December 8, 1888: Bartlett Water Scheme; 1920: Pollution of an Artesian Well

Map showing Bartlett Scheme to export Passaic River Water to New York City

December 8, 1888:  Engineering Newsarticle—Jersey City Board of Public Works Opposed to Scheme Proposed by John R. Bartlett. “Jersey City, N. J .—At a meeting of the Board of Public Works on Nov. 3, the water supply question was still further discussed, speeches being made in favor of and opposition to the award of a contract to the syndicate represented by JOHN R. BARTLETT. The Citizens Committee has adopted the following resolution: “Resolved, That we are unalterably opposed to Jersey City making any contract with any private water company for a supply of water In Jersey City, as such a contract might surrender our rights In the Passaic river, and place us under the worst of monopolies—a private water company. We are in favor of the reorganization of the State Board of Water Supply; that the control of the drinking water of the State be given to said Board, with a view that all the cities in the State of New Jersey may obtain in the future an abundant supply of good water….

The Bartlett water supply project was formally presented to the city of New York on Nov. 30. Briefly stated, this proposal to furnish 50 million gallons daily of water to lower New York, under a head of 300 ft., comes from a syndicate of corporations in New Jersey. The water is to be gathered from the 877 sq. miles of Passaic river water-shed, stored in a reservoir at the Great Notch near Paterson, N. J., and is to be led by pipes and tunnel under the Hudson river directly to lower New York. The advantages claimed are-abundant supply by gravity, constant fire-pressure, sales of water by the city for motive power, the saving of great mains from the Central Park Reservoir down town, and the preservation of the Croton supply for upper New York and the annexed districts. The syndicate promises a supply within 8 years from date of contract, and will charge the city $75 per million gallons, payable quarterly. The project is endorsed by responsible parties. In a later issue we will give the plan in fuller detail….

Jersey City’s new water supply is being discussed at “citizens’ meetings”, and the opportunity has not been lost by the chronic crank. The bone of contention is a proposition to furnish water, made by a private corporation, a part of the Bartlett syndicate. Last Monday’s meeting was marked by a free fight in an attempt to eject a party who interrupted the syndicate attorney and defied the presiding officer in this fight tables and chairs were smashed and the club of a policeman alone stopped the row. At a preceding meeting, threats were made of hanging to a lamp-post the promoters of a private contract. It is to be hoped, for the good name of the city, that these proceedings will be brought to an end by the more reputable and intelligent citizens calmly discussing what is really a great public need, and taking such .action as will improve the present supply, whether this improvement comes from works of their own building or from a private corporation.”

Reference: “Jersey City, N.J.” 1888. Engineering News. 20:(December 8, 1888): 458.

Commentary:  The water scheme to transfer water from the Passaic River watershed to New York City attracted tremendous support and violent opposition. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the interstate transport of water without the agreement of the state which is the source of supply.

Mohawk River near Albany, 1860

December 8, 1920:Engineering and Contractingarticle. Pollution of Public Water Supply by Spring Freshet. “In the spring of 1920 the engineering division of the New York State Department of Health was called upon to investigate an epidemic of gastroenteritis, followed by an outbreak of typhoid fever in the city of Schenectady, N. Y., which occurred subsequently to the gross pollution of the public water supply of the city by the water of the Mohawk River. The results of the investigation were set forth by Mr. Theodore Horton, Chief Engineer of the New York State Department of Health, in his reports to the Department….

The matter was first brought to the attention of the Division of Sanitary Engineering on March 20, 1920, when information was received that on March 15 and a few days following, the number of cases of gastroenteric disturbances in the city had greatly increased above the number normally occurring; and that this increase had followed a noticeable turbidity in the water, which had been greatest on the night of March 13 and during March 14 and had gradually disappeared after the latter date….

