Looking over Sunset Lake on the Casperkill creek, one might guess neither that it is an artificial lake nor that the idea for its creation goes back to Vassar’s earliest days and to its Founder. In 1912, when the lake was under construction, the Poughkeepsie Eagle News noted that in 1868 Matthew Vassar had suggested the creation of a lake along with the erection of bathing houses at the college. But the Founder’s idea was to take more than 40 years to come to fruition. At the June 13, 1911, meeting of the Trustees President James Monroe Taylor proposed the construction of the artificial pond that would become Sunset Lake. Taylor envisioned a pond where no ice blocks had been cut, a pond where Vassar girls could safely skate in the winter. Charles M. Pratt, a vice president of Standard Oil and a trustee at the time, generously donated $4,200, which covered the entire expense of the lake’s construction.
The landscape architect Loring Underwood, known for designing a playground with the first outdoor swimming pool in America, was hired to plan the new skating pond, and work began the following summer. In early June 1912, W.O. Lloyd, a Poughkeepsie excavator, and twenty other men began building an earthen dam across the creek that ran through the valley behind Vassar’s Chapel. When the work was completed, on August 15, Underwood’s design had turned the valley in Vassar’s backyard into a lake 200 feet wide, 300 feet long, and seven to nine feet deep. At first, the lake had no official name and was referred to simply as “the artificial pond”. After a few years, it apparently was called “Pratt Lake,” after its donor, and eventually the lake became “Sunset Lake.”
In its first winter, the excitement surrounding Taylor’s new lake took a fatal turn. On February 6, 1913, five students were sledding down Sunset Hill. On their fifth run, the toboggan, carrying all five students, skid uncontrollably out over the ice of the new lake. “No Skating” signs had been posted around the lake as warnings that the ice was not frozen enough in some areas. The toboggan plunged through the ice and into the icy water. Hearing screams from his office in New England Building ,George B. Shattuck, professor of geology, rushed to the scene. Assisted by Pheobe Briggs, a freshman who had been on the toboggan, Shattuck rescued four of the girls. But 21-year-old Elizabeth Mylod, a student from Poughkeepsie, drowned under the ice. Janitors and workmen of the college grappled with irons for her body for 45 minutes before recovering it. Mylod’s funeral was reported to be one of the largest funerals ever witnessed in Poughkeepsie; almost a thousand people attended.
The tragedy at the new lake gave way to the spirit of celebration later that month. On February 18, 1913, Vassar’s Annual Ice Carnival, formerly at Vassar Lake, took place at the new lake. Underwood’s setting created the prettiest carnival Vassar had ever seen. The carnival was staged in the evening, and by the light of Japanese lanterns strung along the edge of the lake and five bonfires on the ice, a thousand girls skated about in Egyptian costumes, with different colored scarves to represent their classes. For the first time, males other than instructors were allowed to take part in the event.
By 1940, Sunset Lake was a favorite spot for students to bring male visitors from other colleges. The Poughkeepsie Sun Courier disclosed that Vassar women brought their dates to the bridge next to the lake to make bets with their Harvard visitors:
College legend has it from President MacCracken that Vassar has a sure fire way to mystify a Harvard man. Girls take him out past Avery Hall to the bridge, known as the Betting Bridge, which spans the stream between Sunset Lake and the Service Building outlet. Ordinarily, the stream would flow south, toward Wappingers Falls, and it does actually work southward into the narrower streams. The stream which comes from the Service Buildings, however, bubbles into a fountain in the middle of Sunset Lake, which spouting hot water, forces the surface current back up North. When Johnny Harvard wagers that it flows South, Vassar triumphantly throws a twig in the water and watches it borne in the opposite direction.
Also in the early 1940’s, ice skating at Sunset Lake ceased, for reasons that are no longer known. The lake, however, continued to be a pleasant and relaxing retreat for the college community. For decades, an extensive bed of daffodils, donated by Vassar President Sarah Gibson Blanding, sat at the edge of the lake and a bronze statue of a mermaid was displayed in the middle.
In October of 1969 Sunset Lake became the site of student protest and demonstration. The college was planning to build a house on Sunset Hill, overlooking the lake. The five-bedroom house was intended for the family of John Duggan, the newly appointed vice president of student affairs. In creating this new office, the administration of the college decided that the vice president’s home should be on campus, thus creating an informal social environment for his interaction with students. But many people on campus were extremely opposed to the construction of the house, as it would take up one-third of Sunset Hill and ruin the rustic feel of Underwood’s lake. In a letter to the Vassar Miscellany News on October 24, 1969 D.T. Mace, a professor of English, spoke out:
“Until today I have never written a letter to a newspaper in my life. I do so now out of an uncontrollable desire to castigate publicly the wickedness and folly of those persons whose decision it was to build a house on the hill east of Sunset Lake, I say they are wicked because they are despoiling a fair part of the earth; foolish because they know not what they do.”
