it.

“I heard a very loud ‘boom,’ sounding almost like a crane swinging a huge I-beam into the side of a building,” according to Michael. He and his sister went for a walk to see what had happened and saw flooding at the end of North Brook Road. “We walked through the path towards the dam and saw that it had given way,” he wrote. “We actually watched the pond drain that day. Very sad, as our lives revolved around playing in those woods, fishing, catching frogs, and, most importantly, ice-skating.”

A grainy photo below shows Parks Department foremen James Denver and Frank Geoffrion checking out the scene the following day. The Springfield Union attributed the damage to heavy rains creating a surge of water that “smashed a hole about 30 square feet in the dam.”

I’m not absolutely sure, but I believe there were unbelievably cold temperatures for weeks prior to the rains, and some say that the downstream flow of water from sudden melting and flooding was impeded by ice on the dam. When the ice clogged the two spillways at the top, something had to give, and the base of the structure on the North Brook Road (the north) side was breached by the pressure. In the following photo you can still see the “cave” at the bottom where the concrete collapsed and the water rushed through. This is now the course of the stream as it makes its way to Breckwood Pond, Watershops Pond, the Mill River, and then the mighty Connecticut:

Some of the hole at its clay base has filled in with silt over the years. A climb down to ground level reveals more of the opening: the white spot in the middle of the crevice above the stream is actually sunlight shining on the east side (formerly the pond side) of the dam:

A whole section of the dam was moved back by the rushing water:

As I wrote in Spitting to All Fields, Part 1, the man-made pond was built in 1938 by the Work Progress Administration (WPA) workers, including my uncle’s father. Mayor Roger L. Putnam took a lot of heat for proposing this eight-acre body of water, which was derisively dubbed the “paddle pond for pigs” because of its proximity to a pig farm northeast of the site. Some people thought it was ludicrous to spend money to dig the “pig pen pond,” especially City Councilor Howard T. Jensen, the source of the porcine quotes. A headline read, “Putnam, Jensen Stick to Guns in the Sticks,” using the old and largely forgotten nickname for Sixteen Acres: The Sticks. But the project finally went forward.

Was this indeed a pork-barrel project (pun intended)? No comment. True, to prolong the six-month job, on one Friday afternoon in 1939, my great uncle and his fellow workers clogged the dam’s openings with sandbags to prematurely flood that portion of the ravine over the weekend. This resulted in additional work the following week to remove the blockage and drain the area. Oh well, it was the Great Depression, and—desperate times call for desperate measures.

People used to swim in the pond until the neighborhood went from rural to heavily residential through the 1950s, and occasional sewage overflow problems dating from the 1960s rendered it fit for only fishing and skating.

After the 1950s the city pretty much forgot about the pond—so much so that in 1964 few people knew why it was named Putnam’s Puddle:

But the kids on our street were very much aware of the pond—it was a place where we could free ourselves from adult supervision. Where else could we blow up Craig Stewart’s G.I. Joe jeep with an M-80 without the neighbors calling our parents?

Here are some of my Putnam’s Puddle stories, apropos of nothing.

The great race: Rick Riccardi in a rubber raft vs. Steve Hostetter on foot. They wanted to see who could go from the shore in front of Maebeth Street to the other side, directly across the pond, on the shore in front of Meadowlark Lane. On your mark, get set, go. Hostetter sprinted to the dam, crossed it, and easily won. Paddling that raft was more difficult than it looked.

How about our lame attempts at species relocation? Finding some baby bullhead catfish in brook leading from the dam, we had the brilliant idea to populate the pond with this fish, so we could expand our catches beyond the usual pumpkinseed and small-mouth bass. We caught them and let them go in the pond, but our experiment didn’t work. It didn’t occur to us that the pumpkinseed and the bass would undoubtedly eat the baby bullheads.

The brook leading INTO the Putnam’s Puddle, however, was rife with small salamanders. Wouldn’t it be great, we reasoned, to move a bunch of the salamanders into the brook behind the dam? We thought that they would multiply, and we wouldn’t have to go all the way down to the northeast end of the pond to catch them in the future. It was another exercise in futility. Why didn’t we realize that the catfish would eat the salamanders?

