Ranch School masters and boys construct the dam in Los Alamos Canyon that created a reservoir to supply water to the school. Courtesy/Los Alamos Historical Society Archive
Los Alamos Ranch School boys circle Ashley Pond as they leave for a pack trip in the Jemez Mountains. Courtesy/Los Alamos Historical Society Archive
By SHARON SNYDER
Los Alamos Historical Society
When Peggy Pond Church first saw the site where her father would one day open a school for boys, she was 12 years old. She remembered it in later years as “not much more than a homesteader’s farmhouse, a few sheds, and a muddy puddle of water.”
That mud puddle would one day become a centerpiece for Los Alamos. What were the events in the life of Ashley Pond, the small body of water?
The first mention of the shallow depression that would become Ashley Pond dates to the homesteading era, which began on the Pajarito Plateau in the 1880s. Water was scarce for the homesteaders, who learned dryland farming techniques. They depended on rain water and snowmelt and often hauled water from sources miles away. When rains came, the depression would collect water, and homesteaders nearby would bring their livestock to the temporary pond, a depression that became known as the Stock Watering Tank.
In 1917, Ashley Pond Jr. established his Los Alamos Ranch School and eventually bought the homestead lands that surrounded the Watering Tank. As the school grew in enrollment, so did the need for a more adequate supply of water. The solution was to build a small dam in Los Alamos Canyon to create a reservoir. A 6-inch pipe brought water from the reservoir to the school to be stored in a wooden water tank near the Big House.
With the more reliable supply of water, Ranch School Director A.J. Connell had another plan for the Watering Tank, by then known as the Duck Pond. The ranch school had built a reputation for outdoor activities as well as its curriculum. Enlarging the pond would increase the possibilities for outdoor pursuits such as fishing, canoeing, swimming, and, in the winter, ice skating. Connell acquired the pond and several acres of land around it and eventually sold it to the school.
The pond was dredged to make it deeper, and the water level was maintained by piping surplus water from the school’s water supply. In addition to the new activities for the boys, some of the water in the pond could be piped to the school’s lower fields for irrigation of crops. The reservoir and pond projects were turning points in the school’s history and success.
The name Duck Pond must have seemed too common for one of the faculty members at the school. Master William Mills, known for his love of puns, offered up the name Ashley Pond in honor of the school’s founder. Of course, that would have created the tongue tangler Ashley Pond Pond, but someone with better sense discouraged the use of the second “Pond” and the shortened name became a popular choice.
In early 1943, when the school was taken over for the Manhattan Project, the pond took on a new role. The Technical Area, known as TA 1, was built around the south side of Ashley Pond. The water was a safeguard in case of fire in the wooden buildings that comprised much of the wartime laboratory.
Another connection to the pond was the stone ice house, built on the south side of the pond by the ranch school to store blocks of ice cut from the pond. In 1945, the ice house was used for assembling the nuclear components of the Trinity device.
In recent years, the pond was once again dredged and improvements made, including new walkways, landscaping, and a covered concert stage. The pond has been a significant part of our history for more than a century, so the next time you’re strolling around Ashley Pond to admire baby ducks or turtles basking in the sun or the lovely flowers in the surrounding park, remember that you’re experiencing history!