BAHS Home | History | Neighborhoods | Photo Collection
This article by Allston-Brighton historian Dr. William P. Marchione appeared in the Allston-Brighton Tab or Boston Tab newspapers in the period from July 1998 to late 2001, and supplement information in his books The Bull in the Garden (1986) and Images of America: Allston-Brighton (1996).   Researchers should, however, feel free to quote from the material, with proper attribution.  

Water For Greater Boston

The decade of the 1850s was a period of extremely rapid growth for Boston, which saw the city’s population increase by over 30 percent. The water needs of this mushrooming metropolis quickly outstripped the delivery capacity of the Cochituate system.

The inadequacies of the system became apparent as early as 1859 when a major break occurred in the Cochituate Aqueduct at the point where it passed across the Charles River on the westerly edge of Needham. Since the four storage reservoirs near Boston held, at most, a four day water supply, it became necessary to shut off service for all but domestic uses. Had a major fire broken out in Boston at this point the city might have found itself without water, with devastating public safety consequences. The 1859 emergency prompted the Cochituate Water Board to recommend the construction of a much larger storage facility on the edge of th city: the present Chestnut Hill Reservoir.

It was five years, however, before definite steps were taken to create this expanded storage facility, a delay the Water Board blamed on the poor economic climate of the Civil War period.  In 1864, Boston’s City Engineer recommended a site in Chestnut Hill for the contemplated reservoir, on the boundary of Brighton and Newton, land owned largely by Amos Adams Lawrence of the famous textile manufacturing family.

Finally, in April 1865, Governor John Andrew signed a bill authorizing the Cochituate Water Works to "take and hold, by purchase or otherwise" up to 200 acres of land bordered by South Street on the north (now Commonwealth Avenue), Beacon Street on the south, Chestnut Hill Avenue on the east, and an unnamed street “leading from said South Street to said Beacon Street, on the west.”

During 1865 this land was purchased, surveys were made, and trees and brush were cleared away.  Formal construction did not begin, however, until the spring of 1866.
The building of a formal driveway around the reservoir was proposed during the summer of 1866 and won wide public support.  After considerable debate, the water board authorized the construction of an eighty foot wide roadway.  Beginning at a great entrance arch, this handsome avenue extended around the northern side of the reservoir where it joined Beacon Street.

At times the Chestnut Hill reservoir workforce, consisting mostly of Canadian Maritime and Irish immigrant stonemasons, teamsters, and laborers, approached a thousand men.  So paltry were the wages paid these workers, however, that in March 1867 the entire force went out on strike.  Intent on keeping costs to an absolute minimum, the Cochituate Water Board immediately fired and replaced the entire force. In this era of abundant labor the American worker had little bargaining power.  As one historian has written: "His only freedom was to work at the lowest wage and under the worst conditions acceptable to his hungriest rival anywhere, or not to work at all."  The wage at the reservoir in 1867 was $1.50 a day and the average workday of the period was twelve to fourteen hours long.

In 1868, work was concentrated as much as possible on the smaller Lawrence Basin.  It was opened formally on October 26 by Water Board President Nathaniel J. Bradlee, a leading Boston architect, who stated that more than 240,000 cubic yards of material had been removed from the basin.  The capacity of the Lawrence Basin was 180 million gallons.  It covered 37.5 acres and had a circumference of 1.17 miles.  [This body of water was filled in the 1950s by Boston College.  Alumni Stadium and student housing now occupy the site.]

During 1870 the larger Bradlee Basin was constructed.  This magnificent body of water (the existing reservoir), with a storage capacity of 550 million gallons, covers 87.5 acres and has a circumference of 1.56 miles.

On October 25, 1870, on the twenty-second anniversary of the opening of the Cochituate Water Works, a delegation consisting of President Bradlee, Boston Mayor Nathaniel Shurtleff, and members of the Water Board and Boston Board of Alderman and Common Council dedicated the Chestnut Hill reservoir.  In his remarks, Bradlee noted that the cost of the project, $2.4 million, had exceeded expectations, but that "its value is in the security it gives to the life and health of the inhabitants."  The total holding capacity of the completed facility was 731 million gallons.

In the 1870 to 1900 period Boston's population more than doubled, rising from 250,000 to 560,000 (some of the increase occasioned by the annexation of surrounding cities and towns). The city’s water supply system thus required further expansion.  A number of stopgap measures were resorted to in the 1870s to increase the supply, including the construction of six small reservoirs on the Sudbury River and its tributaries, which provided another 13 million gallons for the city. In addition, with the annexation of the City of Charlestown in 1874, Boston acquired the water rights to Mystic Lake, which added 7 million more gallons to its overall water supply.

