A Short Biography of Engineer Benjamin Prescott


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Pipes of the Albany Water Works excavated by Wolfert Roost CC circa late 1980s002The Wolfert’s Roost Country Club in Albany maintains a small dam, pond, and pump house to provide water for their golf course. In the 1980s workers excavating the pond, which is fed by the Maezlandtkill, discovered several sections of ancient wooden and very early cast iron pipe along with iron bands. The pipe and other artifacts were placed in the woods near the club’s tennis courts and forgotten.

Benjamin Prescott, engineer of Albany’s first municipal water system and the man responsible for those pipes, is all but equally forgotten, despite an illustrious career in engineering.  Prescott served as an Engineer in the American Revolution, Superintendent of the Springfield Armory, and was the designer of several notable projects, including one of this nation’s first inclined planes (on the Connecticut River). He also conducted a 1790s survey of Niagara Falls, consulted on the Erie Canal, designed the Troy Sloop Lock (the Federal Dam) and more.

As early as the 1670s Albany had both public and private wells. The public wells were supplied with water from fountains or ponds, formed by constructing a dam across a creek, or near the outlet of a spring on the hills around the city. All wells, but especially the hand-dug private wells, were easily contaminated by nearby outhouses and other effluent. Deadly diseases often resulted from consuming this tainted water, even as the growing population of the city demanded more reliable sources of fresh drinking water.  It would not be until after the second half of 19th century that the City of Albany would construct its first official sewer of brick and cement designed to remove human waste and protect water quality.

In June 1749, Swedish naturalist and botanist Peter Kalm’s description of Albany’s water was less than flattering: “The water in several wells in this town was very cool about this time, but had a kind of acid taste which was not very agreeable. On nearer examination I found an abundance of little insects in it. Their length was different; some were a geometrical line and a half; others two, and others four lines long.” [A line was a 18th Century unit of measure. One line = ¼ the length of a grain of barley corn. 3 barley corns = 1 inch].

Kalm said the insects had black heads and pale bodies; when they swam they “proceed in crooked or undulated lines, almost like tadpoles.” He mixed a glass of well water with about 25% of rum to no affect on the insects. Kalm said the city’s water burned his throat, and gave his aide chest pains. For the next fifty years Albany’s public water had a terrible reputation.

In 1796, Jedidiah Morse’s American Geography reported: “The well water in this city [Albany] is extremely bad, scarcely drinkable by those not accustomed to it. It oozes through stiff blue clay and it imbibes in its passage the fine particles common to that kind of soil.” Morse claimed that all the city’s inhabitants used river water to cook with and some families drank it. The City’s public well water however, “is unwholesome, being full of little insects, except in size like those which are frequently found in stagnated water. “  In 1800 visiting Englishman John Maude found the river water to be dirty and preferred water from the public pump, and disputed Peter Kalm’s criticism of 50 years before.

waterjugArchaeological examinations of wells and cisterns in and around Albany have revealed that some contained large pottery “filter jugs”.  Pea stones or charcoal surrounded the filter jug which was pierced with hundreds of small holes to limit the amount of sediment that got into the jug. More elaborate cisterns might have several interior compartments to allow sediments to fall out as the water moved through the system. Neither method prevented dangerous microbes or bacteria from entering the drinking water.

By 1793 city leaders had decided it was time for a more modern water supply to deliver clean water for household use and a reliable source for fighting fires. Their plan was to bring water to the city from a fresh water spring near the Five Mile House (a tavern along the King’s Road between Albany and Schenectady) through a series of wooden pipes, referred to as “aqueducts” in the official records. Among the several proposals eventually sent to the Common Council in 1795 was one by Benjamin Prescott of Northampton, MA. Many of the proposals received by the Common Council were very short, some being only a paragraph in length.  Prescott’s proposal was several pages in length, well written, and very detailed, and Common Council chose him to design the City’s first municipal water system.

