Horn Pond: a Natural History

About the Author:

Hello! I’d like to introduce myself, my name is Lauren Fitzgerald, a herring monitor and a featured voice on MyRWA’s blog. 

When I was in High School, I designed a study on the health the Ipswich River in my home town of Topsfield. Like any good science, it began with a simple observation; Dad and I were catching fewer “punkys” (common sunfish) at our fishing spot. My hypothesis was runoff from household and agricultural fertilizers were reducing the dissolved oxygen of the river, choking out fish. I tracked levels of phosphorus and nitrates present due to spring run off for over four years from 1993 to 1996. This self directed fieldwork fostered a deep feeling of ownership of the river. If it was mine to enjoy, it was also mine to protect. Following my matriculation at Bowdoin College in Maine, I entered the corporate world. My career was in Information Technology, being promoted to senior levels in sales and account management. It was fast paced, and I was successful in my 17 years with the company. Eventually, I found the work less engaging, and I needed to change my course. I was done with the industry, and it was time to move on to a new field.

I now focus my time exploring and observing, fostering conversation about environmental issues. I’d like to share my passions for birding, hiking and wandering trails and hidden spaces with you. I live in Stoneham, and my proximity to the Mystic River Watershed allows me to once again indulge my love of rivers. The Mystic River Watershed offers so many stories of how a watershed is utilized over the course of history, shaping the identities and industries of its towns and cities. 

At this point, you may be asking, what was the conclusion of your research on Topsfield’s river health? At the culmination of my experience, I recall that not much had changed over the course of time. That said, it had not gotten markedly worse, which in itself is a small victory. Unfortunately, the results and the associated analysis were lost to history, a casualty of the to the demise of the floppy disk. 

This endeavor on the Mystic will not fall victim to the same fate of being lost to computer upgrades! As we move our way up and down the river, it will be our experience to share. Hopefully you’ll find a hypothesis of your own to test out along the way.

From the 1734 Slade’s Mill, to today’s $70 million dollar living shoreline restoration in Everett, join me as I travel the river and report back with stories of the majestic Mystic River.

Our first stop - Horn Pond! Named Innitou by the Wampanog, Horn Pond is a 133 acre body of water surrounded by an additional 500 conservation acres in Woburn, MA. It is also the newest site for MyRWA’s herring monitoring program!

This glacially formed “great pond” lives up to this classification, coming alive with white caps on windy days, or calmly reflecting a spectacular sunset with Mt. Townga at its back. While not the untamed space it once was, the area still supports a cattail marsh, bog, oak-hickory woods and open fields.

Those who enjoy Horn Pond today may not know the waters historic importance. The first settlers dug wells by its sides for irrigation to support Woburn’s early agricultural base.  Following the Industrial Revolution, tanneries established a foothold, flourishing with completion of the Middlesex Canal in 1803. The Dow Tannery was constructed near Horn Pond on Pleasant Street, and production at the site ran from 1814 until destruction by fire in 1893.  Commercial ice-making businesses, sand, and gravel operations found success as well. 

As residents of Woburn prospered, Horn Pond transitioned to fashionable recreation destination, proving the city with modern outdoor amusements in a pastoral setting.  The hay-days of late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the establishment of Foley Beach, downhill ski trails on Mt. Towanda (Horn Pond Mountain), arcades and bandstands. At one time, there was a bowling alley the small central island. 

Today’s activities cater to those seeking outdoor space to ramble in solitude, hiking Horn Pond Mountain, or working the land in the Community Gardens.  Fishing from its banks is a timeless recreational activity. From dawn to dusk, people of dot the shore with poles hoping for a bite. Horn Pond gains its water from brooks on their way to the Mystic River. Prior to industrialization, this flow continued unimpeded to the Atlantic Ocean.  Horn Pond was then a habitat to Trout, Pickerel, Perch, Sunfish and Pouts. While these species are longer present naturally, the pond is stocked twice a year for recreational purposes. On occasion I chat with “die hard” locals, who show up to fish regardless of weather. At the edge of their water, their camaraderie makes them appear birdlike, each waiting for a bite from their perch. It’s not out of place to see a great heron standing near, pondering what sort of odd species would encroach on their waters. 

This past spring I one of those creatures whose visits confused the avian residents, visiting once a week for my 10 minute shift to count herring as part of the Herring Monitoring Program run by MyRWA. First, it was curious geese. As the weather warmed, a mallard pair, and later, their ducklings. I was not fishing, instead keeping a keen eye on the rushing water.  My task was to count river herring fighting their way up the spillway, driven by their natal urge tole ave the ocean and return to freshwater to spawn. As the spring warmed the water temperature increased and the Herring came. First, I was excited when I saw them one at a time. Later in the season, they were successfully making it into the pond by the dozen. By late June, river herring created a waiting room at the base of Scalley Dam, jostling to gain purchase in the rocky shallows below the fishway. 

While their numbers in Horn Pond are still small, their presence highlights Mystic River Watershed and restoration efforts of concerned citizen-scientists. In 2010, Upper Mystic Lake’s dam was updated to include a fish ladder, easing the traverse of a once insurmountable obstacle along the Herrings return path. Following this improvement, the Mystic River Watershed Association documented an increase from an estimated 198,932 river herring in 2012, to an estimated 589,000 river herring in 2018. The success is evident by these numbers. With continued attention it can only grow. River herring play a crucial role in freshwater, estuarine, and marine ecosystems habitats. The presence of this indicator species at Horn Pond the past two seasons is a beacon of hope for river restoration. Two hundred and fifty years passed without Herring reaching Horn Pond. I know in the coming years these beautiful silver-blue fish will continue to make their way up the rocky spillway with increasing volume. Next spring, I will be working with other volunteers standing near at the shore, counting the Herring. We will celebrate the revival of a historic footnote ecosystem of the Mystic River Watershed.