Arsenic and Old Lake


For the town of Wakefield, Massachusetts, news that the dredging of Lake Quannapowitt’s Hartshorne Cove has been completed is certainly welcome.
Quannapowitt sunset
The recent cleanup was ordered following the discovery in 1999 that arsenic, lead and petroleum contaminants had seeped into the sand, mud, peat and gravel on the Lake’s bottom in the area behind the Hartshorne House and Vet’s Field.

The contaminants came from the old coal gasification plant on North Avenue, approximately where the MGLD building is now. In Ancient Times (the late 19th and early 20th centuries), gas manufactured from coal was used to light the town’s street lamps. The process produced a coal tar by-product that was stored in underground wells and eventually found its way into the Lake bottom.

Of course, back in the Olden Days, also known as the mid-20th century, local folks were ignorant of what poisons lurked in the Lake bottom, even as kids frolicked the summer away at the nearby Spaulding Street Beach.

Back then, the town offered two beach swimming areas: Spaulding Street and, at the head of the Lake, Col. Connelly Beach. In 1962, the Recreation Commission instituted a “tag system” to make sure that Wakefield residents would have priority at the town’s two beaches. For the cost of the tag – something like a buck and a quarter – you could buy a wrist-band and a tag that allowed you access to either beach all summer long. Non-residents were required to purchase a tag for 75 cents each time they used the beach.

In 1963 alone, more than 5,000 resident and 300 non-resident tags were issued, and the aggregate attendance at both beaches that year exceeded 28,000.

The town also provided lifeguards who doubled as swimming instructors. They were either high school or college kids. A whole generation of Wakefield kids learned to swim in Lake Quannapowitt under a program run by the town’s Recreation Department with the cooperation of the American Red Cross Water safety Program. After a few weeks of shallow water instruction, the swimming instructors would row you out to a depth that was just over your head and make you swim back to shore.
No Swimming
Swimming is no longer allowed in the Lake, more a victim of sparse budgets than pollution concerns. So, even with a newly cleaned-up Lake, don’t look forward to swimming in it any time soon. Maybe our new Creative Revenue Action Team could look into a way to pay lifeguards.

If they allowed swimming in the Lake now it might reduce the problem of marauding tweens in the downtown area in the summer. The bands of brats that swarm the sidewalks have led to a few complaints and the suggestion that the town provide more structured activities to keep the kiddies off the streets in the summer. But isn’t that what online games are for? With all the virtual buildings to blow up and animated enemies to kill, it’s a wonder that kids have time to venture outdoors.

Offering more summer activities might help keep the kids off the streets, but it’s hardly a summer-only issue. Ask most downtown merchants what happens at exactly 2:30 every weekday afternoon during the school year.

Most kids are not a problem and mean no harm. Some just need a reminder every now and then that people over the age of 15 have rights too.

Or maybe they just need to go jump in the Lake.

[This column originally appeared in the Wakefield Daily Item.]

4 Responses to “Arsenic and Old Lake”

  1. 1 bob vogtli

    Hi Mark:

    My daughter and I are conducting research on mercury in MA watersheds for a science project, and came across your 2008 post, ‘Arsenic and Old Lake’, with interest. Part of our work was sampling lakebottom sediment and having these samples tested for mercury levels. We found a very high level in Lake Quanapowitt, which would be consistent with the information in your post.

    Do you happen to know where you learned of this coal gasification plant?

    Many thanks,
    bob v

    • 2 Mark Sardella

      Bob, I think I learned of the old coal gasification plant from a variety of sources, including occasional articles in the Wakefield Daily Item. If you are interested, I would strongly suggest contacting Doug Heath and Alison Simcox. They are a married couple living in Wakefield, and both are scientists who have studied and sampled the Lake extensively. They even wrote book on Lake Quannapowitt for the “Images of America” series. It is available at the Beebe Library in Wakefield, at book stores or Amazon. I will email their phone number, but they are listed in Wakefield.
      Another person you could contact in Jim Murphy. He is a former Wakefield High School science teacher and has headed the Friends of Lake Quannapowitt water testing team for years. He is also a former commissioner of the Wakefield Municipal Light Dept., and therefore may have some inside knowledge of the history of the old plant. I will email his contact info too.
      All of the people I mentioned are very approachable and LOVE sharing their knowledge of Lake Quannapowitt. You can tell them that I referred you to them.
      The only other suggestion is the Beebe Library in Wakefield. They may have some information. You could call ahead of time and ask them to research it and have it ready for you. 781-246-6334.

  2. Years ago, I wrote the Massachusetts Watershed Study which included Lake Quannapowitt (available online at and I heard then that the town of Wakefield dumped the arsenic into the lake in the 1960s to clear up an overabundance of water plants. I interviewed several members of the Friends of Lake Quannapowitt, who all disagreed with the town officials (who claimed innocence), so my final report hedged and did not assign direct blame. To quote from that report:
    “Lake Quannapowitt was a water supply briefly in 1957 during a drought. Arsenic was introduced into the lake in the early 1960s to deal with aquatic weeds… In the long term, arsenic contamination (from the 1960s weeding program) can only be removed by dredging. The flow rates in the lake are insufficient to remove heavy metals from the lake sediment, but sufficient so that leaching keeps measurable arsenic levels in some lake sections.”

    • 4 Mark Sardella

      Jesse – Oddly, I think you and I have met. I was an old friend of Lisa J’s, and sometime in the ’90s, I came to your house in Cambridge for dinner. A woman named Polly was also there. I think it was a match-making attempt, although nothing came of it.

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