Tag Archives: sewers

August 9, 1911: Large Vitrified Clay Pipe Sewer

August 9, 1911: Municipal Journal article. Building a Large Vitrified Clay Pipe Sewer. “A piece of sewer construction is nearing completion in Brooklyn, N. Y., which is remarkable, both for the fact that it is believed to be the largest vitrified pipe sewer ever built, and also it is being laid with comparative ease in fine sand 10 feet to 15 feet below tide water level. This sewer, which is about 4,000 feet long, serves as the outlet line for a system draining a considerable area of a new part of the city which is rapidly extending out over the meadows adjacent to Jamaica Bay. It ends at a sewage disposal plant which has been in service for about 18 years and is enormously overtaxed and must speedily be replaced with some larger and probably different kind of plant.

The sewer is being laid through salt meadows, a considerable part of which is overflowed by the highest tides, and at few if any points is the land more than 3 feet higher than this. The depth of the trench ranges from 12 to 16 feet, or about 10 to 13 feet below high tide…. The sewer is made of 42-inch vitrified clay pipe 3 inches thick, bedded in concrete up to the horizontal diameter, this concrete having vertical outer sides and resting upon a plank platform, and being 7 inches thick under the invert and 14 inches wider than the outside diameter of the pipe barrel. For the purpose of connecting future buildings there are inserted at intervals of 20 feet upright “standpipes” of 6-inch vitrified pipe which rest on the 42-inch pipe in sockets formed around openings in the top of the pipe constructed for this purpose.”


July 6, 1917: 100 year Anniversary of the National Clay Pipe Institute; 1890: Death of Edwin Chadwick

Vitrified Clay Pipe

July 6, 1917: “Clay pipe has a history that goes back millennia, with the earliest known example coming from Babylonia in 4,000 BC, according to sewerhistory.org….The clay sewer pipe industry in the United States dates back to 1815 with installations in Washington, D.C. In 1849, the first domestic clay pipe manufacturing facility was established in Middlebury, Ohio. In the years that followed, cities across the country began laying pipe systems to convey sewage away from populated areas…. Around the turn of the 20th century, it was recognized that sewer pipe standards were needed; size, strength, quality and installation methods varied widely from location to location. As a result, an ASTM Committee was formed for clay sewer pipes. Eventually, this led to the publication of Standard C13 on the Manufacture of Clay Pipe in 1917 (which is now incorporated into ASTM C700).

That same year, the Clay Products Association was formed with the merger of the International Clay Products Bureau and the Society of Vitrified Clay Pipe Manufacturers. That organization – now known as the National Clay Pipe Institute – is celebrating its 100th anniversary amidst a resurgence of vitrified clay as a preferred gravity sanitary sewer pipe.”

Edwin Chadwick

July 6, 1890: Death of Edwin Chadwick. Edwin Chadwick was an English social reformer who was noted for his work to reform the Poor Laws and improve sanitary conditions and public health. The appointment of the Poor Law Commission in 1834 which included Edwin Chadwick is widely believed to be the beginning of the sanitary movement in England. Through Chadwick’s work and influence, more sophisticated health statistics were collected which revealed that public health problems were increasing at a rapid rate. Chadwick imposed his “sanitary idea” which focused on disease prevention. A survey published by the Poor Law Commission in 1842 detailed the horrific working and living conditions in England at the time. The report linked epidemic disease, especially related to fever diseases (typhoid, typhus and cholera) to filthy environmental conditions. Privy vaults, shallow urban wells and piles of garbage and animal excrement in the streets were all related to the increases in disease.

“‘The great preventatives,’” he wrote, “‘drainage, street and house cleansing by means of supplies of water and improved sewerage, and especially the introduction of cheaper and more efficient modes of removing all noxious reuse from the towns, are operations for which aid must be sought from the science of the Civil Engineer, not from the physician, who has done his work when he has pointed out the disease that results from the neglect of proper administrative measures, and has alleviated the sufferings of the victims.’” (Rosen 1993)

Of course, the best way to identify and locate these health threats was to determine where the greatest odors of putrefaction were located and tie the solution to the problem—miasmas.

Chadwick was not ultimately successful in all he tried to do to clean up the noxious wastes in London and other concentrations of population in England. However, he did have a profound influence on a series of laws that were passed in the mid to late 1800s which began to implement some of his vision. (Rosen 1993) The formation of boards of health and the appointment of health officers under these laws provided advocates for cleaning up the filth.

