For a century the Mattapoisett water tower stood atop the hill at the intersection of North and Park Streets. Built in 1913, it brought running water into the homes of town residents. Due to its location the tower could be seen from far out into the bay and served as a beacon for mariners before today’s navigational aids. Prior to its construction each home had a well and a hand pump, usually in the kitchen. Some of the “summer folk” with houses built after 1850 had a windmill with an elevated tank to give them running water using wind power to pump water from the well into the tank.
Prior to the building of the water tower, the Town of Mattapoisett, acting through its Board of Water Commissioners, contracted with the Hanscom Construction Company to drive eight wells 20 feet deep in the vicinity of the Mattapoisett River to see if there was sufficient water to support a town water system. Following the driving of the wells, the State Board of Health ordered the continuous pumping for seven days and nights. After only six days it was concluded that the supply of water was far greater than the Town of Mattapoisett could ever use. The daily flow was 500,000 gallons and the state only required half that amount.
With the supply of water confirmed the town entered into a contract for the construction of a water system for the sum of $62,000. The agreement was signed on December 12, 1912 and bonds were prepared to pay for the project. The contract included the erection of a standpipe (water tower) 90 feet high and 25 feet in diameter, the construction of a pumping station 18 feet by 38 feet with a 10 foot ceiling, two installed 25 H.P. gasoline engines and pumps each capable of pumping 250 gallons of water a minute from the wells to the top of the standpipe, seven miles of cast iron pipe laid in a 5 feet trench system throughout the town and lastly, the installation of 55 hydrants at spots designated by the Water Commissioners.
The water system was up and running in June of 1913 with 165 homes connected up (running water at the tap). The water tower was not yet complete due to a strike at the steel mill, but continuous pumping kept up pressure at the lower level. Also, a heating system needed to be installed in the pumping station and more wells driven along the river. For the year 1914, the Water Department showed a profit of $1,336. The Town Report of 1915 states that town water had been extended to Pico, the Cedars, Crescent Beach and Point Connet with a total of 77 fire hydrants in the town. The State Board of Health reported that Mattapoisett water was the best in the state.
Having running water at the kitchen sink and in the bathroom (an addition) created a new problem. A well and hand pump in the kitchen produced a limited amount of water easily taken care of with a pipe to the backyard and bodily waste was taken care of at the outhouse. Beside the bench where you sat was a bucket or box of wood ash from the fireplace or stove with a small shovel. When you were finished you put a shovel full of ash down the hole. The lye in the ash took care of the odor and helped with the decomposition. Now with an abundance of water and flush toilets it was necessary to have a cesspool, a hole in the ground covered by planks to receive the wastewater from the kitchen and bathroom.
With an increasing amount of waste water running into the ground up and down the streets of the town, it became evident that a sewer system was needed. The first sewer line for bodily waste was privately funded in 1914 and ran down North Street from Route 6 to the harbor. There were other sewers, built as early as 1876, but they were storm drains not for wastewater. North, Mechanic, Barstow and Church Streets had storm drains all tied into what was called the Barstow Street Sewer Line which emptied into the harbor near the bathing beach. It does not take much of a stretch of imagination to realize that property owners on these streets would be quick to tie their wastewater into these existing lines. It would be half a century and more before Mattapoisett would deal with the problem of raw sewage brought about by a town water system built in 1913.
Along with running water, the early decades of the 20th century brought many changes to the lives of the people of Mattapoisett. During this period electricity brought the light bulb into homes and the telephone soon followed. In 1906 the electric rail (trolley) tied the town to New Bedford and surrounding communities. Summer colonies began to develop along Mattapoisett beaches, swelling the summer population of the town. Automobiles appeared on the streets and in an eight-year span the Town Hall, Center School and the Library were all built. In 1914 the opening of the Cape Cod Canal put a major commercial artery on the town’s doorstep. The First World War opened the door to further catastrophic events during the 20th century. The Mattapoisett water tower stood as a silent sentinel for 100 years reminding us of that bygone era. Its demolition gives us cause to reflect—“The old order changes to make way for the new.”
Anecdotal footnote Sometime in the mid 1930’s the gasoline engines running the pumps in the pumping station were replaced with electric motors. This was a common practice at the time and worked well until the power went off. This was the case in the hurricane of 1938. The many houses and cottages along Mattapoisett’s beaches were swept off their foundations breaking the water pipes off allowing the water to spray in fountains up and down the beaches. The water in the standpipe was reduced to a low level dropping the pressure throughout the town. This was of great concern to the Fire Department and to my uncle Clifford Tripp who was Water Superintendent. His concern with little or no water pressure was that salt and contaminated water would get into the broken pipes contaminating the whole system. He took a Buick automobile, jacked up the rear axel and with a belt from one of the wheels to the water pump in the pumping station kept enough water in the standpipe to give the fire hydrants pressure and time to those men up and down the beaches to turn off the water. I can hear him now, “There by God, that will do it!”