Prescott's Inclined Plane at South Hadley MA001Benjamin Prescott was born in Lancaster, MA in 1755. He served as an engineering officer during the American Revolution and afterward married Ruth Crocker in Waterford, NY, in 1780. They lived there for some time before settling at Northampton.

In 1793 the State of Massachusetts Legislature hoped to improve navigation on the Connecticut River with either a canal or inclined plane to move boats around the water falls at South Hadley, MA. Twenty persons were appointed by the Legislature to form a Proprietors of Locks and Canals including Engineer Benjamin Prescott who was appointed the project’s Superintendent. Prescott’s project is considered the first mechanical inclined plane used to haul boats around river obstacles in America. It included a dam on the Connecticut River powering two water wheels that raised or lowered a boat sledge a distance of 230 feet. It was widely admired when it began operation in April 1795, the same month Prescott sent his proposal to the Albany Common Council.

Albany’s plan to utilize the fresh water spring near the Five Mile House along the old Kings Road to Schenectady did not suit Prescott, who surveyed the spring and the route.  The supply was inadequate he said, and the water was hard and not suited for washing. Prescott also determined that elevation of the spring was not high enough to provide sufficient pressure to enable the owners of different houses in the city, particularly westward, to “raise the water into the different stories of their houses.”

Prescott’s negative assessment of the City’s plan was overruled by the committee assigned to oversee the project, who declared that the water supply “answers every purpose of domestic consumption, that it is soft and proper for washing with –  and – the quantity which the spring will yield from an experiment made by Mr. Prescott is at least sixty gallons in one minute, or about seven hundred and eighty five hogsheads [a hogshead was a barrel usually containing a volume of about 145 gallons of liquid] in twenty four hours which your committee think will be fully adequate to the supply of the city.”   The contract was signed work soon began; it was expected to be completed by November of 1797.

Prescott reported to the committee his estimate of the number of pitch pine logs that would be required. Each log was to be “at least fifteen inches in diameter at the butt end and thirteen inches diameter at the smaller end – and – shall be secured at each joint by an iron band of twelve inches in diameter, one inch and one half broad and one fourth of an inch thick on the thickest side to be made wedge wise and inserted and well secured by staples in the butt end of each piece of timber.”  He estimated it would require up to ten miles of wooden pipe to construct the aqueduct.

Although Prescott was awarded the contract to devise the construction of Albany’s water system, it may not have required his constant physical presence as long as the work and workers were proceeding as planned. Some sources say that Prescott surveyed Niagara Falls in 1796 for a possible canal route around the falls.  A well drawn plan to construct a canal around Niagara Falls could not only have great commercial value, but military importance as well. It appears Prescott may have left the Albany’s Water Works project in order to conduct the Niagara River survey.

So what about the Wolferts Roost piping?  An 1854 map of Albany County shows Prescott’s final “Line of Conduit” coming into the city and also shows another line of conduit coming from a small body of water in the Van Rensselaer land north of Albany in what is the present site of the Wolferts Roost Country Club pond.

An indenture between Benjamin Prescott and Albany dated April 16, 1799 to “draw off and take out of, and from a certain brook or stream of water running near to and south of the dwelling house now occupied by Bigelow & Bartlett in the said Town of Watervliet – commonly known and distinguished by the name of Maes Landte Kill so much of the water of said brook as can be conveyed through a line of conducts [sic] – through which the said conduits shall or may be laid with pure and wholesome water and for no other purpose whatsoever.”

Springfield ArmoryPrescott is next found in the historical record as Superintendent of the U.S. Armory at Springfield, MA. The site was chosen by George Washington. It was protected, being sixty miles inland on the Connecticut River atop a plateau. The armory was primarily responsible for producing shoulder fired long arms. A 1989 report by Raber Associates states that “Early Armory Managers moved quickly to provide waterpower and more facilities” at the site including a training field and four properties along the Mill River about a mile south of the training field. The Armory constructed waterpower shops there and the facility was divided between the Hill Shops and the Water Shops, with a considerable distance between the two that caused the need for a considerable amount of hauling.

The Raber Associates report notes that “some of the first Armory Superintendents, notably Benjamin Prescott, in charge November 1805 to August 1813, began to impose a division of labor on this complicated situation after about 1805, establishing separate shops for separate operations. Limited physical facilities, and dispersed millseats, did not allow for complete or effective division by task. Sporadic beginnings of mechanization accompanied early Armory growth, as Watershop operations by 1815 included limited milling and slitting of some screws and lock components; boring, grinding, and polishing of barrels; and possibly trip-hammers for the difficult hammering and welding of iron sheets into rough barrels.”   Prescott is also credited with initiating a “comprehensive record keeping system” and building water powered mill buildings made of fire resistant brick and stone.

By all estimates, Benjamin Prescott seemed to be a competent administrator who streamlined what was previously a less organized and cumbersome weapons assembly process. His tenure at Springfield Armory was interrupted however, by politics. These events are explained in an 1878 Springfield Republican:

“Some of the armorers recollect a change of superintendents away back in 1813, with which is connected to a chapter of political history which it is believed has never been made public. Col. Benjamin Prescott, and ardent Democrat who is said to have usually carried the local election for his party by having all the armorers vote his way, was superintendent for eight years and in 1813 was forced to resign in consequence of an adverse report made to the secretary of war [then Federalist John Armstrong] by Henry Lechler of Baltimore, who had been appointed inspector of the armory for that year. Lechler was then made superintendent, and his first step was to depose all the democratic foremen and put federals in their places. Not having any practical knowledge of the business, and being surrounded by people equally ignorant, everything it is said went wrong under his administration until one day in early 1815, after Lechler had held the office a little over a year, he was surprised to see his predecessor enter, hand his great coat on the customary peg, draw his old chair before the fire-place, light a cigar and finally take a paper from his pocket and hand it over his shoulder to the superintendent, remarking: ‘Here, Lechler, is something for you.’ It was his summary discharge. Col. Prescott remained but a few months, only long enough to straighten matters out…”

During his absence from the Armory, Benjamin Prescott became involved with the Cohoes Manufacturing Company. The United States was at war with Great Britain and Prescott’s knowledge of working with iron and the “slitting of screws” at the Springfield armory was valuable to the company. An 1813 gazetteer described the operations “in the vicinity of Cohoes is a Dutch Church and farming neighborhood commonly called the Boght. A manufactory of screws of iron for woodwork, erected on the lower sprout of the Mohawk near the Cohoes Bridge (Bridge between Cohoes & Waterford) has got into successful operation. Works are about to be added for the drawing the wire from which the screws are formed, when the iron will be taken in the bar, and manufactured into screws, now made of foreign wire. The machinery is all driven by water, and is said to be very ingenious…”  The screw factory was destroyed by fire in May 1815.

State Dam, TroyOne of the last things Benjamin Prescott did was design the stone dam across the Hudson River between Waterford and Lansingburgh, known as the State Dam. Travel by boats of any size was difficult or impossible because of the shallow depth of the Hudson at Waterford.  The construction of the dam and an adjoining sloop lock on the Lansingburgh side enabled Hudson River Sloops to precede further inland along the Hudson above the Waterford area.   When completed, the dam was 1,100 feet long by 9 feet high.

Benjamin Prescott outlived his wife and several of his children – one disappeared at sea on a trip to Portugal. His wife Ruth Crocker Prescott died January 20, 1824 and Benjamin Prescott died November 3, 1826 – they are buried side by side at the southern end of the old Waterford Cemetery on Route 32.

Photos, from above: pipes excavated at Wolferts Roost (courtesy Wolferts Roost Country Club);  a filter jug (courtesy of Hartgen Archaeology); the design of Prescott’s Inclined Plane at South Hadley, MA (courtesy South Hadley Historical Society); the Springfield Armory; and the lock at the State Dam, Troy.

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