Sawin's Pond


Sawin's Pond: Past, present and future
By Brian LeBlanc/ Guest Columnist
Friday, November 28, 2003


In East Watertown, there is a large wetland you may have never even noticed.

This area, which drains into the Charles River, is composed of Williams Pond (visible on Elm Street); Sawin's Pond (seen on Coolidge Avenue); and Sawin's Brook (flowing alongside Arsenal Street and the area below the condominiums on Greenough Boulevard). These ponds and wetlands process all of the water that enters Watertown's storm drains anywhere east of the Oakley Country Club.

East Watertown once had a larger wetland that was called the Hog's Back. In 1880, George W. Sawin created an artificial recreation pond between Arlington and Coolidge streets by damming part of the original brook. He built a grand hotel, the Glen House, to overlook it. In the early 1900s, Sawin closed this scenic hotel and sold the pond and Williams Pond to the Hood Rubber Company, which was later purchased by B.F. Goodrich. A huge factory complex then utilized the ponds' water for use as coolant in the rubber treatment process. By the 1950s, Sawin's Pond, which had been much valued as a swimming and fishing hole, was no longer usable due to pollution.

Goodrich obtained permission to fill part of Sawin's Pond with rubber scraps and eventually closed the plant in 1969. The property was sold to the Campanelli Brothers and developed into the Watertown Mall. The two ponds were starting to heal themselves and were offered to Watertown in 1983. That same year, however, there was a PCB spill into a storm drain at Boston Edison that drained into the ponds. Fearful of the cleanup cost, the Town Council declined the offer, and the property was then sold to Maximos Hatziiliades.

Hatziiliades proposed building a parking lot on his new property. This was the beginning of a long legal battle between the Watertown Conservation Commission and Hatziiliades. The commission fought the proposal in order to preserve the wetlands, while Hatziiliades insisted on his right to develop his property. Eventually, the courts sided with Hatziiliades, and the parking lot was finally completed in 2002.

Meanwhile, the ponds have been neglected. They are not usable as they are, and there are no current plans for evaluation and/or cleanup. They are likely to be adding significant pollution to the Charles River. Cleaned, this wetland area could provide open space for the community, value for wildlife and natural water purification. Having studied this area to learn of its history, it is my hope that the Conservation Commission and Mr. Hatziiliades could put aside their unhappy history of litigation and conflict, and work together to preserve a large portion of the remaining Hog's Back wetland as open space.

Brian LeBlanc is a member of WCES, and can be reached at brianleblanc AT


Sawin's Pond, Coolidge Ave. Watertown, MA 11/ 2003
Sawin's Pond as seen from Coolidge St., Watertown, MA, Nov. 2003

Report on Sawin's and Williams Ponds
By Brian J. Le Blanc, November 5, 2003

Before I begin, I wanted to take this opportunity to thank those who spoke to me about Sawin's Pond and shared their insights and information, including Bruce Roberts, Susan Falkoff, Daphne Collins, Joe Di Vico, Diana Proctor, Angie Kounelis, and John Airasian. I also wanted to thank the Watertown Main Public Library, and the Conservation Commission for granting me both access to their files and allowing me to speak here tonight. 

          I came here tonight because I want to see Sawin's and Williams Ponds cleaned up, but before we can clean them, we must understand how it happened.         

Sawin's and Williams Ponds are parts of a brook that runs through East Watertown. In this 1853 map (Fig. 1), you can see the body of water in closest to its most natural form. It starts as a forked brook to the south of Mt. Auburn St. and west of the Old Burying Ground near present- day Porter St. From there, it flowed easterly until it crossed under the newly built railroad tracks, down underneath Arlington St, and finally into the Charles River.

Plan of Watertown 1853
Plan of Watertown 1853
Plan of Watertown 1853
Plan of Watertown 1853
Figure 1: Plan of Watertown 1853
Image consisting of four quadaents, click for larger image.

         In the late 1800s, three people decided to seek their fortunes by developing land around the brook, one man with an eye to utilize the natural beauty of the area, and two brothers who wanted to take advantage of the confluence of a railroad line and a water supply.

