Today's image is a view looking out over the Beacon Hill Resevoir, which was built in the late 1840s to hold water being brought to Boston from Lake Cochituate. The construction of the reservoir did not have an auspicious start. The Barre (VT) Patriot for 19 November 1847 has a story about an accident which occurred during the laying of the cornerstone. The derrick swinging the stone into place broke and fell into another derrick which also broke, injuring a young girl who had her leg broken and a boy who suffered bad bruising. It could have been worse: the accident happened at 11:30 A.M. and the cornerstone ceremony had been scheduled for noon, which meant a much larger crowd would have been present.
In 1848 an observed noted, "the reservoir on Beacon Hill advances as rapidly as the nature of the work will allow. It will be an immense structure of granite masonry, though not as I had supposed, composed simply of four walls. The basin is separated by many huge granite partitions, which doubtless are intended to secure the walls against the lateral pressure of so lage a body of water. The water will be introduced into the city before this is completed; [there was a celebration in 1848 when the water pipes reached Boston Common] and when it comes then expect a high time. Water which costs three millions is worth a fuss." (Letters by Perth, Brattleboro (VT) Semi Weekly Eagle 25 September 1848)
When completed in 1849, the bottom of the reservoir was about 100 feet above the tidal marsh
line, which meant that adequate water pressure existed to drive water
to the upper stories of most houses in the area. Supply was not always adequate to demand. On one day in late January 1854 the water was only seven feet deep in the reservoir at sunrise and the reservoir was dry by noon which meant, according to the Boston Transcript, that "as a consequence the residents in Beacon, Mt. Vernon, Joy and Hancock streets could obtain no water last night after 8 o'clock." [Barre Patriot, 3 February 1854]
Points of interest in the photo include the Massachusetts General Hospital at the middle left edge, Old West Church in the center of the image, and the Boston and Lowell passenger depot on the site of present day North Station at the right middle edge. The image also gives an excellent sense of the density of Boston's West End, which was demolished in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
At one point in Boston's history, the resevoir site had an even higher elevation: the Massachusetts Historical Society has a view of the back of the State House as it appeared c. 1811, when the back side of Beacon Hill was being cut down. Note Charles Bulfinch's triumphal column on top of the hill in the MHS image. The Beacon Hill Reservoir was demolished in 1883 to make way for a rear extension to the Massachusetts State House. The extension was designed by Charles Brigham and constructed between 1889 and 1895.
The Bostonian Society has several images of the reservoir, including circa 1860 exterior views here and here, a circa 1865 view, one of the reservoir demolition in 1883 and a glass plate negative which appears to be the above photo.
The Metropolitan Water Resources Authority has a brief history of Boston's water supply here.
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