All of us who frequent Lake Mansfield know that it is a place where we can swim, fish, canoe, run, walk, and enjoy nature. Did you know that Lake Mansfield really is a "Great Pond" according to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts? Since it is a pond greater than 10 acres in size, Lake Mansfield is protected by the Massachusetts Public Waterfront Act. The Commonwealth formally established a program for protecting its waters in 1866, but the philosophy dates back to the earliest days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Colonial Ordinances (1641-1647) codified the "public trust doctrine." This is a legal principle, dating back nearly 200 years, which holds that the air, the sea and the shore belong not to any one person, but rather to the public at large. These are the oldest laws of their kind in our nation to preserve and to protect the rights of the public to have access to bodies of water like Lake Mansfield. However, the right of public access can be limited if the body of water is used as source of drinking water, as was the case with Lake Mansfield for over a century.
In July 1884 Great Barrington Fire District was created to provide safe drinking water to the residents as well as water for fire fighting. In 1887 Edward Searles established the Mansfield Lake Aqueduct Company. He built a water line from Lake Mansfield to his Kellogg Terrace property, now known as Searles' Castle, for fire protection and to use for a fountain. The Great Barrington Fire District paid for the installation of seven fire hydrants, using the water lines from the Aqueduct Company. In March 1894, the Fire District purchased from the Mansfield Lake Aqueduct Company the water lines from Lake Mansfield for $1 and were also granted perpetual rights to water for the Searle's property. Its use by the Great Barrington Fire District as a secondary water source limited public access to Lake Mansfield.
Today we take for granted that we can access Lake Mansfield without getting permission from property owners. In the early 1900s residents wanted a public beach that was close to town. The closest and most logical choice was Lake Mansfield. Several local residents, including Herbert Keith and Henry Wilcox, suggested creating a park in the Lake Mansfield watershed area. In March 1935, the town appointed a committee to determine the feasibility of creating a park. Their plan did not come to fruition.
Then, in March 1937, the Commonwealth approved the use of Lake Mansfield for swimming even though the Great Barrington Fire District tightly controlled the use of the water. Another town committee was formed in 1938 to look at the possibility of creating a water resort at Lake Mansfield. This plan was soon dismissed because of health and water concerns. It wasn't until May 1942 that the Fire District officially opened Lake Mansfield to the public.
In March 1944, Selectman Cecil Brooks suggested creating a public beach at Lake Mansfield. Permission for this project was granted by the Massachusetts Department of Health in April 1944. On November 20, 1944 the Great Barrington Board of Selectmen formally laid out Lake Mansfield Road from Christian Hill Road to the Hollenbeck Avenue Extension. At the December 11, 1944 Town Meeting, by a unanimous vote of 89 to 0, the Town voted to accept the road. The three landowners (Eugene A. Drumm, Roseamund Vitale, and Lincoln Smith) were each given one dollar for the land taken for public necessity and convenience.
Even with the roadway officially transferred to the Town, there still was no public access to Lake Mansfield. The land on either side of the road was privately owned. In June 1959, despite not owning property on the lake, the Great Barrington Recreation Association constructed a swimming area at Lake Mansfield.
Until December 1973, there was no official public access to Lake Mansfield. In May 1973, it was voted at Town Meeting to purchase property adjacent to the beach area for $20,500; however, a related proposal to take the beach area by eminent domain was rejected. In June 1973, the Town purchased a 29.08 acre parcel of land from Carol Trosch. This property extends from the beach area to Christian Hill Road. Currently, the Lake Mansfield Recreation Area, which includes the lake, beach area, and adjacent conservation forest, is owned by the town of Great Barrington and overseen by the Great Barrington Conservation Commission and Parks Commission.
On December 19, 1973, the beach area on the eastern shoreline was sold to the Town of Great Barrington by the Dehon Seminary of the Sacred Heart, Inc. for the sum of five hundred dollars subject to the restrictions that it be used for recreational and conservational purposes only.
In January 1974, after the beach became the property of the town, Lake Mansfield road was relocated from the shoreline to its current location and a dirt parking lot was constructed for accessing the beach.
In May 2007, since Lake Mansfield was no longer being used as a back-up water source or to provide water for fire hydrants, the Prudential Committee of the Great Barrington Fire District voted to transfer ownership of Lake Mansfield to the town of Great Barrington, which also voted to accept this gift.
Currently, the Lake Mansfield Improvement Task Force, with strong support from Lake Mansfield Alliance, has developed a Lake Mansfield Improvement Plan and is implementing steps to improve water quality, recreational access, and safety. Lake Mansfield truly is a "Great Pond," deserving of our continued stewardship.