By the early 1890s another serious water supply crisis loomed.  The Cochituate Water Board predicted that the city would face serious shortages by 1898 unless substantial new sources of water could be found.  In 1893 the State Legislature ordered the State Board of Health to investigate the problem and to make recommendations.  The upshot was an 1895 report, prepared by Chief Engineer Frederick P. Stearns, which pointed out that Boston's consumption of water was approaching 80 million gallons a day, while the capacity of the Cochituate system stood at a mere 83 million gallons. The margin between supply and demand was thus growing dangerously narrow.

Stearns advocated a comprehensive approach to the problem that would serve to meet the needs of Boston and surrounding municipalities for the next quarter century. After examining a number of water supply options, he settled upon the Nashua River as the most suitable source. The choice of the Nashua River reflected a reluctance on the part of Massachusetts water engineers to resort to filtrated water.  Since the Nashua River Valley was sparsely populated, its water supply would require no filtration.

The Stearns Plan called for the building of a giant dam on the Nashua River at Clinton, Massachusetts, and the creation above the dam of a seven square mile reservoir with a storage capacity 63 billion gallon, enough water to double Greater Boston’s supply.

The Massachusetts legislature adopted the Stearns Plan on June 5, 1895 and created a Metropolitan Water District and Metropolitan Water Board to administer the new system. Stearns was subsequently hired as Chief Engineer.

The Wachusett Dam and Reservoir (as the Clinton facility was called) took several years to complete.  When it was dedicated in 1906, it was the largest reservoir in the world, and had cost some $21.6 million to construct.  It also provided employment opportunities for tens of thousands of workers and acted as a magnet for skilled immigrant labor in a period when immigration into the United States was at an all-time high.

The Wachusett project greatly enhanced the reputation of its chief engineer, Frederick Pike Stearns, raising him to the leadership of the engineering profession.  In 1905 he was elected President of the American Society of Civil Engineers.  Subsequently Stearns planned the 1906-10 improvement of the Charles River Basin and also served as a member of the Board of Consulting Engineers of the Panama Canal.

Two facets of the development of Boston's water supply system should be emphasized at this point: (1) The sources that the city tapped after 1895 moved progressively further and further west (from densely populated to sparsely populated precincts of Massachusetts where the water was as yet untainted); and, (2) Twentieth century water supply projects, in contrast to those of earlier periods, involved the creation of massive storage reservoirs which necessitated the inundation of whole communities. In the case of the Wachusett Reservoir most of the town of West Boyston had to be flooded. The destruction of rural communities for the benefit of urban populations naturally generated a high degree of outrage among residents.

With the completion of the Wachusett Dam and Reservoir in 1908, Boston and the other eighteen cities and towns that then comprised the Metropolitan Water District were furnished with a greatly expanded supply capacity, amounting to some 155 million gallons a day.  The projectors of the Wachusett Reservoir had estimated that it would satisfy the metropolitan area’s water needs for thirty years. Their estimate fell far short of the mark, however.  By 1919, a combination of steadily increasing water consumption and the expansion of the district’s boundaries through the addition of new cities and towns, had raised the use level in the district to 130 million gallons, giving rise to renewed concern about eventual shortages.

Two significant steps were taken in 1919 to obviate the danger.  First, a new public agency, the Metropolitan District Commission, was created to coordinate water, sewer, and parkland administration in metropolitan Boston. In addition, the Massachusetts State Legislature ordered the preparation of still another comprehensive study of the district’s future water supply needs.  Responsibility for preparing this report would be the joint responsibility of the MDC and the Massachusetts Board of Health.

Boston's water supply planners had long since rejected the idea of using filtrated water.  The planning trajectory instead was pushed increasingly westward in a search for new sources of pure water. 

The most promising new pure water supply lay some 50 to 65 miles west of the city in the Ware and Swift River Valleys of central Massachusetts.  As early as 1895, Frederick P. Stearns, the brilliant Chief Engineer of the Wachusett Reservoir, had identified the Swift River Valley (site of the present Quabbin Reservoir) as having a tremendous water supply potential.

The Swift River Valley had much to recommend it to water resource planners. Especially important was the sheer volume of pure water available there and also the basin-like topography of the valley.  Moreover, there were no major industries on the banks of the Swift River.  The valleys economy had been in the doldrums for years.  Apart from some farms and orchards, a handful of small mills, and a seasonal tourist industry catering to New York hunters and fishermen, the area was economically unimportant.

