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Medford's water supply.

by Fred L. Cushing, water Registrar.
[Read before the Medford Historical Society, March 6, 1909.]

THE water supply of Medford was originally not of good quality, although practically inexhaustible.

Until 1870 every household had its own private supply, —a well on the premises, and in some cases a cistern also, to hold the rain-water gathered from the roofs.

These methods of securing water, with pumps conveniently located inside the house, as most of them were in Medford, indicated an advance over former methods.

As early as 1866 some of the citizens began to realize their opportunities for obtaining a better supply, with Mystic Pond on our west boundary and Spot Pond on our north, and to agitate the subject.

Spot Pond had been recommended for Boston's use by Daniel Treadwell, November 4, 1825; again by Loammi Baldwin, C. E., in 1834; and again by R. H. Eddy, C. E., June 13, 1836, in an exhaustive report and plan. The water was said to be of excellent quality in each of the reports, but the pond was considered too small for the rapidly growing city, and fortunately for Medford (and Boston as well) was not taken. Mystic Pond was taken by Charlestown, and that city finding its supply abundant, supplied other cities and towns.

James O. Curtis and others caused to be inserted in the warrant for a town meeting, November 6, 1866, an article, reading, ‘to see if the town will instruct the selectmen to petition the Legislature for authority to procure a town water supply from the Charlestown Water Works.’

At that meeting it was voted to obtain estimates of the cost of introducing such a supply. It is not recorded that [p. 52] estimates were ever obtained thereon, its fate being probably like that of some other questions of those days— those that were referred to the town pump.

The sentiment in favor of a public supply grew each year until, early in 1869, a committee was appointed to inquire into the probable cost of taking water from the Charlestown works.

A town meeting was called September 20, 1869, to hear the very able and exhaustive report which was read by the chairman of the committee, Eleazar Boynton, Jr. Although the committee was instructed to investigate the Charlestown water scheme, the report was strongly in favor of taking the Spot Pond water, stating that Malden had already voted to take from Spot Pond, and that Melrose probably would later.

In the meantime the following prominent men, Samuel E. Sewall, Daniel W. Gooch and George W. Heath of Melrose, Elisha S. Converse, J. H. Abbott and George P. Cox of Malden, and James O. Curtis, Charles V. Bemis and Benjamin F. Hayes of Medford, had secured an act of the Legislature of 1867, incorporating them as the Spot Pond Water Company. ‘The end in view was,’ to quote Judge Hayes, ‘saving the pond for the use of the towns, if within any reasonable time they should desire, as municipalities, to utilize its waters.’ By this act the right was reserved to the three towns to purchase the franchise and corporate property, by paying therefor the amount expended, together with interest, less any amount the incorporators derived therefrom with interest. This was an act of pure public spirit.

At this September meeting Medford voted to take water from Spot Pond, and elected Daniel W. Lawrence, Daniel A. Gleason and Benjamin F. Hayes a Board of Water Commissioners. Mr. Lawrence declined to serve, and Daniel W. Wilcox was chosen. It was also voted that the board contract for the construction of the works.

At the next town meeting, November 2, 1869, the opposition voted that the selectmen be instructed to petition [p. 53] the next Legislature for an act enabling Medford to take water from Mystic Lower Pond.

I need not mention for those who remember how the tide rushed in to Mystic Pond twice each day, that this vote simply indicated that there was still some opposition to be met. The vote evidently was pigeon-holed, for the new board did not wait for the development of Mystic Lower Pond, but immediately proceeded to consider an important question. This was, whether Medford should go directly to the pond with a separate main, or take its supply through Malden's main pipe.

Two members favored the former, and one the latter plan. Naturally desiring unanimity, they sought advice of experts as to the wisest course.

The engineers reported in favor of a separate main, as the growth of the town would require more or larger mains in a few years, and in the meantime Medford would be getting a poor supply.

Another town meeting was held January 28, 1870, and again authority was voted to the commissioners to contract for the construction of the works. The board wanted the town to express itself on the important question, that is, the course of the main from the pond. The report of the special engineers was read and debated at length. Still unsettled, the town met again February i. At this meeting Mr. Wilcox offered an amendment, to the effect that water be taken from the Charlestown works. The meeting adjourned to February 9, when the town voted against Mr. Wilcox's amendment and in favor of the separate main; then again voted authority to the board to contract for the works, and provided means of payment.

