The First Outdoor Pool in America
The following article is reprinted from the Belmont Historical Society newsletter with the permission of the Editor Richard Betts.
Since the early years of the 17th century, the Underwood Estate was owned by the Mead family. In the 1880s and as late as 1898, the land on which the pool and playground is now situated was owned by Dennett Food Company and contained a "food factory" and a "steam boiler" housed in a large brick building. In 1911, the site was owned by the Boston Elevated Street Railway, known today as the MBTA.
Upon hearing that the Boston Elevated was planning to erect a street car station on the site (the car tracks ran down Concord Ave. to Belmont Center at that time), Mr. Henry O. Underwood of Underwood Deviled Ham fame, owner of the adjacent and former Mead property, purchased this lot from the Elevated Company.
At the same time, the town owned a small lot on School St. which jogged into the Underwood property and on which had stood the first high school. Built in 1866, this old wooden building has been torn down in 1908, and the lot was vacant. Mr. Underwood in a letter to the selectman in May of 1911, offered to exchange his newly purchased parcel for this town lot and also construct a playground, bath house and swimming pool on the former elevated lot.
The Swimming Hole
Mr. Underwood, it is said, felt that the boys and girls in his neighborhood were not having as many good times as he used to have in his boyhood, and he came to the conclusion that his lots would make a great place for children especially since it was such as short distance from the center of town and also directly across from the "new" Roger Wellington School (now torn down) on School St. Since Wellington Brook flowed through the sewer section of the lot and several natural springs in his adjacent property bubbled forth cold ground water which also flowed into the lot, Mr. Underwood was also struck with the idea that his area could be turned into a "swimming hole."
At a town meeting in 1911, it was voted to give the old high school lots containing 19,312 square feet to Henry O. Underwood to straighten out his property line on School St. on Concord Ave. and Cottage St. and his offer to develop the area as a playground with a swimming pool.
Mr. Underwood in speaking of his proposal said, "Just as such a play place as this has been badly needed in Belmont, although the town is provided with a good-sized park in another section. (The Field on Waverly St.) This playstead, however, is designed with special reference to the small boys and girls. There are enough of them in Belmont to have a park largely their own. Hereafter, our children are going to learn how to swim at an early age, and nobody can drive them out of this park as they have been driven off private land."
The complex was designed by Mr. Underwood's brother, Loring, a landscape architect. In his search for ideas for a playground containing a swimming pool, he found that nothing of the sort had ever been done in this country before. One or two examples of outdoor municipal swimming pools were found in Germany and it was to them that Loring Underwood turned for inspiration. He found, however, that his problem in Belmont had so much individuality of its own that it needed to be worked out along original lines.
An area covering about 13,000 square feet was excavated for the pool which was oval in shape approximately 100 feet wide by 150 feet long with a maximum depth of eight feet. The bottom was cobblestones covered with sand, and the shores were also sand creating a beach like effect. A spring was found while the work was in progress which was used to supply over 70,000 gallons a day giving the bathers "water as fresh as though the tides were at work." A filtering system was also installed making the water "fit to drink." A tiny stone island with a diving board and a light pole completed the swimming area, and when it was opened the Boston newspapers called it the first public outdoor swimming pool in the United States.
On the adjacent slopes were built swings, teeters, sand pits and for use in the winter months a "first class coast."
During the winter months the pond was planned to be turned over to grownups for ice skating provided it was after nightfall because park commissioners "wish it to be known that the playstead was given for the health and recreation of small children and only in such hours as the little persons will be unlikely to want the use of the park will the grown-ups be allowed entrance."
Near the pool was erected a "bungalow-like" bathhouse with lockers. Showers and dressing rooms designed by H. Thaxter Underwood, nephew of Henry O. Underwood. Over the front door was a large illuminated clock "to help the children keep in mind the hour for going home." Towels, toilet articles, showers and swimming instructions were provided for the modest sum of a nickel.
A formal opening of the swimming pool was held on June 17, 1912, with exercises consisting principally of aquatic sports and swimming exhibitions.