MERIDEN — Ice skating on Mirror Lake at Hubbard Park is a tradition as old as the park itself, but one that faded over the last decade until earlier this week.
When Hubbard Park was established in 1897, Mirror Lake was considered a suitable spot for skaters, sheltered by hills and trees.
Even before the park was established, people were probably already skating there, said former Hubbard Park historian Dan W. De Luca in 2008. Back then, people would harvest the lake’s ice for ice boxes in the days before refrigeration.
For most of the next century, skating at Mirror Lake remained a popular seasonal pastime for locals. Some remember spending time with family and learning how to skate. Others remember it as a place to meet friends and even build romantic relationships.
Back then, skating could last from Thanksgiving to the end of February.
On Monday and Tuesday, the lake was open for public skating for the first time in more than 10 years. The opening provided just enough time for neighbors to reminisce about something special from years ago.
“Even just a day or two, to kind of relive the old days back then, is good,” Meriden Parks and Recreation Director Chris Bourdon said.
Bourdon can remember spending time at Mirror Lake when he was in elementary school in the late ’70s, when he and his friends would sled down the hills and slide around on the ice, periodically warming up in the skate house.
The lake used to be open day and night, with music, a concession stand in the skate house, a fire for keeping warm, and flood lights illuminating the ice when the sun went down.
“Everybody went,” Jane Earnest, a Meriden parks department employee in 2008, told the Record-Journal then. “It was the thing to do,” she said.
Earnest skated at Hubbard Park while growing up in the 1960s and 70s, and remembered being at the tail end of the “whip,” a line of kids that would skate in a circle until the skater at the end would “learn a thing or two about centrifugal force.”
Eddie Siebert, director of real estate for the Meriden Housing Authority, remembers the lucky people on the ends of the whips, who had to be pretty brave to latch onto a long line. Siebert said some daredevils would barrel jump on the lake.
Growing up just a few streets away on Johnson Drive, Siebert said his mom took him out skating when he was in the fifth grade. He was among a generation that would spend days and nights at the lake in high school, skating “until our feet were numb.”
“It was the thing to do in the winter,” Siebert said. “We’d make fires in the fireplaces and just hang out and it was a great place to be — it was fun, it was safe.”
Siebert said back then kids didn’t have distractions like video games and tablet computers. Skating “was what we did. That was our video game,” he said.
There are several reasons for the inadequate skating conditions over the last decade, but mainly winters just haven’t been cold enough, according to the Parks and Recreation Department. Or, in the case of 2015, cold winters brought too much snow, making it difficult for the department to keep the lake clear.
Some say salt runoff from Interstate 691 gets into the lake, making it harder to freeze and stay frozen. Another theory suggests the large population of geese and ducks have the same effect, as their droppings at the bottom of the lake may act as a kind of insulation.
The interstate was routed through the park in 1969, and during construction, dirt, salt and oil-based contaminants ran into the lake, according to a Morning Record article from that year.
“Before the interstate, it froze with a lot more reliability,” Bourdon said. He said he recalls when his grandfather was young in the 1930s, they actually had a hockey game at Mirror Lake because of how reliable the ice was.
For the lake to be safe enough to skate on, the ice needs to be at least 6 inches thick, Bourdon said. To clear snow by using light equipment on the lake, ice needs to be at least 8 inches thick. To drive a truck, the ice needs to be 10 inches thick.
The area’s recent cold snap likely contributed to this week’s skating, combined with the luck of a break in snowfall. Bourdon said the lake was thick enough to skate on last weekend, but with the big storm on Jan. 5, they weren’t able to clear the lake for skating.
Bourdon said his department has a responsibility to clear snow from sidewalks and parking lots first, so often there aren’t enough resources left to keep the lake consistently cleared of snow.
Because weather conditions can change so quickly, the Parks and Recreation Department isn’t able to announce when the lake will be open with much advance.
When the lake opened Monday, it was a spontaneous announcement— and only lasted two days.
“When we get a chance like this, we try to do everything,” Bourdon said Monday. “This kind of came about in the last 24 hours.”
Bourdon said they expect to open for more skating today and maybe Friday this week, as well.
“Obviously, there was a huge response from the public (Monday),” Bourdon said. “We understand that. We’d love to make it available as much as possible.”