The Waterworks Museum
“It’s like something enormous whispering at you.”
Eric C. Larson, Publisher, Horn and Whistle Magazine, Ipswich, MA
It’s quiet, very quiet. Even when they were working, the machines here would not have made much noise. They were some of the most efficient pumps ever built. They are silent now, but they still tell many stories.
Think back to 1880. Boston’s population had grown by more than 100,000 in the last ten years. The city was welcoming many immigrants, and many of these people lived in poor housing conditions, with inadequate clean water supplies. People often became ill. The conventional belief at the time was that disease was spread by airborne vapors. The germ theory of disease was just beginning to take hold, but people were unaware of the role that contaminated water played in disease transmission.
The needs of an expanding population put enormous pressure on the city’s water resources. The water supply was frequently insufficient, and what was available was not always of good quality. The challenge: how to get clean water in abundant quantities to a city that kept growing. The answer lay in monumental engineering. The massive pumps at the Chestnut Hill Reservoir became the hub of the ever-expanding water system we have today, designed and built to bring Boston a steady supply of clean water.
At the same time, financiers and philanthropists involved in national growth funneled enormous industrial wealth into Boston. As a physical symbol of that wealth, Boston enjoyed its architectural heyday. Monumental buildings reflected civic pride and cultural advancement. It was no accident that Boston was known as the Athens of America. Even buildings that housed public utilities reflected the grandeur of the times. Architects borrowed details from cathedrals and palaces, celebrating new technologies and the public benefit they embodied.
So as you walk through the pumping station, take note of how all these strands—public health, social history, engineering, and architecture—come together to tell a very big story.