On the glorious late autumn afternoon of Oct. 25, 1848, Boston Mayor Josiah Quincy Jr. looked up from the text of his speech and surveyed the enormous crowd assembled around the Frog Pond on the Common. His listeners, including many visitors who came for the day from nearby towns, numbered in the tens of thousands. With coy courtesy, he asked “if it were their pleasure” to witness the arrival of the city’s newest resource. The response was an overwhelming “Aye!”
At Quincy’s signal, a valve slowly opened, releasing thousands of gallons of water from the city’s waterworks, just constructed, into a splendid fountain in the pond. As a reporter breathlessly observed, after “a moment’s pause...there was a gush of rusty-looking water, small and doubtful at first, then spreading, and gathering strength, then rising with beautiful gradations higher and higher, until it towered up a strong, magnificent column of at least seventy feet in height, flashing and foaming in the last crimson rays of the setting sun!” Spontaneous cheers accompanied the booming of cannons and the igniting of fireworks. People laughed and shouted, men threw their hats in the air, and some even broke out in tears.
As the crowd that day could perhaps already sense, this new project heralded a transformation in the city’s life. The works brought what promised to be an unlimited supply of pure soft water to Boston, whose supply had become limited, brackish, and hard. It was by far the largest and most expensive infrastructure project in the community’s proud 218-year history.
But in that moment Bostonians were also witnessing something else: the result of a long and profound debate about how their city should work, notably about who should take responsibility for meeting its basic needs. At the center of this debate was whether the new waterworks should be privately owned or belong to the public itself.
It is easy to see such a massive piece of hydraulic engineering—a complex system of bridges and tunnels, reservoirs and pipes—as a great technological feat. But infrastructure is also the expression of an idea about how we should live. And supporters of a publicly owned waterworks for Boston took a strong position in a key debate that is no less fraught today. We see this tension in current battles over taxes, health care, subsidies for certain industries, and so-called entitlement programs—behind which are deeply conflicting conceptions of the proper role of government and private enterprise in meeting our needs. What happened in Boston influenced what happened in the rest of the country, and the ways in which the debate unfolded reflected the fundamental beliefs, values, and aspirations of the city.
Nineteenth-century Boston was a place of prodigious growth. The population in 1848 had approximately doubled just since 1830, and its water supply was stretched. Most people drew water from their own or nearby private wells. About 1,400 mainly well-to-do residents purchased water from the Boston Aqueduct Co., which since 1795 had been piping water from Jamaica Pond to a limited portion of the city. The idea of building a comprehensive waterworks that served the entire expanding metropolis dated back at least to 1825. Over the next two decades the city commissioned multiple studies, but it put off taking action.
By the 1840s, the state of the water supply had reached a critical point. A survey found that while about half of Boston’s houses had wells, almost none provided water soft enough to be used for washing, and a large number were effectively dry. Some households had to send someone several blocks to fetch enough water to live on; others carefully guarded their own supply. It was impossible to delay any longer without risking the city’s future development.
Bostonians, who had a long tradition of open discussion of civic issues, engaged in a debate that had virtually no equivalent in any other American city. The key question, which came to a head in 1845, was whether to construct a publicly funded and operated works from Long Pond in Framingham and Natick, or to contract the job out to private entrepreneurs, the leading contender being a corporation that would bring water from Spot Pond in Stoneham.
It might seem natural today that a water supply is public. But it was anything but certain at the time. Other cities, including New Orleans, Buffalo, San Francisco, and Providence, all opted for private water systems in the same period. There was also the example of London, served by several private companies, and, closer to home, the Boston Aqueduct. Lucius Manlius Sargent, a key stockholder in that company, published a long series of letters in the Daily Evening Transcript charging that arguments for a public system victimized civic-minded entrepreneurs like him, who were committed to “the prosperity of this highly-favored city.” Some Bostonians without such a direct financial interest opposed public ownership because they harbored a suspicion of political rulers that went back at least to the Revolution, and they shared Sargent’s faith in capitalism and the free market. They feared taxes and worried about incompetence and dishonesty among public officials.Continued...