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Boston’s water: public or private?

In the 19th century, the city fought over who should own our infrastructure—and made a choice that spoke volumes.

View of the water celebration on Boston Common October 25th, 1848.Boston Athenaeum

On the glorious late autumn afternoon of Oct. 25, 1848, Boston Mayor Josiah Quincy Jr. looked up from the text of his speech and surveyed the enormous crowd assembled around the Frog Pond on the Common. His listeners, including many visitors who came for the day from nearby towns, numbered in the tens of thousands. With coy courtesy, he asked “if it were their pleasure” to witness the arrival of the city’s newest resource. The response was an overwhelming “Aye!”

At Quincy’s signal, a valve slowly opened, releasing thousands of gallons of water from the city’s waterworks, just constructed, into a splendid fountain in the pond. As a reporter breathlessly observed, after “a moment’s pause...there was a gush of rusty-looking water, small and doubtful at first, then spreading, and gathering strength, then rising with beautiful gradations higher and higher, until it towered up a strong, magnificent column of at least seventy feet in height, flashing and foaming in the last crimson rays of the setting sun!” Spontaneous cheers accompanied the booming of cannons and the igniting of fireworks. People laughed and shouted, men threw their hats in the air, and some even broke out in tears.


As the crowd that day could perhaps already sense, this new project heralded a transformation in the city’s life. The works brought what promised to be an unlimited supply of pure soft water to Boston, whose supply had become limited, brackish, and hard. It was by far the largest and most expensive infrastructure project in the community’s proud 218-year history.

But in that moment Bostonians were also witnessing something else: the result of a long and profound debate about how their city should work, notably about who should take responsibility for meeting its basic needs. At the center of this debate was whether the new waterworks should be privately owned or belong to the public itself.

It is easy to see such a massive piece of hydraulic engineering—a complex system of bridges and tunnels, reservoirs and pipes—as a great technological feat. But infrastructure is also the expression of an idea about how we should live. And supporters of a publicly owned waterworks for Boston took a strong position in a key debate that is no less fraught today. We see this tension in current battles over taxes, health care, subsidies for certain industries, and so-called entitlement programs—behind which are deeply conflicting conceptions of the proper role of government and private enterprise in meeting our needs. What happened in Boston influenced what happened in the rest of the country, and the ways in which the debate unfolded reflected the fundamental beliefs, values, and aspirations of the city.



Nineteenth-century Boston was a place of prodigious growth. The population in 1848 had approximately doubled just since 1830, and its water supply was stretched. Most people drew water from their own or nearby private wells. About 1,400 mainly well-to-do residents purchased water from the Boston Aqueduct Co., which since 1795 had been piping water from Jamaica Pond to a limited portion of the city. The idea of building a comprehensive waterworks that served the entire expanding metropolis dated back at least to 1825. Over the next two decades the city commissioned multiple studies, but it put off taking action.

By the 1840s, the state of the water supply had reached a critical point. A survey found that while about half of Boston’s houses had wells, almost none provided water soft enough to be used for washing, and a large number were effectively dry. Some households had to send someone several blocks to fetch enough water to live on; others carefully guarded their own supply. It was impossible to delay any longer without risking the city’s future development.

Bostonians, who had a long tradition of open discussion of civic issues, engaged in a debate that had virtually no equivalent in any other American city. The key question, which came to a head in 1845, was whether to construct a publicly funded and operated works from Long Pond in Framingham and Natick, or to contract the job out to private entrepreneurs, the leading contender being a corporation that would bring water from Spot Pond in Stoneham.


It might seem natural today that a water supply is public. But it was anything but certain at the time. Other cities, including New Orleans, Buffalo, San Francisco, and Providence, all opted for private water systems in the same period. There was also the example of London, served by several private companies, and, closer to home, the Boston Aqueduct. Lucius Manlius Sargent, a key stockholder in that company, published a long series of letters in the Daily Evening Transcript charging that arguments for a public system victimized civic-minded entrepreneurs like him, who were committed to “the prosperity of this highly-favored city.” Some Bostonians without such a direct financial interest opposed public ownership because they harbored a suspicion of political rulers that went back at least to the Revolution, and they shared Sargent’s faith in capitalism and the free market. They feared taxes and worried about incompetence and dishonesty among public officials.

As critics noted, a project on the scale of an urban waterworks would certainly entail a huge expansion of governmental power, responsibility, and cost. The author of an anti-public-system pamphlet who called himself “Prudence” told readers that by hiring a private company, Bostonians “will avoid an everlasting pecuniary embarrassment” and “will happily escape the fiery ordeal of the tax gatherer.” A public system, after all, would require borrowing money on an unprecedented scale, and it would be safer and easier to have private investors bear the financial risks and technical responsibilities of such a large and complex system


Supporters of the private option asserted that Boston and the nation had long and wisely entrusted their well-being to private enterprise, and that a private corporation could build a better system, and run it more effectively and efficiently, than could the government. “Prudence” contended that the owners of Spot Pond could do the work in half the time. In a letter to the editors of the Transcript, a person who signed himself “B” pointed to recently established railroads as evidence of the superiority of private corporations in getting large and essential projects done.

