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Centennial Pool Party: Underwood Pool Turns 100

The country's oldest outdoor municipal swimming pool has been enjoyed by Belmont children for a century.

The stillness of the water Sunday afternoon belied the anticipated rush of families and children that will once again be a typical summer day at the town's Underwood Pool on Concord Avenue adjacent the Belmont Public Library.

So without ceremony or fanfare, the nation's oldest outdoor community pool turned 100 on Sunday, June 17, in the exact location where it opened a century ago.

The Underwood Pool's second century begins today, June 18 with a "pre-season" week and officially opens on June 25 to Sept. 2. You can obtain a season pass at the town's Recreation Department.

Less than two months younger than Fenway Park, the sinking of the Titanic was still fresh on residents minds when the pool opened, it was a time when Belmont High School had 13 graduates and the police were asked to control children and teen who were escaping with resident's ripened cherries from their backyards.

And what a site it was: what only 10 years before was a food factory and then land owned by the Boston Elevated Street Railroad – which would become the MBTA – the parcel was transformed into a 100 foot by 150 foot oval that was eight feet deep with a cobblestone bottom with an island in the middle of the "pond" and the edge covered with sand to create a beach for children to sun themselves.

The change from an industrial location to a leisure location was the undertaking of one of Belmont's wealthiest citizens: Henry O. Underwood of deviled food fame purchased the Railroad's lot in 1911 and then exchanged it for a parcel the town owned adjacent to his property on School Street.

In doing so, Underwood proposed to construct a playground (the Underwood playground on the hill next to the pool) the bath house  and swimming pool on town land at his expense.

According to Belmont Historian Richard Betts in an article from 1975, "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 lot would make a great play place for children ..."

And since three were several natural springs "bubbl[ing] forth cold ground water" at the bottom of the hill, "Underwood was struck with the idea that this area could be turned into a swimming hole," wrote Betts in the Belmont Historical Society newsletter.

Underwood told the 1911 Town Meeting that the "playstead" was designed with special reference to the small boys and girls in town.

"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," said Underwood.

In fact, one regulation barred adults from the swimming hole "only in such hours as the little persons will be unlikely to want to use the park." 

But the building of the pool was hampered by the lack of any similar ventures. Underwood's brother, Loring, a landscape architect, could not find any examples of an outdoor pool incorporated in a town playground. Instead, he tuned his sights to the outdoor municipal swimming pools in Germany for his designs.

The pool held about 70,000 gallons of natural spring water – even today, the pool's water supply is from that same source – which was mechanically filtered and was "fit to drink." A stone island in the middle of the pool held a diving board and a light pole.

The one hard-and-fast regulation at the pool was the banning of "promiscuous spitting or throwing of any substance into the water.

A bath house

In addition, the site held a "bungalow-like" bath house with lockers, showers and dressing rooms designed the another Underwood, H. Thaxter, the benefactor's nephew. You could get towels, toilet articles, showers and swimming instructions for a buffalo nickel. It also had a huge illuminated clock to remind children "the hour for going home."

In honor of his gift, the 1912 Town Meeting voted unanimously that the new facility be called "The Underwood Playground."

On Bunker Hill Day in 1912, the town turned out on a hot Monday morning at 10 a.m. for an early-morning dedication that included bands, games for the boys and folk dancing for the girls, speeches and a swimming demonstration from men from the Brookline Municipal Bath.

During the festivities, a "mangy hobo" began heckling Henry Underwood. Suddenly Loring Underwood jumped down from the stage and chased the "bum" through the audience and into the pool where both swam to the island.

But the entire sequence was revealed as a rouse as the two men bowed to each other and begin dancing in each others arms as the band played a waltz.

The next day, Boston newspapers hailed the Underwood playstead as the first public outdoor swimming pool in the United States.

A week before the dedication, the town's newspaper questioned if there would be enough subscribers to support the venture but admitted a week after its opening that "even the most skeptical" were calling the pool a success as more than 1,000 residents signed applications to be placed on a card index system for "bathing privileges."

Even then the pool with not free but rather an annual fee was collected "so little or no expense devolved upon the town," said a newspaper report.

And for the next 100 seasons, the pool thrived despite a depression, a number of drownings of unattended children, two world wars and the constant treat of polio among children from contact at the pool.

But after a century, the pool is not without its problems. Department of Public Works Director Peter Castanino said in April that ground water pressure could rupture the pool's floor and buckle it.

"We have had small problems but if we have a major one, we will need to rebuild it and then seal it like a bath tub," said Castanino.

But today, the pool's popularity – open from the last week in June to the Memorial Day weekend – has reached new heights. The pool is also where decades of Belmont children have learned to swim as parents still wait anxiously as their children attempt the "swim test," dog paddling from lifeguard to lifeguard then jumping off the diving board and to shore to earn the coveted opportunity to swim and dive in the pool's "deep" half.

Just as Henry Underwood had hoped.

Kimberly Becker June 19, 2012 at 12:41 PM
Great article! My grandfather was a surgeon in town and wouldnt let my mother and her siblings swim at underwood because of the polio issues you mentioned in the article. A very big deal in those times.
Sally Martin June 19, 2012 at 01:33 PM
Thank you for this interesting history! My kids have outgrown the pool but I have very fond memories of socializing there in past summers.

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