Folks who run or walk their dogs on the Charles River Esplanade may have seen the Lotta Fountain and wondered why it’s dry. They probably have no idea why the fountain was named that or whether it’s a memorial to the dog on top (it’s not). Here’s the story behind the Lotta and why a fountain in Boston has her name on it.
The Nation’s Darling
Charlotte Mignon (Lotta) Crabtree was one of the most famous entertainers of the nineteenth century. Born in New York City, she grew up in the Gold Rush towns of Grass Valley and Rabbit Creek, California. At age six, red-haired Lotta began singing, playing the banjo and dancing atop empty barrels in her parents’ boarding house where the miners showered her with gold watches, coins and nuggets.
Encouraged by neighbor Lola Montez, Lotta Crabtree toured in California and Nevada. Starting in the 1850s she became a sensation on the stage in San Francisco. By the age of 12, she had become Miss Lotta, the San Francisco Favorite. In 1864 she returned east to find even more fame and fortune on the stage. (Admirers gave her a solid gold wreath as a farewell present.) She was highly successful for the next 20 years, forming her own theatrical company. Despite the petite size she leveraged to play children’s roles in plays such as Little Nell and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she loved to smoke thin black cigars. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s she was known as the nation’s darling and the belle of Broadway and had become the highest-paid actress in America, earning upwards of $5,000 per week.
A Wealthy Woman
Thanks to her beauty and talent—combined with her mother’s shrewd financial sense—she became one of the wealthiest women in the country. Mary Ann (Livesey) Crabtree was the quintessential stage mother and her daughter’s manager, originally sweeping the stage after every performance for bits of gold they may have missed. Later she invested Lotta’s earnings in real estate in the cities where Lotta performed as well as in bonds and race horses.
Lotta Crabtree retired from the stage in 1892 two years after suffering a fall. She was 45. In 1915, after her mother died, she purchased the Brewster Hotel in Boston where she lived alone. She frequently traveled to Gloucester to paint seascapes with a cigar clenched in her teeth and a dog at her feet. She also owned land in the Squantum section of Quincy, which was used for the benefit of her brother, Ashworth, and their horses. Several locations in that neighborhood are named after the family (Crabtree Livesey, Ashworth) or their horses (Ruby Royal, Sonoma Girl).
The Lotta Fountain
Despite her fame and beauty, Lotta Crabtree never married. When she died in Boston in 1924 at the age of 76 she was the second-largest taxpayer in the city. Lotta Crabtree left an estate of $4 million (worth $14 million today) in a charitable trust for the benefit of veterans, aging actors, abandoned pets, and working animals. She was a dedicated animal rights activist and former vice president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Lotta Crabtree established the Lotta Dumb Animal Fund with $300,000. Fifteen years later, the trust presented the city of Boston with the Lotta Fountain.
It’s a six-foot-high granite column in an Art Deco design with a tiled basin at the bottom and a dog carved in stone at the top. The dog is a German Shepherd, although it looks more like a Husky to me. It was carved by animal sculptor Katherine Lane Weems, who created other animal statues in Boston, including three rhinoceroses and a pod of dolphins. The dog was modeled on Lotta’s own pet. Water pours into the basin from a cat’s mouth—or at least it will when the fountain is restored. The statue also features bas relief sculptures of a duck and a rabbit along with benches and two water fountains (know as bubblers in Boston) for thirsty humans.
The fountain fell into sad disrepair due to the corruption of the fund’s trustees, who were removed in 2004 after paying themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars from the fund but spending just on $100 on maintaining the fountain. The Lotta Fountain is due to be restored this year as part of the Esplanade 2020 project backed by the Esplanade Association in partnership with the Department of Conservation and Recreation. Restoration should be complete by the fall.
Directions to the Lotta Fountain
(There are other Lotta Fountains in San Francisco, Chicago, and Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey, where she had a summer house.)
The Esplanade is separated from the city by Storrow Drive and there is nowhere to park. Don’t even think about it. If you’re driving, park in the Common Garage on Charles Street and cross over the Arthur Fiedler Footbridge. Turn left and walk down the footpath until you see the granite monument. Or take the T’s Green Line to the Arlington stop and walk north on Arlington Street to the footbridge.