Report of Joint Special Committee on Sewerage to the City of Roxbury, 1858 / by Jason Turgeon

Here is a link to a report to the short-lived City Council of Roxbury detailing the possible locations of city-owned sewers.  In my day job, I am a water professional with a special focus on wastewater, so this report is near to my heart.  We are blessed to have a functional water and sewerage infrastructure in this country, largely thanks to the efforts of people 100 or more years ago—people like the authors of this report.  Since most of us have never known water scarcity or experienced waterborne disease, we tend to take these public works projects for granted. 

One of the reasons settlers chose Roxbury in the 1630s was its pure source of water at the Smelt Brook.  The Smelt Brook, long since entirely culverted and forgotten, was named for the abundant smelt that populated it.  As described in this book, it started at May’s Pond (which has also been wiped off the map) near the intersection of Quincy and Warren Street.  It wound its way through the flat area that is now the Mall of Roxbury and the houses just west of it, past the intersection of Walnut and Dale by the northeast corner of Malcolm X park, and flowed along the path of what is now Washington Street towards Dudley.  Unfortunately, that brook went on to become a sewer, as did so many others including the nearby Stony Brook.

This report is interesting for a number of reasons.  First, it paints a picture of Roxbury in the middle of its years as a city, during a period of rapid growth, a city struggling to build new infrastructure as it changed from a small farming town to a major industrial center.  It’s also a fascinating snapshot of Roxbury in 1858, before the filling of the Back Bay and South Bay, when the town still had water borders and a town dock.  And of course, it’s a gold mine for sewer nerds like me.

Bear in mind when you’re reading this that many of the street names have changed or streets have been rerouted since this pamphlet was written.  For instance, what we now call Washington Street was then Shawmut Avenue.  What is now Roxbury Street was then Washington Street.  The closest map I know to this time is from 1873, and although things were changing fast the map and report are close enough in time to be useful to each other.  If you’re confused, a look at the index map might be helpful.