One Hundred and fifty years ago today work on the City of New Bedford’s remarkable Water Works was begun with a referendum of the citizenry voting in favor of constructing a public water supply for the city.
The Water Works remains an engineering marvel and reveals the extraordinary foresight and determination on part of city leaders – the New Bedford’s single largest and most expensive public works project of the 19th century. It is still one of finest public water supplies in the Northeast – sourced from the largest natural complex of fresh-water ponds in the state – the Water Works, is a direct legacy of the city’s whaling wealth.
When Mayor Isaac C. Taber delivered his mayoral address to the Joint Special Committee of the City Council on the Introduction of Fresh Water on December 21, 1860, the country was on the verge of war and the whaling industry was in a severe slump. Whale oil markets were plunging due in part to petroleum coursing from Pennsylvania oil wells. The Mayor crystallized the city’s challenge: “We have a beautiful city, handsomely located, a splendid harbor, good water communication and ample railroad facilities… Water! Water!! Is our great desideratum, an ample supply we must have or cease to prosper…” His impassioned plea heralded the beginnings of a 40-year construction project to bring fresh water into the city on a massive scale.
William Wallace Crapo, a prominent attorney and community leader, was a vocal proponent of a public water supply. Called the “First Citizen” of New Bedford, W. W. Crapo’s influence can be seen on nearly every major municipal initiative during the second half of the 19th century. His law practice served some of the most influential and wealthiest clients, including Hetty Green, Henry Huttleston Rogers, and Emily Bourne. He was also first president of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society, governing body of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Improving public health was a rallying cry but fire was the bigger concern as the town had suffered several devastating blazes, the worse of which occurred in 1859. The Great Water Street Fire destroyed 20 buildings; fueled by 8,000 barrels of whale oil. Losses exceeded a quarter-million dollars. But even that catastrophe didn’t convince everyone. Despite the late Mayor Taber’s call, the next Mayor, George Howland, Jr. argued it was not yet time to outlay so much money, and besides, he argued, his personal well, like those of many of his comfortable neighbors, provided more than an adequate water supply. Crapo, then City Solicitor, decided to persuaded him to allow Professor George I. Chase of Brown University to analyze his well water. It proved quite contaminated “with coliform of a very suspicious nature.” The Mayor promptly changed his mind on the Water Works. Sylvia Ann Howland, Aunt of Hetty Green, was a spinster who spent many years in ill health, and due to her family’s whaling pursuits, was worth more than two million dollars. A client of Crapo, she bequeathed $100,000 toward a public water supply.
On Thursday, April 14, 1864, funding the construction of the Water Works was put to a vote of the taxpayers of the town. The town’s Quaker fiscal conservatism showed again; it was not a landslide: Yeas 781, nays 594, or 56.8 percent of the vote.
W. W. Crapo, Warren Ladd, and David B. Kempton, were appointed as the first Water Commissioners in 1865. The commission traveled to several cities around the country to learn firsthand the engineering challenges of various water works. For this, the commission was criticized by some who complained the trips were unnecessary and sarcastically suggesting the initials in W.W. Crapo’s name stood for “Water Works.” But “Water Works Crapo” persevered; construction was nonstop for four years, until finally, water flowed into the city in November 1869. They celebrated by opening the hydrants at the newly built Purchase Street Pumping Station and filled the streets with water.
The Water came for the upper reaches of the Acushnet, where they had constructed a dam across the Acushnet River Valley. A brick oval-shaped conduit was constructed for the 8-mile journey into the city. Its diameter measured three feet by four feet and its path from the holding reservoir on the Ansel White Pond to the receiving reservoir at Purchase Street, had a grade of six inches to the mile. It was the single largest public infrastructure project ever undertaken by the city. Gravity fed, the Water Works distribution system was an ingenious feat of engineering, exploiting every inch of the land elevations from Freetown to New Bedford.
By 1886, the city had built new conduits directly to Little Quittacas Pond, and the Purchase Street Station was retained as a backup. When construction of Interstate 195 began in the late 1960s, a portion of the Mt. Pleasant reservoir property was taken for the highway corridor. Its pumping house at the bottom of the hill was no longer needed and was finally demolished to make way for the Hayden-McFadden School on the site. All that remains of the Pumping Station is the dedication tablet, now mounted on the lawn of the school.
