Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Boston's Costly Little Stream

Some nice background from one hundred years ago on the trouble Stony brook caused Roxbury and Boston before it was put permanently underground.

Boston Daily Globe July 12, 1908

Boston's Costly Little Stream
City Has Expended Nearly $3,500,000, Paying
Damages, and Trying to Hold in Check the Wilful
Waters of Stony Brook - It Has Baffled the
Ingenuity of More Than One Civil Engineer - Brook
Now Runs Underground a Long Distance - A Walk on
the Bank from Clarendon Hills to Turtle Pond, the
Source, Will Amply Repay Any Lover of Nature

There is one romantic little brook whose babbling
has cost Boston nearly $3,500,000 during the past
40 years, and which bids fair to cost many hundred
thousand dollars more before its erratic and
wilful waters are fully held in check.

That stream is Stony brook, familiar to Roxbury
youth for two centuries.

It has figured in politics and in the courts. It
has baffled the ingenuity of more than one civil
engineer. Its overflow has many a time made the
surrounding country into a lake dotted with
islands of houses, whose owners have promptly sued
the city for damages. The havoc wrought by the
gentle and quiet stream during the few days each
year of its inebriation has been incalculable.
"I bought a lovely house and garden not far from
Stony brook," said a man who came to the city to
educate his children. "All was beautiful until one
morning. I awoke to find that the children
couldn't go to school before I had signaled for
row boats to take them out of the house."

Stony brook is the outlet of Muddy pond - only
that is not now the name of the pond, and it never
was a very good name anyhow, for its waters are
not turbid, but clear blue. So the park
commissioners changed the name to Turtle pond,
because no turtle was ever seen anywhere near the
vicinity. But Turtle pond lies in a secluded spot
in the Stony Brook reservation in West Roxbury,
about a half a mile from Washington st, surrounded
by Bearberry, Milkweed and Overbrook hills.

From the southern extremity of the pond the brook
flows southerly into Hyde Park through the woods
and swampy meadows, past Bald Knob hill and not
far from Rooney's rock, into Waters-meet meadow.
There it bends its course into a northerly
direction, which it generally maintains until,
through underground conduits, it pours its waters
into the Charles River not far from the
Charlesgate - its romance, its idyllic beauty and
its charm all lost in a sewer.

The upper stretches of the brook are still very
picturesque in places, where the grassy banks are
overgrown with trees and with wild flowers. Here
and there the channel narrows down to four or five
feet in width, and again it widens. Much of the
olden time beauty of the brook is still intact,
and any lover of nature will be amply repaid by a
walk along the banks of the stream from Clarendon
Hills to is source, a ramble of about three miles.

Many of the older residents of Roxbury, with
recollections of their boyhood days, cherish
memories of Stony brook 50 years ago, when it was
a favorite resort for anglers. Trout were once
plenty in its upper waters, and even today horned
pout a foot long and other fish of equal size are
not uncommon. In the olden days the brook flowed
past thriving vegetable farms, whose owners
brought their produce to market in their own
teams. In those days, the stream gave little
trouble by its annual freshets.

It was only when the banks began to be lined with
houses, about 60 or 70 years ago, that the annual
spring freshets first caused annoyance. In 1851
the city of Roxbury took its first step toward
confining the turbulent waters within their
channel by changing its course and covering it
over. The work, however, was not completed until
15 years later.

At two points the brook was utilized as a water
power - at Wait's mill, near the corner of Roxbury
and Pynchon sts, and at the "Tide" mill, which
stood near Parker st, not far from the present
Huntington av. The latter mill has existed only in
tradition for the past half century, and for the
removal of the dam at Wait's mill, in 1866, the
city paid the Boston belting company $7000,
although the flowage was used only to turn a
grindstone.

Above the dam was Smith's pond, which, in summer,
bred malaria and typhoid fever. The same trouble
existed along the course of the brook further
upstream.

The city of Roxbury did all it could to restrain
the waters by a covered channel from Roxbury
Crossing to the large basin on what is now the
Fenway, but every year there were disastrous
freshets and consequent claims for damages.
In February, 1867, occurred the most extraordinary
freshet in the whole history of the brook. The
whole vicinity of Roxbury Crossing down to the
Fens was under water. Small houses and other
buildings floated around, in a great lake. All the
machinery on the first floor of the Boston belting
company's plant was submerged.

After annexation of Roxbury to Boston and after
the city had begun a systematic plan for the
improvement of the brook by carrying its waters
through an underground conduit, thus changing the
stream into a sewer, which, however, was never
intended for the disposal of sewage, but solely to
care for the waters of the brook, the real
troubles for the city commenced. Boston had
learned what an enfant terrible it had on its
hands.

Floods every year!

From 1881 to 1886 there was one disastrous
freshet after another, culminating in the later
year with the memorable flood, which made hundreds
of families temporarily homeless and did hundreds
of thousands of dollars' damage. That flood evoked
from Mayor O'Brien a message to the city council,
in which he said:

"It is evident that the Stony brook improvement
has failed to do the work that was intended; that
the money expended on its construction and
improvement has been to a great extent money
wasted, and that the so-called improvement is as
unreliable today as the old brook every was. The
meadows and swamps that were intended to be
relieved by the improvement have been overflowed
to as great an extent, during the recent storm, as
was ever known before.

"To say the least, it is a most faulty piece of
engineering, and we have received scarcely any
benefit from the large amount of money expended
upon its construction.

"Even admitting that the storm was the severest we
have had for years, we must also admit that our
Stony brook improvement is a failure in an
emergency, and the circumstances are likely to
arise any year when it is no protection whatever.
"We may not have such a calamity for 50 years, and
it may come next year. It is a dangerous stream,
and building and settlements on its borders should
be discouraged until engineering skill is able to
control it during the heaviest storms. If it is
allowed to remain as it now exists the present
calamity is nothing in comparison to what may
occur some years hence, when the land on its
borders is more thickly settled than at present."

Following Mayor O'Brien's suggestion, the city
engineer's office worked out a plan for the real
improvement of the brook channel, which, taken
together with the work on the Back Bay fens, has
only been completed within recent years. The huge
culverts, about 15 feet by 12, are ample to care
for the flowage in any ordinary freshet. The
conduit begins at Williams st, about half a mile
north of Forest Hills, and extends to the Charles
river, near the original mouth of the brook.

In the freshets of 1881 to 1886 the plant of the
Boston belting company suffered damage each year,
and it finally instituted suits against the city
for compensation, alleging that it owned the mill
site and mill privilege and land on both sides of
the brook and was entitled to the use and
enjoyment of its waters "in their natural state
and condition," but that the city, by changing the
brook to a sewer, had caused the overflow, and so
was liable for damages. The case was fought for
years, but the belting company won in the end and
was awarded damages to the extent of $142,300.
That was the largest single verdict against the
city on account of the Stony brook overflow.

How much the brook cost the city of Roxbury and
the town of West Roxbury before their annexation
to Boston is not definitely known, but the total
cost is estimated at about $50,000. Up to
December, 1906, the city of Boston had paid since
1867, according to figures compiled by Dr Hartwell
of the statistics department from reports of the
auditor and the officials in charge of sewers, the
sum of $3,177,206. The expenditures since 1906
will foot up a few hundred thousand more, and the
covering of the brook from Williams st to the Hyde
Park line, a distance about two miles, still
remains to be done.

When that is done, every vestige of the old Stony
brook within the city of Boston will be buried
out of sight.

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