It is needless to say that civic interest and excitement ran high during this series of town meetings.

The outcome of the decision to have an independent main resulted in a break in the personnel of the board, by the resignation of Mr. Wilcox on April 4, 1870.

A large main was laid from the south shore of the pond [p. 54] through Forest street to Medford Square, which proved a wise plan, for Malden and Melrose, in using one main to Wyoming avenue, found theirs too small and not laid deeply enough into the pond. This necessitated large expense in 1881 to remedy the trouble.

The commissioners secured legislation in 1870, which was more complete than that of 1867, and gave the town full authority to carry on the water works as a municipal industry.

George H. Norman of Newport, R. I., a contractor who had been successful in building water works, was chosen from three who estimated, and a contract signed May 24, 1870. He agreed to do the work and take his pay in town bonds, which was worth considering, for town bonds did not have such a ready sale in those days as in later years.

Mr. Norman built a practical and efficient system (considering the period), in running order, for $161,657. Beside that, he left us a practical man, whom we all remember as superintendent of the works, Robert M. Gow. Mr. Gow spent the remainder of his life, over twenty years, in that position, depended upon and trusted by all, faithful to the last. His son, Frederick W. Gow, was then elected superintendent, serving in the same efficient manner for the next thirteen years.

The first water Medford received from the pond was by courtesy of Malden through their main, by way of Salem street, sometime in the fall of 1870, Malden having first had water in August. The exact date when water was delivered to Medford takers is uncertain. The first money received for water or service pipe was on December 22, 1870, which would indicate that the people received a supply sometime between August and December.

Medford's main from the pond was not ready for use until about a year later.

After the system was established the citizens were slow about having their premises connected. In 1870 Medford was a town of 845 dwellings, with a population [p. 55] of 5,700. The first year about 45 per cent. of the houses were supplied with Spot Pond water; at the end of the second year about 60 per cent.; the next year about 68 per cent.; then it became more general, increasing yearly as follows: 77 per cent., 81 per cent., 82 per cent.; until gradually most houses were connected. Some few held off even as late as 1893, and in fact, one household in a thickly settled district to this day prefers to use its well, though obliged to have the closet connected and flushed with city water.

People were reluctant to give up their old wells and cisterns, many claiming that nothing tasted as good as their own well-water. There seems to be a fascination in the use of well-water, when people become accustomed to its taste, especially if it looks clear, which is unwise and sometimes dangerous. The State Board of Health Report, as early as 1878, says, ‘Some of the foulest wellwater examined by the board has been clear, sparkling, and of not unpleasant taste.’

Spot Pond water was very pure, compared with that of many public supplies, but we found there was much local pride back of the praise given it by our citizens when we compared it with many others in the State and saw the scientific analysis of it. Even for a pond water it was considerably colored, was rather hard, and not nearly as free from deleterious matter as we were proud to think it was. It was the contrast with that of Mystic and Cochituate, that we came in contact with so much, that made it seem so good by comparison. It was taken from a low level in the pond, and came through a main in shaded ground, giving us a very cool water in summer and making it very acceptable water to drink.

In the early nineties Medford had grown to the size of a city, and most of its system of cement-lined sheetiron pipe had fufilled its purpose. Breaks in the older mains were frequent. Beside, the pipes were too small for a town using the amount of water Medford did and occupying so much territory. Much of our city is at a [p. 56] high elevation, and many citizens on the high lands were seriously inconvenienced; they were able to draw water only during the night at some seasons. Much of the time they were without it during part of the day-time, when it was being generally used on the lower lands.

Complaints were numerous and emphatic because of this lack and of the frequent breaking of mains. The selectmen had devoted much space in their annual reports to finding fault with the water works.

They had some cause for this, as they saw the situation. With a debt of over $200,000, after an annual payment of from ten to fifteen thousand dollars for the previous twelve or fifteen years for the water works, and with no definite plans in sight to secure a larger supply and larger pipes to carry it, the outlook was not brilliant.

On January 27, 1893, the commissioners decided to lay cast-iron pipe in all new work, and to use larger sizes. A plan to secure more water by a system of driven wells north of Webster street was discussed. Because of a disagreement as to its expediency the board was again disrupted, the chairman, Thomas B. Dill, resigning. Again time proved the wisdom of the majority, for experiments made proved the folly of spending the amount that would have been needed to develop the wells. It was found later that a large quantity of water could be obtained from Wright's Pond and vicinity at a much less original cost and maintenance expense.