           George W. Sawin was, in the late 1870s, the proprietor of the Union Market Hotel, which was on Walnut St. near the Union Market train station. It was a successful hotel, but Sawin had bigger plans. On November1st, 1878, he purchased a tract of land between Arlington and Coolidge St, which contained a small glen that the brook ran through, “ for the purpose of flowing said meadow and for the purpose of a fish pond and for cutting ice upon the same…” ([Book 1502, Page 558], from Title to Sawin's and Williams Ponds 3/22/1973). Sawin also purchased a pond that had been made between 1851 and 1880 from Josiah Williams on July 31, 1880.

           Sawin constructed a dam at Coolidge St and flooded the glen, creating a pond several times larger than the one he had purchased from Williams. It was the finishing touch of the resort that he had built to overlook the pond. He also constructed a new street, Glen Rd, which provided access from Coolidge St. The Glen Hotel held its grand opening on Thursday evening, September 1st, 1881.

           An October 5, 1881, article from the Watertown Enterprise called “ A Model Suburban Hotel, “ extols the virtues of Sawin’s new resort:

“For healthfulness and grandeur of scenery at all seasons of the year, the location of this house cannot be excelled. On the premises is a beautiful pond, where the guests can enjoy a boat sail in the summer or skating in the winter. While on both sides of the pond are beautiful groves, well provided with swings, croquet grounds, bandstand, and all the etceteras of pleasure and pastime. “

           In June 1882, a sting operation was conducted aimed at the liquor dealers of Watertown. State Officers employed three underage youths from Boston as “ spotters “ to see who would sell them alcohol. In all, twenty violations were handed out to the liquor dealers. The Glen Hotel was one of the alleged violators. According to the account of the “Liquor Trials” published in the June 28, 1882 edition of the Enterprise, “ The case of Sawin was discharged because (“ spotter “ Thomas) Doorley testified that he bought the liquor of a barkeeper, Sawin being absent. The ruling of the Judge was that a dealer is not liable for the action of an agent, which may be contrary to his expressed of implied wishes. “

          George W. Sawin may have won his court battle, but lost a great deal of face in the eyes of Watertown society. His reputation, and that of his “ model suburban hotel, “ was besmirched, and it soon became known in town legend as a house of ill repute. He renamed the hotel several times, but the business was never as it was for that short wonderful period. In 1883, he sold part of the land to Harvey, including use of the pond, but retained all rights to cut ice. By the early 1890s, it was no longer listed as a hotel in the Watertown directories, only that Sawin lived at 45 Arlington St.  

Frederic C. and Arthur N. Hood, on the other hand, were brothers who had spent several years learning the rubber business by working in the factories. By 1896, the Hood brothers, now full of ideas, were ready to start their own business. They bought land bordered on the north by Nichols Ave and on the south by the railroad. The brook ran diagonally through the site, and was to provide the cooling water and power necessary to running a rubber factory.

          The Hood Rubber Company opened in November, 1896. Their small operation soon grew rapidly and they purchased the land on the other side of the tracks down to Arsenal St. Sometime between 1901 and 1905, Hood Rubber Company bought what were now called Williams Pond and Sawin's Pond from George W. Sawin. 

          In all, the Hood Rubber Company at its height in the early 1920s, controlled over 80 acres of land, employed around 10, 000 people, and produced all manner of rubber products, including tires, boots and PF Flyers, one of the earliest sneakers. In 1929, the Hood Rubber Company was bought out by the B. F. Goodrich Corporation and renamed the B. F. Goodrich Footwear Company, but most people in Watertown continued to refer to it by its former name.

Map of East Watertown 1925
Map of East Watertown 1925
Map of East Watertown 1925
Map of East Watertown 1925
Figure 2: Map of East Watertown 1925
Image consisting of four quadrants, click for larger image.

          The brook was harnessed for use within this massive factory complex mainly as coolant in the rubber treatment process. As the Hood plant expanded, the brook was culverted, built over, and incorporated into the storm sewer system of Watertown. For a time, the area that is now the front parking lot of the Watertown Mall was flooded and turned into a large industrial lagoon called Hoods Pond in 1907. Hoods Pond was shown on maps (see Figures 2 and 3) until around 1935 when it was filled in so the plant could expand further. The water that the plant needed was now pumped offsite from Sawin's and Williams Ponds and returned there through a series of culverts. The water, which had been subject to industrial processes, emptied out of Sawin's Pond and into the remnants of the brook which flowed alongside Arsenal St. to the Charles River.

