previous next

Sewage in Mystic river.

The efforts of the town of Medford to prevent the Pollution of the Mystic river by discharge of sewage therein.

AFTER the introduction of Spot pond water into Medford, the subject of sewerage became uppermost in the minds of our citizens. In March, 1871, the subject was referred to the selectmen, and they were authorized to employ an experienced engineer to plan a thorough system of sewerage throughout the whole town, and to make a survey and outline map showing the principal drains and trunk conduits. In accordance with this vote the selectmen employed Mr. Clemens Herschel, who made a study of the problem, with plans and map as instructed. Mr. Herschel's report was submitted to the town at the November meeting in 1872, and in June, 1873, the selectmen were instructed to report a system for the apportionment of cost upon abuttors and upon the town, action upon which was indefinitely postponed when report was submitted to the town. This latter action was taken because our citizens had become convinced that the enterprise was too costly for the town to undertake single-handed, inasmuch as it was strongly opposed to the discharge of sewage into the Mystic river. In February, 1874, the board of health reported to the town as follows, viz.:
We desire to call the attention of the town to the fact that the City of Cambridge is using the waters of Alewife brook, one of the tributaries of Mystic river, as a receptacle for a portion of its sewage, and that the Engineers appointed by the City of Boston to examine into the water supply of the city have suggested the drainage of the towns of Woburn and Winchester into the river, [p. 46] that a portion of the sewage of Charlestown now finds its way into the Mystic river, and that the towns of Malden and Everett may one day use the river for a similar purpose, and we therefore urge upon the town the importance of resisting by every means in its power any attempt on the part of the neighboring cities and towns to contaminate the water of the river by making it a receptacle for sewage matter.

This was referred to the selectmen, with instructions as suggested by the report. These were acted upon none too soon; for the city of Cambridge had already petitioned the General Court for an act authorizing the use of Alewife brook as a sewer and for liberty to erect tide-gates to prevent the incoming tide from backing up the sewage into Fresh pond, its water supply. At a hearing before the Legislative Committee of Water Supply and Drainage, to whom the petition was referred, the selectmen opposed the granting of the petition upon the ground that such use would contaminate the water of the river, to the prejudice of the health of the citizens of Medford. Counsel for Cambridge stated to the committee that he had not anticipated any opposition to the petition, and invited them to view the premises and examine the conditions therein. The committee accepted the invitation, and joined by the Medford committee, made investigation. It concluded that the subject demanded favorable action, but agreed to insert a section in the bill to safeguard the interests of the town of Medford, viz., Section 2 of Chapter 193 of the Acts of 1874. The Broadway tide-gates were erected near the Broadway bridge over Alewife brook. They were constructed by the city of Cambridge (by an agreement with the town of Arlington) in 1875, and were in use up to the time of the completion of the Metropolitan sewer in 1897.

The town of Medford never experienced any discomfort from the sewage from Alewife brook. All the insoluble portions were deposited in the tortuous channel of the brook and they created a nuisance therein. That, together with the unsanitary conditions prevailing in part of the cities of Cambridge and Somerville and the [p. 47] towns of Arlington and Belmont, was the principal cause of the erection of the Cradock dam in Medford center.

In the year 1861 the city of Charlestown obtained an act of the General Court authorizing it to take the upper Mystic pond as a water supply, and when that city was annexed to the city of Boston, the pond became a part of Boston's water supply. For many years both before and after Boston assumed control of the pond, many complaints were made in regard to the impurity of the water. Situated upon the Aberjona river and its tributaries were many tanneries and other works whose drainage found its way into that river and thence into the pond. This condition of things became so unbearable that some action had to be taken to remedy the evil, or else abandon the pond as a water supply.

In the year 1875 the mayor of Boston petitioned the General Court for an act authorizing that city to construct a sewer to prevent such drainage from entering its water supply. In this petition the mayor was joined by the selectmen of Woburn and Medford. The selectmen of Winchester declined to take any action. The town of Medford voted to instruct the selectmen to employ counsel and oppose the turning of any sewage into Mystic river within the limits of the town and to favor a system of sewerage being laid through the town, to discharge at Chelsea (now Revere) beach. At the hearing it was found that neither the city of Boston nor the town of Woburn had any idea of joining in the construction of such a sewer.

Boston presented a plan to discharge the sewage into Mystic river at or near Boston avenue bridge, and to erect a dam with tide-gates across the river just above Alewife brook, so as to form a reservoir for the scouring of the river at low water. This plan, so prejudicial to Medford's interests, was so strenuously opposed by the Medford committee that the Boston officials presented an alternate plan to discharge into the lower Mystic pond. This new plan was also opposed by the Medford [p. 48] committee, for it was certain that in a short time a nuisance would be created in the pond;1 but finding that it must choose between the two plans, it chose what it considered the lesser evil —to discharge into the pond, the view of the Legislative committee being that the public health of Charlestown and other places, users of the water, far outbalanced the fears of Medford in regard to the creating of a nuisance in Mystic river. A bill was reported, authorizing the city of Boston to construct a sewer to discharge into the lower pond, with a section designed to protect the interest of the towns of Arlington and Medford.

