Water Sanitation and Public Health in Boston


The history of Boston is marked both by instances of growth and expansion, and the challenges presented by this growth.  Among the major concerns in Boston’s early history are water sanitation, sewage treatment, and public health concerns caused by the lack thereof.  As Boston developed, the demand for better and more abundant water sources grew, causing the city to develop numerous reservoirs and water treatment facilities to ensure the potability of these sources.  Typical of the time period, early Boston also lacked proper sewage treatment systems.  This was a major cause of concern as a lack of proper sewage disposal made neighborhoods prone to disease and epidemics which swept the country in the 19th century hit Boston particularly hard.  Even when sewer treatment plants were being regularly used. these plants did little to treat waste.  In fact, the early sewer systems involved storing untreated waste until it could be released into Boston Harbor at low tide.  More advanced sewer systems replaced this, using primary and secondary treatment techniques to prevent the unsafe disposal of waste from impacting the health of surrounding areas.  Current efforts also focus on removing the pollutants that had accumulated in bodies of water where these practices had occurred for decades.  Flooding only exacerbated Boston’s sewage problems, causing sewerage systems to fail and promoting the spread of waterborne diseases, such as cholera, dysentery, and typhoid.  Olmsted’s renovation of sites along the Emerald Necklace was intended to prevent future flooding events.  These efforts involved drastically altering the routes of waterways to ensure that water was flowing in a more efficient manner, as many of the health issues of the time also centered around stagnant water bodies accumulating pollutants.  These efforts continue today as advanced sewer systems have prevented the spread of disease, but flooding still remains as an important issue.  Current restoration projects focus on reducing the risk of flooding by dredging the sediment at the bottom of waterways, and removing the more dense vegetation to facilitate the flow of water and increase the capacity for water storage.


“Charles River Basin Project.”  About Civil Engineering.  American Society of Civil Engineers, 2019.  <https://www.asce.org/project/charles-river-basin-project/>.

“Charles River Reservation in the Charles River Basin Historic District.”  Massachusetts Conservation.  National Park Service, 2019. <https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/massachusetts_conservation/charles_river_reservation.html>.

“Early Sanitation in Boston and the Evolution of Modern Sewerage Systems.”  Histories of the Calf Pasture Pumping Station.  UMass Boston, 2019.  <http://blogs.umb.edu/pumpingstation/category/early-sanitation-in-boston/>.

The Muddy River Restoration Project.  The Maintenance and Management Oversight Committee.  <http://www.muddyrivermmoc.org/>.

Pressley, Marion.  “The Riverway.”  The Landscape Architect’s Guide to Boston.  American Society of Landscape Architects, 2019. <https://www.asla.org/guide/site.aspx?id=40864>.

Robert Morse’s Pond Odyssey.  Jamaica Plain Historical Society.  Jamaica Plain Historical Society, 2019.  <https://www.jphs.org/people/2005/4/14/robert-morses-pond-odyssey.html>.

“Water, Sewer, and Stormwater: History.”  Water System.  Boston Water and Sewer Commission, 2019.  <https://www.bwsc.org/environment-education/water-sewer-and-stormwater/water-system>.

White, Meghan.  “A Neglected Reservoir Gatehouse is Now Part of a New Public Park.”  National Trust for Historic Preservation.  National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2019.  <https://savingplaces.org/stories/neglected-reservoir-gatehouse-is-now-part-of-a-new-public-park#.XfFaVehKhPY>.