...in 1848, 300,000 people from all over New England gathered on Boston Common. They came to celebrate the completion of the city's first municipal water system. With the construction of an aqueduct that brought fresh water 15 miles from Lake Cochituate in Natick to Boston, the city for the first time had a pure supply of water for drinking, bathing, cooking, and cleaning. As the sun set, the gates to the fountain in Frog Pond were opened and a stream of clean water shot 80 feet in the air. People cheered and wept with joy. The celebration continued the next day, when the mayor announced that schools would close so that the city's children could play in the Frog Pond fountain.
For the first two centuries after the settlement of Boston, residents got their water from wells and rainwater collected in tanks. Much of this water was of poor quality, and there was never enough of it. In 1795 Boston began tapping Jamaica Pond, but it provided only 50,000 gallons a day, not nearly enough to meet the city's needs. As the population swelled in the early nineteenth century, so did the demand for water.
Fire was a constant threat; without sufficient water, even minor blazes could turn into conflagrations that destroyed whole sections of the city. The city's factories, which depended on having enough water to power their machinery, were also affected. But the problem was not just quantity, but quality. By the 1830s, it was the newly arrived immigrants who suffered most from the lack of clean water. Living in crowded tenements without decent sanitation, they were vulnerable to waterborne diseases, such as cholera, and typhus, and yellow fever, spread by mosquitoes that bred in stagnant water tanks.
In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, as middle- and upper-class people paid increasing attention to cleanliness buying bathtubs for their homes, patronizing new commercial bathing establishments, and pursuing the medicinal benefits of "water cures" the lack of cleanliness in the city's poorer neighborhoods appeared to endanger not only the people living there but the health of all Bostonians. In the 1830s, Boston's large community of social reformers added public water to campaigns it waged. As one environmental historian explains, "water advocates believed that a plentiful supply of pure water could better the health and morals of the urban population, especially the working classes, and thereby transform society." One of the biggest transformations promised (but never realized) would be the substitution of water for Americans' drink of preference alcohol.
After years of intense debate about whether to address the problem by expanding private water companies or creating a public system, a coalition of middle- and upper-class reformers and working-class city dwellers prevailed. In 1846 the state legislature passed an act allowing the city to bring water from Long Pond in Natick, renamed Lake Cochituate, to Boston; a few weeks later, Boston voters approved the Water Act by an overwhelming margin of 4,637 to 348.
The city began to build a brick aqueduct that would run from Lake Cochituate to a hilltop reservoir in Brookline. From there, the water flowed to two smaller reservoirs and then through 60 miles of cast-iron pipes that workers laid beneath every inhabited street. The project employed over 3,000 men as engineers, bricklayers, iron casters, and unskilled laborers.
By October of 1848, the engineering feat was complete. A huge public celebration was held. People hung from windows and balconies and crowded the streets to watch a five-mile long parade wind its way along Tremont and Beacon Streets to Frog Pond. There, throngs stood for hours, listening to speeches, singing, and waiting for the moment the water would finally arrive.
Mary White, a farm wife from Boylston, and her family made a two-day journey to be present for the great occasion. She wrote in her diary, "Rode in an omnibus. . . . We went to celebrate the bringing in of water from Cochituate for the benefit of Boston inhabitants. A procession was formed near Park Street Church, which took two hours and a quarter to pass a given point without including the schoolchildren which amounted to thousands."
While the new water system clearly improved the health of city residents and reduced the frequency and deadliness of epidemics, the benefits were far from evenly distributed. Although the city paid to bring water pipes right up to private buildings, landlords were generally unwilling to pay to install indoor plumbing in tenement buildings. As late as 1868, 350 residents living in 72 tenements on one North End street had to rely on a single hydrant.
While the campaign for public water fell short of the reformers' expectations, it was by no means a failure. Public water is one legacy of antebellum reform that endures today.
Diary of Mary White, Old Sturbridge Village Research Library.
"The Nature of Water: Reform and the Antebellum Crusade for Municipal Water in Boston," by Michael Rawson, Environmental History 9 (July 2004).
Boston Globe, October 22, 1998.