Medford's disused subway.

[by Moses W. Mann.]
WE remarked recently in the hearing of several persons, ‘There's a subway a mile and a half long in Medford.’ Our auditors, first incredulous, were later curious to know where it might be, and we told them—of its size, location, and purpose for which it was constructed.

It lies beneath Jerome and Sherman streets, crosses under High, and extends through the former Brooks estate to Mystic upper lake. Its terminal stations were the brick gate-houses beside the river and above the dam that separates the two divisions of what used to be called Medford ponds ere this was built.

It is, or rather was, a sub-waterway, the conduit of the Charlestown Water Works. At the time of its building, public water works were confined to the larger cities. The city of Charlestown, after considering various sources of supply, decided upon Medford pond, whose watershed extended backward to the divide between the Ipswich and Aberjona rivers in Wilmington.

By natural configuration Medford pond lent itself well to the design. The Narrows, or the Partings, were the names by which the location of the impounding dam had been previously known. It must have been a picturesque spot. We have found no view of it preserved by artist's brush or pencil of those pre-camera days, but have heard it much spoken of.

Two wedge-shaped portions of Medford and West Cambridge extended into the pond so nearly that a plank would bridge the strait, and in which was but slight fall.

Of this entire work of so much magnitude and importance but little has been preserved in Medford annals, [p. 2] and but for the fact that one of the engineers engaged on the work made a private record of his doings from start to finish it would be difficult at this time to ascertain the facts.

Preliminary surveys were begun ‘on a high bluff east of the Narrows on April 14, 1862,’ by two engineers, with a laborer to assist, and on April 16 Roberdeau Buchanan joined them. It was he who made the record to which we allude. It is illustrated by accurate drawings of the entire work, explanatory of the text of his record, and is now in the office of the Metropolitan Water Commission, by whose courtesy we were permitted to examine its interesting pages and compile this account.

These engineers reached Walnut hill, the site of the distributing reservoir, on April 25, 1862, and it is interesting to note just here, that in their more than two-mile walk they passed near to no dwellings until reaching Winthrop, then called South street, where there was a house which was later the residence of Mr. J. W. Perkins. Seventeen houses, four of which were upon the Brooks estate, comprised all then west of and near the railway, and but three buildings housed Tufts College then. Contrast this open plain and hill-slope with existing conditions and population.

On April 21 another party began a survey westward toward Wyman hill in West Cambridge, on which the reservoir would have been located had that route or plan been chosen. But the eastern route, suggested by engineers Baldwin and Stevenson in 1859 was decided upon and work begun thereon by survey on May 19, 1862. The actual work upon this portion was begun on January 8, 1863, in the construction of the coffer-dam for the gate-house and bridge across the Mystic.

Just here we obtain a hint of the forestry conditions at the ‘Partings’ then existing:—

Piles, of white oak recently cut near the pond . . . 11 pairs 13 feet apart and 15 feet between the two rows, driven 4 to 5 feet below the bed of the river.

[p. 3] These piles supported a narrow bridge 143.9 feet long, and were a part of the coffer-dam within which the conduit was built beneath the river. This conduit here consisted of two 36-inch iron pipes, placed five feet from centers, laid in and covered with concrete and puddled on either side. The cost of this (bridge and pipe) section was $6,700.00.

We were told years ago by Supt. Luther Symmes, that at that time the commissioners made effort with Medford selectmen to have our town share in the expense of a wider and more desirable bridge, as this was in the line of a proposed street, but without success. Built as originally designed, and though the traveling public had no right therein, it served as the only passage across the river between Harvard avenue and Winthrop street until Canal bridge and Boston avenue were opened. It continued in use until 1910, and since its removal has been greatly missed.

The two iron pipes mentioned form 485 1/2 feet of the conduit from pump-well to gate-house. The remainder is of brick construction, the lower portion a semicircle of five feet inside diameter, the upper an oval of two axes, giving an inside height of five feet and eight inches. The invert is laid in a bed of concrete, and in various places this required a pile and timber support.

As the lower pond received the inflow of the tide twice daily, an artificial channel with automatic gates was made in the river below Wear bridge to keep out the flood, and removed at completion of the work. Even then, and with the aid of two steam pumps, but 30 feet could be built at a time, and some sections had to be rebuilt because of insecure foundation.

Inlets were provided in the top at regular intervals, but nearly all were permanently covered beneath the surface of the ground, leaving but a few with removable iron covers. We recall one of these near Harvard avenue, which was a sort of way-station used by the operating workmen, who entered for the purpose of sweeping the [p. 4] bottom, which had but one-inch incline in 100 feet on its course.

Among the trees (the ‘Mystic hickories’) on the Brooks estate was a star-shaped brick structure, about nine feet high, with overhanging roof, which served as a ventilator. We once saw an attractive water-color of this in a West Medford home and hoped to secure it for illustration. Recent inquiry failed us, and it is probably lost. No longer needed, this structure was removed in the building of the Parkway.

The conduit in one place lies close to the course of the famous old waterway, the Middlesex canal. Indeed, the old canal contributed to its construction by the removal of one of the banks to grade over the new structure, as shown in Mr. Buchanan's drawing and record.

The slopes of the old Middlesex Canal have been cut down as far as the conduit is built so as to make a four-foot fill on the center and eight feet wide on top, and from the outer edge of the canal to the inner edge of the back filling it is graded off like the following section.

[Then follows drawing.]

The conduit was finished on October 12, 1864, and on October 31 water was let in as far as the waste-gate near the river and all loose dirt washed out, and on the following day to the pumping station.

Two years and a half had elapsed since the engineers began work. The entire system, of which this was but an essential part, was also complete and ready for service. At one time three hundred and fifty men were employed, making a scene of busy activity along its course through Medford.

The completed works supplied not only Charlestown, but Somerville, East Boston, Chelsea and Everett, and were taken over by Boston on the annexation of Charlestown, and later by the Metropolitan Commission. Because of the pollution of the water by the leather factories of Woburn and Winchester this Mystic supply was abandoned in 1898, and since that time this brick conduit [p. 5] has been the disused subway of which we spoke in beginning. That it will ever be used again now appears unlikely, unless, indeed-and who knows?-some new and now unthought—of industry, public or otherwise, should arise, to which this great work of a half century ago may in some equally unthought—of way lend itself.

Of the dam at the ‘Partings,’ the pumping station and reservoir we may make other mention as of interest in Medford annals.

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