Why was Duck Pond drained? And how did it come to be built, anyway?

Mohonk Preserve Land Protection and Stewardship staff inspecting the spillway at Duck Pond. (Photos by Amanda Rogers)

The Duck Pond at Mohonk Preserve has long been a favored spot for hikers, photographers or those just seeking a beautiful place for respite. But now that our recent long winter has finally ended, visitors enjoying a spring outing at Mohonk are finding that “Ol’ Man Winter” didn’t depart without leaving behind some collateral damage.

Two drainage pipes in the manmade Duck Pond cracked over the winter, and their valves are no longer functioning. Age is a factor, too, of course; the cast iron pipes are 110 years old, about a decade past their expected useful life. The pond was drained to assess the situation, and Mohonk Preserve is now working with an engineer to develop a plan for repairs.

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There is currently some water flowing in and out; Duck Pond is both fed by and empties at the spillway into the Kleine Kill, and rain can change the water level, as well. But while the water level is currently fluctuating, there is still leakage due to the cracked pipes. 

A conservation science team is monitoring the pool daily, consulting with the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and biologists who specialize in ponds. Visitors are asked to stay off of the pond surface and (as always) keep dogs leashed.

Aesthetics and practicality

The draining of Duck Pond inspired us to chat with Paul Huth, the Preserve’s director emeritus of research, who filled us in on some Duck Pond history. Huth began his 40-year career at Mohonk as an apprentice with Daniel Smiley before becoming the longtime director of the Daniel Smiley Research Center.

The creation of Duck Pond in 1908, Huth explains, was part of a development project to create a formal entrance to Mohonk Mountain House. There were other routes up the mountain from New Paltz, some on old carriage roads that still exist today, but the generosity of some 1,200 friends of Albert and Eliza Smiley made possible a suitably impressive entrance onto the property, encapsulating recognition of the founders and leading to a scenic road up to the resort that would showcase the beauty of the landscape to arriving guests.

The new formal entrance would be through the massive stone gateway first dubbed the Smiley Testimonial Gateway, now known as the Mohonk Testimonial Gateway, located just off Route 299 on Gatehouse Road. As detailed by local historian Vivian Yess Wadlin in a 2010 edition of her publication, AboutTown, the structure was funded in 1907 by $10 contributions gifted to Albert and Eliza upon the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary.

The words of thanks spoken by Albert Smiley upon presentation of the funds are recorded in a commemorative booklet printed for the occasion, meant for distribution to those contributors who could not attend the anniversary celebration.

“Words utterly fail me to express to you, my dear friends, my deep appreciation for the magnificent gift to my wife and self on this, our golden wedding day, of a very large sum of money to be used in building a commemorative gateway. What a chaste and artistic design you have selected — the finest of its kind I have ever seen! Its lofty tower and massive gateway are supremely attractive. It is to be built of Shawangunk grit, one of the hardest stones in existence, firmly cemented together and fitted to endure the storms of innumerable ages.”

Smiley went on to speak of the 50 miles of roads already constructed on the property, and the plan to build a new road leading from the gateway to the hotel, “following for more than a mile the course of a charming brook… rest assured that the exquisitely artistic gateway, which we owe to your generosity, will have a fitting setting of the choicest trees, shrubs, lawn and rocks — as fine as my brother and I can make.” 

Construction of the gateway began in 1908. As promised, the new formal entrance brought visitors first through the Oak Allée, a scenic road lined with massive oaks. As Huth picks up the story, he describes how the approach route up to the resort went through what used to be wet meadows to a summit where, at a 600-foot elevation, visitors would come upon the vista of Duck Pond, designed and built to be an aesthetic experience heightening the effect of the landscape and thus the visitor’s anticipation of what they had in store for their visit. 

Duck Pond lies southeast of Lake Mohonk in an area between the cliffs of Sky Top Ridge on the west and the Catskill Aqueduct on the east. It was formed through damming the Kleine Kill stream and likely given its name, Huth says, by workers who saw ducks at the site. 

And while it was created for aesthetic reasons, Duck Pond would eventually have a secondary purpose, as well: as breeding grounds for bass and rainbow trout to be transferred to Lake Mohonk for the pleasure of resort visitors. The purpose of the (now-cracked) drainage pipes in Duck Pond was to allow the water level to be raised or lowered, at which point fish could be taken out with nets and transported to the lake.

“Right after the Smileys purchased the place, they started stocking Lake Mohonk with bass and rainbow trout for guests,” Huth says. “But it was expensive to transport fish from the hatchery in Rochester: they had to be shipped down in big wooden vats on train cars, and trout are sensitive to water temperature; they had to stop along the way for oxygenated water.”

The Smileys decided to raise fish on the property instead, putting small “fingerlings” in the gravel-bottomed Duck Pond where the trout could reproduce on their own. “When the fish got to be about 10-12 inches, or the size they wanted, they’d lower the water level using the drainage pipes, then net and catch the fish and take them over to the lake for guests.”

This was done on a regular basis from the ‘20s to about 1940, Huth says, after which it became more economical to transport fish from hatcheries by truck and the practice of raising fish in Duck Pond was stopped. By then, the approach to the resort through the Testimonial Gateway was no longer in use — that approach ended in 1935 — so Duck Pond became more of a stopping point for nature study, hikers and photographers looking for a scenic view. 

In 1974, the Mohonk Trust — it would become Mohonk Preserve in 1978 — established a summer weekend campground at Duck Pond with a ranger and naturalist on site. Members of the Trust could reserve its use.

The Preserve is posting updates on the situation at Duck Pond as they occur at http://www.mohonkpreserve.org/alerts.html and on their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/mohonk.preserve/.

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