The Scituate Reservoir: A Reminder of the Price of Progress

Nov 20, 2015Fall 2015

The Scituate Reservoir supplies 60 percent of the state’s water, but was created by displacing families and neighborhoods.

Although she lived to be 94, “Gramma” Helen O. Larson never forgot her roots in a small village that ceased to exist when she was still a child. She was born in 1910 in Rockland, one of several mill villages that were a part of Scituate, Rhode Island. It happened to be among a handful of those villages doomed to be dismantled and submerged beneath the Scituate Reservoir. Every building in those unlucky villages was demolished and all the people who lived there had to move elsewhere.

Throughout her long life Helen Larson took to writing poems. She did her first one on the school blackboard at the age of 12 even as workers had begun tearing down the building, and she penned her last one only two days before her death.

While her poems roamed across the range of her experience, many of them looked back to the world of her childhood that had vanished so abruptly. One of them, titled “The Scituate Reservoir,” began this way:

The land was condemned the people were told

Everyone felt sorry for the folks who were old

People in Providence needed clean water to drink

The city bought five villages; people had to sign with pen and ink

Some folks were born there, some lived there for years

They just couldn’t seem to shake off their tears . . .”

Sorrow and nostalgia echo repeatedly throughout this and other poems Larson wrote about the lost world of Rockland and its neighboring villages. She was hardly alone in these feelings. The experience left many, if not most, of these displaced persons embittered for the rest of their lives.

What was it about a reservoir that was important enough to wipe their homes and their past from the face of the earth?

Anyone who played Monopoly as a child will remember the Water Works as one of the utilities. Compared to other, grander properties it was cheap, but in the real world of growing cities, nothing was more crucial than the water supply. Peruse a map of these United States and you will find some body of water adjacent or close to every large city. Apart from being a necessity of life, water was needed for many types of business, for sanitation, and for fighting the most dreaded scourge of city life: fires. Individuals or groups might dig a well or two to provide for their needs, but the demands of expanding urban populations far exceeded that approach.

The problem of water supply is as old as civilization itself.

When Providence was founded in 1636 on the east bank of the Providence River, its residents relied at first on private wells. More than a century of growth led to the realization that some sort of central water supply was needed. A fountain society was created in 1773 to provide water for the town through a network of underground hollowed out logs. In May of 2014, a crew installing drainage pipes at Richmond Street unearthed the remnant of one such log. Like other cities, Providence soon found it necessary to come up with a broader program to meet its soaring demand for water, not only for personal needs but for factories, mills, other businesses, sewage disposal, and firefighting.

The problem of water supply is as old as civilization itself. Ancient Crete used underground clay pipes for water supply and sanitation. The Romans became famous for their sophisticated aqueducts that carried fresh water long distances to the city. Both the Greeks and the Romans had forms of indoor plumbing. Beginning in the 18th century, London obtained water from a number of private waterworks companies. In this country, Philadelphia pioneered in urban watersystems with the Fairmount Water Works, built on the Schuylkill River between 1812 and 1815, and augmented by the Fairmount Dam in 1822.

New York City completed its massive Croton Distributing Reservoir in 1842. Located at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, the present site of the New York Public Library, the reservoir created a 4-acre lake holding 20 million gallons of water within 25-foot-thick granite walls 50 feet high. A promenade circling the top of the reservoir became a popular place for strolls with a view. Smaller cities faced the same problem of assuring a reliable water supply. As early as 1797, Portsmouth, N.H., incorporated its first public water system, the Portsmouth Aqueduct, which carried water 2.5 miles through wooden pipes to the town.

Many of the water companies were privately owned and operated in the 19th century, but several factors led to a growing trend toward the creation of public facilities. The sheer scale of urban growth overwhelmed the ability of small, scattered private companies to keep pace with demand. An increase in the number of utilities—gas, electric, streetcars—and the large fortunes made from them led to a clamor for public ownership to keep rates reasonable. Most important, progress in discovering how certain diseases were transmitted led to the realization that entire communities could be devastated by contaminated water supplies. This insight spurred both state and federal officials to seek ways of monitoring the purity of water systems as well as ensuring a reliable supply.

The Providence water supply

Winter on Scituate Reservoir – a major supplier of Providence’s drinking water, which is treated at the Philip J. Holton Water Purification Plant. Photographs by John Supancic

In many cities, Providence included, the construction of public water systems faced stiff resistance from taxpayers slow to grasp the need but quick to see the expense. In March 1853, the City Council appointed a committee to look into and report on the matter of a suitable public water supply for Providence. The committee responded with a recommendation that the city take water from the Ten Mile River in East Providence. The council dutifully authorized the acquisition of the necessary lands and rights only to have voters reject the proposition. During the next 15 years, five separate committees submitted six different reports urging action, without results. The final report in 1868 stressed the need for an abundant water supply to develop and protect the city. On February 15, 1869, when the question went before the voters for the fourth time, they finally approved taking water for Providence from the Pawtuxet River.

