There is little question that the arrival of the water made Boston a healthier and more prosperous city, helping it grow to 250,000 by 1870 and more than twice that by the turn of the century. Per capita demand also jumped, so that by 1862 the Cochituate Water Board determined that the system required a major expansion. Delayed by the Civil War, the Chestnut Hill Reservoir was completed on Oct. 25, 1870, exactly 22 years after the celebration by the fountain on the Common. In the same year, the city took over the Mystic Lakes system when it annexed Charlestown. It completed an aqueduct to the Sudbury River in 1878 and added additional reservoirs, including Spot Pond.
With some exceptions, public ownership (backed by public borrowing) became the rule in major infrastructure projects, especially waterworks. The bigger the city, the more likely it was to have a public system. By 1897, 41 of the nation’s 50 largest urban centers consumed public water. This also reflected the willingness of residents of cities to accept a bigger and bigger role and operating budget for governments and public agencies. Some of these agencies transcended municipal borders. Since 1895, Boston’s water needs have been overseen by a series of regional authorities. Nowadays both Boston and many other Massachusetts cities and towns draw water from the titanic Quabbin Reservoir, about 80 miles to the west of the State House, whose capacity is over 400 billion gallons.
As we well know, the debates over what city services municipalities should outsource to private companies remain contentious today. Strapped for cash and without the same prospects for growth that Boston enjoyed in the 1840s, some local governments have put portions of the existing infrastructure up for sale. But throughout these debates, the original struggle over Boston’s waterworks reminds us that what is at stake is never just this or that service or amenity, but what a city is, and what kind of urban future we want.
In 1630 Puritan leader John Winthrop famously advised the first Puritan settlers to keep in mind that as a new chosen people they were to be “as a city upon a hill,” and that if they were to survive and prosper, each individual must look out for every other. Boston is sometimes criticized for having a chilly, pious attitude that seems to date back to those early Puritan times. But the response to the recent Marathon bombings provided reassuring testimony that another Puritan legacy also survives: The public spirit that Winthrop called for remains alive and well.
In this debate about municipal ownership and the ones that have played out since, the real question has never simply been one of practicality. What’s at stake is the principles by which Boston has defined itself, and which endure at the heart of the city today.
Carl Smith is a professor at Northwestern University and author of “City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago.”