It is a common misconception among chroniclers of the time period, 1850 to 1900, that the act of installing sewers, in and of itself, was an effective public health protection strategy. Edwin Chadwick was one of the major proponents of this misconception. In the 1840s he became one of the leaders of the European Sanitary Movement. In his famous report published in 1842, Chadwick promoted four themes:

  • Relationship of unsanitary living conditions and disease (based on the miasma theory)
  • Economic effects of poor living conditions
  • Social effects of poor living conditions (e.g., drunkenness, immorality, disease)
  • Need for new administrative systems to effect changes (Halliday 2001)

Chadwick had a vision of vast sewer systems collecting human waste and transporting it out to rural areas where it would be put to beneficial use as fertilizer for farms. Water supply would be provided to cities through a piped water system from protected sources that were not affected by any locale’s sewage. Unfortunately, only one out of three parts of Chadwick’s vision were implemented in London and elsewhere. Sewers were built but the crucial sanitary disposal of human waste on farmland was not. Sewage was discharged into rivers and lakes after which time no surface supplied drinking water was safe.


Halliday, Stephen. 2001. The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis. London, U.K.: History Press.

McGuire, Michael J. 2013. The Chlorine Revolution: Water Disinfection and the Fight to Save Lives. Denver, CO:American Water Works Association.

Rosen, George. 1993. A History of Public Health. Expanded Edition, Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University.

June 23, 1909: Sewer Work in Louisville, KY

June 23, 1909: Municipal Journal and Engineer article. Sewer Work in Louisville. “The city of Louisville, Ky., is now doing a large amount of sewer main construction. For nearly eighteen years prior to the beginning of the present work practically nothing had been done in sewer work and Louisville, which is a large and growing city, was lamentably weak in sanitation. After considerable agitation the city, in 1906, was authorized to issue $4,000,000 worth of bonds for constructing additions to the existing systems and building new ones.

A sewer commission was appointed by the Mayor, consisting of P. L . Atherton, chairman ; Oscar Finley, W. C. Nones and Alfred Seligman. This commission employed Mr. Harrison P. Eddy, of Boston, as consulting engineer, and Mr. J. B. F. Breed, former city engineer, became chief engineer of the Sewer Commission. Mr. J. H. Kimball, formerly assistant city engineer, of Newton, Mass., was secured as designing engineer, and Messrs. F. C. Williams, H. S. Morse and H. P. Wires as resident engineers in charge of construction work.

A large amount of preliminary work was necessary, including surveys and borings. These borings were numerous and covered the lines so thoroughly that the conditions to be met with in excavation were very accurately known. It was found best to use an auger for this purpose. As was found by the borings and later confirmed in the actual excavation, the top layer of earth for about 10 feet was of a clayey nature. Below this as deep as excavations were to be carried the material was a mixture of sand and gravel, the relative proportions of which varied from place to place. These materials made the handling of the material very easy, but great care has been necessary to properly brace the banks as the gravel has little power of cohesion to hold itself in place.”

June 16, 1858: Death of Dr. John Snow

Dr. John Snow

Dr. John Snow (March 15, 1813–June 16, 1858) is famous for the Broad Street Pump episode but he accomplished so much more than that. He was first and foremost a physician who trained in England in the early part of the 19th century. He made significant contributions to the development of anesthesia and he is considered by many to be the Father of Modern Epidemiology.

The story of Dr. John Snow and how he discovered the cause of a cholera epidemic in the Golden Square neighborhood of London in 1854 has reached almost mythical proportions in public health literature.  Three excellent books describe Snow’s life and the details of the Broad Street Pump incident. (Hempel 2007; Johnson 2006; Vinten-Johansen et al. 2003)

Snow was born on March 15, 1813 in the City of York.  He served his medical-apothecary apprenticeship in Newcastle-on-Tyne with later assistantships in the villages of Burnop Field and Pateley Bridge.  In 1836 at the age of 23, Snow moved to London to complete his medical education.  He qualified as a licensed apothecary in 1838 and a surgeon with a London practice in October 1838.  With an office in the parish of Saint Anne-Soho, Snow would have a medical career of only two-dozen years before he was struck down at the age of 45.

At the age of 17, Snow became a vegetarian and soon thereafter committed to only drinking boiled water or, preferably, distilled water as a result of the writings of John Frank Newton.  He embraced abstinence from alcohol around 1836.  Snow was known to be quiet, frugal and energetic, a man of integrity and a surgeon with an indifferent bedside manner.  He refused to dispense pills and other medicines just because his patients wanted them.  He was able to make a living and acquire some success as a physician when he perfected the administration of chloroform as an anesthetic used during surgeries and infant deliveries.  He even delivered two babies while attending Queen Victoria.

He never married.  His solitary existence and his abstinent personal habits allowed him more time than his colleagues to develop his medical practice and enabled him to pursue his intense interest in determining the cause of cholera epidemics.

Snow gave away all of the knowledge he developed.  He made it available for free to any doctor who wanted it.  No attempt was made by him to patent his many devices for dispensing chloroform and ether. As a result, physicians hired him to use his skill with their patients and he became famous for this.