On April 1 the onsets of eight cases occurred, and for the next week the number of onsets ranged from two to six, the number gradually decreasing. The last case was reported as occurring on the 19th. In all there were 53 cases, 3 of which terminated fatally. The majority of the cases occurred about two weeks after the pollution of the well by the contaminated water of the river.”

Reference:  “Pollution of Public Water Supply by Spring Freshet.” 1920. Engineering and Contracting. 54:23(December 8, 1920): 562-4.


December 7, 1916: Cleveland Activated Sludge Plant

Activated Sludge Plant, Cleveland, OH

December 7, 1916Engineering Newsarticle. Activated Sludge Results at Cleveland Reviewed. “A comprehensive review of nearly a year’s operation of one of the two largest activated sludge plants in the United States. Cleveland’s activated-sludge installation has now been in operation over nine months. Within 10 days after passing sewage through the plant, activated sludge was produced, but it took about two months to get all the recording apparatus tested out and the plant in shape for continuous operation….

The first experiments at Cleveland with the activated-sludge process indicated that two important requirements of an ideal method of sewage treatment were being satisfied:  The process produced a clear sparkling effluent and there was an absence of odors….

The theory of the activated-sludge process involves properly conditioning a bacterial growth and bringing the growth into the most intimate contact wit the suspended particles of the crude sewage. The plant, therefore, was divided into six compartments in order that the results obtained at the end of each step could be definitely studied and that, if necessary, the solid matter of the sewage could be aerated longer than the liquid itself.”

Reference:  “Activated Sludge Results at Cleveland Reviewed—I.” (1916). Engineering News. 76:23(December 7, 1916): 1061-2.

December 6, 1866: Chicago: First Water Supply Tunnel

December 6, 1866:  “First water supply tunnelfor U.S. city completed for Chicago, IL; Chicago Lake Tunnel extended 10,587 feet under Lake Michigan to an inlet crib; 5 feet in diameter, final cost of $380,784; March 17, 1864 – work started; March 25, 1867 – water allowed into the tunnel. Pumping station with the standpipe tower still stands at the intersection of Michigan Blvd and Chicago Ave., escaped destruction in the 1871 Chicago fire.”

The two-mile tunnel under Lake Michiganproposed by Ellis Chesbrough in 1863 brought him international fame when it was completed and, with its remarkable Two-mile Crib intake structure, was heralded as the eighth wonder of the world. Tunnel construction began in May 1864 and then continued for 24 hours a day and six days a week. A lower semicircular arch was dug and built about six feet in advance of the upper arch. Two men could work side by side, with the miners in front and the masons laying brick about 10-20 feet behind.

Two small mules were found to work in the tunnel, pulling railroad cars to move clay out and building materials in. Digging proceeded first from the shore end and later from the lake end of the tunnel. Chesbrough and a few other dignitaries descended into the tunnel to remove the final inches separating the two tunnels in November 1866. The mayor placed the final masonry stone, and fresh water from the lake entered the tunnel for the first time with great fanfare in March 1867, bringing pure unpolluted water into the city through the structure.”

Commentary:  The purity of the water from this tunnel was grossly overstated in this article and in the minds of Chicagoans in 1866. Cholera and typhoid fever continued to kill tens of thousands of people in Chicago because the city’s sewage was also discharged into the lake for many decades after 1866.


“Business History.” Website, Accessed November 14, 2012.

“The Lake Tunnel in Chicago.” Website December 5, 2012.

December 5, 1782: Van Buren’s Toilet; 1974: 60 Minutes—Drinking Water Dangerous; 1926: Claude Monet Dies

December 5, 1782:  Martin Van Buren, 8thPresident of the U.S., is born. In the collective mind of “Mental Floss,” Van Buren is famous for his toilet.  “When he lost his 1840 reelection bid in a landslide to war hero William Henry Harrison—Van Buren picked up only six states in the electoral college, and not even his home state, New York—the lame duck could then turn his attention to the Lindenwald estate, which was eventually expanded into 36 rooms including a wine cellar, six family bedrooms, one formal guest room, servants’ quarters and one toilet.

