Diver finds ice company artifacts in lake

Friday, December 3, 2010


Staff Writer

BROOKLINE – Master diver Joe King has traveled the world to recover artifacts and piece together accounts of historic events.

But after hearing rumors several years ago about a railroad track under Lake Potanipo, he launched an investigation about five minutes from his home on Westview Road.

King didn’t find any tracks, but he did come upon the remains of the Fresh Pond Ice Co., which was established on the shores of the lake in 1890 and thrived until 1935, when it was destroyed by fire.

It’s a story King is eager to share and preserve for future generations who want to know about the state’s commercial ice-harvesting business and what was once advertised as the world’s largest ice house under one roof.

He uses old wooden tools scooped from the lake’s muddy bottom to tell the story that includes details about suppliers, manufacturing techniques, and the location and geometry of the canals used to float ice to the elevator where it was hoisted and stored.

One “incredible find,” he said, is a wooden tool engraved with the name “J. Hittinger.”

It’s a violation of state law to disturb an archeological site, King said, explaining why he declined to identify the exact location of the dig, which began in 2006.

Any insight into the Fresh Pond Ice Co. is valuable because the company’s records and all but one of its 13 buildings were destroyed in the fire, which some speculate was set deliberately, not long before refrigeration was to make the business obsolete.

Snakes, turtles and mud

King, an electrical engineer and patent agent, has logged thousands of dives, including roughly 18 on the dangerous Andrea Doria shipwreck.

He is working on the local project with assistance from Brookline resident David Trubey, an archeologist and diver.

At its deepest, Lake Potanipo is about 29 feet; during roughly 70 dives, King has been challenged by weeds, low visibility, snakes, snapping turtles and fish.

“There is nothing like the feeling of having your arms rooted in three feet of mud, which is also caked onto your mask, and finding an ‘artifact,’ ” King wrote in an article published in a 2008 edition of Northeast Dive News.

King’s recovery efforts aren’t likely to provide clues to the cause of the fire: All that remains of the Fresh Pond Ice Co. is a single building and some support timbers that held up sections of the ice house over the water.

The tools, however, provide some of the sharpest glimpses into the past. The wooden tool etched with the name “J. Hittinger,” for example, recalls Jacob Hittinger, who operated the Massachusetts-based ice company between 1830 and 1845, selling it in 1847, the year his son Thomas was born.

In 1890, when the Fresh Pond Ice Co. moved to Brookline, Thomas Hettinger served as superintendent, overseeing the building of the compound, 13 buildings under one roof.

According to a town history written by Edward E. Parker and published by the town, the original building was 245 feet long and 180 feet wide and could hold 80,000 tons of ice, the largest ice plant “under one roof in the State.”

The ice harvested from Lake Potanipo was shipped to Cambridge and Somerville, Mass., via the Fitchburg division of the B&M Railroad, according to Parker’s history. Daily shipments during the summer averaged 20 to 40 loaded cars.

How the ice was removed, stored, packed and transported is the story King is piecing together.

He said workers used angled starting chisels, wide-blade bar chisels, calking bars and pike poles to pull and push the ice blocks through the channels cut into the ice. A chain-rigged elevator was used to move the ice up to the storage houses on land, he said.

Today, portions of the elevator are visible in the lake, while all that’s left of many of the tools are their handles.

Recovery of the tools is arduous: After the tools were dropped, they sank into the silt. Eddies, fluctuations in temperature and their weight entrenched them further, King said.

“This means one has to be prepared to dig, typically two to four feet under the mud,” he wrote in the dive news magazine.

Delicate work

A tool weighing about 15 pounds likely fell almost vertically through the water after slipping out of a worker’s hands, and the diver must use care to avoid snapping the hollow handle off the working part. This is done by holding the tool as if it were a strand of dry spaghetti being pulled out of a box.

“Once a tool is recovered and very carefully cleaned, the real fun begins: identifying and dating the tool,” King said.

The diver uses old tool catalogs he finds at flea markets or antique stores to do his research.

He also investigates the bottom of the lake to see what’s growing.

King said he has discovered a green, coral-like structure “so soft and delicate that a fin kick destroys the organism,” and he also found bones on the muddy bottom, likely the remains of horses that fell through the ice.

Altogether, King has recovered about 20 artifacts from the bottom of the lake, which he will preserve before donating them to the Brookline Historical Society.

“This work is important in recovering a significant portion of the lost history of Brookline,” he said. “Because when the Fresh Pond Ice Company, which was the world’s largest under a single roof at the time, and probably one of the major employers in the state, burned down, all the records were lost at the end of a flame.”

Hattie Bernstein can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 24, or

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