If you stare into Lake Massasoit, its surface may be too murky to mirror your reflection. Perhaps its water is clouded by the remnants of its rich, layered and even quirky history. Rather than just a mysterious, muck-floored pit, Lake Massasoit is a relic of Springfield’s past—and for centuries has served as a microcosm of a developing America.
Lake Massasoit, then referred to as Watershops Pond, was formed in 1809 when the Mill River was dammed and the Springfield Armory developed the Watershops. According to reports by then Springfield Armory superintendent Roswell Lee, Lake Massasoit’s water served as half of the energy store used to manufacture the Springfield Armory’s muskets by 1815.
The Springfield Armory was America’s first and last National Armory, formed in 1777 and surviving all the way up until 1968. The armory served first as the primary armory for the brave patriots of the Revolutionary War. The site of the armory was chosen by President George Washington himself.
“This was the birthplace of the defense department under the George Washington administration. You can imagine George Washington on horseback selecting this area for his defense department,” remarked Patrick Sullivan, Springfield Executive Director of Parks, Buildings and Recreation Management.
Today, while not the cause of Lake Massasoit’s toxic state, the body of water still has a lead pulse. Firearms were tested by shooting into the banks of the lake as late as the Civil War Era.
The Massasoit’s history is not limited to military industrialism. In 1857, workers repairing the dam discovered what was thought to be the first complete dinosaur skeleton found in all of North America and South America. As many people claimed sections as souvenirs, the skeleton could not be fully reassembled. Lake Massasoit’s strange, compelling history further developed upon the arrival of the 20th century—essentially the arrival of the lake’s golden era.
It was at this time that the Springfield College community began referring to the man-made body of water as Lake Massasoit rather than Watershops Pond. The name was chosen to pay homage to Marvin Chapin, a generous benefactor of the college at the time, whose prize possession was the prominent local hotel, The Massasoit House. The Massasoit House offered hospitality to historical greats of our past, including Presidents Franklin Pierce, Ulysses S. Grant and Andrew Johnson.
In the early 1900’s, Lake Massasoit was a recreational hot spot, as well as an instrumental tool in teaching Springfield College students leadership and physical education skills. While today the lake is usually desolate, it was not unusual to see as many as 300 canoes navigating the abyss on beautiful weekend afternoons. A beach with lifeguards was maintained by the city, providing a haven for locals on the then undeveloped, quiet shores of the Massasoit. By 1930, there were numerous public beaches and boat ramps. This peak of recreation was short-lived, with all beaches closed by 1941 and all boat liveries out of business by 1955 as the land became the site of many new homes.
The golden era turned out to be brief, and in a way, tarnished by tragedy. After workers drained the lake to install bridge piers in 1941, the remains of World War I veteran David W. Lee and his family were discovered at the bottom of the lake in their Stutz sedan.
The family of five disappeared on the evening of December 13, 1930, sparking a nationwide search that spanned as far as California and Florida. The Lee children were only eight, six and four years of age respectively at the time of their tragic passing. Their father had simply lost control of the vehicle during icy conditions.
With tragedy in the waning years of Lake Massasoit’s golden era coupled with residential development, the lake regressed to its current state.
Lake Massasoit has also faced more recent tragedies, most notably a roaring blaze and a tornado.
On June 17, 1988 a chemical reaction caused a fire at Advanced Laboratories Inc., a manufacturing plant in the former Watershops Armory located on the lake. A cloud of toxic chlorine gas suspended itself over six miles of Springfield streets, evoking a four-day evacuation of the area by an estimated 50,000 Springfield residents, a flurry of minor injuries and a barrage of subsequent lawsuits.
The much-heralded, deadly June 1, 2011 tornado left its mark on Lake Massasoit, destroying much of the vegetation along the shores. The more barren landscape of Lake Massasoit is a constant reminder of the horrific event. There was significant debris deposited in the lake during the tornado. While debris on the shoreline has been removed, Sullivan and the city are still working with federal agencies for funding the cleanup of the lake.
While Lake Massasoit’s worth is seemingly less than in eras of the past, exactly the opposite is true. Not only is Lake Massasoit a signature component of the Springfield College campus, but it also is a riveting landmark in American history and an ongoing source of local history here in the city of Springfield.
On the surface the lake is a lagoon, with Loch Ness-esque eeriness. As the age-old aphorism states, there is more than meets the eye. Lake Massasoit is deep with historical knowledge and memories.