The Machine Age.

Today, thanks to the good graces of Scott and Al Goldberg (MIT ’59), I got to spend two hours in the soon-to-be-luxury-housing Boston Water Works at Chestnut Hill, which houses five engines that, taken together, provided Greater Boston with water from the 1880s through the 1960s.
The building itself was designed by H. H. Richardson, famous for Trinity Church in Copey Square, but who will in my mind always be associated with the New York State Capitol, which I spent a lot of time in as a kid and which is one of my favorite buildings of all time, and Albany City Hall just across the street. I will say: he had a knack for designing great civic buildings, of the sort that just don’t exist anymore.
Of the five enormous engines that occupy the building, four are steam powered and one is gas-powered. The Allis engine, built in 1895, is the oldest of the bunch, followed by the Leavitt (1898) and the Worthington (1922), all large reciprocating steam engines. In 1932, a compact steam turbine engine was installed below. In 1964, when Boston began to get much of its water from the Berkshires, the four steam pumps were placed on standby service, and in 1974 the site was closed and a gas turbine installed for emergency use.
Al made a fabulous tour guide, explaining all the ins and outs of turn-of-the-century steam engines and water pumps, and putting us to shame with his knowledge of engineering. I almost felt ashamed for not having taken Thermodynamics or a Mechanical Design class — having graduated Course II in 1959, our guide had high expectations of two young MIT alums. Despite our ignorance, he described the major workings of the engines, giving us mini-lessons in thermodynamics and steam power in the process. We ended up learning a lot, both about the technology and about the history of engineering education. We even discovered that Al and Scott share an identical story of discovery: both have had the experience of bicycling past the waterworks, seeing the door ajar, and walking inside — except when it happened to Al, the engines were running.
In addition to a tour of the engines from cellar to gallery, we got a peek at the boiler room and the even more impressive coal storage. The coal room is an enormous space, with a conveyor belt high in the rafters which pulled coal from the train (now the D line) which runs behind the facility. The coal would then be sent down a collection of chutes to the floor. I was trying to imagine the sound of such vast quantities of coal scuttling down the chutes into huge piles, the echoes of workmen moving about with shovels and shouts. “Steam engines are actually pretty quiet,” Al informed us.
Still, we couldn’t help but try to imagine what it must be like to be in the engine room when the pumps are running. With flywheels that big, even 50 RPM is fast, and there must have been activity: attendants moving around with oilcans to keep parts lubricated, reading gauges, adjusting valves… it would be an amazing sight. But these machines will never run again. “It’s a digital age,” Al kept remarking, with a hint of sadness in his voice.
There was so much to take in: the sheer enormity of the space and the machines, the winter light illuminating gears, crankshafts, linkages, huge pipes, and capacious water vessels; and the tiny details, from the texture of a knob to the furniture-grade wooden barrel-casings around some of the steam pipes, like tubular wainscoting high in the air, the wrought iron stairases and brass railings, the woodwork of the ceiling made for a church, the huge wrenches the size of men lining the walls, the old diagram-cases and desks, the built-in block and tackle for raising parts which might need replacement or repair. Around every corner was another surprise, anoher jewel of engineering, another marvel of craftsmanship, another fascinating insight into the past. We were, to put it plainly, in awe.
Al has become the de facto leader of a group which wants to help preserve the engines in a museum. The Leavitt Engine is on the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ roster of historic landmarks, where you can check out the mechanics of the thing (>PDF). Al has his own web site devoted to the Pumping Station (in anticipation of the museum-to-be), complete with some excellent photo galleries of the four engines. Scott has also put together some related resources.
What photos I was able to take today are up here. It was a difficult day for photography: the light was faint due to the heavy cloudcover, it was cold enough that the battery for my digital camera kept running down so quickly that I had to remove it and stick it in my pants to warm it up between shots, and neither Scott nor I wanted to be so rude to Al as to be constantly snapping pictures while he was explaining the inner workings of the engines. I had no idea what kind of film was in my Nikomat, but the ASA was set at 125, so I would have had to go through the rest of the roll in order to load the 1600-speed film I’d purchased on the way out. Scott got a few shots on his Nikon, and made tentative plans to return for a more intensive photo shoot, view camera in hand.
And so there is more to come. In the meantime, I am basking in the experience: aesthetic, technical, and historical. And it’s lovely. The sound of the D train going by, the snow falling outside… Though I’ve been chilled right through all day as a result, it was worth every minute.
As we walked back to Cleveland Circle, we passed by the trailer where the developers are marketing the condominiums. “Reclaim the elegance of Boston’s Golden Age,” promises the advertisement, while a woman stands at a window looking out onto the reservoir. It’s an interesting marketing tactic for a group that’s dumping for scrap all the machinery in the low pumphouse, which happens to be one of a kind: a nostalgic, historical sell, promising all the charm of the Belle Epoque with all the convenience of This Modern World. A digital age, indeed.


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