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The Dartmouth
May 27, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

History of Occom Pond: 'The Backyard of Campus’

One writer documents the history of Occom Pond and how it has evolved as a staple of Dartmouth traditions.

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Central to beloved Dartmouth winter traditions such as the polar plunge, ice skating and bygone pond parties, Occom Pond has established itself as a staple of the Hanover community for decades. However, before the pond established its legacy, it was just a figment of Elizabeth Washburn Worthern’s imagination.

Worthern came up with the idea for the pond in 1897 after moving into a house on Webster Avenue with her husband Thomas W. D. Worthern, a math professor and Dartmouth alum. Thomas Worthern began digging the pond in 1899 after gaining permission from the owner of the land that Occom Pond resides on. The professor then completed preparations for the pond in 1900, and a “midwinter thaw” caused the pond to remain full for months, demonstrating that rainfall could supply enough water for the pond.

Once the pond was completed, its ownership passed through several hands before ending up the property of Dartmouth College. According to a 1962 memorandum which addressed the College’s rights to use the pond for ice skating, Charles Chase, who owned the land when Worthern started his project, gave the plot to his wife, who later donated it to the College. 

So, how then, did Occom Pond get its name? 

The pond was not named for Worthern, Chase or Fletcher, but for Samson Occom, a minister and member of the Mohegan nation. Before Eleazer Wheelock founded Dartmouth in 1769, he established the Indian Charity School in Lebanon, Connecticut 15 years prior. At the school, Wheelock took Occom under his wing, and in 1766, Wheelock decided to send Occom to Great Britain to raise money for the school. There, he impressed the British with his knowledge of Latin, Greek and Hebrew, returning to Connecticut in 1768 with £11,000. 

Wheelock then moved to Hanover in 1770, taking the money, which he ultimately used to found Dartmouth. However, Occom was an advocate for establishing Dartmouth as a Native American school, and he disapproved of Wheelock’s decision to abandon this focus — all while using the money that Occom had worked for. Betrayed by Wheelock, Occom lived as a traveling minister until the end of his life. 

However, despite the injustices in Occom’s life, his name and legacy live on through the pond, which serves as a historically important part of campus and supports many traditions.

One tradition, skating on the pond, dates back to as early as 1953, and is beloved still to this day.

“If you’re someone from the Midwest and you have this idyllic image of what New England’s like, skating on Occom Pond is as close as you’re gonna get to [that],” professor Charles Wheelan ’88 said. He recalled that skating on Occom Pond was “one of the most magical things” during his time as a Dartmouth student.

To ensure that the pond is safe to skate on, the ice must be six or more inches thick, according to Michael Silverman, resident and former gear manager at the Dartmouth Outing Club House. However, he noted that skating on Occom Pond has become much more scarce in recent years.

“The hard part has been that the pond itself has not been freezing,” Silverman said. “It has a lot of algae and warmth underneath it [and] multiple springs that keep the water moving,” which contribute to the warming of the pond, in addition to rising temperatures from climate change.

Wheelan echoed that thought. “[Skating] is what you do when you're in New England in the winter,” he said. “Winter that’s 36 degrees is a much more miserable experience, ironically, than winter that’s 20 degrees.”

In recent years, the College has implemented a skating rink on the Green. However, for Silverman the feeling of skating on Occom Pond is completely different. 

“You’re on natural ice,” he said. “You’re on a pond. It sort of feels more free.”

Besides skating, a winter must-do for many Dartmouth students is the “polar bear swim,” which brings the bravest community members to jump into a hole in the frozen pond. 

According to student involvement director David Pack, the polar bear swim is relatively new to the history of the Carnival, having originated in 1994. Over the last few years, this event has become increasingly popular, with a turnout of around 1200 people in 2022. 

However, this tradition is not limited to students. Resident Bill Young, who has lived next to Occom Pond for 40 years, has done the plunge four times. 

“I've done it twice with my clothes on and twice with a bathing suit on,” he said.

In addition to these well known Dartmouth traditions, Occom Pond was also once home to yearly “Occom Pond Parties.”

Young helped found the Pond Parties, which ran for over 25 years until the pandemic. These annual gatherings drew a crowd of around 2,000 people at Occom Pond, where there was a variety of winter-themed events, such as an ice castle, ice slides, snow tube runs, ice fishing games and marshmallow roasting. 

To top it off, Young and his wife served a snow-themed dessert called “sugar on snow,” made by boiling maple syrup to make it thicker and serving it on top of snow. 

Silverman, another past attendee of the Pond Party, particularly enjoyed the community aspect of the event. 

“There were people coming down, sitting around the campfire, having a great time as family members and as community members with Dartmouth students,” he said. “You could hear people playing hockey and just having a lot of fun.”

While the pond is now the site of countless positive memories, Occom Pond has also suffered from several crises throughout its history. 

In 1954, Occom Pond was overtaken by goldfish, according to a 1982 New Hampshire Times article “The Fleas On Occum Pond.” The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department had to kill 2,800 pounds of fish with pesticide, which wiped out native fish like sunfish and smallmouth bass, along with the goldfish that were consuming both fish eggs as well as other fish’s food. 

Occom Pond has also dealt with algae issues. In 1982, Professor W. Charles Kerfoot began experimentation to control the growth of the “poisonous blue-green” algae that was plaguing the pond. In his research, he discovered that Daphnia — known by their common name as water fleas — could help control the algae, clear the pond waters and restore balance to the food chain. 

The land and residents surrounding the area itself have also changed drastically. According to Young, residences around Occom Pond used to be “inexpensive faculty housing” with “lots of families.” However, he said that today, it is more expensive and home to many “older, retired people” and even serves as a second home for some.

But despite its sometimes tumultuous, storied history, Occom Pond remains a place of solace, joy and wonder for many. 

Young has appreciated watching the wildlife change throughout its various seasons. 

“Autumn is fantastic to watch all the leaves floating down the pond,” he said. “Summer is just tons of animal activity: Eagles come and snatch fish out of the pond, there are red tail hawks that are around here and in the water itself … there are lots of carp and catfish and some wonderfully big snapping turtles.”

As a resident, Silverman voiced that Occom Pond has felt like a “safe haven” where students could get away and the entire Hanover and Upper Valley community could come together. 

Wheelan agreed with this sentiment. “I’ve always known it as kind of like the backyard of campus,” he said. “It’s a beautiful backyard of campus.” 


Correction appended (Jan. 18, 9:27 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Fanny Chase was Charles Chase's daughter, instead of his wife. The article has been updated.