Map of Watertown 1935
Map of Watertown 1935
Figure 3: Map of Watertown 1935
Image consisting of two quadrants, click for larger image.

          In the 1940s, the pond that Sawin had left behind was a recreational space for the people of the neighborhood. It was still fishable and swimmable. Joe Di Vico, who moved to the area with his family in 1932 from Italy told me that the kids referred to the pond as the “ Sois, “ or the “ Soines. “ The area behind the ponds was still partially open land that the Italian immigrants farmed on land owned by the Town. The area where the UPS building is now was a wooded area that overlooked the pond where Army soldiers camped during World War II. 

          Joe Di Vico told me that by the 1950s, Sawin's Pond was no longer swimmable, and the Town told the immigrants that they could no longer farm there. The area had been zoned for industrial use. The dumps grew larger, while on the area along Glen Rd, which was now a private way, industrial businesses grew up on the former farmland. By the 1960s, Sawin's and Williams Ponds were in bad shape. The ponds had been encroached on all sides by industrial businesses. In 1965, the Hatch Act went into effect in Massachusetts, which forbade the alteration of any natural or man- made body of water without authorization from state and local government.

           In the summer of 1966, the B. F. Goodrich Footwear Company now had to apply to the Massachusetts Department of Natural Resources, as well as the Watertown Planning Board, Board of Health, and Conservation Commission to do maintenance work at Sawin's Pond. They proposed six items, including dredging the pond. They wanted to continue to dump “ rubbish “ in the landfill method by building two dikes, decreasing the pond’s water capacity by filling it with trash. They also laid out a longer- term strategy of culverting Williams Pond for landfill. According to R. T. Wise, Superintendent of Engineering and Maintenance at B. F. Goodrich Footwear Company, “ (t)hese changes are needed so that essential industrial water supply and rubbish disposal can continue in the Sawin's Pond area. “ ( R. T. Wise letter to the Commissioner of the  Massachusetts Department of Natural Resources 7/ 6/ 66) 

          The Planning Board, Board of Health, and the Conservation Commission all agreed to part of the work scope. A June 29, 1966 letter from R. B. Chase of the Watertown Conservation Commission specifically approves two of the six requests of B. F. Goodrich: 1) to dredge Sawin's Pond and 2) to build a dike along the East side “and use the area between the fence and dike for landfill rubbish disposal.“         

From 1966- 68, while B. F. Goodrich was considering if staying in Watertown was part of their long term corporate strategy, they dumped a great deal of “ rubbish “ consisting of rubber scraps, some contaminated with solvents and plasticizers, with approval from town and state officials. 

           In December 1969, the B. F. Goodrich Footwear Company closed and moved operations to another plant in the Carolinas. It was said that they started to lose money in 1966. My great uncle, Patrick Callaghan, lost his job and his pension, as did 1,300 other workers. 

          Within the space of 4 years, over 130 acres of nearly contiguous land, formerly occupied by a U. S. Army munitions factory where they did uranium and nuclear testing, a rubber plant, two town dumps, and two polluted ponds were abandoned. A citizens panel, the Watertown Redevelopment Authority, was formed to purchase the Arsenal land and form a strategy of how to reintegrate all of this land back into East Watertown. Initially, ideas were put forth to build a “Mini- City” that incorporated both sides of Arsenal St. The B. F. Goodrich property, which included the ponds, was still owned by the company, and they were not all that interested in selling such lucrative property back to the town. 

          After B. F. Goodrich ceased operations, several local businesses that abutted Sawin's Pond installed illegal sewer hookups to drain into the pond, knocked down the fences to park trucks, and threw in all sorts of garbage on top of the unkempt piles of rubber waste. One business went so far as to knock down the fence to make a concrete ramp into Sawin's Pond so they could throw broken concrete burial vaults.

          By 1973, the Berkeley and Clarendon Streets neighborhood, which was next to the ponds as well, had enough and lobbied the East Watertown Betterment Association to ask the Conservation Commission to fix this situation. B. F. Goodrich, who was trying to sell the property, removed excess rubbish, brought in fill to grade the banks, seeded it, and repaired the fence. The work was completed mere days before the sale of the property which was sold to Wasserman Development Corporation in the summer of 1973. 

