Tag Archives: sewers

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.”

March 28, 1819: Birth of Joseph W. Bazalgette

March 28, 1819: Birth of Joseph W. Bazalgette. “Sir Joseph William Bazalgette, CB (28 March 1819 – 15 March 1891) was an English civil engineer of the 19th century. As chief engineer of London’s Metropolitan Board of Works his major achievement was the creation (in response to the “Great Stink” of 1858) of a sewer network for central London which was instrumental in relieving the city from cholera epidemics, while beginning the cleansing of the River Thames.

At the time, the Thames was little more than an open sewer, devoid of any fish or other wildlife, and an obvious health hazard to Londoners. Bazalgette’s solution (similar to a proposal made by painter John Martin 25 years earlier) was to construct 82 miles (132 km) of underground brick main sewers to intercept sewage outflows, and 1,100 miles (1,800 km) of street sewers, to intercept the raw sewage which up until then flowed freely through the streets and thoroughfares of London. The outflows were diverted downstream where they were dumped, untreated, into the Thames. Extensive sewage treatment facilities were built only decades later.”

Commentary: Most accounts of the sewers that Bazalgette built claim that they solved the problems of cholera epidemics in London. They did not. All that the sewers did was transport the contamination more quickly to the Thames River. It was not until the water supplies in the UK were filtered (and ultimately disinfected) that the Sewer Pipe-Water Pipe Death Spiral was broken.

March 15, 1813: Birth of Dr. John Snow

Dr. John Snow

March 15, 1813: Birth of 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.

Commentary: In 2013, we had a great time celebrating the 200th anniversary of his birth.

March 7, 1912: Milwaukee Sewerage Design

Imhoff Tank Sewage Treatment Plant under construction, 1912

Imhoff Tank Sewage Treatment Plant under construction, 1912

March 7, 1912: Municipal Journal article. Some Principles of Sewerage Design. “The report of the Sewerage Commission upon the problem presented by the city of Milwaukee, the general conclusions of which were referred to in our issue of Feb. 29, contains a number of features among its details which are of considerable interest. One of these is the quantity of sewage which the engineers, Messrs. Alvord, Eddy and Whipple, think it desirable to provide for. The maximum rate of flow of sewage at the present time is approximately 250 gallons per capita per day, this including water used in manufacturing and ground water leaking into the sewers. The proposed sewer system is estimated of a capacity sufficient for the population and other requirements of the year 1950, and the maximum flow at that time is estimated at 350 gallons per capita per day. As the amount of ground water seepage per capita will probably be less rather than greater at that time, this indicates a belief in a very high rate of water consumption for domestic and manufacturing purposes 40 years hence. The importance, in their opinion, of manufacturing wastes in such a calculation is indicated by the fact that more than three times as much sewage per acre is allowed for from the manufacturing as from the residential areas.

In making provisions for the future, the engineers believe that this should be governed to a great extent by the possibilities of gradual enlargement of capacity of the work in question. Thus sewers, the capacity of which can be increased only at great expense, they think should be designed for the probable needs of the city in 1950; while the sewage purification works, which can be easily enlarged by the addition of small units, they think should be constructed at the present time for a capacity of only 15 or 20 years in advance. An additional argument in favor of the latter is that our knowledge concerning purification methods is continually increasing, and it is very probable that improvements in details, if not in actual principles of operation will be available by that time.”

Reference: “Some Principles of Sewerage Design.” 1912. Municipal Journal. 32:10(March 7, 1912): 349.

Commentary: The three prominent engineers (Alvord, Eddy and Whipple) were wise to not lock in treatment technology in 1912 for 50 years. They knew that the knowledge in this area of sanitary engineering was advancing at a significant rate. They wanted their client to benefit from such a technological advance when it occurred some years in the future.

#TDIWH—February 28, 1895: Los Angeles Sewer System

0228 LA Sewer system aFebruary 28, 1895: Engineering News article. The Sewerage System of Los Angeles, Cal. by Burr Bassell. “The City of Los Angeles is built upon both sides of a torrential stream, called the Los Angeles River, at a point 20 miles from its mouth. The corporate limits of the city may be described as a square, more than five miles on a side, containing 18,597 acres….

The present river channel is dependent upon artificial means for the confinement of its waters. Its bed is 30 ft. higher at the point where it leaves the south charter boundary, than at the southwest corner of the city. This change of channel is probably due to the influence of a tributary, called the Arroyo Seco, which empties its storm-waters laden with sand, gravel and boulders from the mountains on the north into the very center of the city….

The census of 1880 gave a population of 11,183, that of 1890, 50,395. A conservative estimate for 1894 is 70,000.

The first comprehensive plan for sewering the city was prepared in 1887 by Mr. Fred Eaton, M. Am. Soc. C. E., at the time city surveyor. It was designed on the separate system, with an outfall sewer to the sea, via the Centinela Rancho. His estimated cost of the internal system was $533,846, and for an outfall sewer to the ocean by the Centinela route, 11.5 miles in length, $466,154, making a total of $1,000,000.

Mr. Rudolph Hering, M. Am. Soc. C. E., reported favorably on Mr. Eaton’s plans, and stated that the problem of designing a good sewerage system for the city presented no serious difficulties.

Reference: Bassell, Burr, 1895. “The Sewerage System of Los Angeles, Cal.” Engineering News. 33:9(February 28, 1895): 139.

Commentary: This article is remarkable in so many ways. Los Angeles was only 25 square miles and the population was only 70,000! Obviously, the city has grown a bit since the article was written. Incidentally, the article goes on at length to describe other sewering options. The plot plan below represented the preferred option. As near as I can tell, the outfall for this sewer is right about where the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is now located.

Mr. Fred Eaton went on to play an infamous role in Los Angeles water wars. In 1905, Eaton was a central character in the purchase of the Owens Valley lands that formed the basis for the Los Angeles water supply imported from the Eastern Sierras. Eaton’s actions were conducted under the inappropriate cloak of respectability of the U.S. Reclamation Service which has caused hard feelings in the region for the past 100+ years. Rudolph Hering played a role in this project. He has been portrayed many times in this blog including two days ago when we celebrated the anniversary of his birth.

0228 LA Sewer system