On Oct. 25, 1848, a stream of water gushed from a fountain before 100,000 people assembled on Boston Common for the city’s great water celebration. Bells rang, rockets soared and people cheered, laughed, sang and even cried. A great civic undertaking had been completed.
The Cambridge Chronicle, reporting on the celebration, noted that the citizens of Boston had been annoyed for 30 years by the want of pure water. It had taken that long to solve the problem. Most of the delay was due to political controversy. It took only two years to build the aqueduct, dams, pipelines and gatehouses from Lake Cochituate in Natick.
And when the work was completed, Boston threw a water celebration of historic proportions.
Water, Water, Anywhere?
For years the people of Boston relied on cisterns, wells and a spring on Boston Common. As the town grew, private suppliers in 1796 introduced an alternative and began delivering water from Jamaica Pond through a system of hollow pine logs.
It worked until 1825, when Boston’s population more than doubled to about 43,000. Wells became brackish or went dry and the water table fell. A builder named George Cram testified that the city’s need for a public water supply was dire; in one case, 43 families were using a single well.
Mayor Josiah Quincy proposed a public water supply for the growing city (the population would grow to 127,000 by 1848). After a fire in April 1825 destroyed several dozen buildings in Boston, a committee was appointed to look into building a water works.
Quincy’s idea was opposed by private companies that wanted to supply the rapidly growing city and voters who feared a tax increase. ‘Steady and strenuous’ efforts were made for a public water supply, according to the King’s Dictionary of Boston.
After 23 years of controversy, work began under the supervision of three water commissioners – including Nathan Hale, nephew of the Revolutionary War spy and a journalist whose newspaper supported the diversion of water from Long Pond in Natick.
On Aug. 26, 1846, a small groundbreaking ceremony was held at Long Pond in Framingham. A polished steel blade with a rosewood handle and a plate with an appropriate inscription was used. Mayor Josiah Quincy, Jr., lifted the first shovelful of dirt into a wheelbarrow at that first water celebration. His cousin, former U.S. president John Quincy Adams, lifted the second, and Josiah Quincy, Sr., the third.
After the ceremony, the younger Quincy said the name Long Pond wasn’t memorable, and suggested an Indian name: Cochituate, which means ‘torrent’ or ‘place of rushing water.’ It was immediately adopted.
It took two years to build the waterworks, which included wooden dams, an aqueduct, granite gatehouses and pipelines to the Brookline Reservoir and smaller feeder reservoirs. The system was laid out by Ellis S. Chesbrough, who would later reverse the Chicago River, supervised the engineering. John B. Jervis, who designed the American steam locomotive and the Croton Aqueduct in New York, laid out the plans.
The Water Celebration
The great day began with a 100-gun salute and an immense parade through the city. Mayor Quincy gave a speech, at the end of which he asked if the people of Boston were ready for Cochituate water. The crowd roared, the gates opened and a stream of water 80 feet high burst from the Frog Pond Fountain.
Schoolchildren sang an ode written by poet James Russell Lowell for the occasion, which begins,
My name is water: I have sped
through strange, dark ways untried before
by pure desire of friendship led
Mark Anthony DeWofe Howe, in his book Boston Common, described the scene:
When the water was turned on, and the fountain leaped high into the air, the school-children, assembled with every other element of the population, sang a song written by poet James Russell Lowell for the occasion…the bells rang, cannon were fired, rockets soared aloft; cheering, laughter and even tears paid their spontaneous tribute to the completion of a great undertaking.
A month later, Charlestown’s mayor toasted the father-and-son mayors. Noting that Josiah Quincy Sr., was responsible for building Quincy Market, the mayor called them ‘a very useful family for Boston — the father gave her a market — the son pure water, the one meat–the other drink.’
Lake Cochituate and the Brookline Reservoir are now parks listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as is the Principal Gatehouse. This story was updated in 2017.