The Nepaug Story (Burlington version)

The Nepaug Reservoir was designed to provide a dependable and safe water supply for the growing city of Hartford.

Those who live around here have a general idea of the Metropolitan Water District system for the city of Hartford and several surrounding towns – the large Barkhamstead Reservoir, Lake McDonough, the Hogback Reservoir, Nepaug Reservoir and the several West Hartford Reservoirs, but not everyone understands how it all came about.

A small army of men labored to complete the largest engineering and construction project in New England to that time to provide a dependable and safe water supply.

Public health improved dramatically with the discontinuation of drinking Connecticut River water, going from 135 cases of typhoid fever per 100,000 population to less than 20. The modern rate of essentially zero was not attained until sand filtration was introduced with the Nepaug Reservoir system around 1920.

Surveys were done along tributaries of the Farmington River such as Cherry Brook and the Nepash River in Canton. The Nepash (or Nepaug) had several advantages. First, the elevation here was over 400 feet above Hartford, ideal for gravity-flow. Second, this river and several nearby streams (Phelps Brook and Clear Brook) had steady water flow even in dry years. Third, the streams were bordered on three sides almost completely by much higher hills, such as Sweetheart Mountain and Garrett Mountain. And forth, the area was sparsely settled.

Newspaper accounts to the contrary, there was really not a village here, just scattered farms, two cemeteries and a district school. So, application was made to the General Assembly to proceed to acquire properties and build dams. In 1909 the application was denied on the basis of riparian rights of several industries downstream on the Farmington, who used the water for power. The dependable smaller streams were necessary to keep the Farmington flowing. Over the next two years a satisfactory compromise was worked out, and the Legislature in 1911 authorized construction of a 9 billion gallon reservoir using water from the Nepaug River, Phelps and Clear Brooks.

The compromise was the creation of a so-called “Compensating Reservoir” (now Lake McDonough) upstream in Barkhamstead and New Hartford. An earthen dam at Richards Corner, filled during periods of high water, the Compensating Reservoir could return flow to the stream during low water times for use of the mills downstream.

Besides the Compensating Reservoir, there would be three dams, one of concrete with a spillway and two others earthen with concrete cores. Pipelines to the West Hartford reservoirs, a tunnel through Talcott Mountain and a slow, sand filtration plant in that area were all part of the 4 ¼ million dollar project.  

In 1912 Caleb Mills Saville joined the Hartford Water Works as chief engineer and in 1918 he became manager. Saville had worked on design and construction of water systems for the Metropolitan Water Commission of Boston before joining the great Panama Canal construction project for another six years. Caleb Saville was a dominating influence over the years, overcoming all manner of obstacles in creating a remarkable, efficient, pure water supply system for Hartford and environs.

Several years before there was any move to purchase land people began to get nervous over the presence of surveying parties in the area. Rumors were flying and the use of the name “Nepaug Reservoir” itself caused great concern. In truth, the reservoir would be no closer than two miles from Nepaug Center and there was no village destined to be submerged. There were a few roads involved and all unpaved dirt, of course. One of some importance was the old turnpike from Collinsville to Litchfield, running through a gap in the hills above Town Bridge.

Although the proposed watershed area was indeed “sparsely settled”, there were 22 occupied homes here, primarily farmsteads with accompanying outbuildings. Several of these properties had been in the same families for a number of generations, and giving up the old family homestead was certainly not a happy prospect. In all, 36 pieces of property in three towns were included in the original plan. Enlargement of the protected watershed area later increased the total to over 100. The reservoir itself is about 850 acres in area and has a 32 square mile watershed.

Without a doubt each bit of land transferred to the Water Works has a unique and probably interesting history, very little of which has been recorded. Some of these farms were up to 300 acres in size. The Barnes homestead of 17 rooms and 7 fireplaces was the largest. It was owned by Weston Barnes, who raised dairy cows and potatoes, up to 450 bushels in one acre! Mr. Barnes, a Civil War veteran felt very sad about leaving the place and shortly after selling the farm fell ill with pneumonia and died. Most houses were torn down, a few were burned accidentally or on purpose and a very few were disassembled and re-erected elsewhere. A couple were used as offices during the construction.

The small Collinsville Reservoir just north of the old toll road had been completed in 1909 to provide that village with excellent water. 6000 feet of its pipeline to the filter house on Torrington Avenue in Collinsville would be covered by the new reservoir. An agreement was eventually reached whereby the Collinsville Water Company would receive 400,000 gallons of free water daily from the new Nepaug Reservoir and the Hartford Water Board took over the property. A new filtration plant near the East Dike now takes care of the purity of Collinsville water.