In the latter project, I discovered yet another animal species. As we fished salamanders out of the North Brook and put them into buckets, I held my hand out and declared, “Look! I found a salamander without any legs!”

“Let me see,” said Steve Hostetter. “That’s not a salamander! That’s a leech!”

“Aaaah!” I screamed and dug it off my hand with my fingernail.

I should actually be grateful I was able to spend half my youth “down the pond,” as we used to say, because Putnam’s Puddle was facing oblivion in 1956 when it was ruled a “hazard” by the Springfield School Committee. You see, part of the dam was washed away from the infamous Connecticut River Valley floods of 1955, and students who lived in the neighborhood on the north side of pond faced quite an obstacle crossing the pond to attend Glickman Elementary School off Wilbraham Road on the south side. Officials feared someone would fall off the damaged dam or walk across thin ice in the winter and fall through. An article from the Springfield Union on November 30, 1956 mentioned that two children nearly drowned there.

Above is a newspaper photo of the pond with the dam at the right during the height of this controversy. If you look carefully (click on the photo to enlarge it), you can see two kids standing on the shore and the water level looks pretty low. The uphill path behind them leading to Sunrise Terrace and Pineview Street is now completely overgrown. I know of no other photo of the old pond. Do you have any? Send them to hellsacres@gmail.com.

The School Committee wanted the pond drained! When that didn’t happen, the students’ parents demanded that their kids be bused to Glickman. The problem was eventually solved when the dam was patched up, a temporary bus was commissioned for the winter, and then the North Branch School was built in 1960, saving the precious “Wing Park” children from the long and perilous march across the Puddle.

What the hell is Wing Park? Let me explain. I’ll bet that many of you—except some of the older folks—have no idea that Wing Park was the name of the housing developments in the North Brook Road and North Branch Parkway areas. Many of the homes in the area were built by Raymond Pidgeon, for whom Pidgeon Drive is named. The “bird” concept took wing, so to speak, and there are streets over there named Sparrow, Partridge, Starling, Finch, Pheasant, and Meadowlark Lane. To the northeast are Ravenwood and Wrenwood Streets. Pictured below is the late Meadowlark resident and one of Sixteen Acres most infamous, uh, businessman. One of his nicknames was The Little Guy, but no one used that moniker to his face:

But, as I digress, as I so often do in Hell’s Acres. Back to the Puddle. “Dan and Pete D’Amario taught me how to play hockey on that pond,” wrote Poole. The latter, from the other side of the pond, was a Cathedral hockey star who grew up on Sparrow Drive and went on to play for the Memphis Riverkings in the CHL. He wasn’t the pond’s most famous hockey product, though. Ricky Bennett (pictured below), who lived on Pineview Street (on our side of the Puddle), enjoyed several cups of coffee in the NHL for the New York Rangers, and may have been the only player in history to play for both the Springfield Indians and the Springfield Falcons. He now coaches the Union College hockey team.

Bennett is pictured in a Sixteen Acres youth hockey team photo below at the top left, next to the coach.

There would be no more hockey on Putnam’s Puddle after the dam burst. The Puddle would send no other players to the NHL. “We were mortified,” wrote Poole. “I thought for certain that they would eventually rebuild the dam and fill the pond back up. Alas....”

Six years later, there was a petition with 400 names demanding the restoration of the dam and the pond, and the initial price estimates to fix the structure were as high as $500,000 but then the state Department of Environmental Protection declared that it was crumbled past the point of repair.

In 1992, hundreds of thousands of dollars were set aside for city dam projects at Mill Pond and Putnam’s Puddle, but nothing was ever done. In 1996 Springfield was supposed to receive state funding to restore Putnam’s Puddle. Does anyone have any idea what happened to the money? Only The Shadow knows. Now it's a brush-choked ravine.