One overriding personal characteristic of this ascetic doctor of the Victorian era was courage.  He worked hard to develop his ideas and used the scientific method and laboratory investigations to establish his case in whatever area he was working.  Once he became convinced of the rightness of his position, nothing could dislodge him.  It was only his tremendous courage that made it possible for him to go up against the establishment and argue that something other than foul air was causing the deadly cholera. (McGuire 2013)

Snow’s determination of the cause of the cholera epidemic near the Broad Street pump and his ability, albeit temporary, to have the pump handle removed is worthy of recounting here.  The 1854 cholera epidemic struck the Golden Square neighborhood of London with particular viciousness. It began on August 31 and started to wind down about September 7, however, many died over the next few days. Well over 500 people died during this epidemic in a small neighborhood. Snow tracked the numbers of deaths in the neighborhood, and it was clear to him from the pattern of death that the Broad Street pump was the center of the affliction and most likely the source of infection. On September 7, Snow convinced the Board of Governors and Directors of the Poor of St. James Parish that the epidemic was being caused by water from the pump. The next day the commissioners ordered that the pump handle be removed. Structural defects in the Broad Street well sump and the cross-connection to the nearby house sewer were not corrected until 1855.

Incredibly, the residents of Broad Street petitioned the Commissioners to reopen the well that had caused hundreds of deaths in their neighborhood.  This was partly due to the official linkage of the severe, isolated epidemic in the Broad Street area to miasma (foul air). In an amazing footnote to history, the commissioners voted 10 to 2 to reopen the well on September 26, 1855, one year and one week after the last deaths during the epidemic.  According to contemporary reports, there was much rejoicing in the street that the Broad Street well was reopened.  The polluted well was not permanently closed until the cholera epidemic of 1866.

With the emphasis on the Broad Street pump episode in most historical accounts, his pioneering work in epidemiology based on cholera occurrence in a district of London served by two water supplies usually gets lost.  Snow was able to demonstrate that homes in areas of London that were being served contaminated water from the tidal portion of the Thames Estuary were far more likely to have cholera deaths than the homes served water from an unpolluted upland source. He believed that dumping sewage into a water supply perpetuated the death spiral caused by cholera and other waterborne diseases. Snow had strong opinions on sewers and drinking water systems.

“Snow who distilled his own drinking water, agreed that London water should be improved, but he considered the abolition of cesspools and the increasing preference for water closets a sanitary disaster…water closets connected to sewer lines that emptied into rivers also used for metropolitan drinking water were, in his mind, primarily an efficient means of recycling the cholera agent through the intestines of victims as rapidly as possible.  Sanitary reforms were needed, but flushing the waste of a town into the same river by which one quenched ones’ thirst seemed sheer stupidity.” (Vinten-Johansen et al 2003)

Dr. John Snow died of a stroke on June 16, 1858, 42 days after the birth of John L. Leal who grew to be a physician who carried on Snow’s concern about the ability of contaminated water to spread disease.  If the discoveries of Dr. John Snow had been accepted and followed by engineers, sewer planners and drinking water providers beginning in 1854, millions of deaths would have been avoided.  Snow was only one person trying to overcome the juggernaut of the miasma theory.  He was far ahead of his time.


Hempel, Sandra. 2007. The Strange Case of the Broad Street Pump: John Snow and the Mystery of Cholera. Los Angeles, Ca.: University of California.

Johnson, Steven. 2006. The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World, New York City, N.Y.: Riverhead Books.

McGuire, Michael J. (2013). The Chlorine Revolution:  Water Disinfection and the Fight to Save Lives. Denver, CO:American Water Works Association.

Vinten-Johansen, Peter, Howard Brody, Nigel Paneth, Stephen Rachman and Michael Rip. 2003. Cholera, Chloroform, and the Science of Medicine. New York City, N.Y.: Oxford University Press.

May 14, 1914: Change the Map of NYC—Fill in the East River

East River, New York City

May 14, 1914: Municipal Journal article. Proposal to Change Map of New York City. “New York City, N. Y.-The somewhat startling changes in the topography of New York proposed by Dr. T. Kennard Thomson have again come in for further discussion in connection with the various sewage disposal plans proposed for the city. Dr. Thomson says that the rivers and harbors of the city are becoming cesspools because the sewage has no easy way of getting out. He claims that his plan of joining Manhattan to Long Island by filling in the East river would allow of great trunk sewers from White Plains down where the East river now is, thence to Staten Island, picking up all the Jersey sewage, and then on, miles beyond Sandy Hook, where it can be properly treated. By the construction of a new neck of land from the Battery to within a mile of Staten Island and the connection of the Island with New York by tunnels, Dr. Thomson said that Staten Island would in reality become ‘Greater Pittsburgh’ when the barge canal was completed, making it possible to get ore here as cheaply as in the Pennsylvania city. He added that ‘The project will involve spending at the very least for sea walls, docks, streets, skyscrapers, subways, trolleys, electric light and power lines, warehouses, dry docks, sewers, boulevards, parks, and the like $50,000,000 a year for labor and $50,000,000 a year for materials, keeping every transportation company in the country busy bringing in material and every industry in the city busy, feeding, clothing, marrying, burying, insuring, and otherwise looking after the needs of the new population, which, added to the present, soon will be 25,000,000 in a radius of 25 miles from New York City Hall.’”