Reactions to the sale of homes and farms varied. One man who owned a not very profitable farm remarked that the sale of his farm was the only piece of good luck he had experienced in a lifetime. Although many were reluctant to leave their homes, it seems that most agreed that the financial terms agreed upon were quite fair.

Schoolhouse – The small one-room schoolhouse on the George Douglass property had to go. The Douglas deed granted the Water Works the land and all buildings thereon except the schoolhouse. There were only 12 students in attendance and there would be no need for a school here after all the homes were removed, so the building was moved outside the watershed for other purposes.

Cemeteries – The two cemeteries were another problem. The Southwest Cemetery in the Town of Canton contained 198 bodies, some dating back to 1828. The Water Commission purchased land on Simonds Avenue in Collinsville to give to the cemetery association and all the bodies were removed from both cemeteries in the fall of 1915. St. John’s Cemetery was relocated to Collins Road, Collinsville on the land that formerly made up the Samuel Collins estate. It had 173 graves that, after removal, were the nucleus of the present Calvary Cemetery. Tunnel and Transmission Lines Engineer Saville had devised a unique system of dams, dikes and conduits to store and transmit pure water from the Nepaug Valley through large pipes crossing under the Farmington River in two places, then through a tunnel in Talcott Mountain and into Reservoir #5 in West Hartford. The entire aqueduct contract was completed within the desired one year, long before any water was ready to flow through it.

Phelps Dam – The longest dam planned to contain the waters of the new reservoir was across the outlet of Phelps Brook in Burlington. The total length of this dam is 1,243 feet. Since the only spillway for the reservoir would be at the concrete Nepaug dam, the top of the Phelps dam was made seven feet above the flood line. The top of this dam is about 15 feet wide 97 feet above bedrock. Work began in the spring of 1914. Fortunately nearly all the stone, gravel and sand for the project could be obtained directly off the reservoir site. Conveniently situated a few rods from the south end of the dam was a ledge of good quality stone. A quarry was established high on this hill and narrow gauge railroad tracks ran down to a rock crusher below. A total of 300,000 cubic yards of material was moved for the Phelps dam alone. As many as 230 men were occupied at the Phelps dam site. When complete, the Phelps dam became the outlet for water going to Hartford. In recent years a second line to West Hartford parallels the old one from this reservoir. Both upper and lower gate houses are still there today and the HWW inscription recalls to us the Hartford Water Works.

East Dike – Just above the spot where the old Torrington Road meets Torrington Avenue in Canton there is a low gap between the hills where the original main road to Litchfield went through. This low area had to be closed off by a dike a few feet higher than the spillway at the Nepaug dam. The so-called “East Dike” was constructed of earth with a concrete core much like the Phelps dam. The dike is about 500 feet long, 150 feet thick on the north side and 70 feet on the south. Recently this has been buttressed with more earth.

Nepaug Dam – Now we come to the most visible part of the great project, damming the Nepaug River at a fairly narrow gorge in New Hartford near the Canton line. This spot is about a mile upstream from the Farmington River. The lower Nepaug River is still known locally as Powder Mill Brook. The solid concrete Nepaug dam extends 710 feet at the top across the gorge and the center is 130 feet above the stream bed. The concrete extends another 20 feet down to bedrock and is 105 feet thick at the base and 25 feet wide at the top. The Fred T. Ley Co. of Springfield had this massive job. Caleb Saville was the overall engineer for all the various parts of the reservoir project.

Work began here in April 1914. First, a one-mile long standard-gauge railway was laid from the NYNH&H tracks by the stream outlet up to the dam site. This required blasting rock ledge to create a wide enough road bed along the path of the stream. A standard gauge locomotive was used to haul coal, lumber and trap rock from the siding up to the dam area. On the reservoir valley side narrow gauge track extended another half mile to the meadows where gravel and sand could be dug. A wooden flume carried water around the construction site. Housing and dining facilities a little downstream and other necessary storage sheds, a blacksmith shop, etc. occupied the area along the outlet stream, too. As each section of concrete was laid the bedrock had to be thoroughly cleaned of soil and debris to ensure a tight connection. This was done with steam under pressure after pick and shovel, wheelbarrows and horse-drawn wagons removed all loose material. Deep, three-inch holes drilled into the bed rock were force-filled with thin cement grout as in the Phelps dam to close off any cracks and seams in the natural rock base. This system was an innovation that had not been used before.

