As we near the end of a decade, and the end of the old Belmont High School, it seems a fitting time to look at one of the more infamous places on its grounds. Better-known than the asbestos-filled hallway behind the little theater, less often cursed than the absurd amount of water fountains that have ceased function at some point within the last few years, and brought into the forefront of our consciousness by the audacity (recklessness?) of Merrill Barnes, Clay Pit Pond is the subject of many a Belmont High rumor, myth and legend. It’s full of toxic chemicals. There’s an old shovel at the bottom. It used to be a landfill. But how much of that is true, and how much is just exaggeration?
The area that is now Clay Pit Pond has not always been underwater—in fact, it’s only been a pond for a little under a century. The story starts in 1888, when the Parry Brothers, a local brick-making firm, opened a brickyard on the land to mine the high-quality clay deposits there. (The yard produced bluish clay which turned a pretty red color when it was fired.) A decade later, in 1900, the much larger New England Brick Company bought up the Parry Brothers and increased production significantly at the clay pit, eventually producing a million bricks per year at its peak. By the mid-1920s, however, most of the good clay had been extracted from the quarry, and the site was abandoned. Though production had ceased, the company apparently forgot (or didn’t care enough) to remove their power shovel from the bottom of the pit. When the town of Belmont bought the property in 1927, the town government was concerned that the shovel remained there, and suggested fairly drastic measures to get rid of it. According to Michael Chesson of the Belmont Citizens Forum, “the selectmen asked Bill Tompson, street superintendent in 1927, how the machine could be destroyed. He replied that Ed Looney, head of the water department, would blow it up with his dynamite.” It’s pretty obvious that this did not happen (just to start, why would a town official have dynamite readily available to use on something that was not harming anyone?) so the shovel remained, and is still at the bottom of the pond to this day.
Marion Power Shovel (1884 model) in Clay Pit Pond, 1926
Once they moved past the issue of the shovel, the town used the site as a dump for six years. In 1933, though, Belmont officials decided to reroute the Wellington Brook (the namesake of Wellington Elementary, if you’re wondering) into the former clay pit to create a better drainage system for the town. The trash was relocated a few feet over—onto the plot of land which now lies under Belmont High School. (Thus the common allegation that Clay Pit Pond was a landfill is half true, and one could also say correctly that our high school was literally built on trash.) Wellington Brook flows underground for most of its path, but it’s visible in a few places, most notably behind the Unitarian Universalist church on Concord Avenue. To reroute the brook, engineers built culverts (underground pipes) to make it flow into Clay Pit Pond, and connected Clay Pit to Blair Pond (the pond behind the Loading Dock) the same way. Over time, the old pit filled up with water and became the pond we know today.
But what about all the gross stuff in the pond? Didn’t Merrill have to go to the hospital after he swam through it?
Ah, yes. Remember that the Wellington Brook runs through a good portion of Belmont, above ground and underground—which means that everything that people dump in the brook flows into Clay Pit Pond. Since people don’t tend to be particularly conscientious about what goes down their drain, this means that hosts of icky things have ended up in the pond, including pesticides, oil, raw sewage, and E. coli, to name a few. In fact, it got so disgusting that in 1980, thirty ducks living in the pond died of the bacterial disease botulism from exposure to the water. In recent years, however, there have been efforts to clean up the pond due to the adverse effects of its pollutants on the water supplies of the nearby towns that it flows into (read: Cambridge doesn’t like that junk from Clay Pit is ending up in their drinking water). In 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency forced the town of Belmont to sign an order promising that the pond would meet national sanitation standards by 2022—if it fails to meet these standards, it will invoke an extremely large fine.
So that’s the truth about Clay Pit Pond. It was in fact a clay pit, it was briefly a landfill, and even though it’s being cleaned up, it’s still full of ninety years’ worth of sewage. All in all, the rumors are mostly based in fact, as rumors tend to be. No, we shouldn’t swim in it, drink from it, or fish in it, but Clay Pit Pond certainly deserves its place in the hearts and collective memories of all of us who still go to this broken-down old high school next to John Cushing’s beautiful mountain.