Max Wasserman was sympathetic to how Goodrich had mistreated both Watertown and the ponds. In March 1974, he offered to sell Sawin's Pond to the town for $1.00 if they would allow him to culvert Williams Pond. Churchill indicated that the Town wanted to preserve them both. Wasserman resold the entire property to Campanelli Brothers and their partners, Corporate Property Investors, in December 1974.  From 1975- 83, Sawin's and Williams Ponds, fenced in and overgrowth obscuring them from view, had a brief respite to begin repairing themselves. 

          The respite ended on January 29- 30, 1983, when 1000 gallons of PCBs from a broken electric transformer spilled into a catch basin located at the Boston Edison building, which was built on the site of the original Hood factory. The PCBs went through the culverted brook and into the ponds. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Quality Engineering were alerted to the spill. Eric Campanelli decided now was the time to finally offer to give the ponds to Watertown. The Town Council, fearful of having not only to pay for the ponds but have to clean them as well, voted down the proposal. 

 In April 1984, two brothers, Maximos Hatziiliades and Savvas Iliades, owners of Western Roofing Company, purchased the property from the Campanellis. They proposed to build a parking lot in between the pond next to their commercial property on Arlington St. The Conservation Commission was determined to protect Sawin's and Williams Ponds from further encroachment because they are wetlands that are part of the natural drainage system of East Watertown. 

The Commission rejected the Hatziiliades’ parking lot proposal, saying that they could not build within the 100’ buffer zone mandated around all wetland areas by the Wetlands Protection Act. The Hatziiliades’ appealed and the Massachusetts DEQE overruled the Commission’ s decision. This was merely the first skirmish in a prolonged litigation battle over the fate of Sawin's and Williams Ponds. 

Therein lies the story of Sawin's and Williams Ponds up to the present: they were artificially created out of a natural brook, polluted by industry, and left for others to clean up. Despite the fact that the Hatziiliades’ had not polluted their property but had merely purchased it in that condition, they are, under environmental law, are responsible for cleaning it up. 

In March 1985, as a result of the 1983 PCB spill, Sawin's and Williams Ponds were placed on CIRCLIS, an EPA database of potential controlled hazardous waste sites. The Hatzilliades’ retained the services of Certified Engineering and Testing Co. to determine the causes and extent of the pollution. On April 29, 1985, Maximos Hatziiliades was served with a cease and desist order from the DEQE for “ intentionally breaking the dike “ at Sawin's Pond, which lowered the water levels and compromised the wetland. 

          It is this move that truly turned the Conservation Commission’ s attention to Maximos Hatzilliades. From this point on, the parking lot proposal and anything they wanted to do around the ponds was heavily scrutinized. In 1986, the Commission denied the parking lot proposal again and initially denied a request to bore testing holes for soil and water samples, even though they were being conducted with the approval of the DEQE. 

In 1987, the Commission passed the Watertown Wetlands Ordinance, which prohibited building within 150’ of a wetland. The Commission also handed out numerous citations to Hatziiliades for violations such as dumping into the ponds, leaving the gates open, and parking trucks next to them. 

By 1989, Certified Testing and Engineering had completed their initial assessment of Sawin's and Williams Ponds by looking at the site history and conducting water and soil samples. They discovered that the pond was created as a source of ice, and that Hood/ B.F. Goodrich had polluted it over a number of years. They concluded that although the rubber scraps may be contaminating the groundwater, it was better to leave them buried, and that the source of much of the water pollution was the runoff from the town drainage system. They also recommended that the Town help by installing  particle separators in the storm drains. 

In 1990, Hatziiliades submitted a waiver application to the DEQE that would allow him, as the owner of the site, to remediate it without oversight, and was approved. This means that the DEQE and the EPA saw that the ponds were polluted but they did not pose enough of a threat to public safety to have to clean them immediately. 

The Conservation Commission did, however get the DEQE to make the ponds a Public Involvement Plan site. Hatziiliades had to prepare a report about the condition of the ponds and their plans for remediation, and file a copy of it at the Watertown Public Library. In the Sawin's and Williams Ponds Disposal Plan dated November 16, 1990, it states that “ a portion of the site is proposed for development of commercial buildings and a park, “ and that “Maximos Hatziiliades, property owner is prepared to pay the estimated $45,000 cost incurred from the proposed remediation action.“ The Commission issued a rebuttal disputing most of Certified’ s findings. 

