New Haven Water Company

July 3, 2020

It’s summertime here in New Haven and water, or rather the lack of, is on my mind. Due to an extremely low snow fall last winter it’s already pretty dry out. Coupled with the recent spell of brown water coming out of faucets everywhere across town, this week we’ll take some time to briefly look at the history of public water in the Elm City.

The New Haven Water Company was established in 1849. Prior to this local drinking water came exclusively from private wells. Nearly everywhere in New Haven the water table runs about 20 feet below the surface, and wells were generally located on each individual plot of land as needed. As the city’s population continued to grow in the 19th century, it became necessary to create a large public network to guarantee the supply of water year round. On commission from the newly founded water company, Eli Whitney II dammed the Mill River at the base of East Rock, just above the family’s Whitneyville armory. The dam created Lake Whitney, and the first public waterworks were built there. It was an ideal location on the edge of town, as the natural watershed that surrounds the Mill River provides a consistent year round supply of water.

In 1862, the city’s first network of pipelines opened. Water was pushed by gravity through an 18-mile network to individual residents and businesses. As New Haven’s population grew and increasingly larger industrial complexes came online, the demand  for water grew. In 1875, new state of the art steam-powered pumps replaced the original waterwheels at Lake Whitney. These were in use until their replacement in 1936.

The network of local pipelines throughout New Haven continued to spread, eventually expanding outside of the city limits. The New Haven Water Company absorbed the smaller local companies in the surrounding towns. The water company system grew to encompass the towns and communities of Bethany, Branford, Cheshire, East Haven, Hamden, Milford, North Branford, North Haven, Orange, West Haven and Woodbridge. This water supply network became the largest in the state.

As the water company expanded in size, 14 new reservoirs were constructed in addition to Lake Whitney, with Lake Saltonstall being the only natural body of water in the 650 mile total system. In order to preserve the pristine and sanitary quality of the water sources, the company bought large tracts of land surrounding watersheds like the Maltby Lakes and the Supply Pond in Branford, inadvertently creating large nature preserves and areas for outdoor activities and study.

In 1977, the Connecticut General Assembly instituted the creation of the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority. By 1980, the Regional Water Authority acquired the 131 year-old New Haven Water Company. The RWA has continued to expand and supply water to over 440,000 people in the Greater New Haven area on a daily basis through an incredibly intricate and albeit aging public infrastructure network.

Jason Bischoff-Wurstle
Director of Photo Archives, New Haven Museum

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