Chestnut Hill Reservoir & the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum

2450 Beacon Street, Brighton

Pumping station of the Boston Water Works, Chestnut Hill Reservoir, circa late 1800s. Source: Arts Department, Boston Public Library via Digital Commonwealth.

The Chestnut Hill Reservoir, located at the western end of the city along the border with Brookline, opened in 1870 to help meet Boston’s water needs. Work on it began soon after the Civil War. With a capacity of 550,600,000 gallons, the reservoir greatly helped to relieve the pressure on Boston’s water system—at least for a while, particularly during a time of rapid population growth.

The reservoir was also noteworthy for the beauty of its grounds, constructed to allow for ambling in “nature” and, later, for its built infrastructure—particularly an 80-foot carriage road and greenway around the water body, a grand entrance arch connecting it to Beacon Street, and the pumping station (constructed in 1897). What the bucolic setting obscured was the arduous labor that went into constructing it.

Postcard of Chestnut Hill Reservoir pumping station and grounds, 1908. Source: Brookline Historical Society.

Built on the site was housing to accommodate for more than 400 workers, many of whom were Irish and Canadian immigrants or Civil War veterans While the Cotichuate Water Board, which oversaw the project, claimed that its policy was to “pay our employés fair wages for their services, and have them well treated,” the workers perceived the wages as inadequate. On March 2, 1867, 225 workers, who were receiving $1.50 for their 12-to-14 hour-workdays, went on strike for higher pay. According to the Water Board, the workers “virtually proposed to supersede those in authority, and to fix their own wages…”  The Board promptly fired all the striking workers, the majority of whom they said had been misled by “a few restless, rambling men [who] were the leaders in the affair,” and quickly found replacement workers, whose wages were raised to $1.75 a day. That the Water Board was able to behave as it did suggests the weak bargaining position of workers at the time, a result of low levels of organization among many laborers and the presence of many in need of wage work.

The reservoir was taken offline in 1978, but it still serves as a backup water source in case of emergency. The architecturally grand pumping station on the reservoir’s edge is today home to the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum. The museum, entrance into which is free, interprets the history of Greater Boston’s water systems.

Getting there:

Green Line to Reservoir Station (D Line), or to Cleveland Circle Station (C Line). (0.4 miles, 8-minute walk.)

To learn more:

Boston Landmark Commission, Report of the Boston Landmark Commission on the Potential Designation of the Chestnut Hill Reservoir and Pumping Stations as a Landmark, City of Boston: Environment Department, Boston Landmark Commission, 1989.

William P. Marchione, “Water for Greater Boston,” Brighton Allston Historical Society, circa 1998-2001. (See also historical images of reservoir here.)

Report of the Cotichuate Water Board to the City Council of Boston for the Year 1866-67, City Document No. 88, Boston, 1867.

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