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Inside the Abandoned Pumping Station

The original entrance to the Calf Pasture Pumping Station, 2011. (Click to enlarge image)

Since its closure as an active pumping station in the late 1960s, the Calf Pasture Pumping Station has been neglected. Currently, most windows are boarded up and a high fence surrounds the property as the various institutions on Columbia Point build and expand.  The beauty of the building and the mystery of the inaccessible have led many people to wonder what the interior looks like.  

UMass Boston’s Associate Provost Peter Langer toured the inside of the building in 2011, and took these photographs.  

An interior view of the Calf Pasture Pumping Station, 2011. (Click to enlarge image)
Some of the old pieces of equipment can still be seen, 2011. (Click to enlarge image)

Several others have  had access to the building, and recorded the building’s interior.   Late in 2008, an artist entered the building, and  documented their visit on the website Desolate Metropolis.

Have you been inside the Calf Pasture Pumping Station?  Do you have observations or pictures?   Please share these with us in the comments section below.   in the comments below?  

Deciding the Future of the Calf Pasture Pumping Station

As Boston grew and its residents learned the dangers of pollution, they understood the problems resulting from the release of sewage into the harbor at Moon Island.   Bostonians called for a cleaner harbor, and by the 1960s and 1970s treatment of sewage was rerouted to Deer Island.

But the Boston Water and Sewer Commission still used the Calf Pasture Pumping Station on occasion.  In the 1970s, during heavy rains,  excess street water was channeled to the pumping station, where it was treated behind the station, on the side of the building that faces the UMass Boston campus.  Eager to end such use on their campus, in 1999, university administration began negotiations to purchase the property.  

The Boston Water and Sewer Commission was reluctant to give up the Calf Pasture Pumping Station, because they would have to build a new facility somewhere else in the Boston area.  Local politicians took up the debate.  After a dozen years, in 2012 the university finally reached an agreement with the city and the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, and purchased the pumping station.  

What is the future of the Calf Pasture Pumping Station at the University of Massachusetts Boston?  How can it be used?  Many faculty members and administrators have made suggestions for  possible re-use of the building. There are many challenges to conquer before renovation can occur.  These include environmental remediation at the site, and completing a structural report to assess the work needed to reuse the space.  

Recently the University released a large twenty-five-year plan for renovations to the UMass Boston campus, but the pumping station is not included in this plan.  The university did not yet own either the Calf Pasture Pumping Station or the Bayside Expo Center in 2007, when the 25 Year Master Plan was unveiled  

Today, major redesign of the UMass Boston campus and the construction of new buildings and roadways  are underway.  In the new design, a new street will bring visitors in front of the majestic Calf Pasture Pumping Station, though its future use remains uncertain.  

At present, boarded up windows and fencing secure the pumping station against general access.  At the front of the building, construction of a new roadway has commenced, and the university prepares to build its first residential complex near the site.  

Rehabilitation, preservation and reuse of the Calf Pasture Pumping Station will require great financial resources as well as vision.  This historic structure, its historical and architectural significance documented by a National Historic Register nomination, remains at risk.  The physical condition of the building continues to deteriorate, as local development and the need for space put additional pressure on this historic site.  

The Calf Pasture Pumping Station provides us with access to multiple stories of the past that have relevance to the present.  It engages histories of  technology, architecture, public works, public health, labor, environment, neighborhood, housing, and politics.

What ideas do you have for bringing these histories into the present, for the benefit of Boston’s citizens?  What histories matter to you?

Inside the Calf Pasture Pumping Station, 1888.

View of the Shaft building and Pumping Station circa 1880's. Photo from Main Drainage Works of Boston and its Metropolitan Sewerage District.
The shaft building and Pumping Station circa 1880’s.
(Source: Eliot C. Clarke, Main Drainage Works of the City of Boston, 1888.) (Click to enlarge image)

Boston’s new sewerage system, built in  the 1870s and 1880s, was designed to take waste from the city and dispose of it miles away from the local population. The map below shows the newly constructed sewers that drained into the one sewer that led down to the Calf Pasture. Gravity allowed waste to travel from downtown Boston neighborhoods that sat on higher land, to Dorchester’s Calf Pasture on a lower elevation.

After the sewage reached the Calf Pasture Pumping Station, it still had a great distance to travel before reaching its final destination, Moon Island, west of the peninsula in Quincy Bay. To make the last leg of this journey, the station’s massive pumps  lifted the sewage thirty-five feet to enable its journey away from the heavily populated city, past the oscillating tides, towards Moon Island.


This map shows the intercepting sewer that was built to take waste away from the old harbor outlets. (Click to enlarge image)
The layout of the interior of the Calf Pasture Pumping Station. (Click to enlarge image)

What’s in the pumping station?  How does it work?  An 1888 blueprint of the building illustrates the various functions of the large building.  

The coal house held giant bins to store the coal  that created steam power to run the boilers and power the integral pumps.  The pumping station was large enough to store 2,500 tons of coal at once, since the pumping station burned over six tons of coal each day.  Ships docked nearby on the peninsula to deliver new coal shipments to the pumping station’s elevated coal run.

This huge measure of coal fueled two major Leavitt pumps, which ran continuously throughout the day. Each engine could  pump up to 25 million gallons of sewage per day. In the mid-1880s, the two engines pumped an average of just under 37 million gallons each day.