Another great advantage of the Swift River Valley lay in its low population of just 30 people per square mile.  Low population density and and the lack of industry would, of course, simplify the land taking process.  Property values were low to begin with, and once rumors began circulating of an eventual government land takings they fell even more. As Thomas Conuel wrote in his book Quabbin: The Accidental Wilderness :

It is easy to see why the Swift River Valley was considered expendable by state water planners.  No major businesses would be ruined, no major highways disrupted, no prominent landmarks buried by the waters of Quabbin.  The Swift River Valley was a small, out-of-th-way place, totally lacking the political and financial power that could have saved it.

While the MDC/ Board of Health Report, which appeared in 1922, recommended that the water of the Ware and Swift River Valleys be tapped by the Metropolitan Water District, the more pressing needs of the City of Worcester and communities in Berkshire, Franklin and Hampshire Counties and the Merrimack River Valley needed to be addressed first.

Not until 1928, was the first tangible step taken to exploit the Ware and Swift River water supplies. This involved the building of a 12.5 mile long aqueduct connecting the Wachusett Reservoir to the Ware River, a major public works undertaking.  The twelve foot wide massive horseshoe shaped conduit, known as the Wachusett-Colebrook Tunnel, had to be blasted through solid rock at a depth of 200 feet.  The arrival in 1931 of the first water from the Ware River by way of this tunnel probably saved the Wachusett Reservoir from drying up, for a prolonged drought had reduced Wachusett’s water supply to less than 20 percent of capacity.

During the early 1930s the Wachusett-Colebrook Tunnel was extended ten miles further west to link with the Swift River.  This section of the aqueduct, in contrast to the easterly portion, lay entirely above ground, some thirteen feet high and eleven feet wide.

In the meantime preparations were being made for the removal of the residents of the Swift River Valley. In creating Quabbin Reservoir four towns, Greenwich, Enfield, Dana, and Prescott, were inundated by the waters of the Swift River and its tributaries. These towns were extensively photographed, their cemeteries were removed, and property was purchased by the MDC.  The resentment the destruction of these towns generated is still palpable in central Massachusetts today.

In early 1938 the last residents of the four communities bid an emotional leave to their homes and the associations of a lifetime.  The following account, which appeared in the Springfield Morning Union  describes the scene in one of the communities, Enfield, as it passed into history on April 28, 1938:

Under circumstances as dramatic as any in fiction or in a movie epic, the town of Enfield passed out of existence at the final stroke of the midnight hour.

A hush fell over Town Hall, jammed far beyond its ordinary capacity, as the first note of the clock sounded; a nervous tension growing throughout the evening had been felt by both present and former residents and casual onlookers.

The orchestra, which had been playing for the firemen’s ball throughout the evening, faintly sounded the strain of Auld Lang Syne...muffled sounds of sobbing were heard, hardened men were not ashamed to take out their handkerchiefs.

The building of Quabbin itself had begun two years earlier in 1936.  The chief engineer of the project was Frank Winsor.  First, the waters of the Swift River were  impounded through the construction of two huge dams at the southern end of the valley.  The larger of these two, Winsor Dam, is some 2,640 feet long and 295 feet high. Goodenough Dike is 2,140 feet long and 264 feet high.
With the completion of the two dams in 1939 the filling process began, with the  shape of the reservoir being determined by the basin like topography of the valley.

The vast Quabbin Reservoir that slowly rose behind Winsor Dam and Goodenough Dike was eighteen miles long and covered an area 38.6 square miles. The Quabbin Reservoir shoreline is an incredible 118 miles long.  At its maximum depth, in front of Winsor Dam, the great reservoir is 150 feet deep, with an average depth of 90 feet near its center.

Not until 1946, seven year after the filling process began, did Quabbin reach its capacity, some 412 billion gallon of waters.  At that point, Quabbin enjoyed the distinction of being the largest reservoir in the world devoted exclusively to water supply uses.

Today the Metropolitan Water Resources Authority (which took over the metropolitan area’s water supply system in 1984) services some 2.5 million users in forty-six cities and towns. Construction of the Quabbin provided the metropolitan district with a vast supply of high quality water, one of the finest metropolitan water supply systems in the nation, which it is estimated will satisfy to the needs of metropolitan area until at least 2020.

BAHS Home | History | Neighborhoods | Photo Collection