Oak Bluffs Waterworks

A castle on the Lagoon.

Castles evoke visions of olde England more than Martha’s Vineyard. But if a wooden dragon named Vanessa can float on Farm Pond in Oak Bluffs all summer, why not a stone castle on a lagoon?

Hidden behind Lagoon Pond – on the other side of a dike that separates the pond from the Lagoon – stands a castle, built in 1890, that houses the Oak Bluffs Waterworks. This architectural gem off Barnes Road, registered with the Massachusetts Historical Commission and the oldest operating pumping station for ground water in the commonwealth, was designed in the neo-Romanesque style. It looks more like a manse built for a nineteenth-century robber baron than a pump station built to provide the town’s water.

Even more remarkable, the Oak Bluffs Waterworks, complete with a porte cochere for limousines, should they ever pull up, serves the town as well as, if not better than, when it was first built. According to Deacon Perrotta, the Oak Bluffs water superintendent, the station supplies Oak Bluffs residents with 800 gallons of water a minute – a half-million gallons per day in winter, and more than two million per day in the summer of 2005. There have been a few changes and additions, of course. It now has seven wellheads, state-of-the-art computer technology, and has been joined by three other pumping stations (a fifth is in the permit stage).   

The waterworks building lost its classic eyebrow windows when the roof was reshingled around 1900, and its 1893 coal wharf was demolished when the pumps were converted to electric power in 1934. The man who tended the steam pumps lived in a waterfront cottage next to the driveway entrance on Barnes Road, and the superintendent lived in the larger home next to it. Also near the drive are the Richard F. Madeiras Herring Run, donated fifteen years ago by the Martha’s Vineyard Surfcasters Association. Here fishermen can sit and cast for the brook, speckled trout, and large-mouth bass found in Lagoon Pond. Watercress, beeches and maples are abundant.

The architect who popularized the “rustic rubble” style of the Oak Bluffs Waterworks was Boston-based Henry Hobson Richardson, who designed Trinity Church in Boston’s Copley Plaza and Ames Gate Lodge in North Easton. The designer of the Oak Bluffs Waterworks is unknown, but it might have been Boston architect J.W. Beals, who designed the so-called Stone Bank – the Bank of Martha’s Vineyard building, built in Vineyard Haven in 1905.
When the pumps in the waterworks were started in June of 1890, the Vineyard Gazette proclaimed the building, with its inner walls of brick, outer walls of stone, and seventy-foot chimney, to have “somewhat the appearance of a small castle of the olden time.” The nearby stream, created by damming what was identified then as Beech Grove Mineral Springs, still feeds Lagoon Pond.

In honor of the waterworks’ opening in August 1890, a three-day celebration included a lantern illumination at the Tabernacle, Japanese fireworks in Ocean Park, and balloons filled with bonbons and candy. More than 600 children marched in fours to the casino near the steamship wharf. Aeronautical pigs and elephants were launched over Nantucket Sound. In Waban Park, the town baseball team played Siasconset from Nantucket, and a grand ball at the casino brought the season of 1890 to a “most successful close,” according to the Gazette. The waterworks site was described with romantic enthusiasm: “Here the red man fished for trout, and shells and other relics found along the banks of this beautiful stream show that the spot must have been the favorite camping ground of the Indians.”

When the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank purchased twenty-eight acres of the springs next to the waterworks in 1999, the commission chose the Indian name – Weahtaqua Springs (meaning beech grove) – given in the three-volume History of Martha’s Vineyard, by Charles Edward Banks.

Today, several Weahtaqua Springs Preserve trails wander down from Barnes Road, across from Featherstone Center for the Arts, to the historic waterworks. Arched windows adorn each side of the imposing carriage entrance, which is supported by massive wood beams and has a tongue-and-groove ceiling. The grand, half-moon entranceway to the building opens to reveal the huge pumps that send water to the citizens of the town. Attached to the rear is a mini-keep, and a few steps away, the placid, swan-dotted waters of Lagoon Pond – a nearly unaltered nineteenth-century vision of Martha’s Vineyard.