As you might have guessed, this wasn’t just any old toilet. Restored to what is believed to be its original appearance, Van Buren’s throne is tucked away on the first floor in a closet-size room, part of a larger bathroom that accommodates the president’s original six-foot long bathtub. The toilet bowl itself is made from fine china, set inside a giant frame made of wood. A 100-gallon water tank, connected to a pump in the basement kitchen, is installed above that frame. (It’s worth noting that the servants quarters had their own indoor outhouse, and two gate houses on the property probably had outhouses.)

A killer innovation for its time, Van Buren introduced the whole town to the concept of the indoor toilet (most were accustomed to bearing the cold in an outhouse) and, according to Dawn Olson of the National Park Service, to the ‘novel idea to have running water and indoor plumbing in the 1850s.’”

December 5, 1974:  Sixty Minutes, the popular television news program on the CBS Television Network aired the segment “Caution, Drinking Water may be Dangerous to Your Health.” Dan Rather was the reporter for the segment.  The program and the concerns with 66 trace organic chemicals in New Orleans water supply and the Consumer Reportsarticles on cancer deaths and use of Mississippi River water for water supplies ultimately led to the passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act.  President Gerald Ford signed the legislation into law before the end of the year.

Claude Monet’s Water Lilies

December 5, 1926Claude Monet dies.(14 November 1840 – 5 December 1926) “He was a founder of French impressionist painting, and the most consistent and prolific practitioner of the movement’s philosophy of expressing one’s perceptions before nature, especially as applied to plein-air landscape painting…. Monet was fond of painting controlled nature: his own gardens in Giverny, with its water lilies, pond, and bridge. He also painted up and down the banks of the Seine, producing paintings such as Break-up of the ice on the Seine.” Perhaps Monet’s most famous series of paintings is his Water Lilies.

December 4, 1913: Sewer Explosion, Salinity of Hudson and Other Stories from Over a Century Ago

Sewer Gas Explosion

December 4, 1913: Municipal Journal. A series of stories that dealt with both drinking water and sewage problems, which were typical for the beginning of the 20thcentury, were featured in this issue.

Terrific Sewer Explosion in Pittsburgh.Pittsburgh, Pa.-Almost a mile of a nine-foot sewer in the Lawrenceville and Bloomfield districts was rent with a terrific explosion last week that tore up streets and alleys, demolished houses and solid brick buildings and broke gas mains. Estimates place the more seriously injured at 17, but scores were slightly hurt. Sewer gas is generally accepted as the cause of the explosion.

Newark’s Sewer Disposal Plant Finished.Newark, N. J.-Newark’s new disposal plant is now finished. The pipe line, however, will not all be in before some time the first of the year, so the modern disposal plant that has been constructed by Contractor L. B. Jacobs, can not be put in operation for several months.

Typhoid.Chicago, Ill.-Typhoid fever has invaded Chicago with a force not felt for several years, according to the bulletin of the Health Department just issued. More cases have been reported each week during the last month than for any similar period for several years. Figures of the Health Department show that 68 cases of typhoid fever were reported two weeks ago, compared with 58 the preceding week and but 16 for the corresponding week of 1912. Commentary: The chlorination systems on the lake water source would not be finished for 3 years, but after completion, typhoid disappeared.

New Sewerage System at Valley Junction.Valley Junction City, Ia.-The Valley Junction City Council has voted to accept the new sewage system which has recently been completed by the contractors.

Ashokan Reservoir at Sunset

Ashokan Reservoir Increases Salinity of Hudson.Poughkeepsie, N. Y.-The relation of the filling of the Ashokan reservoir to the increasing salinity of the Hudson river in the neighborhood of Poughkeepsie formed one of the main topics of discussion at the meeting of the Poughkeepsie Board of Health. Mayor Frank, president of the board, said that the river water is getting constantly more salty, and that the natural supposition would be that the fresh water being taken by the Ashokan reservoir for New York City was being drained from the twelve-mile watershed in the neighborhood of Esopus Creek and its tributaries, which formerly emptied into the Hudson and were the main sources of the city’s water supply. Commentary: I seriously doubt that this is true.