Chapter 202, of the Acts of 1875.

Act to authorize the city of Boston to construct a sewer in the Mystic Valley

Section 1. The City of Boston is hereby authorized for the purpose of protecting the purity and remedying the pollution of water supplied from Mystic Pond, so called, by virtue of Acts of 1861 and acts additional and of amendment thereof, to construct for that purpose a main sewer. . . and branches. . . on the easterly side of the ponds and streams which discharge into them. Commencing in the town of Woburn. . . through Winchester into the town of Medford and emptying into the lower Mystic pond at some convenient point near the upper end thereof said city is authorized to extend or divert into said sewer any streams or water-courses, whether natural or artificial, flowing directly or indirectly into Mystic Pond or its headwaters, or into any stream or pond connecting with or discharging into said Mystic Pond, which contains any source of pollution.

The other sections of the act are of no interest to this paper, except Section 12, which is as follows, viz.:
This Act shall not be construed to grant an interminable right to discharge sewage into Mystic lower Pond, but the Legislature may, from time to time, by law, regulate and determine the disposition to be made of such sewage for the purpose of protecting the public health, and especially that of the inhabitants of Arlington [p. 49] and Medford, and preventing the existence of a nuisance, anything to the contrary in this act notwithstanding.

The sewer was constructed and was in use until the winter of 1880-81 before any particular discomfort from its use was sustained by the inhabitants of Medford; but one morning the whole town (especially the westerly part thereof) was aroused by a stench that almost took away one's breath. The officials of the town, who were watching the result of such a discharge of sewage matter into the pond, suspected at once the cause of the trouble and proceeded to investigate. On arriving at the outlet of the pond, they found a filthy stream of water flowing from the pond that emitted an intolerable stench. Proceeding down stream, they found fish dead and dying on the river banks, where they had been left by the ebb tide. The eels, more fortunate (?), were able to crawl out of the water and thus escape the filth, only to fall into the baskets of some enterprising fishermen who were gathering them in. The houses along the bank of the river were discolored by the gases that arose from the filthy water. One house in particular was noted, that of one of our citizens of German birth. His account of the situation was quite amusing; he said, ‘My little boy went out this morning and soon came running back into the house crying out, ‘mein Gott, fader, just come out and look at our house.’’ The house, of immaculate whiteness the night before, was now of a dirty, dingy color. After viewing the effect of the discharge of the filthy water into the river, they proceeded to investigate the cause of the sudden appearance of the nuisance. They found the pond covered by a thick coating of ice, which prevented the aeration of the water. This, accompanied by an extreme high course of the tide, which backed up the salt water into the pond, caused the ebb tide to carry with it a large amount of filthy water into the river.

The board of health endeavored to remedy the trouble by breaking up the ice with dynamite, but it afforded [p. 50] little or no relief, as the mischief had already been done. A succession of high tides flowing into the pond, with the scouring effect of the ebb. soon tended to make the situation more tolerable.

The mayor of Boston and its water board were notified of the trouble, and accompanied by the Medford officials, visited the pond. They first made an examination of the water at the outlet of the pond. While they were so engaged, some Medford citizens were assembled near Wear bridge, together with some of the employees of the Boston Water Board, and there was some discussion in regard to Boston's responsibility for the situation. One of the latter said, ‘And what does your little town expect to do with the great city of Boston?’ A most unfortunate remark for Boston's interests, for the Medford people quoted the remark on every possible occasion when the subject was before the General Court. From the outlet of the pond the company proceeded to its upper end, where the sewer pipe entered the pond. An examination there left no doubt in the mind of any as to the cause of the nuisance. The selectmen of Medford immediately petitioned the General Court for the remedy that Section 12 of the Act of 1875 was intended to afford. The petition was referred to the Committee on Water Supply and Drainage, and the city of Boston, through its trained attorneys, opposed all efforts to compel that city to abate the nuisance. The following bill was reported and was fought in both branches of the Legislature by Boston's representatives until its final passage:

Section I of Chapter 303, of the Acts of 1881.