Reference: “Propose to Change Map of New York City.” 1914. Municipal Journal. 36:20(May 14, 1914): 712.

Commentary: Fill in the East River to join Manhattan to Long Island? Yikes!!! Well, that is certainly “outside the box” thinking. Wait a minute. What happens to the Brooklyn Bridge?

May 3, 1911: Deodorizing Sewer Gas

May 3, 1911: Municipal Journal article. Deodorizing Sewer Gas. “While fortunately the majority of American cities do not seem to be troubled with sewer gas, as are so many English cities, there is occasionally one on this side of the ocean which, on account of poor construction or lack of proper maintenance, finds it necessary to adopt some method of diminishing the nuisance from such gas. Among these is the city of Winnipeg, which has been troubled with this question for many years. The latter part of last year a test was made of the Beeman deodorizing machine, ten of these being placed in sewer manholes, where they were operated for three months.

The machine consists of a reservoir containing wood alcohol, the fumes from which impinge upon a disk of platinized porcelain 1 1/2 inches in diameter. This disk, when heated cherry red, remains incandescent so long as the alcohol fumes are supplied to it, which fumes are changed into formaldehyde during their passage over the disk. In addition to the reservoir and disk there are a series of baffles and protectors through which both the formaldehyde and the air from the sewers must pass and which insure a thorough mixing of the two. The whole machine measures about 20 inches in diameter and 40 inches high and is suspended within an air-shaft from the sewer or in the sewer manhole. In the machines used in Winnipeg it was found that one gallon of wood alcohol, costing 62 1/2 cents, lasted nine days. It is suggested that it would not be necessary to place such an appliance in each manhole, but that if one were placed, say, in every fifth manhole the openings in the other four could be closed. City Engineer Ruttan reported that sufficient formaldehyde was produced to deodorize the sewer air that emerged from the manholes. The city of Winnipeg has recently contracted for so of these deodorizers at $75 each.”

Reference: “Deodorizing Sewer Gas.” 1911. Municipal Journal article 30:18(May 3, 1911): 613.

Commentary: Every once in a while, I come across an article in the literature from the turn of the 20th century that is crazy beyond belief. Putting an open flame into a sewer system seems just madness. Several articles in this blog have chronicled sewer gas explosions when open flames come in contact with methane from anaerobic decomposition. Using formaldehyde to “deodorize” sewer gas also seems to be an idea born of madness. They knew back then that formaldehyde was used in the embalming process. They could not have believed that inhaling it would be good for you. Sometimes I just have to shake my head in disbelief. Let’s just say that the Beeman deodorizing machine did not catch on in a big way in U.S. sewer systems.

April 7, 1904: Baltimore Sewer System Construction Legislation

April 7, 1904: Baltimore Sewer System. “Baltimore was one of the last major cities on the east coast to construct a proper sewer system. The City’s inability to install sanitary sewers until 1915 tarnished the appeal of what was otherwise a successful city. Several commissions throughout the nineteenth century formulated plans for a sewer system for Baltimore, but were unsuccessful because of economic conditions and fighting between political parties.

Lacking a sewer system, Baltimore relied primarily on privy vaults (cesspools) for waste disposal until the early twentieth century. Privy vaults are holes dug 3 to 75 feet deep, though most were quite shallow. Baltimore’s sandy soil was ideal for privy vaults, making the method the most economically viable form of waste disposal. It was estimated that in 1880, with a population of 350,000, over 80 thousand privy vaults were in use in the City.

The Great Fire of 1904 proved to be the final factor in the construction of a sewer system in Baltimore. A new spirit among the residents arose from the ashes of Baltimore and there was a drive to rebuild and improve the city. On April 7, 1904, the Sewage Enabling Act passed in the Maryland legislature. It provided ten million dollars for a new sewer system in Baltimore. Construction began in 1907 and the sewage treatment plant was operational in 1915. Public health improved, as did the image of the City. Today, the Back River and Patapsco wastewater treatment plants serve 1.6 million people and treat up to 250 million gallons of sewage per day.”