Documentary History of American Water-works

Introduction Historical Background Chronology Geography Biography Technology Ownership and Financing General Bibliography
New England States Massachusetts Boston

Boston, Massachusetts

Boston is the largest city in New England and was founded in 1630 by English Puritan settlers who moved from Charlestown on the north side of the Charles River to secure fresh water.  Boston, like most settlements, relied on wells for water supply but as population grew the wells became fouled and were unable to support the growing population.  Boston has had several public water supplies, including the first that used buried pipe.

Early Conduits
At least eight small water supply systems were proposed in Boston during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, most of which are believed to have operated for at least some time:

Jamaica Pond Aqueduct
In 1794, group of entrepreneurs proposed supplying water to Boston from Jamaica Pond in the adjacent town of Roxbury.  The Massachusetts General Court granted them a corporate charter the following year and the system began service in August 1798.  At its peak this system served 1,500 customers through 15 miles of wooden pipes and a ten-inch iron pipe installed in 1840 from Jamaica Pond to Bowdoin Square.  The system was bought by the City of Boston in 1848 and then resold to the new Jamaica Pond Aqueduct Corporation in 1857 with the condition that they could not provide water within the City of Boston.  The City of Boston thereafter annexed the town of Roxbury and the Jamaica Pond water system were shut down in 1893.

Cochituate System
The City of Boston began studying water supplies in 1825 and decided to bring water from Long Pond in Framington.  This system began service on October 24, 1848 and operated until 1951.

Mystic Water System
The City of Charlestown built a water system in the early 1860s that became part of the Boston water supply when that city was annexed in 1870

Sudbury Aqueduct and Chestnut Hill Reservoir
In 1878, the mainstream of the Sudbury River was diverted via the Sudbury Aqueduct to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir. Between 1875 and 1898, seven major reservoirs were constructed in the Upper Sudbury River Watershed. The Sudbury and Cochituate Aqueducts were designed to operate by gravity to fill the Chestnut Hill and Brookline Reservoirs, both of which are at Elevation 134. The Cochituate and Sudbury Aqueducts were interconnected at Chestnut Hill. 

Metropolitan Water District
Created in 1895, built the Wachusett Dam and Reservoir that was completed in 1908 and supplied water to Boston and 18 other cities and towns in the district.

Massachusetts Water Supply Commission
Created in 1926, developed the Quabbin Reservoir and Aqueduct Tunnel.

Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA)
Created in 1984 and serves 2.5 people living in 61 Massachusetts communities that are responsible for local distribution..

1838 Sketch of the civil engineering of North America: comprising remarks on the harbours, river and lake navigation, lighthouses, steam-navigation, water-works, canals, roads, railways, bridges, and other works in that country, by David Stevenson
Pages 293-295:The situation of Boston is somewhat like that of New York. It is surrounded by the sea, and the supply of good water is far from being sufficient for the inhabitants. Mr Baldwin, civil-engineer, has made a survey and plan for the supply of the town, in which he contemplates bringing water from some springs in the neighbourhood.
At present the town is supplied chiefly from wells. According to Mr Baldwin's report, there are no less than 2767 wells in Boston, thirty-three of which are Artesian. Only seven, however, out of the whole number, produce soft water; and of these, two are Artesian.
Great difficulty has been experienced in forming many of the wells on the peninsula of Boston, in some of which, on tapping the lower strata, the water is said to have risen to seventy-five, or eighty feet above the level of the sea.
The following very interesting remarks regarding two of these wells, are quoted by Mr Storrow in his Treatise on Water-works.
"Dr Lathrop gives the following history of a well dug near Boston Neck.f 'Where the ground was opened, the elevation is not more than one foot, or one foot and a half above the sea at high water. The well was made very large. After digging about 22 feet in a body of clay, the workmen prepared for boring. At the depth of 108 or 110 feet the augur was impeded by a hard substance; this was no sooner broken through and the augur taken out, than the water was forced up with a loud noise, and rose to the top of the well. After the first effort of the long confined elastic air was expended, the water subsided about six feet
"Dr Lathrop observes, that the proprietors of this well were led to exercise great caution in carrying on the work, by an accident which had happened in their immediate neighbourhood. 'A few years before, an attempt was made to dig a well a few rods (16 1/2 feet) to the east near the sea. Having dug about 60 feet in a body of clay without finding water, preparation was made in the usual way for boring; and, after passing about 40 feet in the same body of clay, the augur was impeded by stone. A few strokes with a drill broke through the slate covering, and the water gushed out with such rapidity and force, that the workmen with difficulty were saved from death. The water rose to the top of the well and ran over for some time. The force was such as to bring up a large quantity of fine sand, by which the well was filled up many feet. The workmen left behind all their tools, which were buried in the sand, and all their labour was lost. The body of water which is constantly passing under the immense body of clay, which is found in all the low parts of the peninsula, and which forms the basin of the harbour, must have its source in the interior, and is pushed on with great force from ponds and lakes in the elevated parts of the country. Whenever vent is given to any of those subterranean currents, the water will rise, if it have opportunity, to the level of its source.'" 

