A Chronology of Ipswich Public Works: Telegraph, Telephone, Gas, Water, Electricity, Trash, Sewer, Wind and Solar

1847: Telegraph

Samuel Morse obtained a patent for his telegraph invention in 1838. It came into practical use about 1843. The first use of the telegraph was to coordinate the arrival and departure of trains. The Boston line was extended to Portland in 1847 and brought Ipswich into faster contact with the whole country. The Atlantic cable was laid successfully in 1866 , making it possible to communicate with Europe.

1854 map shows telegraph lines followed the Eastern Railroad from Boston through Ipswich and continuing to Portland.
This 1854 map shows telegraph lines followed the Eastern Railroad from Boston through Ipswich and continuing to Portland.

1877: Gas

On Hammatt Street across from Brown Square sat a deserted brick building once known as Charlie Brown’s Gas House. The Ipswich Gas & Light Company was incorporated in 1877 and manufactured coal gas (also known as “manufactured gas”) which was used to fuel lanterns on downtown streets in Ipswich. Unlike natural gas, coal gas is poisonous and one could often smell the fumes drifting through town. Coal gas was replaced by natural gas in the 1930’s. and the building was mothballed. The site was owned by the Haverhill Gas Company and National Grid, which demolished the building in 2018.

Hammatt St. coal gas tanks
Mr. Brown’s coal plant and coal storage tanks are on the left at the end of Hammatt Street in this old photo. The dirt road in the foreground is Soffron Lane, which continues toward the new Ipswich Ale brewery building on Brown Square. The entrance to the Hammatt Street parking lot is a bit before the white service station on the left.
This photo was taken from a rooftop on Market Street. In the foreground is the Brown coal gas company.
This photo was taken from a rooftop on Market Street. In the foreground is the Brown coal gas company.

1894: Water

Before the 20th Century, hand-pumped fire engines were dependent on the river, wells, or large fire cisterns filled with surface water. A Water Act was passed by the Massachusetts Legislature in 1890, but the town meeting on September 15 voted that any action to create a municipal water system be indefinitely postponed. In May 1892, 314 votes were cast in favor and 177 against, failing by fourteen votes to receive the 2/3 vote needed. Several other town meetings in Ipswich resulted in similar outcomes.

The Ipswich Municipal Plant on High Street, built in 1894
The Ipswich Municipal Plant on High Street, built in 1894
The Ipswich Municipal Plant today
The Ipswich Municipal Plant today

On January 13, 1894 all the buildings on Central street from Market to Hammatt burned in a spectacular fire. The only reliable source of water was a pump at the mill on Union Street. The Town meeting on March 19 voted to appropriate $3500 to buy a steam fire engine and to construct water lines with Bull Brook as the source.

On April 17 of the same year the Damon Block burned. The work of construction was pushed rapidly and an exhibition of the power and adequacy of the hydrant service was made on Thanksgiving Day, 1894. The water proved to be of excellent quality for domestic use, meeting the public need in the driest seasons.

Harold Bowen wrote in Tales of Olde Ipswich,

“The next morning, everything from Tyler’s Corner to Hammett Street lay in ruins. No one knew how it started, but there was one thing it did accomplish. For several years they had tried to get town water, without success. The farmers up in Linebrook fought it. It was planned to use Bull Brook, but the farmers said if they did use the brook, they would not be able to let their cows out because the cows would drink all of the water in Bull Brook. That same year, on April 17 (1894), there was another big fire–that of the Damon Block. It also burned to the ground. Those two fires changed the tide. A special town meeting was held, and it was voted to install the water system. And for years cows have been drinking from the brook. But the old brook still flows.”

1897: Telephone

Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone in 1876, initially referring to it as a “talking telegraph.” The New England Telegraph and Telephone Co. extended its lines to Ipswich and instituted the telephone exchange in 1897. In 1954 the telephone service in Ipswich was changed from the traditional operator system operated by the “Hello Girls” to the dial system.

"Hello girls" telephone operators
Ipswich MA telephone exchange girls

1903: Electricity

Ipswich electrical turbine
A new turbine being delivered to the Ipswich power station. Photo from the 1951 Ipswich Town Report.

At the spring 1903 town meeting the Town voted (307 Yes and 68 No) to build a municipal electric light plant. Turbines were brought in to the municipal utility building on High Street, which had been constructed 9 years before. On Wednesday night November 18, 1903 the dynamo was started and the streets throughout the Town were brilliantly illuminated.

The municipal turbines are used only when there is a call for them, usually during the hot summer months when air conditioners increase demand. The output is about one megawatt each, for a combined maximum of 8-9 megawatts.

Photos below are from my visit to the Municipal power station in November, 2016. The red, white and blue turbines are “newer.” The dark older ones date to the 1930’s, fail emissions, and are used only in case of emergencies.The turbines are all diesel, and some of the newer ones can burn gas as well. The original turbines were steam, and drew water from the reservoir behind the building.

The Ipswich police station on Elm Street was built to house the Electric Department.
The Ipswich police station on Elm Street was built to house the Electric Department.

1913: Garbage Collection


In 1913, the Town of Ipswich established a Garbage Department, in which food waste was to be collected and taken to the Town Farm, where it would be eaten by livestock.

From the 1913 Ipswich Town Report:

“In establishing the Garbage Department we had no precedent of other years to guide us, but were compelled to blaze a pathway through an unexplored wilderness. Beginning the work with care and proceeding with utmost caution, practicing economy within reason everywhere, we found it necessary to expend approximately $937.00 in the work of equipment and collection.”

Ipswich Town Farm
The Town Farm, photo by Edward L. Darling courtesy of William Barton. The buildings were torn down in the 1940’s.