Construction began in the spring of 1870 on the first facility, which drew water from the Pawtuxet River at Pettaconsett in Cranston. On December 1 of the following year, water began flowing through the first service pipe. For more than 30 years, the water was pumped directly from the river and into the system without any attempt to purify it. The notion of cleaning the water was hardly new; the Greeks and Romans practiced certain filtering techniques such as settling, running it through sand, and storing it in copper pots even though they knew nothing of the scientific basis for doing so. Not until 1906 did Providence install its first slow sand filter water purification system.

Once completed, the filters treated water drawn from the river, after which it was pumped to the Sockanosset open distribution reservoir, located in what is now the Glen Hope High School in Providence. The Hope Reservoir had a capacity of 76 million gallons and pumped water to the city’s system and to yet another storage facility, the Fruit Hill Reservoir in North Providence, situated on the site occupied today by Our Lady of Fatima Hospital. One key function of the Fruit Hill Reservoir was to furnish water for the special fire service that protected the business district and the congested Woods Development of Cranston. This reservoir held 55 million gallons and moved water by gravity to a second facility that stood on the ground now occupied by the manufacturing district where fire was always a threat. Although owned by the city of Providence, the system supplied water to North Providence, Cranston, Warwick, and Johnston as well.

Impressive as this distribution system seemed at the time, the growth of Providence and surrounding communities strained it by 1910. Increased demand raised concerns that the flow of the Pettaconsett River was inadequate. During dry spells, when its output could not meet demand, the shortfall was covered by drawing water stored in small reservoirs owned by upstream mill companies. Another problem complicated the search: The Pawtuxet River over the years had grown increasingly polluted from a rising level of sewage and industrial pollutants in the ground water system as well as the river itself. Across the nation, nearly every city confronted this same problem as their sources of water suffered contamination. In 1901, Providence became only the third city to build a sewage treatment plant, but the Fields Point facility was soon overtaxed.

Convinced that these problems would only grow worse, the City Council in 1913 appointed another committee to explore ways of developing a larger, safer, and more reliable water supply. Once again the issue became a matter of scale. The larger and more industrialized grew Providence and its surrounding communities, the larger and more expensive became the resources needed to serve it. Unlike some cities in larger states, Providence could not pipe water in from distant parts of the state. It had only a network of rivers already tapped by mills as well as by towns. Nor could it easily expand the existing distribution system. These and other limitations imposed on the committee a need to devise some broader and more original approach to the problem.

At periods of low water, the Scituate Reservoir reveals remnants of the stone walls, mills, and other structures from the villages that were submerged to provide water to 60 percent of Rhode Island's population.

At periods of low water, the Scituate Reservoir reveals remnants of the stone walls, mills, and other structures from the villages that were submerged to provide water to 60 percent of Rhode Island’s population. Photographs by John Supancic

From this thinking emerged a daring and bitterly controversial plan to solve the water shortage by creating a major reservoir within the state to assure a continuous supply of water. To do this required not only undertaking a costly and enormous construction project but also acquiring a large parcel of land on the most suitable river to dam and transform into a good-sized lake. In a state as small as Rhode Island it was highly likely that such land would already be occupied. It would have to be acquired by eminent domain, a legal process older than the nation itself. Eminent domain gave the government, federal or state, the right to seize land deemed necessary for some public use provided that it paid fair compensation for it.

Although uses of the process varied widely, in the past it had been used primarily for such purposes as government buildings, roads, railroads, military facilities, and utilities. Applying it to something as large as a reservoir could not help but generate strong opposition. In most cases the taking of someone’s private property affected a small number of people at most; a reservoir, depending on where it was located, could impact whole villages. Between 1827 and 1853, private interests in Smithfield had created three reservoirs covering about 566 acres to increase waterpower for mills. The bill to create what became the Scituate Reservoir called for the taking of 14,800 acres, or 38 percent of the town of Scituate. Nevertheless, on April 21, 1915, the General Assembly approved it, and condemnation notices began going out that year.

The town of Scituate had deep roots going back to its founding in 1710.  Like many other Rhode Island towns, it contained a cluster of smaller villages, most of them built around mills or manufacturing companies. The reservoir project required the condemning of 1,195 buildings, including 375 houses, seven schools, six churches, six mills, 30 dairy farms, 11 ice houses, post offices, the Providence and Danielson electric trolley system, and 36 miles of road. Roughly 1,600 people would be displaced. The small villages of Kent, Richmond, Rockland, South Scituate, Ashland, Saundersville, and Ponaganset would disappear under water along with parts of North Scituate and Clayville. Residents whose roots traced back generations in these hamlets would see their homes and heritage vanish forever. Cemeteries would also be affected. Most graves would be relocated outside the reservoir area; others would simply be covered by the water.