Wright's Pond, located just south of the Spot Pond water-shed, is an artificial pond, first developed for an ice pond. It was in the design of R. H. Eddy, C. E., in his (Boston) report of 1836 already mentioned, to develop this as a reservoir. Medford developed it by raising the dam, so that the pond lay 140.66 feet above Medford's base, covering about 25 acres, and making a reservoir of about 80,000,000 gallons above a level 11 feet over the intake pipe. There are two branches called the east and the west arm, beside the branch that was dammed, which together constitute the head waters of Gravelly Creek. [p. 57] These two arms were also developed so that water might be pumped back, into either Wright's or Spot Pond during the months of excessive flow, for storage there until the dry season.

A pumping station, built in 1895, between the branches of the brook, in connection with a steel standpipe erected the same year on a hill on the same property, gave the city a high service system with a pressure at the water office of 90 pounds per square inch. Every house in the city was thus given an adequate pressure as well as supply, after a new main had been laid to the square and the high lands, and some of the small mains had been replaced with larger cast-iron pipe.

There has been much criticism in recent years about the use of cement-lined pipe. At first it was wise to use it on account of its cheapness. The cost of cast iron at that time—$6 to $70 per ton—being prohibitive for a town like Medford. The old pipes were replaced at just the right time, the price of cast-iron pipe having fallen to the lowest figures ever known, $17.50 to $22 per ton.

With a threatened water famine averted, plenty of water available for many years to come, and with a great improvement in the finances of the department, the city felt easier, and the water commissioners were confident they could meet the situation, even with an increased debt, without increasing the water rates. Ever since the selectmen, in their report for 1887, had almost insisted that the water rates be increased, they, as well as the commissioners of the sinking funds and all of our mayors, except the present one, have urged the water board to increase the rates.

That the rates were not increased, as well as for the wise direction of the other finances of the department, credit should be given to three chairmen of the water board. No words are too strong to express the appreciation due Messrs. Gleason, Chandler and Stickney for their efficient championship of the interests of both the city and the water-rate payers. Mr. Gleason served the [p. 58] town and safeguarded the interests of her citizens during the trying period preceding and following the establishing of the water works. To Mr. Chandler belongs the credit of rebuilding the works, establishing the high service and increasing the water supply, using the vigorous common sense and sound business ability for which he is well known. To Mr. Stickney is due thanks for the manner in which the finances of the department are being conducted at this time, enabling it to install a meter for each water taker without any increase in the charges.

From the time when the works were new, the town small and the debt large, through the time of rebuilding the old works, adding new, and procuring a larger supply, to the time when further expenditures were necessary because of waste, the rates established in 1871 have never been increased. This is the only case that has come to my notice of such a low water rate being maintained so long.

Because of the inability of the Metropolitan Water and Sewerage Board (of whom more will be said later) to check the waste of water in its district, the State, in 1907, ordered meters installed. The law applies to the whole district, and while not the ideal method of delivering water (which should be used as freely as fresh air, but not wasted), it is the only practical method of dealing fairly with all.

In 1893-4 Boston and several cities and towns in its vicinity had reached the point where it was unsafe to depend on their sources of supply. Governor Russell had proposed that these cities and towns form a district to develop some large supply for the benefit of all. The more the subject was investigated the more evident it became that the situation was imperative.

As all water supply questions required action by the State Board of Health, the Legislature instructed that board to report upon the question, which it did very fully in January, 1895. The outcome was an act of the Legislature that year, known as the Metropolitan Water Act, [p. 59] creating a board of three State commissioners to take the waters of the south branch of the Nashua river, the Boston water works above Chestnut Hill reservoir, including the reservoir and pumping stations, and Spot Pond. This supply is to be delivered to certain cities and towns, and to any other cities and towns within ten miles of the State House that want it.

The total expense (construction and maintenance) of this joint system is to be borne by the cities and towns constituting the district.

Contrary to our democratic form of government, neither the district as a unit nor any part of it, has any representation upon this board, any more than the village of Squam has. The board is appointed by the Governor. To be sure, the State's credit is being used and the State should have a large voice in the management of the great enterprise, but eventually the district will have a large sum of money invested and no control over it, and the State will have nothing invested and will control everything.

