Prominent Southborough family fought creation of the Sudbury Reservoir

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Prominent Southborough family fought creation of the Sudbury Reservoir
The Sudbury Reservoir dam in Southborough, pictured in 1897, the year before the reservoir opened. (Photo/Courtesy of Digital Commonwealth)

By: James Nichols-Worley // History Columnist

SOUTHBOROUGH ̶ Joseph Burnett is buried in a small family cemetery behind St. Mark’s Church, next to St. Mark’s School, both of which he founded. But perhaps no greater monument honors one of Southborough’s greatest citizens and the town’s lost dreams as a manufacturing hub than the 1,200-acre Sudbury Reservoir, which covers over a tenth of the town. Before its opening in 1898, The Boston Globe called it “the largest artificial reservoir in the world,” a modern engineering marvel needed to supply water to Boston, then one of the largest cities in the world.

The Burnett family protested the project. The reservoir threatened Deerfoot Farms (another Joseph Burnett creation), a burgeoning meatpacking and dairy operation. Joseph Burnett served on the committee that garnered $50,000 for Southborough from the Boston Water Board. Only 103 days after a settlement was reached, however, Burnett was killed after being thrown from his carriage; a trolley car had scared his horse. Another 58 days later, his son Robert Burnett and the executors of his will had issued an injunction against the Water Board. Now the Metropolitan Water Commission, it had seized most of the 196 parcels of land it needed by 1896, but the Burnett family halted progress on the project in court for over three years on charges that the state had abused its powers of eminent domain. Robert refused to speak with the press.

The Burnett family retained the counsel of Frank Goulding, who previously represented the town of West Boylston in protest against the construction of the Wachusett Reservoir (he somewhat melodramatically called it “a scheme without precedent in the history of the world”) and William Hopkins, former City Solicitor and District Attorney in Worcester.

Although the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts shot down their arguments that the takings were unconstitutional, the Burnett family saved most of their estate, losing only a narrow 20 acres of pasture to the flooding. Construction was completed in 1897 and the reservoir finally opened in 1898.

Prominent Southborough family fought creation of the Sudbury Reservoir
The Sudbury Reservoir in Southborough, as depicted in this recreation of an historic map, covers over a tenth of the town’s land. (Photo/James Nichols-Worley)

Contention over the reservoir’s size abounded. Caleb Saville, a career civil engineer who worked on Boston’s water supply, gave a much more conservative estimate in 1907 that it was merely the largest in New England. The editors of the Engineering News and American Contract Journal offered candidates like the Walnut Grove Dam in Arizona (which collapsed in 1890, killing 100 people), but they ultimately concluded that “we cannot positively say which one is the largest.”

One candidate with a strong contention for the title is Ohio’s Mercer Lake (now Grand Lake St. Marys), which covers around 17,000 acres, but it was not used for drinking water. Others may fight for the title, like the 1888 Crystal Springs Reservoir in California, which covers 1,323 acres. But perhaps it’s better to understand the Sudbury Reservoir not in isolation, but rather as part of what is still one of the most impressive metropolitan water supplies ever created, a jewel that would link the Quabbin Reservoir to Greater Boston.

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