No concept of fair compensation could calculate the value of what Abraham Lincoln called “the mystic chords of memory.”  Who could measure the sentiments attached to homes where past generations had often been born and died, or to the land itself, let alone the family graveyard?  News of what was to come devastated residents in the doomed villages. Rockland arose when the Rockland Mill was built in 1812 along a branch of the Ponaganset River. Two other cotton mills were established in the village, along with several small businesses and later the powerhouse of the Providence and Danielson trolley line. Richmond, the largest village, had four mills, tenements that housed 600 workers, a town hall, and a school. All of it and more had to be demolished.

Prior to the start of work, the Providence Water Supply Board hired a photographer, John R. Hess, to capture on film all of the structures in the proposed area of the reservoir before they were dismantled. Hess did his job well, leaving behind a visual historical record of the lost world of these villages. Some of the photographs have been reproduced in a series of short books by Raymond A. Wolf dealing with the villages and the coming of the reservoir.

The condemnation notices confused people in every village. One farmer went to court in Providence to fight his eviction but lost. He came home, told his daughter they had to move, then went out to the barn and hanged himself. Another farmer slit his throat rather than leave his home. One local claimed to have documented eight suicides among the residents of the condemned villages. Still another family named Knight sold their two houses, two barns, sawmill, and ice house on 406 acres to Providence for $12,150 and proceeded to burn one of the family homes down themselves. Other properties, especially commercial buildings, were auctioned off cheaply to whoever wanted the materials. The trolley tracks were taken up, the electric power lines removed, and mill machinery carted away to other mills before the buildings were torn down.

To create the reservoir, a mostly earthen dam was constructed across the Pawtuxet River on the site of Kent village. Known at first as the Kent Dam, it was later renamed the Gainer Dam after Joseph H. Gainer, the Providence mayor who presided over the project. The dam stood a hundred feet high and stretched about 3,200 feet. Once the dam had been completed, all the buildings had been destroyed or removed, the people had packed up and gone elsewhere, and as many graves as possible relocated on higher ground, water was released into the site on November 10, 1925. It took nearly a year to fill the reservoir with water that averaged 32 feet in depth and reached a maximum of 87 feet at its deepest point. The reservoir has a capacity of 39 billion gallons and covers a surface area of 5.3 miles. The largest freshwater body in the state, it cost $20 million to build and drains about 94 square miles of land. Over time some 7 million trees were planted around the watershed.

An aqueduct fed water from the reservoir to a treatment plant that went into service on September 30, 1926. The original pipe was 90 inches wide and traveled 4.5 miles to Cranston, including 3.3 miles of tunnel. Not until the 1970s was a second aqueduct built, this one 9.5 miles long with a 102-inch pipe. Flow from the source proceeded entirely by gravity, and delivery within the distribution system occurred 75 percent by gravity and only 25 percent by pumping. In supplying drinking water to more than 60 percent of Rhode Island’s population, it remains an indispensable source of a precious commodity that is too often taken for granted.

The Scituate Reservoir may also have played an important role as a precedent for a later, much grander project. In 1933, Congress passed an act creating the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which undertook to transform a blighted section of the Southeast with a series of dams for flood control, electric power, recreational facilities, and an overall transformation of one of the most economically backward regions of the nation. TVA built eight dams and acquired an existing one.

The first of these, the Norris Dam, was begun in the fall of 1933 and completed three years later. For that dam alone, TVA acquired 144,913 acres of land, relocated some 2,899 families, and “impacted” about 5,000 graves, meaning that some were moved and others submerged.

In all, construction of the eight dams created 26 reservoirs that required relocation of 15,435 families and the removal of at least one entire small town. The scale of TVA dwarfed that of the Rhode Island experience, but the Scituate Reservoir was an early pioneer in a process that would be repeated elsewhere as critical needs for water and flood control arose. Like the Scituate Reservoir, the TVA projects aroused bitter controversy and in some cases dogged resistance from those being forced from their ancestral lands. For them, as for their peers in Rhode Island, the price of progress proved not only high but uneven.

The concept of the “greater good for the greater number” may have been hard to swallow for the dispossessed, but few people care to imagine what Rhode Island’s water supply situation would be today without the Scituate Reservoir. Still, it is worth remembering the last lines of Helen Larson’s poem cited at the beginning of this piece, if only to remind us of the price some paid for progress:

“One by one each family moving away

Friends and neighbors moved far apart

I go back now and then, the foundations are still there

I turn around and walk away, in my heart a silent prayer

We all know the reservoir has been there many years

And I still believe it was filled with the people’s tears”

— By Maury Klein
     Photographs by John Supancic

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