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The Mystic water-works.

THESE water-works are those built a half century ago by the (then) city of Charlestown for its own supply, and located mainly within, and traversing the entire length of, Medford. The Register has already described a portion and, as then intimated, now completes the story.

The Mystic lakes of today, with their surroundings, would have an unfamiliar look to Medford people of sixty years agone. There was then really but one, and that was known as Medford pond, though the ‘Narrows,’ or ‘Partings,’ did all nature could to make two of it.

The city of Charlestown, in its quest of a water supply, took it over, and then were begun, in 1862, the changes that resulted in the two lakes of the present time. At that time the shores of the pond were well wooded, and the white oaks there growing were utilized for the piles, that were driven fourteen feet and cut off level three feet below the surface of the ground. Upon these the masonry of the dam was built, while a double row of sheet piling was driven, within which the concrete core or backbone of the structure was filled, and back of this, the slope. Even the old Middlesex canal, discontinued ten years before, was laid under tribute, as the ‘puddle’ of its old embankments near by, made up fifty years earlier, consisting of one-eighth clay mixed with sand and gravel, was used in this work. The granite for the overfall had been quarried at Chelmsford, as had been the stone for the canal's aqueducts. At this stage of the work labor troubles were evident, as one hundred and thirty men struck for twenty-five cents addition to the daily wage. [p. 22]

On June 2, 1863, Albert Whiting took charge of the masonry construction. His experience on the dry docks at Norfolk and Charlestown, and at Fort Independence, qualified him for this important work. On the tenth of June the northeast corner-stone of the dam was laid, but we find no record of any formal ceremony, other than the placing of a small vial containing the names of Charlestown's mayor, water commission, engineers and contractor in the lewis hole of the lower stone. In sealing the vial, a new cent of that year's coinage was embedded in the wax; not a heavy investment, rather an expression of old-time sentiment that still obtains at corner-stone layings. We hardly think any vandals will undertake to make away with this particular coin, as has been attempted in our own and neighboring cities.

The basal construction at this point was found difficult, as a centrifugal pump discharging four hundred and fifty gallons per minute failed to keep the excavation dry.

A year and a week elapsed ere the work was complete. The demand of the men in May, 1863, seems to have been acceded to, as we find that on April 9, 1864, another strike occurred, and that ten days later the men returned at the same wage as before, $1.50 per day. On May 2, 1864, their pay was raised to $1.65, and even this did not conciliate, for on June 1 another strike occurred. The laborers then got notice that the permanent men would get $1.66 and the transients $1.50 per day. The dam was finished on June 17, 1864, just eighty-nine years after Bunker hill day, and the pond began to fill. Water was not the only thing to rise, as we note that on July 1 the laborers' pay was increased to $1.80 per day, and no strike is mentioned. These were the days of the Civil War, when the high cost of living was equally apparent with present-day experience.

At 1.30 A. M., September 30, 1864, the stop planks were put permanently into the dam and the water allowed to rise to the required elevation. This changed the entire [p. 23] shore line, shape and extent of the upper lake, and as the water backed into the tributary Aberjona, the mouth of that stream (sometimes called Symmes' river) became fixed at the bridge below the Bacon mills. There was a water privilege that was rendered useless by the construction of the Mystic dam. The proprietors of course claimed damage and made show of resistance, but one day a keg of powder placed under the old structure wrecked it, and although a steam engine was placed in the mill, no work of account was thereafter done, and the buildings were gradually removed. Incidentally we note that, owing to the scarcity of cotton, caused by the Civil War, a substitute therefor, made from flax, and called ‘flax cotton’ or ‘fibrilla,’ was being made or experimented with and machinery installed for that purpose. And so closed the history and usefulness of this old mill privilege, first established on the grant to Rev. Zechariah Symmes by his son William as a fulling mill. During that last winter the writer worked in the old mill with his father, who was present and witnessed the destruction of the dam by explosion of powder. Perhaps, at the present writing, the only living witness of the somewhat dramatic scene is Mr. Griffin, the old retired gate-tender at West Medford, better known as Faithful Mike. (This digression may, as a matter of history, be added to page 395 of Brooks' History of Medford.)

