Rare 3-D Boston water map gets new life at Tufts

By Jay Lindsay
Associated Press Writer / May 8, 2010

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MEDFORD, Mass.—It saw its prime more than a century ago, winning recognition at the 1893 World's Fair as a 3-D display of the rolling lands that supplied Boston's water. Then, it saw years in a sooty attic.

Now, a rare map of Boston watersheds is being restored at Tufts University and will offer a look at the history of an expansive water system that 2 million people learned not to take for granted during a massive water main break last week.

The 6-by-9 foot plaster and papier-mache map was hauled to a basement classroom, where students have spent the semester on the meticulous and sometimes boring job of giving the old map new life.

Conservator Ingrid Neuman, who is leading the project, said she knows of no similar maps.

"It's got great historic value," Neuman said. "It's irreplaceable. It goes beyond value ... because there's nothing to compare it to."

The map shows details of the Cochituate and Sudbury watersheds, about 20 miles west of Boston. It includes the rivers and reservoirs that supplied Boston's water in the decades before the area's growing needs led officials to the central part of Massachusetts -- where four towns were flooded in the 1930s to create the 18-mile long Quabbin Reservoir.

Last Saturday, a breach in a 10-foot wide pipe that helps carry water from the Quabbin to Boston forced the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority to divert untreated water from backup reservoirs to the Boston area and order 2 million residents in 30 communities to boil water before drinking it. The order was lifted early Tuesday.

MWRA historian Marcis Kempe said the old map aims to show the area's progressive approach to finding clean water, such as by tapping upland sources and building dams and new water supply facilities. Officials then were trying to manage water quality amid worries about sewage and population growth in the watershed.

"We still have the same concerns today," Kempe said.

The 19th century map was made by J.N. McClintock for the Boston Water Board, an agency that preceded today's MWRA. The map isn't completely accurate -- some of the reservoirs displayed were still under construction. Kempe said it wasn't common to use McClintock's technique of raising the area's hills and uplands, and he did it to impress the judges at the World's Fair in Chicago.

The map ended up winning an award there "for careful and skillful presentation and instructive display." Then, it ended up being forgotten in an attic at a former MWRA maintenance facility in Medford.

The MWRA rediscovered the map a few years ago, but had no money to restore it. Last year, the agency approached Neuman, whose specialty is conservation of 3-D objects. She proposed restoring it as part of a new course at Tufts, where she's an instructor at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Neuman divided the map into 13 grids, one for each student. They set about cleaning the map, filling cracks and replacing the paint and colors that had chipped off its brown and green hills and silver waters.

The students used various materials in the restoration, including pigmented wax and cotton swabs plugged onto the ends of bamboo skewers and moistened with spit. The damp swabs were rolled gently over the map, and the food-dissolving, teeth-protecting properties of saliva helped get rid of the grime.

"It's very, very tedious," Neuman acknowledged. "The results can be fantastic."

After the work is completed, hopefully by the end of the month, the map is scheduled for display at the John J. Carroll Water Treatment Plant in Marlborough.

Neuman thinks kids might find the large relief map cool. She said adults might be moved by the obvious pride the mapmakers took in a local water supply they wanted to show off at the World's Fair.

"Now, we just take it for granted," Neuman said. "When I had to boil my water for three days, it seemed like such an imposition. ... When they were making that papier-mache map, they didn't take it for granted."

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