In response to more stringent water quality regulations, a secondary treatment plant was completed at Quittacas in 1977. This facility includes sedimentation tanks and the chemical treatment processes used to increase water quality to its highest level since the original plant went online. This facility monitors every aspect of water quality, chlorination, and hydrology. The city’s Water Division works with many agencies to preserve and protect the watershed. Recently, another 1,000 acres was added. New Bedford currently holds a permit to withdraw 19.2 MGD (million gallons per day), with an additional 2.7 MGD if needed. Currently its daily average usage is: 11-12 MGD. Thus, its capacity is capable of supporting far more economic development than it did at the height of Textile Era. The Water Works now serves a half million people regionally. It has 24,000 metered customers; approximately 2,000 are outside the city.
Today, New Bedford’s water is its wealth; a critical resource for future growth and well-being.
|NEW BEDFORD WATER WORKS CHRONOLOGY|
|1803||First Aqueduct Association formed|
|1804||First Aqueduct Association complains of “water thieves”|
|1811||First Aqueduct Association more payment problems|
|1820||Sept. destroyed 10 commercial bldgs.|
|1822||First Aqueduct Association goes out of business|
|1830||July: Second Great Fire|
|1840||15 public reservoirs, mostly for the fire dept.|
|1850||Late 1850s agitate for public water; coming war & fires part of it|
|1857||NB pop. Over 20K & lacked major source of fresh water.|
|1859||Aug. 24: Water Street Fire. 20 bldgs. destroyed; 8K barrels;$250K|
|1860||Mar. 8: Frederick S. Allen: Measure to consider public water plan|
|1860||July 26: Com. to investigate Public supply: City engineer Geo. A. Briggs, Wm. F. Durfee; and Capt. Charles H. Bigalow of Clark Point Fort|
|1861||Dec 21:Survey Committee recommends Acushnet River Valley as source|
|1864||City Electorate votes to establish a Water Works on April 14. The vote: 781 to 594|
|1865||Dec. 13: 1st Water Board: WW Crapo; Warren Ladd; DB Kempton; J.B. Congdon|
|1869||Nov. 25. City celebrates WW; opens hydrants into Purchase St|
|1879||Purchase St has 3 pumps: 2 Worthingtons (duplex & high duty);McAlpine Eng|
|1881||Robt. C.P. Coggeshall becomes Water Works Superintendent|
|1882||First water meters installed in city|
|1886||Connection to Little Quittacas made to augment the Acushnet supply|
|1899||Little Quittacas becomes source of entire water supply|
|1899||High Hill Reservoir goes online|
|1899||Quittacas Pumping Station is completed at Little Quittacas Pond; online July 10|
|1900||Water Board contracts with Pocahontas Coal for 1200 gross tons @ $4.95/ton|
|1900||Mt. Pleasant Distribution Reservoir Elevation: 158.8 feet above grade|
|1900||High Hill Reservoir Elevation: 196′|
|1900||Quittacas installs 2 Leavitt compound, beam & flywheel engs.; Dickson Mfg. PA|
|1900||Quittacas consumes 2,8834,404 lbs of coal or 814 gals of water pumped per lb.|
|1900||Max daily water consumption reached 9,995,422 gals. On Sept. 7.|
|1900||2.3 billion gallons consumed|
|1900||1,429 water meters installed; of 9,290 taps being served|
|1910||6,106 water meters installed|
|1920||15,316 water meters installed|
|1924||MA Legislation enables city to also draw from Assawompset, Pocksha & Long Ponds|
|1928||18,086 water meters installed|
|1949||Electric motors replace the original steam pumps at Little Quittacas|
|1949||Steam pumps at Quittacas replaced with diesel powered engines.|
|1957||Severe drought plagues New England; prompts calls for new sources of supply|
|1966||Drought conditions spur Mayor Harrington to call for Water District of 14 towns|
|1970||City hires Camp Dresser & McKee (CDM) to study additional water sources|
|1971||CDM reports out on sources and Water Works urgent maintenance needs|
|1972||Electorate votes in favor of fluoridation; the decision remains contentious|
|1977||New water treatment plant built at Quittacas addresses water quality improvements|