A History of Elizabeth Island
By Richard A. Duffy
In the first several decades of English settlement of Cambridge (of which most of present-day Arlington was part until 1807), Elizabeth Island was owned in common by the proprietors of the town. On October 20, 1704 the register of the proprietors of common lands in Cambridge noted transfer to private ownership with this entry: “Sold to Moses Boardman, a Small Island in ye Middle of Spye pond Containing about three quarters of an Acre. for twenty Nine Shillings.” (Elizabeth Island comprises nearly two acres of land, so it is interesting to note the great disparity in its estimated size in the 1704 record.) Boardman was a tanner, an occupation that required access to abundant water. While a possible reason for his acquisition of the island, there is no proof that it ever was used as the site of a tannery. Moses Boardman’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, was born two months prior to his purchase of the island, which could have been named in her honor. Elizabeth Boardman married Col. Abraham Williams of Marlborough in 1730.
In 1730, Boardman sold the island to Col. Elijah Phipps (1727-1805) of Charlestown, for two pounds and eight shillings. By the end of the 18th century the island had passed into ownership of Thomas Russell. Through inheritance, title in 1868 was in the hands of 21 Russell heirs—a complicated matter to be untangled to enable sale that year to the Fitchburg Rail Road Company. It is in this conveyance that the first reference is found to the name “Elizabeth Island,” prior deeds referring to it simply as the “Island.” This supports an alternate theory that it is named after Elizabeth Winship Russell, widow of Jason Russell, a local hero of Revolutionary War fame.
When Arlington was the young independent town of West Cambridge, the island was the scene of great military excitement. In the early 1800s, each municipality in Massachusetts had its own trained militia, which would join with the militias of nearby communities to engage in what we might call “war games” today. In 1810, an elaborate Indian Muster was held, during which some members of the militia played the role of American Indians. There was no local danger of Indian hostilities in New England, as the native population had been decimated by disease, war, and displacement in the previous centuries. The idea of an Indian muster was to prepare for battles as the United States expanded westward. The purported Indians established their camp, complete with wigwam, on Elizabeth Island. It became the object of bombardment from the shore by the militia of then-contiguous Watertown, and invasion by water. The Indians fled their island by canoe to seek refuge on the Lake Street side of Spy Pond, but they were captured and marched into the center of town, where they were fed “the most succulent baked beans in New England.”
Although the railroad did not acquire Elizabeth Island until 1868, plans to make use of the island for railroad purposes appear as early as 1844. Numerous branch and spur routes were proposed, some involving the large-scale ice production industry that grew up around Spy Pond. A routing of the rail line via Elizabeth Island was considered but not pursued, presumably thanks to the engineering challenge of having to build earthen causeways or trestle bridges to link the island to the lakeshores. The main route that was chosen, on the northern side of the Pond, has become today’s Minuteman Commuter Bikeway. The 1868 railroad-expansion plan was formally protested to the Massachusetts Legislature by wealthy abutters on the western shore of Spy Pond.
No railroad use ever having been made of Elizabeth Island, in 1921 it was sold to Freeman Young, an officer of the Middlesex Sportsmen’s Association, a hunting and fishing club whose lodge on the shore of Spy Pond was the former Arlington Boat Club. Young willed the island to the Association, which struggled financially during the Great Depression and disbanded. Its club house ultimately was deeded to the Arlington Boys Club.
In 1940, another colorful chapter opened on Elizabeth Island with the shipment of loads of
70-pound concrete construction blocks by its new owner, Lake Street resident Henry Randolph DeForest (1902-2001). DeForest was the real estate sales manager for the Kelwyn Manor development that was underway on the eastern shore of Spy Pond. DeForest promptly set about assembling the concrete blocks for the foundation for what the Boston Herald described as a six-bedroom “honeymoon home.” Access to this year- round home was to be via suspension footbridge “high enough to let an ice-boat pass beneath” and across which DeForest would carry his intended bride, Louise C. Fifield of Grafton Street.
Electricity for the home would come from “the mainland,” but DeForest announced that drinking water would be filtered from the pond. He planned to garage his automobile on the shore, where he also would erect a rural free delivery mailbox to arrange postal communication with his island home. DeForest cited a two-dwelling deed restriction in his deed to Elizabeth Island, and announced that the second home on the island would be built when his five year old son by a previous marriage became an adult.
DeForest believed that the name Elizabeth Island had its origins in the fact that Elizabeth was the name of the wife of Elijah Phipps, but subsequent research casts doubts on his notion. Discounting “a hermit who was banished form the island after two years in 1918,” DeForest, described as having “a romantic nature,” boasted that he would become the first inhabitant of Elizabeth Island.
DeForest’s plan never advanced beyond his initial publicity splash. Elizabeth Island was sold to other private owners, most recently the Sacco family, where it has been offered for use as the fireworks-launching site for Arlington’s Town Day for many years. Access by the general public has been tolerated, so this haven for wildlife has become known to a few adventuresome boaters, ice skaters and picnickers in more recent times.
The residential real estate listing for the sale of Elizabeth Island in 2008 brought attention to the importance of perpetually preserving this spot of wilderness that had endured as such well into the era of the urban superhighway.