Haunted Lake: Getting to the bottom of Francestown’s pond’s various names

  • There are more than 250 years of documented folklore and history behind Haunted Lake, also known as Scoby Pond. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • There are more than 250 years of documented folklore and history behind Haunted Lake, also known as Scoby Pond. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • There are more than 250 years of documented folklore and history behind Haunted Lake, also known as Scoby Pond. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • There are more than 250 years of documented folklore and history behind Haunted Lake, also known as Scoby Pond. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • There are more than 250 years of documented folklore and history behind Haunted Lake, also known as Scoby Pond. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • There are more than 250 years of documented folklore and history behind Haunted Lake, also known as Scoby Pond. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • Street signs in Francestown and New Boston respectively spell the name "Scoby" and "Scobie." Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • Street signs in Francestown and New Boston respectively spell the name "Scoby" and "Scobie." Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • Street signs in Francestown and New Boston respectively spell the name "Scoby" and "Scobie." Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 9/18/2019 6:25:48 PM
Modified: 9/18/2019 6:25:37 PM

A month ago, Francestown resident Kevin Pobst was telling me about Scoby Pond, his backyard source for blueberries and recreation. He said it averages 10 or 12 feet deep, has more undeveloped shoreline than most other area ponds, and, oh - “Its other name is Haunted Lake.” My eyes lit up as I imagined every possible reason a pond in a tiny town could have acquired such a compelling moniker. A couple weeks later, idle fascination became professional duty when a cyanobacteria notice from the Department of Environmental Services referred to the pond as both Haunted Lake and Scobie Pond.

Haunted or Scoby? Scobie or Scoby? Lake or pond? Why is it haunted? It was time to get some answers. The process did not disappoint: There’s more than 250 years of lore surrounding Scoby Pond, with enough facts and folklore to satisfy all my questions. A quick note: there’s no formal distinction between a lake and a pond, although “lake” typically refers to a larger, deeper bodies of water. For this article, I refer to the water body as a pond in deference to Francestown residents’ current preference.

Haunted Lake

Brad Howell, selectman, said that  the name “Haunted Lake” dates from when the land was surveyed in the early 1700s, when southern New Hampshire began to be subdivided from the Mason Title. The 1895 “History of Francestown, NH” references one theory of the name’s origin: “a fire once raged on its shores so fiercely as to consume every living thing; and only the trunks of the largest trees were left standing, charred, ashy, desolate and frightful, causing the early surveyors and even the roving Indians to turn away in fear, and presenting at night an appearance weird, strange and startling in the extreme.”

“Once you name something ‘haunted’, it perpetuates its own reputation,” said Janice Brown, who delved into Haunted Lake’s history on her New Hampshire history blog. “If we want to see something ominous, every noise you hear, every incident – you’re going to then frame it within that thought.” The pond was already named by the time Bedford resident Hon. Matthew Patten described a haunting in a diary entry from 1753. He and two hired men were camping on the shore while surveying the area: “Soon after darkness set in, there commenced groaning and shrieks as of a human being in distress, and these continued, most plaintive and affecting, till nearly morning.”

According to Brown and Eric Stanway, author of “Haunted Hillsborough County,” there are at least two legends of violent deaths on the lake dating from the 1700s. In one account, a hunter from Dunstable, Massachusetts was trapping in the New Boston area when he was killed by a mountain lion. Rather than haul the body miles out of the wilderness, his surviving companion buried the man in a shallow grave. According to another legend, two men from Hillsborough independently arrived on the shore of the lake in 1741, interested in purchasing land. They camped together, and in an ensuing conflict, one man beat the other to death and buried him in a shallow grave. The commonality between the two stories, a man buried in a shallow grave, appears to be fact: the Scoby family unearthed the skeleton of a young man buried in a shallow grave while digging the outlet of the pond to construct a mill in 1780.

The Scoby Family

“David Scobey came to this area sometime after the revolution. He served in the Revolutionary War, and appears in the country’s first Census, in 1790,” said Francestown Selectman Brad Howell, who lives in the family’s ancestral home on Scoby Pond. Scobey was the son of an Irish immigrant and born around 1743, according to Janice Brown. Howell noted the “ey” spelling of Scobey is also present on a Revolutionary War monument in nearby New Boston. He said the spelling of the family name changed to Scobie in the 1800s, and continued to vary between Scoby and Scobie thereafter. The variations are reflected in the modern day road names around the pond, with a stretch of road being “Scoby” in Francestown and “Scobie” across the New Boston line. “That’s actually a fairly subtle name change,” said Brown, as compared to other name variations of the time. “Not everyone was literate, or could write their own name. I don’t think [the variations] bothered them,” she said.