1848 Report of the Water Commissioners on the Material Best Adapted for Distribution Water Pipes: And on the Most Economical Mode of Introducing Water in Private Houses

1853 Annual Report of the Board of Water Commissioner of the City of Detroit. In 1853, the new Board of Water Commissioners of the City of Detroit sent superintendent Jacob Houghton, Jr. to visit and report on water works in other cities, including Boston.
Pages 24-25: Boston - Is supplied with water from Lake Cochituate, formerly called Long Pond, from which it is conducted by means of a brick aqueduct (except at the crossing of Charles river, where there is an inverted siphon of fifty-eight feet dip), fifteen miles in length, with a fall of four and one-fourth feet, to the Brookline reservoir. This reservoir covers an area of twenty-two and one-third acres, and has a capacity of 89,909,730 wine gallons. From the Brookline reservoir the water is conducted through iron pipes to three distributing reservoirs, as follows: one on Beacon hill, in Boston Proper, [capacity 2,678,968 gallons; the second on Telegraph hill, in South Boston, capacity 7,508,246 gallons; and the third on Eagle hill, in East Boston, capacity 5,591,816 wine gallons. From these reservoirs the water is distributed by means of iron pipes. The basin containing the water on Beacon hill is fifteen feet and eight inches deep, supported on arches, the whole being a massive structure of granite, the walls of which, on Derne street, are fifty-eight and three fourths feet high, and in the rear of Mount Vernon street, forty feet and eight inches high. The other reservoirs are of the earth embankment kind. The water is carried across the channel of Chelsea Creek to East Boston, in a twenty-inch flexible pipe, with swivel joints, and of nearly double the ordinary thickness. During the year 1852, these works delivered 8,125,842 wine gallons per day, to a population of about 140,000. To January 1st, 1853, the works had cost $5,370,818.

1868 History of the Introduction of Pure Water Into the City of Boston: With a Description of Its Cochituate Water Works, by Nathaniel J. Bradlee

1881 Boston, Engineering News, 8:131 (April 2, 1881)

1882 Boston from "The Water-Supply of Certain Cities and Towns of the United States," by Walter G. Elliot, C. E., Ph. D.

1888 "Boston," from Manual of American Water Works, Volume 1.

1890 "Boston," from Manual of American Water Works, Volume 2.

1891 "Boston," from Manual of American Water Works, Volume 3.

1893 Annual Report of the Boston Water Board, for the Year Ending January 31, 1893, Volume 17

1893 An act relative to procuring a water supply for the city of Boston and its suburbs. June 9, 1893.

1895 An act to provide a Metropolitan Water Supply. June 5, 1895.

1897 "Boston," from Manual of American Water Works, Volume 4.

1927 "The Boston Water Supply," by Frank A. McInnes, Journal of the New England Water Works Association 46(1):8-23 (March, 1932)

1962 "Boston," from Public Water Supplies of the 100 Largest Cities in the United States, 1962, US Geological Survey Water Supply Paper 1812, by Charles Norman Durfor and Edith Becker

1981 The water and sewer works of the city of Boston 1630-1978, by Neil J. Savage.

1983 Great waters: a history of Boston's water supply by Fern L. Nesson. This book is primarily about the later water systems in Boston, but the author's first footnote on page 87 states that: "The Aqueduct Corporation's system was built by Loammi Baldwin, Sr., father of Loammi Baldwin."  Her cited reference, however, only mentions Baldwin Senior's work on the Middlesex Canal with no mention the Boston Aqueduct.  Baldwin Senior worked with James Sullivan on the Middlesex Canal and was one of the initial directors of the Aqueduct Corporation, but no evidence has been found to suggest that he did any engineering or construction work for the Aqueduct Corporation.  This error has found its way into many later histories of Boston's water supply.

2015 Morris A. Pierce