DEVENS — The name Hell Pond has a Halloween-like connotation, but that’s what Mirror Lake and its geographical sibling, Little Mirror — Little Hell — Pond, are called on early Colonial maps.
Hell Pond has been referred to by at least one online conservationist as “a desolate place of lost souls,” adding more flavor to the Halloween paradigm.
The lake — or pond — is listed by the Department of Environmental Protection as a “great pond.” It’s an example of a geographic kettle hole, a deep pond formed when the last glacier to cover New England melted. It’s 80 feet deep in some spots.
The name “Hell” also seems to be known today. Blogger Cecil Baird — www.taxidermy.net — talks about Fort Devens having “underrated ponds by the name of Mirror Lake and Little Hell Pond” in which he fished. He said he walked through the woods of Salerno Circle to catch “big bluegills that the locals consider trash fish.”
According to an article in the October 2005 Fort Devens Museum newsletter, though Hell Pond began attracting Nashoba Valley residents in the 17th century, it was a desolate place of sorts and still was in the 1920s when rocket scientist Robert H. Goddard — 1882-1945 — called it a “stagnant pool.”
The question of why Mirror Lake could have been perceived as a “hellish stagnant pool,” the newsletter states, was raised in the late 1920s by Camp Devens commanding officer Maj. Gen. Malvern Hill Barnum — e.g. Barnum Road. He ordered the name changed to Mirror Lake.
It was Goddard — considered one of the three founders of modern rocketry along with Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, of the Soviet Union, and Hermann Oberth, of Germany — whose early experiments there have added historic importance to the lake — or pond.
Goddard launched the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket in Auburn in 1926, according to the Electronic Journal of the Astronomic Society of the Atlantic — www.ftp.seds.org. The flight lasted two-and-a-half seconds, rose to 41 feet and crashed in his Aunt Effie’s cabbage patch.
A Worcester native, Goddard was considered one of those misunderstood geniuses who dreamed of sending spacecrafts into orbit and photographing Mars at a time when many didn’t know what Mars was.
After graduating from Clark University, Goddard acquired small grants from the Smithsonian Institute to fund his work after publishing a paper called “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes.” He moonlighted trying to sell the idea of rocket-borne weapons to the Army.
His work, and his idea of sending a rocket to the moon armed with flash powder so astronomers could locate the spot, caught the attention of the press, which “all but announced” he’d be sending a manned flight in a few years.
In 1929, a particularly loud Auburn rocket test made residents believe a plane crashed. The Fire Department found Goddard and his assistants picking up metal pieces and putting out small grass fires. The press reported his rocket had missed the moon by “only 238,799 1/2 miles.” Local authorities asked him not to fly rockets in the area again.
The intensely private Goddard “reluctantly took his project to Hell Pond, a desolate federal artillery range at Camp Devens in Ayer, Massachusetts, where he conducted a number of static firing tests for several months,” the journal states.
Charles Lindbergh, whose historic trans-Atlantic flight was then two years old, took an interest in Goddard’s concepts and decided to help finance his work on rockets, the article states. Ironically, Lindberg had been introduced to Goddard by one of his students, Edwin Aldrin Sr., father of astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin who, with Neil Armstrong, landed on the moon in Apollo 11 in 1969.
As recently as the 1970s, the name Mirror Lake versus Hell Pond was under review by Fort Devens Headquarters, according to the museum newsletter. Several Harvard residents wanted the name to revert back.
According to papers donated by the estate of Col. Robert Lewis, the command group eventually voted down changing the name. Army leadership felt no one would want their children swimming in “Hell Pond.”
“Mirror Lake remains Mirror Lake and is an exceptional spot to enjoy foliage as colors turn in the autumn. In the summer months it’s stocked with fish and is a community resource,” writes Devens Museum Director Ian Meisner.