          In1990 Hatziiliades applied for a third time to build the parking lot. He was denied once more, appealed, and received a hearing in front of Administrative Judge Francis X. Nee. In June 1994, the Department of Environmental Protection (formerly the Dept. of Environmental Quality Engineering) found in favor of Hatzilliades’ proposal to build a parking lot. The Commission argued that Maximos Hatziiliades’ past actions showed that he “ could not be trusted, “ but Nee ruled that they had “not established a nexus between the applicant’s record and the issue, “ and concluded that “ the Applicant’s record is not relevant to the issue.“ 

In the fall of 1997, Hatziiliades’ decision to not pay his property taxes in protest of his treatment came back to haunt him when Watertown seized Sawin's and Williams Ponds as payment. Hatziiliades appealed this decision to the Massachusetts Land Court, but the Commission was hoping to have the Town get the ponds in order to settle his tax debt. 

In October 1998, the DEP overruled the Commission’s decision in favor of Hatziiliades. After the decision, Hatziiliades paid $21, 000 in back taxes, and the Land Court ultimately gave ownership over his property back to him. 

Hatziiliades no longer needed a parking lot for his business, but he found a new partner in the neighborhood. A popular gym called Super Fitness had opened next to Williams Pond but it had no parking lot, creating a traffic mess on Arlington St. Super Fitness agreed to lease the parking lot, and the Town finally allowed work to begin on the parking lot on February 8, 2000. Eighteen years after it was proposed, the parking lot was built and was completed in the fall of 2002. 

          The completion of the parking lot meant something quite different to both parties. For Maximos Hatziiliades, it represented a long- fought victory. For the Conservation Commission and their supporters, it was a disgraceful end to a long struggle to preserve encroachment upon the last remaining wetlands in East Watertown. Although I do not have a first- hand perspective on these events, and am merely writing the first historical account of it, I believe that the Commission fought so hard against Maximos Hatziiliades because many of them remember Sawin's Pond in all its glory. They had watched while it was almost destroyed and left for us to clean up. The Watertown Conservation Commission made sure that both Sawin's and Williams Ponds were saved from destruction and polluted as little as possible. They were enforcing laws that are designed to protect the land over the intentions of the landowner. 

          In the end, both sides got so caught up in the struggle over the building of a parking lot that they seem to have forgotten that Sawin's and Williams Ponds are still not clean, and have been hidden from public view for so long that most people in Watertown are unaware of their existence. 

Several people I have spoken to who support the Conservation Commission's efforts think that the only solution is to have Watertown somehow seize the land, and even that was tried and did not work. Maximos Hatziiliades has asserted in the courts his right to develop within reason on his own property. This stalemate could continue indefinitely, but is it still possible for both groups to work together to improve the property? Would the Conservation Commission be willing to allow Maximos Hatziiliades to redevelop his property into something that would overlook and incorporate a remediated Sawin's Pond? We need to come to a reasonable compromise. 

It is the twenty- first century, and East Watertown is a very different place. Where there were once factories, there are malls and office parks, and very little undeveloped land. The railroad tracks, except for a small spur from Fresh Pond down to Grove St, lie abandoned. I began to see a path that connected the potential open space in East Watertown. If you look at the map of my open space proposal the walkway starts at School St and follows the railroad tracks, going behind the Watertown Mall to Elm St. and Williams Pond, then to Sawin's Pond, alongside Sawin's Pond Brook, down along the GSA Site and up to Grove St to Fillippello Park. 

This is the last part of the redevelopment of East Watertown- the remaining land has to be preserved as open space. If we could just remediate Sawin's and Williams Ponds, it would be the start of a much larger project.

A plan needs to be developed that results in the clean up of Sawin's and Williams Ponds. Doing this can be the cornerstone of an open space master plan that unites the ponds, brook, and marsh into a whole once more, as a symbol of the final phase of the redevelopment that began over 35 years ago. 

By doing so we could create a walkway not unlike the Emerald Necklace. Think of the aesthetic and economic benefits that such a walkway could bring to East Watertown. It may take a long time, but if anything is going to happen we need to have a catalyst. Perhaps the Conservation Commission could take the initiative and attempt to make peace with Maximos Hatziiliades in order to begin the cleaning of Sawin's and Williams Ponds.  

Thank you.

Open Space Plan
Figure 4: Open Space Plan
click on the above image for the full size version.
Maps courtesy of the Watertown Public Library, Historical Map Collection.

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