Christian Hill Reservoir & Lowell’s Water Supply

When Lowell received its town charter in 1826, the “domestic” water needs of most people – water for drinking, cooking, and washing – were met by wells that were scattered throughout the area. Also, anyone living near a river, a stream, or even a canal, could and did draw water from there. But when Lowell exploded as a manufacturing colossus, it faced a substantial threat from fire, so having a supply of water adequate for firefighting purposes became a priority. (This is also a reason why the Lowell Fire Department was historically one of the most advanced in the country).

To help protect its mill buildings, the Locks and Canals Corporation built a reservoir on Lynde’s Hill which was then in Tewksbury but is now Fairmount Street in Lowell. Water was drawn out of the Lowell Canal and pumped through a pipe all the way to this reservoir to keep it filled with water. Other pipes from the reservoir came back into downtown where they branched off to each of the major mill complexes to provide a ready supply of water under pressure for firefighting. To a lesser extent, this water was also used for industrial purposes and also provided domestic water to the boarding houses and executive housing owned by the mill corporations. (The Lowell Canal is a short waterway that branches off the Merrimack Canal near the intersection of Dutton and Market Streets, then runs entirely underground and out of sight behind the Market Mill complex before draining into the Pawtucket Canal near the rear of the Leo Roy Parking Garage).

By 1850, it was becoming increasingly apparent that water drawn from wells, especially in the densely populated downtown of Lowell, was not of the best quality, and the eyes of city government turned to the Merrimack River for an alternate source. The mill corporations had immense political power and used it to jealously guard their control over the flow of water, so it is surprising that in 1855 the state legislature passed “An act for supplying the city of Lowell with water” which said:

The city of Lowell is hereby authorized to take, hold, and convey into and through the city from the Merrimack River, at any point thereof within said city that may be deemed expedient, sufficient water for the use of said city and the inhabitants thereof, for the extinguishment of fires, domestic and other purposes; and may also take and hold, by purchase or otherwise, any lands or real estate within said city necessary for laying and maintaining aqueducts or pipes, constructing or maintaining reservoirs, and such other works as may be deemed necessary or proper for raising, forcing, retaining, distributing, discharging, or disposing of said water.

Building a system of underground pipes to carry water from the river to houses and buildings would be a complex undertaking at significant expense, so nothing happened quickly. But in the early 1870s, after much study and the exploration of alternatives, city leaders adopted a plan that drew water from the north bank of the Merrimack River in Pawtucketville and then transported that water through a pipe that ran parallel to the river to a reservoir on the high ground in Centralville. From there, other pipes would distribute the water throughout the city.

The original 1826 charter for Lowell set its northern boundary at the Merrimack River, so everything on the far side of the river remained in Dracut. However, that changed in 1851 when the state legislature annexed 680 acres of Dracut to Lowell. This parcel was in the shape of a triangle with corners at the modern reference points of Aiken Street at the Merrimack River, to Methuen Street at the Dracut line, to the Duck Island Sewerage Treatment Plant on the Merrimack River. An early subdivision plan referred to this area as “Central Village” which is where the name Centralville came from. (The rest of Centralville and almost all of Pawtucketville became part of Lowell in another annexation from Dracut in 1874).

To obtain the land on which the reservoir would be constructed, the city purchased or took by eminent domain more than a dozen lots of land for prices ranging from $350 to $1,325 apiece.

1857 subdivision plan showing lots later taken for Centralville Reservoir

Getting the water up the hill to the reservoir would require a powerful pump. That would be located on West Sixth Street in a brick building constructed specifically for the purpose of housing the pump. Although the city only installed a single pump at the beginning, subsequent demand for water and the recognition that the pump constituted a single point of failure for the system caused the city a few years later to purchase a second pump for redundancy.

From 1879 atlas showing West Sixth Street pumping station.

As for where the water would come from, after several options including Beaver Brook and the Northern Canal were rejected, a site several hundred feet above the Pawtucket Dam on the Dracut side of the river was chosen. Here, a 30-inch pipe was run out from the shore, 45 feet along the bottom of the river. This would be the intake point.

Although the designers of this system were following the state-of-the-art in public health as they knew it at the time, the Lowell documents from the 1870s make it clear that much was left to be learned about making water safe to drink. For instance, the designers of the Lowell system equated clear looking water with safe to drink. For much of the year, water drawn from the river was clear, but in the spring or after heavy rain, large amounts of sediment (and who knows what else) mixed in and the water became cloudy. To remedy that, designers created a filter gallery.

The filter gallery or filter bed was a long rectangular trench dug not far from and parallel to the river bank that was lined with brick, top, bottom, and sides. Into this trench was laid 3 feet of crushed stone and gravel topped by 2 feet of fine sand. The input pipe from the Merrimack would enter at one end of the filter gallery, and the outflow pipe that headed to the reservoir would exit the other end of the gallery. Tests showed that when cloudy water was allowed to percolate through the sand and gravel bed, it came out clear-looking. However, there was also a by-pass pipe that would allow water taken from the river to go directly into the reservoir-bound pipe when the river water was clear or when demand exceeded the capacity of the filter gallery.

From there, the “filtered” water was propelled by gravity through a 30-inch cast iron pipe to the pumping station on West Sixth Street where the powerful pump boosted the water through another pipe up and into the reservoir. There the water would sit until it was needed. At first, one pump operating 12 hours per day was able to keep up with the demand for water, but as the city grew, so did water usage and before long the pump was running continuously and water was flowing out of the reservoir as fast as it was flowing in.

From 1879 Lowell Atlas showing location of Reservoir

The distribution pipe emerged from the reservoir and passed under the Merrimack River at Hunt’s Falls. From there, a web of pipes carried water throughout the city to homes, offices and mills.

Although the Christian Hill reservoir served most of the city’s needs for water, about 60 houses in Centralville and 50 houses in Belvidere were at a higher elevation than the reservoir, so water service didn’t reach them. After a number of years, the city created what it called a “high water supply” by building a second reservoir on Mt. Pleasant Street, about a quarter of a mile northeast of the main reservoir. An additional pump was installed at the West Sixth Street pumping station and pipes were laid to this new reservoir which would supply the houses at the highest elevations in Centralville and Belvidere. I believe this “high service reservoir” was constructed sometime in the 1880s. There’s a large water tank on the site now.

A decade later, in the fall of 1890, the city was hit with a severe epidemic of typhoid fever. Suspicion fell on drinking water from the Merrimack River. By then, scientists and doctors knew that bacteria in drinking water caused typhoid fever, however, effective means of detecting and measuring such bacteria in the water were not yet available. Neither was an effective means of purifying such water. That would come later. So will a follow-up blog post on the topic of supplying water to Lowell.

3 Responses to Christian Hill Reservoir & Lowell’s Water Supply

  1. Brian says:

    So when people call the higher reservoir the “old rez” they are technically wrong. The city foolishly demolished the West Sixth pump house at Eagle park in 2017.

  2. DickH says:

    The big reservoir on Beacon Street was completed in the mid-1870s and the smaller reservoir that was on higher ground a few blocks away was completed in the 1880s. I agree with your characterization of the demolition of the West Sixth Street pumping station. Even if it would never be used for the pupose for which it was built, it was an important artifact of another era that was worth saving and repurposing.

  3. Peter And Martha Kaselis says:

    The Christian Hill Reservoir Gatehouse is included in the Historic inventory. When we were looking for a house in Lowell in 1980 we were drawn by the aesthetics and potential for enjoyment of the the promenade around the basin, The Reservoir is used by the neighborhood for passive recreation and winter sledding. Plans to fill the Reservoir will result in stagnant, mosquito infested water.