Hasting’s Pond, where a child’s imagination reigned
Illustration © Andy Singer
All children need a place to explore their dreams and fantasies, a place where adults are not allowed. A sanctuary in the heart of Saint Paul’s East Side, Hastings Pond and its surrounding area was once such a refuge for youth of all ages.
Hastings Pond, along with its two smaller neighboring ponds, was surrounded by thick brush, mature trees, a hilly terrain, and a scattering of trails. Salamanders slithering under rocks, frogs and toads camouflaged by the moist green groundcover, snakes squirming through the brush, and birds and insects harmoniously chirping were natural to this haven for wildlife. These living creatures, along with the stark beauty of the densely treed trails, contributed to the personality of this urban wilderness. The sweet fragrance of wildflowers, combined with the unmistakable odor of stagnant swamp water, provided my senses with all the contrasts nature can offer.
As a child, I didn’t question the legends of Hastings Pond. One story described what happened on a cold and icy night in the early 1900s. Old man Hastings, who lived in a rundown shanty nestled amongst the trees at the pond’s edge, was returning home on his horse-drawn wagon. When he descended the steep embankment leading to his homestead, he lost control of his team. Unable to regain control, he plunged through the pond’s ice to a frigid death. Thereafter, a rumor persisted that the spirit of old man Hastings could be seen roaming his homestead at night.
Each of the three ponds had its own distinct appearance and personality. The largest, which was Hastings Pond, was a long and narrow band of relatively clean water spattered with lily pads and surrounded by thick jungles of cattails and marsh in summer. An observing eye could regularly see nesting waterfowl or the bobbing head of a muskrat gliding by. The pond next in size resembled a large oval crater surrounded by a steep incline and ringed by mature trees. Its water was covered by a stagnant, murky green crust that gave the appearance of a solid surface. The temperature was always cooler there because the sun’s rays struggled to penetrate the massive canopy of trees. Only the most adventurous children frequented this pond, for it was reputed to be bottomless. The smallest pond resembled a large mud puddle, an inviting site on a hot summer day. In the early summer, thousands of miniature frogs could be seen hopping insistently through its brown muddy water.
Whether used for sledding and skating in the winter or rafting in the summer, Hastings Pond furnished an abundance of activities. Every day would bring a new challenge to a child’s imagination. One could become a native in the jungles of the Amazon, an explorer on the frozen tundra of the polar ice cap, a soldier on the battlegrounds of World War II, or an American pioneer heading westward. Whatever the fantasy, Hastings Pond could embody it.
One summer morning in the early 1960s, unannounced to any children who frequented Hastings Pond, an army of yellow earthmovers and bulldozers began erasing this kingdom of nature from the earth’s surface. During one summer season, the ponds were drained of their life and the beautiful terrain was graded smooth. Progress prevailed, and Hastings Pond and its many wonders became the site of Saint Paul’s new Johnson High School and its athletic fields. Today, as I drive by, only my mind’s eye can bring back the unforgettable memories of this urban oasis.