When People Were Proud of Their Government

If you happened to be driving around the Chestnut Hill Reservoir in Boston and saw this building, what would you imagine it to be?

A town hall?  A library?  Those are certainly the kinds of buildings that got this Richardsonian Romanesque treatment in the late 19th century.   The huge smokestack is out of place, though.   It carried away the fumes from an enormous coal boiler.  That drove gigantic steam engines in the main hall on the right.   They pushed 30 million gallons of water a day eastward into the Boston water system.  This is the Chestnut Hill Pumping Station (also called the High Service Building), which was active from 1887 to 1976, and is now the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum.

It’s an inspiring place to visit.    The engines themselves are awesome:

But even more inspiring is the civic effort it took to build a grand project like this.  By the late 19th century Boston was growing enormously from a huge flux of European immigrants, mainly Irish and Italians.   The Brahmin elite could have abandoned the old, cramped city and moved outward, as the white elites did in the 1940s and 50s when they fled to the suburbs during the black immigration from the South.   Instead, the Brahmins doubled down on their investments in the city.   They filled in the Back Bay, laid out a huge series of parks now called the Emerald Necklace, and built one of the world’s most advanced water systems.

Clean drinking water is the single most effective health measure ever devised, more so even than antibiotics.  There’s a great old documentary, “Water and the Dream of the Engineers”, wherein Abel Wolman, president of the American Water Works Association, looks straight at the camera and says “If it wasn’t for our work, half of you would be dead.”  You mainly get infected from the things you eat and drink, so keeping those clean immediately cuts out the prime way for bacteria to get into you.

This wasn’t fully established until the mid-19th century, with the discovery that cholera was spread by bad water.  They didn’t actually know about bacteria then, but some brilliant analysis by Dr. John Snow (as told in the riveting account “The Ghost Map” by Steven Johnson) identified the disease’s vector.  In 1854 he tracked a cholera epidemic in London to one particular pump on one street, went out and had its handle taken off, and saved hundreds of lives.

By the time the Chestnut Hill Reservoir was built in 1870, the value of clean water was well known.  The city was supplied at that time by Lake Cochituate in Natick, just outside Route 128.   A break in an aqueduct across the Charles River in 1859 convinced the city fathers that they needed a large reservoir closer to the city, so they laid out the enormous sum of $2.4 million to have Chestnut Hill built.    Oddly enough, there was another break in an aqueduct near that same location just last year, and it did in fact paralyze the city, and the Chestnut Hill Reservoir did actually preserve clean water at good pressure.  It only took 140 years for the Reservoir to serve its original purpose, but civil engineers need to take a long view.

Portrait of Desmond Fitzgerald, ca 1920

Desmond Fitzgerald, builder of the Chestnut Hill Pumping Station, at age 74

Shortly after it was built, the multi-talented Desmond Fitzgerald became Superintendent of the Western Division of the Boston water system, and it was he who drove the building of the Pumping Station.   When it opened in 1887 in this beautiful building, all the luminaries of the city were there.   The Station meant that water could get to the top of every hill in the city, and that fire hydrants would always have pressure.    Fitzgerald systematically identified all the sources of pollution into Lake Cochituate and closed them down, and ran one of the first permanent microbial testing facilities in the Station.   He was also a personal friend of Claude Monet and John Singer Sargent, a great collector of their paintings, and a trustee of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.   In those days, a city physical plant manager was an important citizen, not a technician.

The Station ran well for almost 90 years, but then its coal power plants became obsolete in the age of diesels and electrics.   The buildings were sold off and re-developed as handsome condos.  One of the constraints in the developer contract, though, was that the Station Engine Hall would be preserved.

The Hall was cleaned up, and opened as the Waterworks Museum in March of this year.    You can walk around the engines but not inside them – a matter of liability.  There are displays all about, and a nice video of people in period costume talking about the opening of the Station.  The engines’ pistons haven’t moved in 35 years, but there are still people around who worked on them, so they hope to get them functional again soon.   Seeing these house-sized engines actually moving again would be a thrill!

I’ve long thought that the era of this Station, that of the latter 19th century, had the most progress of any in the history of the world.  It certainly had the most technical progress, what with the rise of the railroad, then automobile, then plane, plus the electric light, the telephone, radio, photography and films.    We think of our own era as moving at a dizzying pace, but we can claim only a couple of major advances, such as cellphones and the Web, compared to the dozens of that time.  Beyond that, though, it was a time of huge general progress, what with the abolition of slavery, the rise of universal education, and of democracy.

I think that this Station embodies one of the forces behind that progress – the idea of the public good.   No longer were things done just for the elite.   The elite could have had their own water carted to their houses, but everyone benefited more from a public water system.   Clean water meant that epidemics didn’t spread, that fires didn’t spread, and that food was safer.   The elite could have had schools only for their own children, but everyone benefited when everyone could read, figure, and contribute.   Electric light had been done for a few select venues like theaters, but it only really took off when everyone could use it, when the huge investments needed for it could be amortized across millions of customers.   Roads had been built for just toll-paying customers, but it wasn’t worth building bicycles and then cars until there were roads that could take everyone everywhere.

Serving the general public good instead of just the aristocracy unlocked a vast resource of innovation and energy that transformed the world.   Not all of that has been to the good, of course.  Even the Boston water system had its victims in the form of the towns of Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott, which were drowned to form the Quabbin Reservoir in 1940.  Still, serving the public good is such a positive-sum game that its benefits have been huge.  It’s an idea that has always been under attack, even in recent years, but the Chestnut Hill Pumping Station is a great argument in its favor.

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One Response to When People Were Proud of Their Government

  1. Pingback: Tech Tourism Around Boston « A Niche in the Library of Babel

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