The Makers of the Mold book cover Makers of the Mold

15. Utilities


The first long conversation over the telephone after its invention occurred on October 9, 1876 between inventor Alexander Graham Bell and his associate, Thomas Watson when they talked for three hours over the telegraph line between Boston and Cambridge . In May, 1877 a Charlestown man leased two telephones – the first money ever paid for telephone service.

The first telephone exchange was established at 74 Devonshire Street, Boston in the office of the Holmes Protective Company, where Mr. Holmes operated a burglar alarm system which connected some of the leading banks and brokerage houses of the city. The wires led to the different institutions from his office, and he conceived the idea of putting telephones in some of the offices and permitting his customers to talk without charge, he acting as the operator and connecting the lines by means of two plugs. His purpose was to popularize his burglar alarm system by giving this free telephone service as a premium. However, his idea met with little success. He later organized the Telephone Dispatch Company (predecessor of the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company) and established its office in 1878 on Washington Street. The subscribers call was received in the office of the Telephone Dispatch Company, and when the customer asked for the person with whom they wished to speak the message was written on a sheet of paper and carried to another operator who set up the connection. This was the general practice of the time.

The Blake transmitter, or multiple switchboard, came later. This equipment utilized a system of calling by numbers and enabled any operator in an exchange to handle a call for any subscriber in that exchange. On November 23, 1876 Professor Bell made the first long distance call from Boston to Salem, giving the city the distinction of being the first long distance point by telephone . A line was later strung between Boston and Providence and was eventually extended to New York. In 1894 a long distance line was opened between Boston and Chicago and finally, in January, 1915, the first direct telephone line was opened across the continent to San Francisco. Transmitting the human voice 3,505 miles in one-fifteenth of a second was considered an amazing feat for that day.

Telephone service came to Newton early in the 1900s with the first telephone exchange located in West Newton. The rapid increase in the number of subscribers called for new and larger exchanges. In 1914, when the new exchange was built at Newton Centre, there were l,085 subscribers in the Centre Newton district and 15,000 calls were handled every day. Two years later the Newton North district was established Later these were replaced by Lasell, Bigelow and Decatur exchanges and more recently, Woodland In l939-40 the use of these names was phased out as Newton and Watertown were converted to the dialing system and a new building was erected in Newtonville to house the necessary equipment.

Gas and Electricity

Prior to 1854 residents of Newton used either wood or coal for cooking and heating their homes. Before gas and electricity were introduced into the town, streets were lighted by oil and we find that for the lighting of streets in Newton Upper Falls in 1870 the town of Newton paid J. E. Trowbridge $850.11 for “oi1, care of lamps and repairs.” Earlier, in connection with the lighting of homes, candlemakers must have been upset when the Atwood brothers, Luther and William, succeeded in producing a fine burning oil (kerosene). They called the substance petroleum pitch and built a factory in Waltham to manufacture it. Although the product was a success from the start, it was soon acquired by the United States Chemical Company and the plant was moved to Portland, Maine.

At a later date naphtha,. a derivative of oil, was used for lighting streets. Upper Falls was using this type fuel as late as 1882 as we learn from this local news item of May 20, 1882:

An item in last week’s Journal relative to the naptha [sic] lights now in use in the village, and the awarding of the contract to light the same to the United States Co., meets some disapproval here, as we have once before tried them and found that the Globe was a far superior light, so much so that a long petition was presented to the City Government asking that they be replaced when they were discontinued in favor of those of the United States Co., several years ago. Had the Globe Co., the past year had a responsible and competent man, who would have attended them properly, a much better result would have been attained. The police officers’ reports the past year or so make a most unfavorable showing, yet the light given by the Globe is considered here far superior to that of the United States Co.

Another item regarding street lighting, dated June 17, 1882, also reflects the thinking of an indignant citizenry:

The same old lantern, bearing the advertising sign of the U.S. Street Light Co., adorns our drinking fountain in Post Office square. Where is the more fancy one for which the inhabitants paid some eight dollars?

The Newton & Watertown Gas Light Co. was organized in 1854 with a capital of $80,000 which was increased in 1872 to $200,000. Joseph N. Bacon was one of the founders and president of the company (he was possibly the owner of the J.N. Bacon farm in the old village of Upper Falls).

Gas lights were first used in Newton on October 15, 1855 and within fifteen years 650 families were using gas. The company was ready to make a contract with the town to replace oil illumination of streets whenever finances would allow and if enough villagers would accept this new service. That Upper Falls was a bit reluctant to make the change is indicated by this news item of May 3, 1884:

“Now is the time for the Upper Falls village to introduce gas or be content for the next three years to burn kerosene oil in their street lanterns. For the city government is willing to change from naptha [sic] to gas, but the gas company will not lay pipes from the Highlands to the Falls unless citizens will also take gas quite liberally. So the people must be up and doing, if they want their streets lighted by gas. If there is not encouragement enough given the gas company to lay pipes, then the present naptha lights will be changed to oil.”

Upper Falls finally did accept this new method of heating and lighting as signified by this news item appearing in October, 1890:

“The Gas Company are putting in gas pipes on Elliot Street and H.A. Sherman and John Proctor will embrace the opportunity to illuminate their stores with gas as soon as possible.”

Also, Otis Pettee Jr.’s diary entry of October 31, 1890 informs us that he “Lighted up house Wednesday evening (Oct. 29) with gas for first time” and was “the first dwelling house in village lighted by gas.” He also tells us that on Sunday, October l9, the “Methodist church lighted with gas first time this evening.”

The Newton Electric Light and Power Company was organized in 1885, furnishing electricity to homes and for street lights which gradually displaced gas and kerosene lamps. The Newton & Watertown Gas Light Company bought the Power company four years later, but in turn sold its business to the Edison Company which is the present supplier of power and electricity to the city. In 1906 a new power plant was constructed 1n a building of reinforced concrete on Homer Street near the present city hall, and was in use for many years. Of course, since that time many other facilities have been added to care for the city’s electrical needs adequately.


In the early days wells and springs were the chief source of water for the residents. There was an advantage to the people and to the mills in Upper Falls in having the Charles River as a water supply for purposes other than drinking, such as for use by the fire department. However, in this connection there were additional fire reservoirs required in the village and an item in the Newton Journal of March 12, 1870 refers to this:

“At the Upper Falls, a large brick reservoir near the schoolhouse, the water to be supplied by springs if the matter can be satisfactorily arranged. A large brick one near the engine-house, to be supplied by the stream that flows nearby for a portion of the year. Another near the store of A. Billings, on Elliot Street.”

And another later news item appearing in the TOWN CRIER of October 23, 1914 covers this discovery:

“In excavating for his store on Chestnut St., Andrew Mazzoni dug into an old cistern of commodious dimensions which was probably used for fire protection in the days and before, and when the late Horace Bacon lived in the Mazzoni house, and prior to the installation of Newton’s water system.”

In 1874 with the completion of the pumping station on Needham Street (see section “Public Buildings“), sixteen and twelve inch pipes supplied the village’s water needs.

Newton Water Pumping Station

Thus, the Charles River did become the main source of its water supply until the city switched over to the Metropolitan District Commission system in 1954.


Farsighted citizens saw the approach of a time when a system of sewerage would be necessary, and in 1876 the city government went as far as to appoint a commission on drainage and sewerage. However, city action was postponed while awaiting action on plans for the Metropolitan Commission system. Newton finally made connections in 1891 and gradually extended the system to all parts of the city.

Copyright 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 Kenneth Newcomb and The Friends of Hemlock Gorge. All rights reserved.