After six months preparatory work, the first concrete was poured on Oct. 21, 1914. Small sections of four or five feet thick were laid each day to enable proper curing and connecting of the blocks. Huge amounts of lumber were required for forms for the construction. The dam is built of Cyclopean masonry, in other words, concrete containing large imbedded rocks. Most of the large, loose rocks along the river were lifted by a huge, traveling crane and dropped into the interior of the concrete-filled, wooden forms.

Onsite housing was only sufficient for about forty men. Others boarded in Collinsville; one group laying the pipeline rented quarters on Huckleberry Hill in Avon. The Canton River District school, having closed in 1910, became a rented dormitory and the old Sage place at the end of Simonds Avenue was used for supervisors’ housing. The men worked an average ten-hour day, although to meet deadlines sometimes work went on at night. They had only 32 months to complete the job. Workers came from everywhere. Many were Polish and Italian immigrant laborers who sometimes didn’t get along very well together. Quite a few French Canadians came for the work and eventually brought their families and remained here.

We can imagine the bustling scene when full work resumed in the spring of 1915. The boom of blasting, toots of locomotive whistles, crash of loads of concrete, stones and fill, thuds of sledge hammers and rat-a-tats of steam-powered drills filled the air. Steam, coal smoke and dust rose above the work sites and several hundred laborers, supervisors and skilled operators swarmed over the hills, meadows and valleys. Tall towers of Erector-set–like steel supported great cranes and steam-driven elevators. Loads of fresh concrete were lifted up to flow down long conduits to the location of the day’s work.

No wonder this was an attraction drawing curious onlookers from all over the northeast. A local tourist industry spontaneously developed as the railroads disgorged hundreds of non-workers bent on viewing the proceedings. The rough dirt roads became mud holes in the spring rains and local farmers with their ox teams gained a few extra dollars hauling carriages and ‘tin lizzies’ out of the mire. There were at least five years of construction to watch overall. The Collins Company was building its lower dam and power facility beginning in 1912, too. It must have all been very exciting. The Hartford papers gave accounts of construction details and progress off and on over these years.

The Phelps dam was now well along and folks could now see how the Nepaug dam was designed. The dam bowed out into the reservoir area to add strength to the structure. The reservoir side was perfectly perpendicular, but the spillway outflow consisted of a series of five portals, each 45 feet wide with rounded edges through which water would flow in a thin sheet to cascade down a series of giant steps. Each step is about seven feet high and three or four feet deep, thus breaking up the force of the water and preventing damage to the concrete. Below was a fifteen foot deep pool to act as a cushion for prevention of undermining the dam. In the early phases of construction one could see at the base of the dam a 48-inch diameter pipe extending through the structure. This is an outlet controlled by gatehouses at top and bottom of the dam to permit draining of the reservoir. The reservoir, however, never has been drained.

By 1917, almost three years since the first concrete was poured, the bypass flume was removed and the Nepaug River no longer flowed unchecked to the Farmington. It was time to take away the towers, clean up the site, let the 850 acre lake fill up, and late that year finally there was overflow. The tourists arrived to marvel at the spectacle and incidentally to impede traffic over the dam, the main road to Torrington.

There is no account of a death or serious injuries on this project. Dr. George Eddy had the contract to handle medical problems and he held a sick call each day. The contractors made efforts to minimize accidents and to preserve a safe environment for the workers that evidently paid off. One accident was recorded on film. A crane took a tumble into an excavation and had to be removed piece by piece A separate contract in connection with the reservoir was for building about two miles of new roads along the southern edge of the reservoir to Burlington and another stretch extending from the East Dike along the shore and across the top of the Nepaug dam to rejoin the old road through Nepaug and on to Torrington. This one mile section, with the rerouting of Route 202 has been bypassed and in recent years has become a favorite walking trail. Thousands of folks get a respite from their busy lives strolling along the old road now closed to traffic, courtesy of the Metropolitan District. The view from the top of the dam is beautiful at any time of year.

Work was completed in 1917 and the reservoir was full, making this the largest lake in Connecticut at the time; however, Hartford could not enjoy drinking the pure Nepaug water until 1922. Since the Compensating Reservoir was not completed to impound water for the Farmington River factories, there had to be enough water available in Nepaug to preserve water supply for these businesses. The delay was largely due to legal hassles over property rights; many in that watershed objected to losing their property, not directly to provide drinking water to Hartford, but to generate power for industries. Eventually the courts decided in favor of the Water Commission and the system came into operation. Hartford’s water supply had gone from 7 million gallons per day to 33 million gallons per day. The next time you take a stroll over the Nepaug Dam just recall the sacrifices of the displaced home owners and all the engineering genius and labor that were responsible for your enjoyment today, over 100 years later.

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