History's Footprint Of Our Water Works: Part I


HIGH ON POWDER HOUSE HILL overlooking Manchester, about one hundred fifty feet into the forest north of the 1810 brick powder house for which the site is named, is a buried treasure.  A massive circular platform of bricks and granite 36 feet in diameter lies under 130 years of leaf, litter and roots.  All but a few feet of the curved outer ring of carved granite blocks is hidden.  A passerby along the trail may see only what sits on top of it, a padlocked chain link fence topped by barbed wire enclosing a cinder block shed next to a wooden mast capped with two black antennae. 

It is easy to walk past without curiosity until the crisp edge of a granite block is noticed underfoot. 

This moment is where my report begins. 

The foundation today

The exposed edge of granite is part of a circular foundation for Manchester’s original water tank, or “standpipe,” constructed in 1891 for the town’s first public “water works.”  It remains essentially intact today: an outer ring of an estimated 25 blocks of cut granite, each 18 inches high with arcs between three and six feet, approximately 39 inches from front to back, weighing an estimated two tons apiece.  The joints are dry set.  Inside the ring of stone, as far as can be seen without entering the fence, is a circular expanse of brick.

Along the top outside edge of each curved block of granite is a hand carved “axed,” or flattened, strip, and below this detail, the granite face is “picked,” or “pointed” by stonecutters, which represents the final stage in roughing out granite. 

“It would be done in stages, first drilling and splitting, which can get pretty close sometimes, then a two-man ‘bull set’ to knock off big chunks, then the pick or point,” according to a modern stonecutter. The bottom edges of the few granite blocks now exposed show flat bottoms resting on a sub-foundation of mixed stones and rubble over bedrock.  More details would emerge if the foundation is cleaned of soil and debris. 

In 1984, the fence, radio mast and building were placed on the platform by the town for its fire and police department communications.  Ten steel posts each nine feet high are set into the granite and bricks to support the eight-foot chain link fence, enclosing a thirty-foot wooden mast, a ten-foot square cinder block building, and buried wires in two-inch PVC conduit.  The facility is no longer in use.  Just east of the platform a rusted fire hydrant stands in the woods; it is unclear whether this is still functioning.

History of foundation construction and use

Construction of the foundation started on August 8, 1891 and was completed by September 29, 1891 when work on the standpipe began.  Preparation of the site may have begun as early as mid-July 1891 after the contract was signed. 

On August 22, 1891 the Manchester Cricket reported that, “Work is progressing slowly on the standpipe foundations. An iron pipe has been laid from Mr. Samuel Knight’s well to the summit of the hill top to supply water for masonry purposes.”  To lift the heavy granite blocks up from Friend Court, rope and tackle were employed, aided by the use of a derrick owned by Mr. D. Henry Cram of Boston. 

The builder was Connolly Brothers of Beverly Farms, then an eleven-year-old company that advertised its services as “Blasting, Excavating, Grading, and all kinds of Stone Work.”  

According to the First Annual Report of the Water Commissioners in 1892, “The work of constructing this foundation and of preparing the ground for it could not readily be estimated for a contract price; and Mssrs. Connolly Brothers, of Beverly Farms, were invited to submit proposals for this work, to be done by day-labor at fixed rates. These were duly presented, and accepted, … their total bill was $3,475.27,” not including the use of Mr. Cram’s derrick which cost $ 11.  In today’s dollars, the cost would be about $106,000. 

A breakdown of items on the “List of Bills and Amounts Paid” in the Report included payments to Connolly Brothers for the following: Labor, $1,968.67; Cut granite, $698.50; Bricks, $248.05; Cement etc., $501.99; and Explosives, $58.06 (presumably to level the site).  Not included in the expenses for the foundation was a subsequent $2,650 settlement in 1893 with Mrs. Susan H. Cheever, a widow in Manchester, for the 11,050 square foot parcel taken in 1891 for the standpipe location.  This included a 20-foot-wide easement for the 12-inch force main and water lines leading from the standpipe to Friend Court, a total of 3,160 feet. In today’s dollars, she was paid about $82,000 for one-quarter acre and the easement.  

The granite blocks have been identified by a geologist as Rockport granite.  The words “Cut granite” in the list suggest that the blocks were delivered to Connolly Brothers as cut stone.  “While granite was taken from the earth in all different sizes and shapes, Cape Ann specialized in the conversion of that granite into paving blocks which were used to finish roads and streets.”  Although these blocks were not paving stones, a great deal of cutting was done in Lanesville.  Setting them level in the circle surrounding the bricks under the massive water tank would have been Connolly Brothers’ job.  

The granite pieces were most likely brought by oxen cart to Manchester from Rockport, similar to how larger blocks for the Town Common fountain arrived in 1895. 

In the January 16, 1892 Manchester Cricket, a whimsical essay narrates that workmen came from as far as Italy, “with pick and shovel in their hands…” to dig and lay water lines for the new water works.  For the new town well, “Bringing stones from Sandy Bay, some of these stones a ton will weigh….these stones from Sandy Bay. … The water will be forced to Cheever Hill, the great stand pipe there to fill.”  In contrast, the bricks laid in the foundation may have been furnished by the Granite State Brick Co. of Epping, NH which supplied the bricks for the town’s new pumping station under construction at the same time in September 1891. 

Next week, Part II sees the completion of construction of the standpipe, and the community’s celebration of public water.  

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