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Crystal Lake has a long history of being the 'town lake' in Newton, Massachusetts. Located in the Greater Boston area, this small natural lake is one of New England's Great Ponds and thus under court degree, considered government property for the use of the public. This wasn't always so: for over two centuries, the lake and its shoreline belonged to one family and the people to whom they sold lots. Lakefront parcels were sold over the years and today a total of 18 private landowners have properties adjoining the lake.
The City of Newton owns three parcels of land on Crystal Lake used for parkland and public access. The area called Crystal Lake Park is located at the southwest end of the lake. In recent years, the city obtained an extra parcel via eminent domain to enlarge the park. Here, a swimming beach is heavily used by Newton residents. Swimming is limited to certain hours between mid-June and mid-August when lifeguards are present. A yearly resident swim pass is required of all city residents to use the lake and park, although one-day passes are available for purchase by non-residents. A bathhouse built in 1930 is currently undergoing renovations to make it more accommodating to all populations. Because swim times and hours are strictly limited, a group advocating 'swim at your own risk' is working to expand swimming opportunities.
The attractive Crystal Lake Park holds walkways and benches for enjoying the tranquil lake scene. The bathhouse complex also houses a community center with rooms for meetings and club functions by reservation. Aquatic lessons are held at the park each summer, and several day camps for children occur during the warmer months. The park is the location of festivals and events throughout the year such as art shows and school field trips. Levingston Cove adjoins the main park via walking trail and offers an expanded opportunity to view the many birds and waterfowl that inhabit the little lake's environs. Some of the local fauna that have been sighted include black duck, mallards, great blue heron, black-crowned night heron, grebe, cormorant, Canada geese, belted kingfisher, osprey and raccoon. There is no actual path around the lake, but sidewalks in the adjacent neighborhoods make for excellent walking opportunities.
At the north end of the lake is a boat and canoe launching area at Cronin Cove. This area allows some parking, but only hand-carried boats may be launched. Electric motors are permitted up to 3 horsepower; canoes, kayaks, inflatable boats and row boats are encouraged. Due to the small size of the lake, jet skis, water skis and sculling crews are prohibited. Sailing is allowed for sailboats that can be hand-carried to the water. Wind surfing is popular. All boats must have a registration permit from the City of Newton, and all boating and fishing regulations must be followed. The lake has rainbow trout and brown trout stocked annually as they do not reproduce in the small lake. Sunfish, bluegill, chain pickerel and largemouth bass are also caught. The few private homes bordering the lake are allowed to launch their own boats and swim from their property. Located near Newton Center, the lake is an urban oasis in a highly populated area. Keeping it protected and safe is a monumental task to which local organizations and city leaders are committed.
Several groups concern themselves with Crystal Lake activities. The Friends of Crystal Lake work with city officials to formulate regulations, assist in park clean-up and put on activities for children to interest them in conservation. Crystal Lake Conservancy oversees property around the lake that has conservation easements attached. This interest in preserving and beautifying the area around Crystal Lake is not new. The Newton Centre Improvement Association was formed as early as 1870 dedicated to improving residents' opportunities for lake-based fun. A publication by the Association in 1911 details the long history of the area and the changes that have occurred. It is from this old publication that we find our only statistics for the lake. The lake's water comes from both surface run-off and numerous underwater springs.
This history tells us that the lake was first called Wiswall Pond after the Wiswall family who lived there. The lake was included in the 1000-acre land grant bestowed upon John Haynes in 1614, who never moved there from Cambridge and eventually sold the property. Later the lake was called Silver Lake. After the first Baptist Church was built along the shoreline and the lake used for baptism, it became Baptist Pond. Before the turn of the last century, the property owners leased the lake to an ice company who produced ice in the winter. The ice company renamed the lake Crystal Lake, no doubt as an advertising ploy to convince customers of their quality ice. There was no swimming beach during those early days.
A boardwalk was built along the lake and gas lights installed on some portions. In the past, the lake was popular for ice skating, which is no longer allowed. The railroad bed along the eastern shoreline of the lake was lowered to improve grade crossings in the area, and storm sewers prevented less water from entering the lake as previously. The lake's water levels became lower as a result of these two projects and for a time, many were worried it would disappear completely. It eventually stabilized and what remained is the existing Crystal Lake.
When state legislature instituted the Great Pond designation on all publicly-owned ponds over 10 acres, Crystal Lake went through a series of court battles. According to the 1614 land grant, the 33-acre lake was not public property. The City of Newton held that because the lake had been leased to the ice company without formal complaint constituted proof that it had reverted to the public domain. The fact that the public had used the lake without challenge for swimming and boating for many years made it public property and thus it should fall under the Great Pond legislation. A Supreme Court decision found for the Great Pond designation based on its interpretation of old English Commons law in effect at the time of the land grant. However, the designation also carries with it a requirement to make Crystal Lake accessible to the public. In 1991, the Massachusetts Department of Fisheries and Wildlife ordered the Newton Parks and Recreation Commission to allow public access for fishing and boating.
Crystal Lake can be accessed from Boston via public transportation. A number of hotels, inns and bed & breakfasts in the area provide lodgings, and the city has numerous restaurants and shops. Canoeing and kayaking on the nearby Charles River is a popular activity. The Mary Baker Eddy House showcases the life story of this founder of Christian Science. The McMullen Art Museum on the grounds of Boston College is worth a visit for the ever-changing exhibits. And several historic homes are available for tours, along with antique shopping to take home the perfect souvenir. So, if visiting the Boston area, plan on making the short side-trip to Newton and Crystal Lake. It'll be waiting, just like it has for 400 years.
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