Earlier in that week, on October 21, in an act of “symbolic demonstration,” nearly 100 students and five faculty members participated in a spontaneous ‘fill-in’ at the construction site. The group met on Sunset Hill at 11:30 that Tuesday night to express their feelings for the nostalgic and popular scenic spot. The protesters filled in the earth at the construction site with sticks, shovels, buckets and hands. An hour later the County Sheriff and Deputy Sheriff arrived and told everyone to leave before ID cards were checked. The crowd cleared out, and no names were taken. But the construction site had been successfully filled in just before the authorities arrived. The vice president’s house was subsequently built in a pine grove on the edge of the golf course, over a half-mile away from Sunset Lake.
By 1973, Sunset Lake was in terrible shape. Besides its recreational uses, for decades up until the late 1950’s the lake had been periodically drained to supply cooling water for the Vassar power generation plant. This process cleared the lake of silt, thus keeping the water fresh, deep, and lively. After the lake was no longer drained to aid power generation, the water quality of the small artificial lake went into decline. Several other factors were also turning the once beautiful campus retreat into not much more than a polluted mud hole. The Casperkill was no longer the creek it had been when President Taylor set out to construct the lake in 1912. As the city of Poughkeepsie grew, the Casperkill narrowed beneath the construction of new highways and buildings limiting its flow into Sunset Lake. For a time, a landfill used as the town dump was located along the creek’s path just north of the Vassar campus. Later, a shopping plaza was built over the dump; during its construction a clay barrier meant to hold back years of garbage was destroyed. Declared “hopeless”, the confluence above the lake was given a “D” classification by the New York State Water Resources Commission. When the creek finally flowed into Sunset Lake it was deeply polluted water. The lake had collected so much garbage and muck from Casperkill Creek that it desperately needed to be drained and dredged once more. The lake had last been dredged of sediment for the last time, and in 1973, the drainage of Sunset Lake was projected to cost $23,000 for just the first foot of water. The college decided against the expensive draining for fear of unsettling even more trash, thus causing an even greater mess.
Two years later, the situation had worsened to the point where an article entitled “Sunset Lake Faces Extinction” was front page news in the Vassar Miscellany News for September 12, 1975. Another problem was found to contribute to the dire situation. The original earthen dam of 1912 had apparently been replaced at some point by two smaller concrete barriers. The smaller barriers had made the lake smaller and more shallow than it had originally been. The once seven to nine feet depth had shrunk to just two feet. The enormous and rapid change in the lake aroused concern among the Vassar community. Lawrence N. Halfen, a professor of biology, led ecology and conservation studies of the lake. The studies found it to be a naturally eutrophic system—a lake rich in organic matter, shallow, lacking in dissolved oxygen and ultimately one that fills and ages quite rapidly. The eutrophic process taking place at Sunset Lake was both natural and accelerated by pollution. Halfen’s study also discovered that the lake, although polluted and quite literally nearing its final sunset, was the home to numerous plant and animal species. As the lake transformed over the years trout and other sport fish that once thrived were replaced by many rough fish. These rough fish adapted to the lake’s increasingly smelly, shallow atmosphere. The study concluded that Sunset Lake was a dying body of water that desperately needed a renovation. Under Halfen’s advice and direction that renovation finally took place in 1977. The funds for the restoration, $80,000, were raised by President Alan Simpson and the Office of Development. Despite the 1977 re-birth, Sunset Lake would continue to be plagued by pollution and illegal waste.
Sunset Lake, though just a body of water in Vassar’s backyard, has had a history full of ups and downs, high points and low since its very first year in existence. It remains an integral part of campus life at Vassar. Although ice skaters, daffodils, and trout are no longer seen on, around, or in the lake, the site remains a beautiful place for relaxation and celebration. Today Sunset Lake is host to a variety of activities including concerts, plays and theatrical performances, picnics, fireworks, Founder’s Day events, out door film screenings, and “Lake Fest.” With luck, Sunset Lake will stay around for decades to come.
Vassar Miscellany News, “Speak Out: Sunset Lake Aftermath,” October 24, 1969.
“Darkness Descends on Sunset Lake,” April 13, 1973.
“Lake History,” April 13, 1973.
“Extinction,” Sept. 12, 1975.
“New Day,” April 29, 1977.
Poughkeepsie Eagle News, “Work to be completed Aug. 15,” July 10, 1912. VC Scrapbook, V. 4 p. 154.
“New Skating Pond at College,” Jul. 10, 1912. VC Scrapbook V.4, p. 154. VCSC
“Miss Elizabeth B. Mylod (21) Drowned at Vassar,” Feb. 6, 1913. VC Scrapbook, V.4, P. 180. VCSC
“Ice Carnival,” Feb. 18, 1913. VC Scrapbook v. 4, p. 187.
Poughkeepsie Sun Courier, “Girls Delight in Mystifying Harvard Collegians,” May 19, 1940.
Trustee Minutes. June 13, 1911: second meeting 1910/1911. Vassar College Special Collections (VCSC)
Trustee Minutes. “Committee on Grounds”, June 11, 1912 meeting. VCSC
“The First Outdoor Pool in America”, The Town of Belmont, MA Website. https://town.belmont.ma.us .