1907 Postcard of Binghamton Waterworks

Filter Plant Overtaxed, Water Polluted.Binghamton, N. Y.-A note of warning was sounded by Health Officer D. S. Burr to all water users, directing that until the new filter plant is completed all water used for domestic purposes be boiled. This is made necessary by the discovery of sewage bacteria in the filtered supply and the realization that the present filter plant is entirely inadequate to answer continually increasing demands.

Altoona Has Solved Its Water Problem.Altoona, Pa.-All the city’s storage and service reservoirs are now filled with water, including Lake Altoona, in which there are 601,000,000 gallons, the big basin being filled to its capacity and running over. After the impounding dam became filled following the heavy rains of several weeks ago, Lake Altoona filled up very rapidly and several days ago it was filled and is now running over.

Cannot Find Waterworks Leak.Dayton, O.-Consternation is beginning to develop in the water department because of its utter inability to locate a bad leak or a series of leaks that developed and which now threatens to cause a serious water famine all over the city. There is scarcely any part of the city that is not now affected, and there is no means of determining when the difficulty will be adjusted.

Reference: Municipal Journal. 1913. 35:23(December 4): 770-1.

December 3, 1842: Birth of Ellen Swallow Richards; 1907: Definition of Sanitary Engineer

Ellen Swallow RichardsDecember 3, 1842Ellen Swallow Richards was born.“Ellen Swallow Richards is perhaps best known as MIT’s first female graduate and instructor, but launching coeducation at the Institute is merely the first in a long list of her pioneering feats. The breadth and depth of her career are astounding; a 1910 tribute in La Follette’s Weekly Magazine professed that ‘when one attempts to tell of the enterprises, apart from her formal teaching, of which Mrs. Richards has been a part or the whole, he is lost in a bewildering maze.’ Authors and scholars have called her the founder of ecology, the first female environmental engineer, and the founder of home economics. Richards opened the first laboratory for women, created the world’s first water purity tables, developed the world standard for evaporation tests on volatile oils, conducted the first consumer-product tests, and discovered a new method to determine the amount of nickel in ore. And that’s just the short list of her accomplishments. In a nod to Richards’s remarkable knowledge and interests, her sister-in-law called her ‘Ellencyclopedia….’

Ellen Swallow Richards

MIT Laboratory with Normal Chlorine Map for Massachusetts on the Wall

Richards’s research on water quality was even more far-reaching. In 1887 [William R.] Nichols’s successor [Thomas M. Drown] put her in charge of implementing an extensive sanitary survey of Massachusetts inland waters, again for the board of health. The two-year study was unprecedented in scope. Richards supervised the collection and analysis of 40,000 water samples from all over the state–representing the water supply for 83 percent of the population. She personally conducted at least part of the analysis on each sample; the entire study involved more than 100,000 analyses. In the process, she developed new laboratory equipment and techniques, meticulously documenting her findings. Instead of merely recording the analysis data, she marked each day’s results on a state map–and noticed a pattern. By plotting the amount of chlorine in the samples geographically, she produced the famous Normal Chlorine Map, an indicator of the extent of man-made pollution in the state. The survey produced her pioneering water purity tables and led to the first water quality standards in the United States. Her biographer, Caroline Hunt, contends that the study was Richards’s greatest contribution to public health.”

Commentary:  There is a rich body of information about the life Ellen Swallow Richards. A video on YouTubewith ESR expert Joyce B. Milesnarrating is particularly interesting. Below is the Normal Chlorine Map from a book by Ellen Swallow Richards. It shows that chloride concentrations in ground and surface waters increase as one nears the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean. Any significant deviations from the “normal” levels of chloride in a water source indicated sewage contamination.

