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Water for Hartford

The Story of the Hartford Water Works and the Metropolitan District Commission

Kevin Murphy

Publication Year: 2010

As good health is inextricably wedded to pure drinking water--and this particular concern looms larger every day--understanding delivery systems is almost as important as the water itself. Water for Hartford chronicles the century-long effort, beginning in the 1850s, to construct a viable, efficient water system. The story of Hartford's water works is a fascinating one, for it recalls the hard work, great sacrifice, and extraordinary engineering feats necessary to deliver wholesome drinking water to a growing urban center. It also illuminates the ever-changing social, political, and economic milieu in which it was built.

The story of its construction is also the story of three men--Hiram Bissell, Ezra Clark, and Caleb Saville. Readers are transported back in time and given a firsthand glimpse of what these champions of a water system faced on a daily basis: unforgiving geography, venal politicians, and an often-indifferent public. The book culminates in the exhilaration of having built a water works from scratch to deliver clean, safe drinking water to the masses. Water for Hartford is a human story, peopled by men of vision and achievement, who understood that their decisions and actions would affect millions of people for decades to come.

Published by: Wesleyan University Press

Series: Garnet Books


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pp. 1-9


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pp. ix


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pp. iii

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pp. v-vii

A book like this requires a prodigious amount of research. Among other things, it is the result of stories, reminiscences, and anecdotes as well as historical and genealogical material supplied by hundreds of people, who surrender these priceless treasures so that a small—but important—piece of history can be preserved.

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pp. xi-xii

Collectively, the oceans of the world constitute the mystical reservoir from which all life flows. Evaporation launches moisture into the atmosphere where it forms clouds, which then disperse their burden in the form of rain and snow. As this precipitation falls, it replenishes the rivers and lakes that, laterally, return this life-sustaining potion back to the seas. ...

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pp. xiii-xv

Water. It’s all around us, and we barely take notice. Of all our daily needs, inevitably we think of clean drinking water last. We inspect our clothing carefully and we worry about the condition of our homes and automobiles. At the same time, we are painstakingly aware of the nutritional value and freshness of our food ...

Map of Hartford, 1836

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pp. xvii

Map of the Trout Brook System

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pp. xix

Map of the Complete MDC System

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pp. xxi

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Chapter 1 The Muddling Years

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pp. 24-39

In the spring of 1836, a seventeen-year-old farm boy, Hiram Bissell, arrived at the Port of Hartford to begin a four-year apprenticeship in the masonry business. Inasmuch as overland travel was difficult and the railroad had not yet reached the city, the Connecticut River was the all-important connection to the outside world. ...

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Chapter 2 The Breakthrough

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pp. 40-60

Hartford might never have been settled in the first place had it not been for a falling out on religious principles between a pastor in Cambridge and his superior in the Boston church. The head of the church, Rev. John Cotton was unbending in his belief that faith came before good works. ...

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Chapter 3 Building A Water Company

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pp. 61-85

By dint of unlucky timing, Hartford built its water works during one of the most difficult periods in American history. From the mid-1840s, slavery dominated the political rhetoric of the United States, complicating simple social intercourse and escalating newspaper editorials to fever pitch. Springing from this tension were new political parties ...

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Chapter 4 The River Water Deteriorates

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pp. 86-121

Now that Hartford finally had a water works in place, the business of selling the Connecticut River water to the public became the raison d’etre of those who had championed the cause. Between October 23, 1855, when the water first flowed into the Lord’s Hill Reservoir, and the beginning of December, when the ground was too frozen to install connections to homes and businesses, ...

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Chapter 5 The Dam Collapse of 1867

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pp. 122-141

On the Tuesday following the decisive water vote on the additional supply from Trout Brook, Judge Elisha Carpenter of Hartford’s Superior Court withdrew the injunction won by Eliphalet Bulkeley and William Hungerford. The newspapers hinted that the pair would file another injunction but, in truth, they had had enough; there simply was no fight left in them. ...

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Chapter 6 The Drought of the 1870s

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pp. 142-178

In the days following the devastation at Reservoir No. 1, many hundreds of people visited the site of the Trout Brook dam to see the mess for themselves. On Sunday following the breach, there was a steady stream of curiosity seekers straggling west along the Farmington road. ...

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Chapter 7 Completion of the Trout Brook System

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pp. 179-194

From the standpoint of inventions with the potential to change the way people live, the last decade and a half of the nineteenth century was one of the most important periods in American history. Electricity improved life in the manufactories as prosperous owners embraced the new technology for the increased production it would deliver. ..

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Chapter 8 The Nepaug Dam & Reservoir

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pp. 195-216

If ever there was a case of the right man being in the right place at the right time, it was the appearance of Caleb Mills Saville at the offices of the Board of Water Commissioners at Hartford in 1911. He was a forty-six-year-old engineer, who had graduated cum laude from Harvard College in 1889. ...

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Chapter 9 Graduation To Regional Supplier

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pp. 217-233

After the completion of the Nepaug project in 1922, Caleb Saville still spent his afternoons in the northwestern hills of Connecticut. He had his driver, Marty Cannon, bring him out there to inspect the small fits and finishes on the Nepaug and compensating reservoirs and the new sand filtration system in West Hartford. ...

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Chapter 10 The East Branch Valley

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pp. 234-256

A few short weeks after the October vote on the new Metropolitan District Commission, the people of Hartford experienced the first shock waves of a market crash that would change their lives forever. Yet few realized the hardships that lay ahead because by that time, the United States had weathered dozens of rough economic spells. ...

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Chapter 11 The Barkhamsted Reservoir

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pp. 257-275

The land committee of the MDC—thanks to an early start—had assembled almost 8,000 acres of land in the East and West Branch valleys by the end of 1931. The total climbed every year until, a decade later, the utility owned more than 20,000 acres in the towns of Barkhamsted, New Hartford, Hartland and Colebrook in northwestern Connecticut. ...

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Chapter 12 A Circle Within A Cycle

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pp. 276-291

The end of World War II brought thousands of young servicemen back to America to pick up their lives. They were the flesh and bone catalysts behind the largest marriage and birth rates America has ever experienced. People began buying goods not available during the war, which fueled corporate expansion and created jobs aplenty. ...

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pp. 292-293

This book took considerably longer than I anticipated, and had I known at the beginning that this volume would consume five years of my life, I might never have written it. So said, it should come as no surprise that I had my doubts along the way. ...

Author’s Notes

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pp. 294-333


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pp. 334-341

E-ISBN-13: 9780819571021
Print-ISBN-13: 9780819570802

Page Count: 352
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Garnet Books

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Subject Headings

  • Metropolitan District (Conn.) -- History.
  • Hartford Water Works -- History.
  • Water-supply engineering -- Connecticut -- Hartford -- History.
  • Waterworks -- Connecticut -- Hartford -- History.
  • Water-supply -- Connecticut -- Hartford -- History.
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