Today, extending from the parkway, there may be seen in excellent preservation the embankments of the canal, and at their end, beneath the water, the lower courses of the aqueduct masonry, a reminder of the canal's prosperous days. These mark the channel of the Aberjona as it was prior to the raising of the lake, but elsewhere the course is now a matter of conjecture, unless, indeed, old maps or plans may be in evidence.

More or less litigation resulted from the flowage, but this was nothing new, as witness case of Symmes vs. Dunster, Broughton and Collins in 1656 [Register, Vol. XIII, p. 12], when the Mystic was first dammed. While this [p. 24] work was in progress some information relative to the lower lake was obtained, which we quote:—

An experiment was made by Engineer Buchanan to ascertain the depth at which the water in the lower pond becomes salt. A copper wire coated with silver was suspended from a float anchored in 54 feet of water. The wire was allowed to remain in the water 24 hours, and was found to be very slightly discolored from 18 or 19 to 21.57 feet below. At 21.57 the corrosion increased for 4 feet, then very rapidly disappeared leaving it bright copper. This agrees with the report of Mr. Baldwin which was at 19.4 below the surface of the pond.

By the recent building of the Cradock dam the level of the lower lake has been reduced (and consequently its area, slightly), and as the tides no longer come, the water is no longer salted.

That the work of building this dam, with its waste weir, conduits and gate-house was substantially performed is evident even to the casual observer. Though disused since 1897 it is well cared for, and the new lake thus created is kept at the normal height.

Just here we digress a little from our subject, to quote from Mr. Brooks' History of 1855:—

The lands on each side are slightly elevated, and in future times will doubtless be filled with country seats.

Today sees something of fulfilment of his prophecy. Writing over sixty years ago he did not foresee the electric light or railway on the farther side, nor yet the broad parkway on the other, or the swift automobiles almost momentarily traversing its course. The present limits of its Medford border are only within a few years invaded by dwellings, but the ‘Baconville’ of which he wrote, the ‘Upper Medford’ of his earlier days, now styled Wedgemere, since 1850 a part of Winchester, more than fulfils his forecast by the beautiful residences there erected. Not a few of these have their motor-boat house on the water's edge, and near the Aberjona a lighthouse adds to the attractive view.

Along the Arlington side the street cars pass, and the [p. 25] many passengers obtain at Morningside an unobstructed view across the lake in either direction. Here tasteful residences crown the heights above, and the vine-clad garages of ‘You-Say,’ and the sun-parlors and modern pergolas, add to an attractive section of Mystic street. Even now the lower slopes are being opened for residence, and ‘Interlaken’ may become filled with ‘country seats.’ Not such as had just been erected at the time of Mr. Brooks (where is the stone windmill tower) for during the years Arlington has slowly grown toward the lower lake, and even now there is building a pleasure road there with a bridge across the tributary stream, Sucker brook, that probably will receive a less prosaic name.

We have thus mentioned the storage basin and vicinity of the Charlestown water-works. In a previous article we have told of the conduit that connected it with the pumping station. This last was in Somerville and was a structure of brick, later twice enlarged. At its erection it contained two duplex pumping engines and requisite boilers. At its rear, in the hill-slope, the coal bunkers were built and a miniature railroad track passed through an underground passage to the boiler room. The brick chimney was monumental in shape and finished in graceful lines at the top. In recent years, after its disuse, a small tree grew in the curved cornice from seeds brought by bird, or wind borne, but this has disappeared. A spring of excellent cool water used to be near the chimney's base. The square base was twenty feet high, capped with stone, and into this was built the iron smoke flue leading from the boilers. The tapering shaft with its angular buttresses rose to the height of one hundred feet, and the whole was tasteful in design.

