Cue the Waterworks

It’s no secret that Boston is deeply fascinated and boastful of its own personal history. For the people of Boston, this fascination with the city’s historical triumph is also grounds for taking the entire day off from work and school. For Boston, history is best memorialized by holiday: see Evacuation Day and—most notably on Boston College’s campus—Patriots’ Day (better known as Marathon Monday).

One such historical tribute, however, goes vastly underappreciated year after year—Boston’s very own Water Day on Oct. 25.

Though the holiday is now fast approaching, Water Day is certainly not top of mind with most Bostonians—much like the clean and widely available public water that it celebrates, it seems to have become taken for granted over time.

The Waterworks Museum of Boston exists as a testament to that historical feat celebrated annually by Water Day.

If you frequent the Reservoir on runs and you’ve managed to circumnavigate the body of water, you may have noticed an elegant stone building nestled in the bend around the Cleveland Circle side of the park. This building is the home of Boston’s Waterworks Museum, affectionately referred to as the Waterworks and a celebration of the scientific and engineering triumph that is publically available drinking water. The true importance of this beautifully façaded museum, much like water, seems to be hiding in plain sight.

“The Waterworks preserves a legacy of innovation—a hidden history of innovation,” said Suanna Crowley, manager of outreach and development for the museum. “But definitely one that very, very deeply impacted the growth of Boston during the 20th century.”

A relatively new addition to the Waterworks staff, Crowley comes from an academic background in anthropology and environmental sciences—which includes a brief one-semester teaching stint at BC—but she has now shifted her focus to the work exhibited at the museum. For Crowley, her work at the Waterworks, particularly with regard to water science and public health through a socio-historical lens, meshes perfectly with her academic background.

Coming from research focused heavily on global water supply and the interaction of cities and water, joining the ranks at the Waterworks Museum was, to Crowley, “not a huge leap.” Putting this interdisciplinary work into a local Boston history context has made for an extremely enriching experience—one she hopes everyone can enjoy.

“Its really a place to go where you can explore more than once,” Crowley said of the exhibits on offer at Waterworks. “It has a lot of depth to it.”

Certainly, many museums merely document history—primary sources are put on display and timelines demonstrate the past in a linear way. The greatest museums, however, exist to both document and celebrate history—to tell a story and make a point of it. Waterworks falls into this latter category.

The Waterworks puts the hidden history of Boston’s often-groundbreaking innovation in public water on full display. The museum boasts about the human engineering feats that made Boston among the first world-class cities to have a fully fleshed-out system of sanitary water delivery.

The history of public water in Boston begins in the 19th century, when the city had thousands of new immigrants arriving and joining the thousands of residents already settled. At the time, unsanitary and inefficient public wells were used daily by hundreds or thousands of people to retrieve water for drinking and bathing.

A group of engineers, scientists, and architects came together in the 1840s and initiated a program in which they intended to create an aqueduct system—much like that of the Roman aqueduct system—and a reservoir system from western Massachusetts, outside of the urban population. They created a 60-mile long system, bringing water directly into Boston, and by the 1880s this fully formed water system became commonplace, and more firepower was necessary to keep up with demand.

Enter the Waterworks building.     

To accommodate this extraordinary demand, in 1887 the Waterworks station was constructed to help facilitate the massive transport of water—now in excess of 20 million gallons daily—into Boston. The aqueduct system from western Mass. pushed everything to the Waterworks building, which further pushed everything uphill to another location named Fisher Hill in Brookline. From here, gravity provided the necessary pressure for the latter portion of the journey into Boston—20 million plus gallons of water flow naturally downhill into the city.

Aside from being able to accommodate the massive demand and transform Boston into a world-class modern city, scientific innovation is where Boston, and consequently the Waterworks, shine. The building claims the first water testing laboratory.

The site of the Waterworks Museum was the first in the country that invested in this new scientific field of water testing—a discipline that would fundamentally redefine public health standards forever. It was in this building that a man named George Whipple, who would go on to co-found the Harvard School of Public Health, pushed the boundaries of water science and technology.

“He really focused on the components of water and how it impacts health,” Crowley said. “He focused on how we’re able to understand the chemistry, the biology, and the physical qualities of water—and how that affects hundreds of thousands of people.”

With this, Whipple set the precedent for water testing practices and standards.

The ripple effect of this innovation is still felt today, and remains central to the social mission complementing the historical mission of the the Waterworks Museum. The immediacy of water cleanliness’ effect on public health is obvious, and today problems associated with this persist.

The recent water crisis in Flint, Mich., is one such example of the impact that water has had on society. Once a place for innovation and invention in the field of water science, the Waterworks Museum now hopes to occupy a leadership role in the public health domain. Crowley spoke enthusiastically about this pivot to the current public health conversation, and she sees the future of the museum as not only a preserver of the past, but also a protector of the future.

“Waterworks is positioning itself to be a part of that conversation,” Crowley said of recent water-related issues pertaining to public health. “Here we are again, more than a century later, talking about water contamination and the impact on public health, and Flint, Mich., is the most visible part of that national conversation.”

