At the figurative heart of Millersville University (MU) sits a pond. Students gather at its shoreline on fair weather days. Wildlife ranging from koi to squirrels to turtles congregate at this water hole. It also serves as one of the University’s greatest marketing techniques. But dip beneath the surface of this MU staple and a history as murky as its waters comes into focus.
The Millersville pond dates back to the early 1800s when it originally functioned as a quarry for the mining of clay to make bricks.
“Apparently, those kinds of quarries don’t stay in business very long because once the clay runs out or fills up with water, they can’t dig any deeper,” campus architect Kenneth Brent explains based on his research of the University and brickmaking.
Clay pits such as the one at Millersville were once located all over Lancaster County. But they would often only stay open for about 10 years.
Such was the fate of the quarry and accompanying brickyard now occupied by the Millersville pond. Brent discovered that John Brady owned the brickyard, before selling it to George Kitch in 1849. He estimates that the quarry began filling with water around the time of that sale.
“It was about the 1850s when it turned into the lake. It was where the storm water went,” Brent explains. “I think it naturally filled up.”
Greg Petruno, project manager for Capital Construction at MU, believes that the pond was not only bottom fed, but stream fed, as well. “I saw one of those early Stayer Hall drawings that has some sort of spring located there,” he recollects. “The stream would come down and feed the pond.”
That spring sourced Shenks Run, which is now a docile stream visibly running alongside the Tanger House into the pond but mostly contained in pipes.
Despite the unique origin of the pond, Brent also discovered in his research that no building on campus contains the clay from that quarry. Another pit, located on Manor Avenue and Prospect Street, produced the clay used in the construction of buildings such as Dutcher Hall.
The pond first became property of the school in 1892 when the board of trustees purchased the brickyard lot for $2,500, according to records offered by Petruno.
Grounds plans from 1937 reveal that the pond has largely stayed true to its structure over its years of existence. Brent and Petruno remember that the last major changes took place in 1984 with the introduction of gabion walls. Those stone boxes reinforce the perimeter of the pond and prevent the sides from caving in.
Petruno became intimately involved with the pond about three years ago when his supervisor assigned him to resolve several concerns with the historic Millersville area. Fish were floating to the surface, a peculiar odor radiated from the waters and the pond was gradually becoming a cesspit.
Correspondence between Petruno and Rich Tuzio of Clean-Flo International notes that the University considered dredging the pond. But the expense and time required for such a process led to the search for an alternative.
“At that point I found an outfit that specializes in pond remediation, and that’s why we put those bubblers in the pond,” Petruno explains.
Those bubblers, also known as aerators, provide circulation to the water, which was going anaerobic. Despite their aesthetic, the system that sets the whole pond into motion is unrelated to appearance. “They’re not fountains that spray up in the air. These are just bubblers,” Petruno corrects this and other misconceptions.
“People think you’re putting oxygen back into the pond with the bubbler and that’s not really the case,” he continues. “They’re pulling water from the bottom of the pond, it comes up, it circulates, goes across the pond, drops back in and it’s circulated. It’s the circulation and the interface with the air that causes the pond to gain more oxygen in the water itself.”
In addition to improving oxygen levels, the pond’s most recent problems include a buildup of debris at the bottom. The center and deepest part of the pond was originally about 10 feet deep with Petruno estimating a current depth of five to six feet. “So we have four or five feet of crud on the bottom of the pond.”
The grounds crew at MU introduced a biological agent to the pond to help decompose that buildup at a similar time to the installation of the aerators around October 2015. Petruno believes the agent and aerators have made a positive impact, but acknowledges that significant progress will take time.
These improvements will not only be appreciated by the Millersville community which enjoys the pond, but the animals that live in it. Previously, the pond has been stocked with koi, goldfish and blue gills, which are both still living in the pond. The most recent stocks carried out by Petruno and his crew a year ago added large-mouth bass, catfish and minnows. Red-eared slider turtles, swans, a blue heron and other wildlife round out the habitat at the Millersville pond. The National Wildlife Federation even designated the area as a Certified Wildlife Habitat due to the food, water and cover it provides for species raising their young.
Many students who choose to lounge on the benches along the pond at MU will be unaware of its background. Campus tour guides may fail to mention the intricacies of its evolution. Social media posts featuring images of the pond will most likely neglect to reference its origins.
But the history of this Millersville staple is deeper than its five to 10 feet of water. It turns out that what is now the heart of Millersville University’s campus started out as a hole.