As critics noted, a project on the scale of an urban waterworks would certainly entail a huge expansion of governmental power, responsibility, and cost. The author of an anti-public-system pamphlet who called himself “Prudence” told readers that by hiring a private company, Bostonians “will avoid an everlasting pecuniary embarrassment” and “will happily escape the fiery ordeal of the tax gatherer.” A public system, after all, would require borrowing money on an unprecedented scale, and it would be safer and easier to have private investors bear the financial risks and technical responsibilities of such a large and complex system
Supporters of the private option asserted that Boston and the nation had long and wisely entrusted their well-being to private enterprise, and that a private corporation could build a better system, and run it more effectively and efficiently, than could the government. “Prudence” contended that the owners of Spot Pond could do the work in half the time. In a letter to the editors of the Transcript, a person who signed himself “B” pointed to recently established railroads as evidence of the superiority of private corporations in getting large and essential projects done.
But from the outset many leading citizens insisted that the water system had to be public. In his inaugural address in 1826, Mayor Josiah Quincy Sr. asserted that Boston “ought to consent to no copartnership” in procuring water. A city was decidedly not a business, or at least not a typical one. “No private capitalists will engage in such an enterprise without a reasonable expectation of profit,” he explained. They would pursue the cheapest water, the best customers, and the highest price, while a responsible city government would want the best water to be delivered to everyone at the lowest cost.
The most eloquent argument for public water came from Dr. Walter Channing, the first professor of obstetrics at Harvard Medical School, a founder of what would become the New England Journal of Medicine, and an outspoken advocate of many reform causes. The choice of public ownership and control of city water was to him a moral issue. Channing declared, “I see its necessity in the wide public want. I look for its accomplishment in a wise care for the public good, in generous purposes, in large and true policy.”
The debate was bitter and intense. Partisans of both sides held spirited meetings in schools and churches throughout the city and rallied supporters in Faneuil Hall. Finally, on May 19, 1845, the matter of approving the charter of the public Long Pond system was put to a binding citywide referendum. A very narrow majority of voters refused to approve the proposal, leaving the problem of Boston’s water supply unresolved. Some found the indecision embarrassing, worrying (as one observer put it) “that Boston, with all her proud aspirations for high character and consistency, of noble and judicious enterprise, is doomed, for a long period to come, to stand the laughing-stock, the disgraceful spectacle, of a lack of that public spirit which most other large cities manifest.”
The partisans of public water rallied over the summer and fall of 1848. It helped that an official inspection of Spot Pond concluded that its contents were inadequate. In a new referendum the following spring, a revised proposal to build a public system from Long Pond carried the day by a majority of over 90 percent.
The works was indeed a technological marvel. It conveyed the crystalline contents of Long Pond, renamed Lake Cochituate, through a 14-mile aqueduct to a holding reservoir in Brookline (still tucked gracefully alongside Route 9) and thence to the insatiably thirsty and ambitious hub of New England. The uneven topography that the aqueduct negotiated demanded the construction of two bridges, over which the water was conveyed in inverted siphons, and two tunnels, dug by crews working around the clock.
The project was even costlier than its opponents had charged it would be—the $5.2 million price tag doubled the original estimate—and it would run at a deficit for many years, which had to be made up with higher taxes and fees, as well as additional borrowing. More than three-fourths of the city’s net funded debt of $5 million in 1849 was due to the waterworks.
But few Bostonians voiced regrets. In its first calendar year of operation, the Cochituate works delivered an average of more than 10 million gallons a day to more than 12,000 customers, as well as over 900 hydrants. (Fighting fire was another major argument in favor of a new citywide system.) Shortly after the ceremonies on the Common, the Daily Evening Transcript observed, echoing Channing, “The value of such a blessing, freely dispensed throughout our city, is not to be calculated in dollars and cents; for it has relations inestimable with the moral and physical welfare of generations present and to come.”Continued...