This Was Then: Alexander Graham Bell's “extraordinary phenomenon”

The mysterious exploding pond.

Part of a map drawn by Alexander Graham Bell for his wife. An arrow in the upper left is labeled “Pond where upheaval occurred.” - Courtesy of Chris Baer

Alexander Graham Bell, known best for the invention of the telephone, wrote a letter in 1885 to his wife Mabel about an investigation he undertook while visiting Vineyard Haven, after hearing an unusual story from the local Unitarian minister, the Rev. Daniel W. Stevens of the Sailors Reading Room on Hatch Road. He wrote:

“[An] extraordinary phenomenon [the Rev. Stevens] told me about. It seems that on the 10th of October last about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, his grandson Waldo (a boy of about 13 or 14) was picking cranberries with a party of others occupied in the same way — at a cranberry marsh about a mile and a half away when the whole party were startled by a loud volcanic sort of rumbling sound from the ground near them — followed by a Natural Flood — Rock-explosion sort of effect. A mass of water — estimated as about the diameter of a large dining room table — in the middle of a neighbouring pond was thrown up into the air to a height of 10 or twelve feet. I cross-questioned a man — a Mr. Cleveland, who was an eyewitness, and heard other versions. His story tallied with that of the boy’s. The water immediately subsided, leaving a cloud like steam over the spot which gradually drifted away and ‘dissolved into thin air’ like Shakespeare’s ghost. Huge circular ripples seemingly several inches above the general surface of the water appeared on the pond, and after a little general disturbance all was quiet again. Mrs. Cleveland, the wife of my informant, thought that immediately after the upheaval the level of the surface in the middle of the pond was lower than at the edges, but her husband did not think so — nor did there appear any change of level that could be observed. The cause of this upheaval — which is quite unprecedented on the Island — is a mystery. The circumstance has not yet been brought to the attention of any Scientific man capable of judging, but it appears to me it should be investigated.

“On Sunday afternoon Mr. Stevens drove me to the spot, where we were joined by Mr. Cleveland and Waldo. I had the benefit of hearing the story again upon the spot — but the phenomenon appears as inexplicable as at first. I wonder if Major Powell would be the man to inform. It should certainly be investigated. I have indicated the little pond where the upheaval occurred upon the map by an arrow head. It is on the farm of Mr. Alexander Smith.”

What caused this mysterious phenomenon? We asked Dr. Maurice Tivey, marine geologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He speculates that it may have been a “methane gas expulsion event.” Rare in southern New England, it could still occur if the pond had “significant organic material that was buried under an impermeable cap of clay that failed and released the built-up gas.”

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.