Nature's force of gravity brought the Mystic water to this station. From this an iron force-main extended up the hill slope to a point midway the northeasterly side of the distributing reservoir on the hill-top. In November, 1862, three hundred and fifty men were employed, many of them in excavating for this main. Just above [p. 26] North street a ledge of soft rock was struck. Meanwhile the work was progressing on the reservoir, which had been begun two months before, as appears by the following:—

On September 25 the first ground was informally broken. About 2.30 P. M. a plough opened the first furrow on Walnut hill. This was purely informal, but Mr. Grant, the division engineer, by the desire of the few present, guided the plough. Afterwards the site of the reservoir was ploughed around three times that day. The ground for the water-works was formally broken on Saturday, September 27, at the site of the reservoir. At 3 P. M. the members of the City Government and invited guests came upon the grounds. Mr. Edward Lawrence, chairman of the Water Commissioners, prefaced his remarks by asking a prayer of Rev. Mr. Miles and after a few words introduced the Mayor of the City, who after a short speech, received a spade and placed a sod in a wheelbarrow. Mr. Lawrence then made a speech and placed another sod in the wheelbarrow, after which Mr. James McDonald the contractor wheeled the sods away and placed them on the site of the embankment. The President of Aldermen, Chairman of Common Council, Chief engineer, six ex-Mayors, and others were introduced and spoke, each placing a sod in the wheelbarrow at conclusion of remarks.

Nothing is said in this record of Mr. Buchanan's about the wheeling away of these numerous sods, but in another column is the testimony of an eye-witness.

Mr. Lawrence invited those present to his home, where a collation was served, thus ending the formal beginning of the work.

Mr. McDonald sublet the construction of the embankment and reservoir to Charles Linehan. Engineer Buchanan made an interesting record of the manner of its construction and of the difficulties encountered. Springs were encountered near the westerly corner and for many years fed a watering trough beside the road beyond the Somerville line. A record was made of this fact of their existence prior to the construction of the reservoir, but even this did not allay a feeling of insecurity, and for many years little building of houses was done on the nearer hill slope. [p. 27]

The approximate width of the reservoir is 350 feet, with a length of 563 feet, and the embankment 19.4 feet wide at the top with a slope of 1.5 feet in 1 ft. A sufficiency of material being at hand it was made higher than originally intended. The water level is 162 feet above Boston base-line, and is 27.25 feet deep (plumb height). The induction chamber is in the northeast side, and a division wall across divides the reservoir into two chambers with drain wells at the northerly corners. Thus provision was made for the effectiveness of the works in case of accident or for repair.

At the easterly corner is the gate-house, from which the conducting mains extend down the hill slope and on to Charlestown. The first was of cast-iron and later one of sheet-iron with cement lining was laid when Charlestown began to supply its neighboring municipalities.

We recall reading in the daily print in after years, of a laborer in some excavation beneath a certain schoolhouse, that had inadvertently been built above it, striking his pickaxe into this later main and of his surprise at the copious flow of water therefrom.

The artificial banks of the reservoir were stepped into interval spaces of from twenty to fifty feet, to avoid seepage, and inner slopes faced with rock and surmounted with a granite coping. The reservoir was completed in early November, 1864. At that time the neighboring buildings of Tufts college numbered but three. Beginning with the erection of West hall in 1871 their number has increased with the expansion of the college work, and gradually the hill slopes have been built upon until the suburban cities of Somerville and Medford have crowded closely upon the once distrusted earthwork that for a half century has proved its stability and faithful construction. From the promenade of over a third of a mile around its top a magnificent view of the surrounding country may be had and is well worth the time and effort of any one. It lies entirely within the bounds of Medford, though the angular line of the Somerville [p. 28] boundary is very near, and within recent years closely built upon. We quote again from the record before alluded to:—

On November 5, 1864, the water had risen in the lake 3 1/2 feet. On the same day the pumping engines were started slowly, at first pumping air only. A few leaks were discovered and the engines were stopped. On the 10th at 6.30 P. M. they were again started and water was first pumped into the northerly division of the reservoir.