Critical now to the mission of the museum, the Waterworks hopes to host programs in the coming year that focus on water science and the fundamental impact it has on public health. As guardians of water science’s technical and historical past, the Waterworks now enters the modern-day political and social spheres of the centuries-old conversation.



Visitors are greeted by an intimidating steam engine as soon as they enter the main exhibition hall of the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum, with even larger steam engines dominating the back of the hall.You would think that these now-defunct engines, once considered engineering marvels during their industrial heyday in the 1890s, would be gathering dust in the brick-and-mortar sarcophagus of a water station-turned-museum, yet they teem with a certain energy that hearkens back to a bygone era, when the power of steam helped carry society into the modern age.

The millions of gallons of water from Lake Cochituate and the Sudbury River that used to power the steam engines have long since stopped running through them, but to some experimental filmmakers and musicians, it’s high time to wake up these sleeping giants. These artists capitalized on the peculiarities of the museum to transform the location into an unconventional cinema space and concert venue on Friday night, projecting films onto the surfaces of the steam engines and creating experimental soundscapes with varying acoustic surfaces.

“We wanted to design an architecturally difficult concert,” said Susanna Bolle, one of the organizers of the event.

These artists opened the floodgates, so to speak, and the steam engines were operational once again—this time, pumping vivid colors and otherworldly sound in a way reminiscent of their past.

Rise of the Machines

The Leavitt Pumping Engine was installed at the Chestnut Hill Station in 1894 in response to the increasing demand for access to clean water in a rapidly growing Boston community. The pump, a triple-expansion, three-crank rocker engine able to pump and filter a record 20 million gallons of water per day, was deemed the pinnacle of steam engineering at the end of the Industrial Revolution.

“[The engine] was part of a ‘Golden Age’ of Boston that people don’t really know about,” said Eric Metzger, director of Museum Services at the Waterworks Museum.

Generally speaking, all steam engines require a source of heat to boil water into steam. To reduce energy consumption, the Leavitt Engine used a Green economizer to preheat the water before it entered the Belpaire firebox boiler, which contained 201 boiler tubes, two coal-burning furnaces, and a common combustion chamber to produce as much steam as possible. In the 1950s, oil replaced coal as the fuel of choice for the furnaces.

The steam from the boiler was then piped up to cylinders, which contained pistons of various sizes. The steam was constantly reheated as it traveled through the cylinders to maintain a sufficiently high enough pressure to move the pistons, providing the engine’s mechanical force to power the adjoining water pump. The diameters of the pistons correlate to the amount of mechanical force produced—the larger the diameter of the piston, the more powerful its output. A crankshaft drives a circular gear called a cam, which in turn has rods attached to it that regularly open and close the steam and exhaust valves.

Rods connecting the steam engine to the water pump sit on rockers that also provide mechanical force for the machine. Vacuum chambers use suction from air chambers to draw water up into the pump. The water passes through tubes to condense the exhaust steam from the engine and then is delivered to the force main.

Music & Movies

Friday night’s event was a collaborative effort between the Waterworks Museum and Boston’s cultural scene. Designed to be a “living installment,” the film and music are meant to incorporate the architecture and layout of the museum. Visitors are encouraged to walk around the museum to experience the different sights and sounds from different locations.   

Non-Event, a Boston-based concert series focused on experimental music, collaborated with the Waterworks Museum for Friday night’s event. The concert featured pieces by Mem1, the electroacoustic duo of Mark and Laura Cetilia, and experimental musician Brendan Murray.

The musical set involved electronic manipulation of sounds produced by a conventional cello to create a distinct sound that bathed the setting in a ghostly, orchestral atmosphere. Experimental musicians push the limits of acoustic principles by using different techniques to create unconventional music.

The introduction of electronics and specialized computer programs increased the versatility of an instrument and the range of sounds it can produce. With a complex array of microprocessors and computer installations, sounds can be transformed into novel tones, the building blocks of experimental music.

The different acoustic surfaces, from the brick walls of the museum to the iron surfaces of the steam engines, affect the quality of the sounds that bounce off of them. As a result, the music sounds different depending on where you stand in the museum.

For the film aspect of the night, Balagan Films and AgX Film Collective collaborated with the Waterworks Museum to feature experimental movies produced by Anto Astudillo, Sarah Bliss, Christina Hunt, Frank Aveni, Stefan Grabowski, Susan Deleo, Genevieve Carmel, Youjin Moon, Robert Todd, and Douglas Urbank specially made for the event.

Tinted lights glinting off streams of film hanging from parts of the steam engines created a shimmering effect throughout the museum. Multiple film projectors were set up around the hall, projecting the experimental films onto the walls of the museum and the structures of the steam engines, capitalizing on how we see to create the illusion of fluid motion. The aquatic-themed films, keeping the nature of the venue in mind, were strategically projected onto parts of the steam engines that once contained water, reminding the audience of the past.

Featured Image by Kristin Saleski/Heights Staff

Kayla Fernando and James Lucey

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