The origin of Boston is tied to water. Puritan settlers chose to settle in this area over others they considered like Salem and Charlestown because of its access to fresh water, acquiring the land from English settler William Blackstone.
Local Native Americans called the area the “land with living fountains’’ and the original settlers built their lives around the spring at today’s Boston Common.
Since then, water has played a crucial role in shaping the region and state. Towns were created and destroyed for water. People lived and died for and often as a result of it. Complex systems were invented, discarded, or improved to get clean water to as many citizens as far as possible. Click through the gallery for a brief look at the history and evolution of water in the Greater Boston area.
Pictured: When the Puritans found Charlestown to be without clean water in 1620, William Blackstone, Boston’s first European settler, charitably extended a welcoming hand to John Winthrop and his flock, a scene depicted by the Founders Monument on Boston Common.
The Pilgrims made the trip to the new world and settled in New England, but they had no way to foresee what kind of resources they would have upon arrival. In the 1630s, water was hand carried in a bucket from the wells and springs people could find or make themselves for primarily washing purposes.
It wasn’t until Rev. William Blackstone persuaded pilgrims settled in Charlestown—of which there were no wells and springs—to move to the Shawmut Peninsula (now Boston) where people could get quality water from a spring that bubbled out of the ground. The Great Spring was located on current day Spring Lane near Government Center. Water Street, which runs parallel to Spring Lane, retains an indirect connection to the spring that was just around the corner.
While the Great Spring was a plentiful source for a small community, it became overburdened with colonial expansion and growth. This led to residents in today’s Faneuil Hall to form the first water works system in 1652, which consisted of wooden pipes and a reservoir for drinking, and putting out fires that often occurred from houses built mainly of wood. For more than a century afterwards, city residents built wells and cisterns throughout Boston, but were unable to fix the poor availability and quality of water.
Pictured: A sketch of Faneuil Hall that appeared in an 1854 edition of Arthur’s Magazine.
Entrepreneurs found a solution in 1796 by bringing water from nearby Jamaica Pond using wooden logs for an aqueduct. The pond was located at the top of a hill, so the system relied on gravity to deliver the water to lower areas. Because of this, Beacon Hill and the North End were not served. Jamaica Pond contained the best quality water–only sold to the people who could afford it–near the city. By the 1820s, the city realized how diseased the water system had become and how necessary water sanitation was needed.
Pictured: A view of the island in Jamiaca Pond taken from Perkins Street 1938.
After decades of arguing over the next course of action, water company owners agreed in 1848 to build a municipal water system available to the public using Long Pond—renamed Lake Cochituate Reservoir—in Natick, Wayland, and Framingham. Construction involved metal and cast iron pipes, and more reservoirs that were able to serve everyone, including poorer parts of the city and surrounding areas.
Pictured: View of the water celebration at the Frog Pond on Boston Common Oct. 25, 1848.
As the century came to an end, Boston’s water supply became unsafe and inadequate. The invention of indoor plumbing had also increased demand for water. In 1895, the Metropolitan Water Act utilized water from the south branch of the Nashua River, the Boston Waterworks at Chestnut Hill, and Spot Pond. This system would supply water to the cities and towns within 10 miles of the State House that wanted it.
Pictured: A sketch of Chestnut Hill Reservoir erected in 1870.
Work was completed on the Wachusett Reservoir in 1905 and filled with water in May 1908. The 6.5 square miles were built in the towns of Boylston, West Boylston, Clinton, and Sterling. The water was transported to the Weston Reservoir via the Weston Aqueduct before traveling to Chestnut Hill and Spot Pond by pipeline. At the time, Wachusett Reservoir was the largest man-made water supply reservoir in the world. It held 65 billion gallons of water and supplied 118 million gallons per day.
Pictured: Wachusett Dam work crew during the reservoir’s development from 1897 to 1905.
Metropolitan and city officials made projections of water demand for the next 50 years and determined that the current water supply would not be sufficient by 1930. In 1937, four Central Massachusetts towns were destroyed and disincorporated to make way for the Quabbin Reservoir, making it the new largest man-made water supply reservoir in the world. 2,500 residents were displaced by the Quabbin. Today, the town of Enfield sits 150 feet below the surface.
Pictured: The 39-square-mile Quabbin Reservoir, which lies 65 miles west of Boston, was finished in 1939.
The Norumbega Reservoir and more tunnels were built to increase water pressure in the distribution system during the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. The reservoir’s covered storage facility holds 115 million gallons of water for metropolitan Boston. Today’s system still uses gravity to deliver water to Greater Boston and Massachusetts.
Pictured: Workmen push half of a 12-foot section into place on Boston Common in effort to repair broken water main Apr. 22, 1960.
According to data from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, Boston’s water usage is at a 110-year low as of 2010. On average, the MWRA delivers about 200 million gallons per day to over 2.5 million customers in 61 communities. Water in Boston is not only used anymore for washing, drinking, and plumbing. Its uses include aesthetics in the city’s 24 fountains, and cooling down nuclear power plant systems like the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth.
Pictured: Johanna Escobar, of Boston, tests the waters while walking through the fountain July 18 at Copley Square.
Marcis Kempe, a 34-year veteran of the water supply industry and member of the board of directors for the Waterworks Museum, contributed historical information to this gallery.