I think it’s amusing that the “Kids on the Other Side,” the term we used in a tone dripping with disdain, almost doomed the pond in the 1950s with the School Committee’s threat to drain it. Because we DIDN’T LIKE the Kids on the Other Side. Not that we knew them personally or anything, but there were constant verbal battles across the pond, which usually began the second they saw us or we saw them.

“Hey!” someone inevitably yelled. “Fuck you!”

“Fuck you, motherfucker!” was the usual response.

Yes, everybody was a tough guy with the pond barrier in front of them.

We even carried on this cowardly act under the cover of darkness one night, when Dave O’Brien, Ray Vadnais, and I were partying at the Pothole and we could see some douche on the other side walking along North Brook Road with a boom box blasting Journey. That’s right: Journey!

“Turn that fucking shit off!” I bellowed. “I’m talking to YOU, you faggot!” Wow. I was profoundly stunned at how strongly my voice carried over to the other side. The pothole was halfway up the steep hill to Sunrise Terrace, so my fighting words were amplified with an amphitheater effect.

He stopped in his tracks. He turned down volume of the song “Any Way You Want It,” and turned around. “Fuck you, motherfucker! Come over here and make me turn it off!”

“We’re coming!” shouted Dave. “We’re gonna throw that box in the pond!”

“I’m gonna throw YOU in the fucking pond!” was his feeble rejoinder.

“You better run and get you’re fag friends, ’cause we’re on our way!” yelled Ray.

“I’ll be waiting right here!” he countered. We could see, under the glow of the streetlight, the guy walk up to a parked car and put the boom box inside, Then we got a good look at him as someone in the car handed him a shiny black object. Oh no!

Just kidding. He wasn’t the neighborhood’s favorite goodfella. He was just some fat loser, he didn’t have a car, and he didn’t wait for us. The douche kept on walking. And we stayed right were we were, sipping our Southern Comfort courage.

It took me years to realize that there was nothing to hate about Kids on the Other Side. Actually, we didn’t despise them back then. Yelling at each other and throwing rocks across the pond to ruin someone’s chances of catching a fish was just something to do. Obviously, the practice couldn’t continue after the dam gave way, because there were no more fish to catch and there was no pond to separate the two parties. The tradition of mouthing off to build up a mutually-assured non-fight came to an end.

Yes, the Kids on the Other Side were just like us. Hell, I’m even able to carry on an email conversation with Michael Poole, an Other Sider, without once resorting to insults and threats. That is, unless he was one of the people we had taunted in the past, and he decides to renew this rivalry.

In Spitting to All Fields, Part 1, I asked about the fate of Mark Gilfoil, who left his name in concrete on the dam in a 1970 grass roots repair project. Someone wrote in the comment section that he graduated from Tech in 1972 and was supposedly killed in a motorcycle accident. Indeed, I found the newspaper story of the crash. On July 22, 1974, Gilfoil, an Other Sider from Juniper Drive, collided with the side of a car on Route 23 in Otis and died instantly.

Not to get morbid or anything, but two weeks after the dam broke, 27-year-old James Fleming of Creswell drive (our side) died of exposure during freezing temperatures in the 42-acre Putnam’s Puddle woods. Three children found him down there on a Sunday morning on a path leading from the pond to Sunrise Terrace. He never made it up the steep hill. That was the last mention of Putnam’s Puddle in the Springfield newspapers for the next six years.

Except for the glimmers of hope of the dam’s restoration in 1988, 1992, and 1996, the only other time the Puddle made the news since Fleming’s death was massive sewage overflow into the stream in 1995 after vandals blocked the sewer line by opening manhole covers and dumping objects into the pipe.

Was Putnam’s Puddle cursed? No. But it had always suffered from municipal neglect. In 1979, the state determined the dam was unsafe and in need of repair, but it was left to deteriorate. In the 1956 article, a city counselor described the pond as “an eyesore” with broken bottles and tin cans scattered on the shore.

Eyesore? I think not. True, it sometimes stank, but we loved Putnam’s Puddle. It was OUR pig pen pond. And I would love to see it a pond again. Anyone game for clogging that gaping hole in the dam with sandbags? Screw the city. Sometimes if you want something done, you’ve got to do it yourself.