One of the two main pumps which propelled the sewage up and out to complete its journey to Moon Island. (Click to enlarge image)

In some cases, excess storm water pushed the pumps to their limits. In preparation for this possibility, the engineers installed two additional emergency pumps. These two smaller storm duty pumping engines were used sparingly, because they were less fuel efficient than the major Leavitt engines.  Still, they proved crucial when unexpected amounts of water came through the station.  

The two large main pumps and the two smaller back-up pumps housed inside the Calf Pasture Pumping Station.(Click to enlarge image)

Sources Consulted:

  1. “The Boston Sewer System and Main Drainage Works.”Scientific American. no. 28 (1887): 351.
  2. Clarke, Eliot C. Main Drainage Works of the City of Boston. Boston: Rockwell & Churchill, 1888.

Photo Credits:

  1. Clarke, Eliot C. Main Drainage Works of the City of Boston. Boston: Rockwell & Churchill, 1888.


A Brief History of Sewers in Boston

Until the late 19th century there was little organized effort to promote public health in the United States. With the growth of America’s urban centers in the mid-late 1800s, however, increasing population density brought public health challenges.   By the turn of the 20th century, the United States had become the third most populous nation in the Western world, after Russia and France. Over 2 million immigrants arrived  between 1871 and 1880 alone. This rapid growth was centered in America’s urban centers such as New York, Chicago, and Boston.  Such population growth meant increased levels of human and industrial waste that needed to be removed, and strained the minimal existing infrastructure.

Densely populated downtown Boston in the 1860s
(Source: “Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It”, 1860, Boston Public Library, Print Department, (Click to enlarge image)

In the 18th century,  Bostonians did not address waste in any organized or systematic fashion.  Household waste and storm water routinely flooded basements and houses. Sometimes, people built small drains to take away both household waste and storm water; sometimes groups of people built a drain together and charged newcomers an access  fee. These drains were built underneath roads, and used gravity to discharge waste directly into the nearest shoreline . Such drainage projects were built haphazardly and often damaged the local infrastructure.

early drainage systems were not built to handle human waste.  While household waste and storm water were removed from the city via these street drains, before the consolidation of drainage in Boston,  human waste was collected in privies or outhouses. These simple systems consisted of a hole in the ground, often lined with rocks or boards. Privies required frequent upkeep, and needed to be cleaned out when they became full.  People of means could hire private companies to clean out the privies; often, people simply filled in the rest of the hole with dirt, and dug a new privy hole somewhere else on site.

In the 1830s, Boston storm drains were consolidated under city control but new drainage problems arose as the city undertook many large scale land making projects that more than doubled the size of the city over the next century. Filling in the marshy tidal flats surrounding Boston created new neighborhoods and expanded the city. Many of these new lands were either at or above the high tide level, so gravity could not take care of waste drainage. In 1833, the city permitted the release of sanitary waste into household drains which led to a much larger problem. The city’s old drainage systems depended on the tides to pull the waste away from the city and out to open ocean; more frequently,  the waste, both household and sanitary, remained when the harbor tides pulled out, leaving them to fester on the flats surrounding the city.

E. S. Chesbrough circa 1870 Head of the Commission assembled to investigate the state of sewerage in Boston in 1875. He previously had been the head engineer in the design and construction of America's first comprehensive sewer system in Chicago.
E. S. Chesbrough circa 1870
Head of the commission assembled to investigate the state of sewerage in Boston in 1875. He was previously head engineer for the design and construction of America’s first comprehensive sewerage system in Chicago.
Source: The Chicago Historical Society. (Click to enlarge image)

The introduction of the water closet and indoor plumbing in the second half of the 19th century exacerbated this waste problem.  Similar to our modern flush toilets, a water closet uses water to quickly sweep away human waste. Early water closets emptied into privy vaults, but the added water filled these privies faster and often led to overflowing. City planners hastily devised a quicker way to get this dirty water away from the city and into the harbor. When water closets were attached to the already ineffective storm sewers, the harbor and tidal flats that surrounded the city became even more polluted as tides failed to pull away the waste.

The entire city faced this problem, declared the City Board of Health — “large territories” that “have been at once, and frequently, enveloped in an atmosphere of stench so strong as to arouse the sleeping, terrify the weak, and nauseate and exasperate everybody.” (Main Drainage Works of the City of Boston, Pg. 20)  Officials believed that the stench and inadequate waste disposal were responsible for Boston’s high death rates . Outbreaks of diseases such as cholera, which is contracted through contaminated drinking water, added to the demand for a cleaner city.   In 1875, the City created a commission of civil engineers to report on the state of sewerage in the city. The Commission’s report revealed the dire need for a new sewerage system, and proposed a plan for the construction of the Main Drainage System, with consolidated drains leading south of the city to the Calf Pasture at Dorchester.

The Commission's 1875 plan for Boston's Main Drainage System
The Commission’s 1875 plan for Boston’s Main Drainage System
(Source: Boston City Document No. 3 1876) (Click to enlarge image)


Sources Consulted:

  1. Clarke, Eliot C. Main Drainage Works of the City of Boston. Boston: Rockwell & Churchill, 1888.
  2. Melosi, Martin. The Sanitary City: Environmental Services in Urban America From Colonial Times to the Present. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008.
  3. Tarr, Joel. The Search for the Ultimate Sink: Urban Pollution in Historical Perspective. Akron: University of Akron Press, 1996.

Photo Credits:

  1. “Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It”, 1860, Boston Public Library, Print Department
  2. Clarke, Eliot C. Main Drainage Works of the City of Boston. Boston: Rockwell & Churchill, 1888.