On the 11th the concreting of the southerly division was completed, and on the 15th the last stone of the coping was laid. On the 14th the engines pumped steadily all day from 10.15 A. M. On the 17th water was let into the feed main to test it; on the 22nd into some of the distribution pipes, and on the 25th the Commissioner and some 40 invited guests inspected the works. On November 29 the celebration of the introduction of water took place, consisting of a long procession through some of the principal streets, exercises at Winthrop square that were closed by letting the water on the fountain, and subsequently by a grand dinner at the City Hall.

The writer well remembers his first visit to the pumping station in June, 1870, and the walk over the decaying aqueduct of the canal, that still spanned the river. It was the show place of the vicinity, and a record book was kept for the visitors to sign. The two duplex pumping engines, resplendent in their polished steel and brass, were encased in equally polished walnut, and one was steadily at work day and night. Mr. Born and Mr. Hines arrived from Brooklyn on July 18, 1864, to erect them, and the former remained as engineer during the entire use of the works. He showed us about the station and explained the working of the plant, which a few years later was enlarged to double its earlier capacity and size. Still later it was again enlarged by building an extension of the engine room and the installation of a rotary engine and pump, also an electric lighting plant. This latter was something unknown but a few years before, when the works were built. We little thought then of seeing the plant abandoned and, disused, fall into decay.

Upon its taking over by the Metropolitan Water Commission (the city of Charlestown having been previously [p. 29] annexed to Boston) and the water supply having become polluted by the factory drainage of Woburn and Winchester, its use for domestic service was at once abandoned. For a time it was kept in commission for emergency, but this was not for long. The engine last installed was taken to the works at Spot pond and the newer boilers removed. The others remained for some time, and within a few years have gone to the junk dealers, as also the three duplex pumps that used to have extra duty on Monday, when Charlestown, like other places, had that as washing day. At least thus we were told, and we recall that one shrewd observer said, ‘Why did not Charlestown take Sandy pond up in Lincoln and get good water and enough of it by gravity, instead of this eternal pumping.’ But he did not forsee the end that came in time rather than in eternity.

Not all the extensive construction is now useless, however. The reservoir on the hill is connected with Spot pond (which was raised several feet higher) and the water flows downward through the force main to the gate-house in West Medford, where an iron main (laid beside the brick conduit to Sherman street) conveys the water to Arlington. There, a mile up the valley of Sucker brook, is a pumping station that supplies the water tower at the heights for the high service.

The Mystic dam remains intact; indeed, if it were removed it is questionable if such would be a wise procedure. It has been suggested that an additional elevation be made, and thus the improvement of the Aberjona.1 The elevation proposed would raise the upper lake to 17.50 feet above Boston base, or fifteen inches higher than the tailrace of the next then existing water power on the Aberjona. The highest level the water commission [p. 30] could maintain is 16.25 feet, and is marked by a copper bolt in the Aberjona bridge. During more recent years that stream has been dredged and much improved by the town of Winchester, adding much to the attractiveness of the parkway. This was accomplished by the purchase of the ancient water privilege, and removal of all the factory buildings and dam. The elevation of the various ponds above is maintained by a new concrete dam of artistic design, while two fine bridges span the stream beside the parkway. These improvements have been effected without raising the Mystic dam or upper lake. A lock built at this dam would give access to motor boats as far as ‘Converse bridge’ in the heart of Winchester. But it is doubtful if the Mystic supply is ever used again, certainly not until the picric acid and other deleterious matter from the chemical works, miles up stream, is eliminated. Mr. Brooks wrote of Medford pond:—

This beautiful sheet of water, though cousin-german to the sea, is as quiet and retired as if it never received a visit from the Atlantic waters. . . . Every twelve hours it is raised from two to six inches by the inflowing tide.

This variation is, of course, now eliminated, and the lower pond or lake remains at its normal level, regulated by the tide-gates in the Cradock dam. There is yet room on both sides for the erection of the desirable dwellings that in the growth of Arlington and West Medford are coming, and to the occupants of which, years hence, the foregoing account may be of interest.


Mystic dam is16.25
Flow of dam6
Original level of Aberjona river10.25
Feet above river2
Symmes' meadow12.25

Communication of A. E. Whitney.

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