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When Boston’s earliest settlers established themselves on the Shawmut Peninsula in mid-1630, they were attracted to the location, in large part, because of its ample water supply.
Early accounts refer to the “sweete and pleasant” springs on Shawmut. The names that the town government later gave to two of Boston’s oldest streets---Spring Lane and Water Street---attest to the existence of this all-important water supply.
However, as Boston’s population grew--from a mere 100 in late 1630 to 11,000 by 1720 and to about 16,000 on the eve of the American Revolution--the surface water supply proved inadequate, and residents were obliged to dig wells and collect rain water in cisterns. In addition, the quality of the town’s water deteriorated. By the mid-eighteenth century, Boston’s water had become hard, discolored, and offensive to the taste.
The city’s health and safety hinged upon the availability of an adequate water supply. Water was needed to combat two hazards--fires and epidemic diseases. The still close-packed town was a veritable tinder-box. From 1702 until 1794, there were fifteen major fires. A 1760 fire destroyed several hundred tenements, warehouses, and wharves. Another major fire, in 1787, reduced more than 100 buildings in the southern part of town.
Water was also required to keep Boston’s streets clean and reduce the incidence of cholera, smallpox, and yellow fever outbreaks.
After 1785, the water shortage became severe as a result of tremendous growth in population. From 1785 to 1825, Boston’s population shot up from 16,000 to 58,000 residents. By the 1790s, it had become clear that outside water sources would have to be tapped for Boston to continue to grow.
In 1796, the Aqueduct Corporation, a privately owned company chartered by the Massachusetts General Court, was established to purchase the water rights to Jamaica Pond in West Roxbury. Noted civil engineer Laommi Baldwin of Woburn installed a network of subterranean wooden pipes that conveyed water from Jamaica Pond to Boston.
Unfortunately, this system could not supply the more elevated sections of Boston, where some of the largest residences were being constructed. Also, the demand for water was growing so quickly that it soon exceeded the capacity of the relatively small Jamaica Pond.