“Beginning the work as we did in June, having but three hogs to start with and being compelled to purchase a considerable number of shoats, we could not expect to have a large stock of pork ready for market before the close of the year. Our sales reached the amount of $243.00.”

“The garbage collection business is a new enterprise for the Town, and many people people do not as yet take kindly to it. Its value as a health measure is not fully understood or appreciated.”

At first there were many who raised objections to giving the garbage to the Town, desiring that their friends and relatives should collect it to feed their own stock as they had done from time immemorial. It required much persuasion on the part of Mr. (Aretas D.) Wallace who instituted the work of collection to induce such to permit the Town team to collect, and at the present time there are still large numbers who have not fallen in with the plan of the Health Department in this respect.

It requires much time to perfect a work of so great importance. If those who give their garbage to the Town would keep the receptacle during the cold weather in a place where the contents would not freeze solidly, it would greatly assist the collector. Respectfully submitted, Overseers of Ipswich: Charles G. Hull, Frank T. Goodhue, Aretas D. Wallace.”

1958: Sewer

The pumping station at the Town Wharf

The Ipswich sewage collection system was constructed in 1958 after years of ignoring orders from the state. The current system includes approximately 23 miles of sewer pipe, 700 manholes and 5 pumping stations. Four pumping station are located throughout town in areas where flow by gravity pipes cannot be achieved. The 5th pumping station, located at the Town Wharf on East Street, receives all the wastewater from the sewer system and conveys it directly to the Wastewater Treatment Plant. A building owned by the town known as Alonzo’s Restaurant, later the River View Cash Market was taken down in 1958 and the town built a sewer pumping station on that location. Wastewater is conveyed by gravity through pipes ranging from 6 inches to 24 inches in diameter.

The Ipswich wastewater plant on Fowlers Lane

The Wastewater Treatment Plant located on Fowlers Lane receives wastewater from approximately 2,000 customers. The plant, originally constructed in 1959, was upgraded in 1963, 1972, 1996 and 2014. The plant is a secondary treatment plant and is designed to treat 1.8 million gallons of wastewater per day, with an instantaneous peak flow of 5.4 million gallons per day. Treated effluent is discharged to Greenwood Creek. (text from the Town of Ipswich municipal website.)

1947 Town Report: “The Board of Selectmen voted to close the lower Ipswich River to swimming from the dam at the Sylvania plant to the Town Wharf as it was felt that because of the waste and sewerage that was being dumped into the river it was for the safety of the children that this area be closed and that it be kept closed until such time as a sewerage system has been installed.”

1953 Town Report: “The State Department of Public Health gave notice that the Town should abate certain nuisances claimed to be caused by lack of a sewer system in Ipswich and further stated that if the nuisances were not abated the State would institute legal proceedings to command the Town to construct a sewer system.”

1956 Town Report: “The Department of Environmental Sanitation of the State insists that the Town install a sewerage system that will cost at least $600,000 even with any assistance that may be forthcoming from the Federal Government. Assuming a 20 year borrowing at 3 per cent interest, the School construction and resultant increase in operating costs will amount to around a $14.00 increase in the tax rate even though all State Aid is utilized. The sewerage system and its operating costs will add around $5.50 to the tax rate. Despite these sobering figures I am convinced that Ipswich badly needs both of these projects.”

1957 Town Report: On two great problems – Sewerage and Zoning – which confronted the Town at the beginning of the year, our citizens made two far-reaching decisions. The Sewerage Plan, as presented by the Sewerage Committee was accepted on a ballot day in June, and the Zoning plan, as presented by the Planning Board, was accepted at a Town Meeting in November. The Selectmen unanimously supported both of these projects because we felt that they were vital to the continued healthy and orderly growth and development of the town. Both of these decisions will be implemented in the coming year.”

2002: The Ipswich River clam flats opened after a century-long closure.

2010: Wind

The first windmill in Ipswich was erected at “Windmill Hill” (the site of the former Cable Hospital). It disappeared by the end of the 17th Century. In 1792 the town of Ipswich granted land at the corner of Market Street and South Main Street to Dr. Manning as the site for a woolen mill. The building was one hundred and five feet long thirty-two feet wide and two stories high. On the roof over the centre of the building was an octagonal tower to sustain the arms and sails of a wind mill by which it was proposed to operate the machinery. The venture was short-lived, and by 1800 all operations ceased.

 horizontally rotating design was erected by Dr. John Manning beside the Choate Bridge
This horizontally rotating design was erected by Dr. John Manning beside the Choate Bridge (where the pub is now located) as part of his woolen mill.

A proposal to build a nuclear power generating plant on the site of the former town dump at the end of Town Farm Road was soundly defeated at the 1971 Ipswich Town Meeting. Ipswich voters approved construction of a wind turbine at that location in 2010. The second turbine was approved at a 2011 special town meeting, with 72% of Ipswich residents in attendance voting for it.

Turbine blade
A blade from one of the Ipswich wind turbines on being driven through Ipswich on its way to installation at the end of Town Farm Rd.

Ipswich Utilities posted the videos below shows a single turbine blade of one of the town’s new wind turbines being driven through Lord’s Square and installed.

2019: Solar

Solar Panels on the Ipswich Town Hall roof
Solar Panels on the Ipswich Town Hall roof. Photo courtesy of the Salem News

The Ipswich Electric Light Department supports residential and commercial customers wishing to generate their own electricity through its Distributed Generation Policy. Residential customers who install a solar PV system may also be eligible to receive a one-time rebate to help with the up-front cost of installation. Customers with systems installed after June 20, 2017 receive 10 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) for their excess generation. The Ipswich municipal light department offers better incentives than communities served by National Grid.

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