References: Durant, Elizabeth. (2007). “Ellencyclopedia.” MIT Technology Review. August 15, 2007.

sanitary engineering

Mahoning Co. Ohio Sanitary Engineering

December 3, 1907: Address of President of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. During his address on the function of engineering society, he gave a succinct definition of the sanitary engineer. “The sanitary engineer is a specialist in hydraulic engineering in the applications of water supply and drainage as means to secure the well being of the community as respects its public health. His field expands from that of the wise precautions respecting the piping of the individual house, where he touches the craftsmanship of the plumber, up to the broadest problems of sewage disposal and utilization, and the healthful supply of potable water for cities, free from bacterial or inorganic pollution at its source or in transit. His co-workers are the bacteriologist and the physician. It would seem more serviceable however for the purpose in hand to group such men with what are hereafter to be called the civil engineers.” (Hutton 1907)

In an article published two years later, a suggested list of courses for the well-trained sanitary engineer was recommended. “In order to be able to make use of the forces of nature for the promotion of the comfort, health and welfare of mankind, it is necessary to study and to become conversant with them; hence, training in the natural sciences and in mathematics forms the basis of sanitary as well as of all other branches of engineering. The study should include mathematics (arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry and stereometry), astronomy and descriptive geometry; likewise, the physical sciences, mechanics and dynamics, hydrostatics and hydraulics, aerostatics and aerodynamics; the theory of heat, optics, acoustics, magnetism and electricity. It is also necessary for the engineer to have some knowledge of meteorology, climatology, physical geography, mineralogy and geology; furthermore, of general chemistry, metallurgy, and, in particular, of chemical technology. The study of botany, of the trees of commerce and of forestry, is also useful in many ways. In none of these studies, however, can the young engineer student expect to become complete master; even in mathematics, which is to the engineer the basis of all learning, he cannot expect to cover the whole field….

The course of study in sanitary engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston is essentially one in civil engineering, with special attention devoted to sanitary chemistry and sanitary biology, and including some practice in the laboratories.” (Gerhard 1909)


Gerhard, William P. (1909). Sanitation and Sanitary Engineering. New York:Gerhard (self published), 8 & 10.

Hutton, Frederick R. 1907. “The Mechanical Engineer and the Function of the Engineering Society.” Proceedings of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. 29:6, 597-632.

December 2, 1970: USEPA Starts Operations

December 2, 1970: The United States Environmental Protection Agency(EPA or sometimes USEPA) is an agency of the U.S. federal government which was created for the purpose of protecting human health and the environment by writing and enforcing regulations based on laws passed by Congress. The EPA was proposed by President Richard Nixon and began operation on December 2, 1970, after Nixon signed an executive order. The order establishing the EPA was ratified by committee hearings in the House and Senate. The agency is led by its Administrator, who is appointed by the president and approved by Congress. The current administrator is Gina McCarthy. The EPA is not a Cabinet department, but the administrator is normally given cabinet rank.

The EPA has its headquarters in Washington, D.C., regional offices for each of the agency’s ten regions, and 27 laboratories. The agency conducts environmental assessment, research, and education. It has the responsibility of maintaining and enforcing national standards under a variety of environmental laws, in consultation with state, tribal, and local governments. It delegates some permitting, monitoring, and enforcement responsibility to U.S. states and Native American tribes. EPA enforcement powers include fines, sanctions, and other measures. The agency also works with industries and all levels of government in a wide variety of voluntary pollution prevention programs and energy conservation efforts.

The agency has approximately 17,000 full-time employees. and engages many more people on a contractual basis. More than half of EPA human resources are engineers, scientists, and environmental protection specialists; other groups include legal, public affairs, financial, and information technologists.

Commentary:  In 2019 or 2020, will Trumpism and the Republican Party destroy EPA and all of our environmental protections?