But from the outset many leading citizens insisted that the water system had to be public. In his inaugural address in 1826, Mayor Josiah Quincy Sr. asserted that Boston “ought to consent to no copartnership” in procuring water. A city was decidedly not a business, or at least not a typical one. “No private capitalists will engage in such an enterprise without a reasonable expectation of profit,” he explained. They would pursue the cheapest water, the best customers, and the highest price, while a responsible city government would want the best water to be delivered to everyone at the lowest cost.


The most eloquent argument for public water came from Dr. Walter Channing, the first professor of obstetrics at Harvard Medical School, a founder of what would become the New England Journal of Medicine, and an outspoken advocate of many reform causes. The choice of public ownership and control of city water was to him a moral issue. Channing declared, “I see its necessity in the wide public want. I look for its accomplishment in a wise care for the public good, in generous purposes, in large and true policy.”

The debate was bitter and intense. Partisans of both sides held spirited meetings in schools and churches throughout the city and rallied supporters in Faneuil Hall. Finally, on May 19, 1845, the matter of approving the charter of the public Long Pond system was put to a binding citywide referendum. A very narrow majority of voters refused to approve the proposal, leaving the problem of Boston’s water supply unresolved. Some found the indecision embarrassing, worrying (as one observer put it) “that Boston, with all her proud aspirations for high character and consistency, of noble and judicious enterprise, is doomed, for a long period to come, to stand the laughing-stock, the disgraceful spectacle, of a lack of that public spirit which most other large cities manifest.”

The partisans of public water rallied over the summer and fall of 1848. It helped that an official inspection of Spot Pond concluded that its contents were inadequate. In a new referendum the following spring, a revised proposal to build a public system from Long Pond carried the day by a majority of over 90 percent.


The works was indeed a technological marvel. It conveyed the crystalline contents of Long Pond, renamed Lake Cochituate, through a 14-mile aqueduct to a holding reservoir in Brookline (still tucked gracefully alongside Route 9) and thence to the insatiably thirsty and ambitious hub of New England. The uneven topography that the aqueduct negotiated demanded the construction of two bridges, over which the water was conveyed in inverted siphons, and two tunnels, dug by crews working around the clock.

The project was even costlier than its opponents had charged it would be—the $5.2 million price tag doubled the original estimate—and it would run at a deficit for many years, which had to be made up with higher taxes and fees, as well as additional borrowing. More than three-fourths of the city’s net funded debt of $5 million in 1849 was due to the waterworks.

But few Bostonians voiced regrets. In its first calendar year of operation, the Cochituate works delivered an average of more than 10 million gallons a day to more than 12,000 customers, as well as over 900 hydrants. (Fighting fire was another major argument in favor of a new citywide system.) Shortly after the ceremonies on the Common, the Daily Evening Transcript observed, echoing Channing, “The value of such a blessing, freely dispensed throughout our city, is not to be calculated in dollars and cents; for it has relations inestimable with the moral and physical welfare of generations present and to come.”

There is little question that the arrival of the water made Boston a healthier and more prosperous city, helping it grow to 250,000 by 1870 and more than twice that by the turn of the century. Per capita demand also jumped, so that by 1862 the Cochituate Water Board determined that the system required a major expansion. Delayed by the Civil War, the Chestnut Hill Reservoir was completed on Oct. 25, 1870, exactly 22 years after the celebration by the fountain on the Common. In the same year, the city took over the Mystic Lakes system when it annexed Charlestown. It completed an aqueduct to the Sudbury River in 1878 and added additional reservoirs, including Spot Pond.

With some exceptions, public ownership (backed by public borrowing) became the rule in major infrastructure projects, especially waterworks. The bigger the city, the more likely it was to have a public system. By 1897, 41 of the nation’s 50 largest urban centers consumed public water. This also reflected the willingness of residents of cities to accept a bigger and bigger role and operating budget for governments and public agencies. Some of these agencies transcended municipal borders. Since 1895, Boston’s water needs have been overseen by a series of regional authorities. Nowadays both Boston and many other Massachusetts cities and towns draw water from the titanic Quabbin Reservoir, about 80 miles to the west of the State House, whose capacity is over 400 billion gallons.

As we well know, the debates over what city services municipalities should outsource to private companies remain contentious today. Strapped for cash and without the same prospects for growth that Boston enjoyed in the 1840s, some local governments have put portions of the existing infrastructure up for sale. But throughout these debates, the original struggle over Boston’s waterworks reminds us that what is at stake is never just this or that service or amenity, but what a city is, and what kind of urban future we want.

In 1630 Puritan leader John Winthrop famously advised the first Puritan settlers to keep in mind that as a new chosen people they were to be “as a city upon a hill,” and that if they were to survive and prosper, each individual must look out for every other. Boston is sometimes criticized for having a chilly, pious attitude that seems to date back to those early Puritan times. But the response to the recent Marathon bombings provided reassuring testimony that another Puritan legacy also survives: The public spirit that Winthrop called for remains alive and well.

In this debate about municipal ownership and the ones that have played out since, the real question has never simply been one of practicality. What’s at stake is the principles by which Boston has defined itself, and which endure at the heart of the city today.

Carl Smith is a professor at Northwestern University and author of “City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago.”