Medford's Spot Pond supply was taken by the Metropolitan board January I, 1898, because it makes an ideal reservoir for the district. It allows a large quantity of water to be held at a proper location north of the Charles river, and at a suitable elevation for distribution.

The Metropolitan board offered as payment to Medford, Malden and Melrose, in compensation for this taking, approximately $250,000. This being an unsatisfactory amount, suit was brought, and the court finally awarded $1,239,479.91, Medford's share being $469,821.70, Medford's expense in the suit being $59,729.09.

We are now part of the Metropolitan Water District and are getting our water from the south branch of the Nashua river at Clinton, the Sudbury river at Southboro, and Lake Cochituate at Natick. We are getting a better quality of water than ever before, and in ample quantity. The city is without care of the sources in any way, the water being furnished to us at our mains at a higher pressure and in larger volume than ever before, the [p. 60] amount furnished being metered. Our partial ownership insures us a perpetual supply of water.

The city now owns its own water works free from debt, and there is no reason why that condition cannot continue.

This favorable state of affairs is due to Mr. Frank E. Chandler more than to any other one man, for, against the opposition of the State and the City of Boston and the opposition of influential men of Malden, Melrose, and even of some within our own city, he maintained his position in the suit for proper recompense for the taking of our property by the Metropolitan district.

Probably nothing in this vicinity has been the cause of so much litigation as the waters of Spot Pond.

October 26, 1871, in order to avoid trouble with the former owners of the water from the pond (the mill owners located along Spot Pond brook), Malden, Melrose and Medford, acting together, formally took the outlet of the pond, that they might control the flow.

In January, 1872, the mill owners brought suit for damages for the taking mentioned, which deprived them of water, and after a hard fought legal battle got judgment and were paid. Medford's share of the expenses of these suits was $33,154.58.

Being petitioned by the abutters on the pond because of the overflowing of their lands, the Superior Court appointed commissioners to determine high-water mark at the pond, which they did in 1876, and caused a copper bolt to be set in a ledge at the shore, indicating the same. They also fixed low-water mark at 7.91 feet below that point.

The records show that, as early as 1700, there was objection made to the overflowing of the land about the pond, caused by the dam put in by the mill owners on the brook; but the mill owners maintained the dam, sometimes with a shotgun. The Governor and council were petitioned for viewers to examine the pond, which petition was granted, resulting in an agreement as to [p. 61] what was to be considered high-water mark. There was said to have been a hole drilled in the ledge to show it.

Again, about 1800, complaint was made of flowage of meadows. Suit was brought for damages, resulting (see Sullivan's land titles) in a decision of Supreme Court, October, 1800, establishing rights to flow the land in question by the defendant, Samuel Tufts, as follows: he ‘has had, and now has, prescriptive right to keep up the dam, in the same situation and height, as in his plea he has declared.’

There are many other suits on record, too numerous to mention.

Spot Pond was discovered by Governor Winthrop, as he records in his journal, February 7, 1631, ‘The Governor, Mr. Nowell, Mr. Eliot, and others, went over the Mystic river at Medford, and going north and by east among the rocks about two or three miles, they came to a very great pond having an island and divers small rocks, standing up here and there in it, which they therefore called Spot Pond. They went all about it on the ice.’

The pond then covered about 150 acres, but by the erection of the first dam in 1642 was raised slightly, and the evidence shows that it was raised at various times during the following one hundred and fifty years, in all 8 or 9 feet, making a pond of about 296 acres, high-water mark being 153.76 feet above Boston city base. This is as it was until Medford, Malden and Melrose, in 1896, raised it slightly, so that, May 1, 1896, it was a reservoir above Medford's water main of a little more than 900,000,000 gallons, giving us a pressure of 53 pounds per square inch at the water office. The Metropolitan board have since raised it 9.24 feet to elevation 163 above Boston city base, enlarging the capacity considerably and giving us a pressure at present of 60 pounds per square inch at the square.

The Metropolitan board have improved and beautified Spot Pond as well as made it an ideal reservoir, and [p. 62] established an architecturally attractive pumping station on its shore, expending for these purposes about $900,000.

Though now interested in the pond only as part owner, where is the Medfordite that does not feel the special interest in it that goes with long years of association with that beautiful body of water?

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