The City of Boston is hereby directed to cease emptying sewage, or waters or substances containing polluting matter or properties, into Mystic Lower Pond, through its sewer constructed under Chapter 202 of the Acts of 1875, or otherwise; and is hereby also directed to take up and remove so much of said sewer as extends into said pond; and also that part thereof, between said pond and a point on a line of said sewer, at least two hundred feet from said pond, within three months from the passage of this Act; and thereafter [p. 51] no person or corporation (municipal or other) shall discharge or divert into said pond, any sewage or offensive matter, waters or substances containing such properties or of such quality, as shall of themselves, or in connection with other matter, create a nuisance in Mystic Lower Pond, or endanger public health; but nothing herein shall be construed to prohibit the City of Boston's discharging such water as shall be collected in its said sewer into Mystic Lower Pond, after said City shall have purified, cleansed and freed the said waters from all offensive, contaminating, noxious and polluting properties, and substances, so that the waters shall not of themselves or in connection with other matter, create a nuisance therein or endanger the public health: provided that such waters so purified shall flow for a distance of at least two hundred feet immediately before their entrance into said pond, in an open drain, over a gravelly or sandy bottom.

Section 2.

The City of Boston shall cause said pond to be cleaned of such impurities prejudicial to the public health, as in the judgment of the State Board of Health Lunacy and Charity, it shall have caused . . . and should the said Board deem the same to be necessary and so decide, the City of Boston may erect a dam at the outlet of the Mystic Lower Pond, and exclude the tide water from said pond, and may raise the height of the water in said pond and may take land therefor.

Section 3

Section three provided for the taking of land in Woburn and Winchester. Directly after the passage of this act, the chairman of the state board of health visited the pond to view the premises in order to obtain information in regard to the condition of matters that were referred to the board by section two of the act. He was accompanied by the Boston water board and the selectmen of Medford. After viewing the condition of things at the upper end of the pond, the company proceeded to the lower end. On the way down along the shore of the pond, the chairman of the state board, who was in company with one of the selectmen of Medford, asked what was Medford's position in regard to section two of the act, and was told that so far as the cleansing of the pond was concerned, it was deemed impossible to accomplish much in that direction, but Medford strongly protested against turning the pond into a cesspool, and preferred to [p. 52] allow the tide to flow in and out, deeming that to be sufficient if the city of Boston carried out in good faith the provision of the act in regard to the purification of the sewage matter. The chairman agreed such to be a sensible view of the subject, and we heard no more in regard to section two of the act.

While the act was before the committee an effort was made by some of Winchester's citizens advocating the establishment of the filter bed in Medford's territory, but the committee agreed that as no part of the sewage came from Medford that the filter beds should not be located there, and they were located beside the railroad just beyond the town line in Winchester, and set in operation after a time.

The employees of the city of Boston who had charge of the operation of these filter beds allowed a considerable amount of the sewage matter to flow into the pond without being purified. At a hearing before a legislative committee, the selectmen having complained were requested to furnish a sample of what was claimed to be unpurified sewage, to be presented to the committee at a subsequent meeting. Accordingly a sample was taken from the mouth of the sewer where it fell into the ‘open ditch.’ As several days elapsed before the committee met again, the sample had a good chance to ripen before its presentation. An examination of the same proved without any question that it had never passed through the filter beds.

Another instance of the neglect to purify the sewage was shown at a visit of the mayor and city engineer of Boston with the selectmen of Medford. While viewing the situation at the lower end of the upper pond the employees of the water board denied that any sewage was allowed to enter the pond without passing through the filter beds, saying that ‘engines pumping sewage into the filter beds were running night and day.’ When it was proposed to visit the filter beds at the upper end of the pond, these employees took a team and drove rapidly [p. 53] away toward the pumping station. Suspecting that they were going to start up the pumping engine, some of Medford's people started in pursuit and arrived at the station before the engine could be started up.

After the arrival of the party, which had walked to the pumping station, the mayor was informed of the action of the employees. He was asked if it was his intent that all the sewage should be passed through the filter beds, and he answered ‘yes.’ Then said one of the selectmen of Medford, ‘Stop up the sewer so that no unpurified sewage will pass into the pond, and thus compel all the sewage to be pumped into the filter beds.’ Turning to the city engineer, the mayor said, ‘How would that do, Mr.——?’ ‘It would not do at all,’ was the answer. The mayor made no reply.

The city of Boston never did, and never intended to purify all the sewage before discharging it into the pond. The condition of matters was never satisfactory to Medford people until the completion of the Metropolitan system of sewerage. After the Metropolitan Water Board was established, Mystic pond was abandoned as a water supply.

1 There are two ponds with originally a natural dam or ‘partings’ between them; the tide flowed into the lower pond, the upper pond being at a higher level was not affected by the tide. It was at this ‘partings’' that the water works dam was built. (See register, Vol. XX, p. 20.)

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Clemens Herschel (2)
Somerville (1)
Revere (1)
Pond (1)
Medford (1)
John H. Hooper (1)
Gott (1)
Everett (1)
Cambridge (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1875 AD (5)
1881 AD (2)
1861 AD (2)
1897 AD (1)
1880 AD (1)
February, 1874 AD (1)
1874 AD (1)
June, 1873 AD (1)
1872 AD (1)
March, 1871 AD (1)
November (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: