July 30, 1894: Jersey City’s Contaminated Water Supply

Sewer Pipe, Water Pipe Death Spiral

Sewer Pipe, Water Pipe Death Spiral

July 30, 1894: New York Times Headline. Jersey City’s Foul Water; Sewage-Filled Passaic the Source of Its Supply. “Plenty of Good Drinking Water to be Had and Many Syndicates Ready to Furnish It — None, However, Has Influence Enough to Get a Contract — Tremendous Debt a Serious Obstacle, but Public Health Demands a Change. The people of this city are thoroughly satisfied that they have the worst drinking water to be found anywhere in the United States. This is no sudden conclusion of theirs. It is the result of a steady growth, born of an experience extending over eight or ten years.

When the Passaic River was first tapped as a source of supply, the water was pure. Dr. Chilton of New York and Prof. Horsford of Yale University, who made the analysis, pronounced it better than the water supplied to Philadelphia, New York, or Albany. But that was forty years ago, and the Passaic of 1854 was very different from the river of today.

Then the towns on its banks were merely hamlets. Paterson was only a village and Passaic and Belleville were mere dots on the map. None of them had any sewers to empty into the river, there were no factories along the banks to pollute the waters, and the fluid brought to Jersey City was limpid, clear and sparkling.

Paterson and Passaic are cities now, with extensive sewerage systems, and all the sewage of these two cities, with a population, probably, of 60,000, empties directly into the river. [Sewer Pipe, Water Pipe Death Spiral] In addition, there are many factories, mills, and dye works along the banks of the river, and all the refuse from these goes into the river along with the sewage, to further pollute the water.”

Commentary: The article goes on to catalogue the evils of the lower Passaic River as a source of supply. It would not be until 1899 that a contract was signed with Patrick H. Flynn to develop a new water supply 23 miles west of the city by building a dam on the Rockaway River forming Boonton Reservoir. It was to this water supply that Dr. John L. Leal added chlorine for the first time to disinfect drinking water for consumers. The story forms the basis for my book, The Chlorine Revolution: Water Disinfection and the Fight to Save Lives, which was published in 2013. The Sewer Pipe, Water Pipe Death Spiral was developed for the book and succinctly describes the water contamination problems of the late 19th century.

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