Howell understands that Haunted Lake gradually became known as Scoby Pond following the family’s construction of the mill “because they were prominent citizens,” he said, as well as characters. The 1895 town history describes Scobey’s teenaged sons perpetuating the folklore, scaring “liquor-laden loafers” and would-be ghost hunters with shrieks and howls, and burning rags to create “floating apparitions” on the pond.

So, what’s the official name?

Quadrangle maps produced by the U.S. Geological Survey provide the federally recognized names for bodies of water. The official name, from the U.S. Geological Survey quadrangle map, is “Haunted Lake”.

But, as Howell said, “Nobody calls it Haunted Lake. The townspeople have always called it Scoby.”

Amanda McQuaid of the Department of Environmental Services and Katie Callahan of the Fish and Game Department both said their agencies attempt to speak the same language as the residents of an area, which is why their publications and maps include the local name in parentheses, albeit with the outdated spelling “Scobie”.

McQuaid said she regularly sees such mismatches in her work across the state. “Sometimes the people just change [the name of a place]. Emerald Lake [in Hillsborough] used to be called Gould Pond,” she said, noting that the name a resident chooses to use seems closely correlated to their age.

“We do try to be consistent among the state agencies,” said Callahan, and noted that there are 12-digit hydrologic unit codes for streams and ponds to prevent mistakes that might arise when a body of water has multiple names. For as confusing as it is to have multiple names and spellings for Scoby Pond, it’s probably still better than referring to it with a string of numbers.

How Scoby Pond became brown

The pond’s characteristic tea-colored water has a surprisingly specific origin. Pobst said that in 1938, “There was a devastating hurricane in New England... that knocked down a tremendous amount of white pine. People stored the fallen trees in Scoby Pond to preserve them until they could be milled.” Pobst said he’s seen pictures of the logs covering the pond surface. A lot of the logs sank to the bottom before they could be milled, he said, which made for excellent fish habitat – and the tannins from the bark and the wood has stained the water ever since. In the 1990s, Pobst estimated that 20 to 30 logs would rise to the top of the pond every year, and homeowners would remove them as they appeared to keep boating routes clear. Today, he said, only about five or ten logs appear annually, indicating that the pines that have spent the better part of a century in the pond are finally on their way out.

Cyanobacteria and phosphorus in Scoby Pond

Today, Pobst said, “The pond is as healthy as I’ve seen it.” It didn’t need to be treated with herbicides this year for invasive watermilfoil, so the lily, water shield, all the other plants that grow on the peripherals are especially healthy. He said he paddles the pond about five times a week.

Pobst described the recent cyanobacteria bloom as “little specks of green in the upper foot of the water. They were actually really pretty. About the size of a peppercorn.” He said that the bloom is the first for the pond in about a decade, and believes the low water levels, high temperatures, and low dissolved oxygen content in the weeks leading up to this year’s bloom triggered the phosphorus in the muck on the pond’s floor to rise, causing the bloom.

Pobst said Scoby Pond and the soils around it have tested for high levels of phosphorus for decades. However, the watershed does not contain typical phosphorus sources like new development, agriculture, or excessive waterfowl.

McQuade said that, with a stable nutrient like phosphorus, lakes can retain high levels of the nutrient long after it’s added to the system. “Even if you eliminate outer sources, you can have internal loads that create continuing issues,” she said on Tuesday. “The original phosphorus in the system could have come from logging years and years ago.”

Scoby Pond will undergo a yearlong water quality study, Pobst said, with multiple test locations. This could determine whether there’s a specific place where a lot of nutrients enter the pond, perhaps a malfunctioning septic system or runoff from a farm and garden if it runs along the road. He doesn’t necessarily expect to find any.

“We’ll be surprised if we find any kind of a smoking gun,” he said.

 

Abbe Hamilton is a reporter for the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, and lives in Peterborough. She loves writing about natural history and environmental issues. You can reach her at 603-924-7172 x235 or ahamilton@ledgertranscript.com, or find her on Twitter @AbbeHamiltonMLT.


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