Tag Archives: sewers

#TDIWH—February 15, 1917: Sewer Pipe Failures

Vitrified clay pipe (15-inch diameter) crushed by improper backfill conditions

Vitrified clay pipe (15-inch diameter) crushed by improper backfill conditions

February 15, 1917: Municipal Journal editorial. Sewer Pipe Failures. “There is probably no type of structure or kind of material that was not at some time figured in a more or less complete failure. In most cases such failure is due to carelessness or ignorance in the use of the material and not to the fault of the material as such. Concrete bridges have failed, so have steel and wooden ones; yet each properly used has given most satisfactory service in hundreds of cases to one in which it has failed.

The same comments apply to the failures of sewer pipe described in this issue. Thousands of miles of vitrified pipe and hundreds of miles of cement pipe (the latter having come much more recently into general use) have given and are giving satisfaction in the sewerage systems of this and other countries. That there have been failures is only a repetition of the history of all materials. But it is desirable to occasionally call attention to such failures as a caution against careless or ignorant use of the materials, or to enlist all those interested in a study of the cause of the failure.

In the case of the vitrified pipe it appears from the illustration, that the pipe was laid close to the surface of a street carrying heavy traffic (assumed from the fact that the street was paved with stone block), that the reconstructed base over the trench failed to support the load, which was thereupon transmitted to the pipe.

In the case of the cement pipe, the reason is not so apparent; but it would seem probable that that advanced by the engineer is correct-that the pipe was sufficiently porous to permit ground water to pass through it, and that in doing so it dissolved certain constituents of the cement (or possibly of the sand or broken stone used as aggregate). It is certainly desirable that the cause be ascertained in order that the manufacturers of cement pipe may avoid its future occurrence.

Reference: “Sewer Pipe Failures.” 1917. Municipal Journal 42:7(February 15, 1917): 237.

#TDIWH—February 3, 1909: Sewage Disposal in Pennsylvania

0203-activated-sludge-plant-at-clevelandFebruary 3, 1909: Municipal Journal and Engineer article. Sewage Disposal in Pennsylvania. “As indicated from time to time in our columns, the matter of sewage disposal is just now assuming more importance in Pennsylvania than in possibly any other State of the Union, this being due largely to the activity of the new State Board of Health under the recent laws endowing it with unusual powers. Two of the latest propositions as well as the largest are those which are ordered for the cities of Harrisburg and Pittsburg. The public press of the former city states that the city officials are about to begin at once preparing plans for works which are roughly estimated to cost one and a half to two million dollars. This does not contemplate the present treatment of the sewage of that city, but only a better location of outlets and the preparation of plans for treatment. Pittsburg, however, is directed to take immediate steps toward building a sewage disposal plant which is estimated to cost fifteen to twenty million dollars; this order possibly being hastened by the typhoid epidemic which is sweeping through the small towns located on the river below Pittsburg.”

Commentary: It was only after the turn of the century that states began to get serious about requiring treatment of sewage before discharge to local streams.

Reference: “Sewage Disposal in Pennsylvania.” Municipal Journal and Engineer. 26:5(February 3, 1909): 167.

#TDIWH—January 24, 1876: Hemlock Lake Water Supply; 1972: Vincent B. Nesfield Dies; 1800: Birth of Edwin Chadwick

Hemlock Lake

Hemlock Lake

January 24, 1876: Glory! Hemlock Water at Last! “So proclaimed the [Rochester, NY] newspaper headline on January 24, 1876 as it announced the arrival of Hemlock Lake water into Mt. Hope Reservoir (today named Highland Reservoir). Finally, after more than three decades of political bickering and aborted construction attempts, Rochester had an abundant supply of pure wholesome drinking water. While an asset such as this may barely raise an eyebrow today, in 1876 this was truly a glorious event for the 70,000 citizens of Rochester.

In the era before the arrival of Hemlock water, wells and cisterns were the only source of drinking water. For the average resident, one well or cistern was shared by several families. Not surprisingly, the water quality of these wells was terrible in a city honeycombed with cesspools and privies. The author of an 1875 Board of Health report stated that, “We have few wells in our city that are fit for use, and in the densely populated portion they are almost without exception, absolutely unfit.” Diseases such as dysentery, cholera and typhoid were widespread. Periods of drought amplified these hardships”

0124 VB NesfieldJanuary 24, 1972: Vincent B. Nesfield dies. Nesfield was the first person to use chlorine gas under pressure to disinfect drinking water. In 1903, Lieutenant Vincent B. Nesfield of the British Indian Medical Services published a remarkable paper in a British public health journal. (Nesfield 1903) In the paper, he described his search for a chemical disinfectant to purify drinking water that would be suitable for use in the field as part of a military campaign. He came up with the idea of producing chlorine gas by electrolytic cells and then compressing the gas with 6 atmospheres of pressure until it liquefied which facilitated its storage in lead-lined steel tanks that held about 20 pounds of liquid chlorine. He treated 50 gallon batches of water by submerging the gas valve of the chlorine cylinder and opening it slightly to bubble the chlorine gas into the water.

In a later paper, Nesfield stated that about 5.4 mg/L of chlorine (2 grams per 100 gallons) killed all typhoid and cholera bacteria. After a 5-minute contact time, he added sodium sulphite to the treated water to remove the excess chlorine and prevent taste problems. (Nesfield 1905) To say that he was ahead of his time is a vast understatement. It would be 7 years before liquid chlorine in pressurized cylinders was widely available in the U.S. for water utilities to use as an alternative to chloride of lime.

Passing references to Nesfield’s unique treatment method can be found in some publications in the early 20th century. In a discussion of two papers on chlorination of water and sewage in 1911, Dr. L.P. Kinnicutt mentioned Nesfield’s liquid chlorine addition method and went on to describe an iodine tablet developed by Nesfield that was more portable (and undoubtedly caused more taste problems). Therefore, there was at least some early knowledge in the U.S. of the use of liquid chlorine to disinfect drinking water. There was one mention of Nesfield’s system of purification in a 1920 encyclopedia section on water supply. (Hill 1920) A note in a journal devoted to tropical medicine in 1907, described how successful chlorination was for a unit of the British colonial army marching toward Agra. (Pure Water 1907)

There was limited mention of Nesfield and his groundbreaking work on chlorine disinfection in histories of drinking water disinfection. In Race’s remarkable 1918 book on chlorination of water, he gave Nesfield credit for the first use of liquefied chlorine for the disinfection of water. (Race 1918) Baker devoted a few sentences to Nesfield’s contributions. (Baker 1981) In a later summary of the progress of drinking water disinfection in 1950, Race again gave credit for Nesfield’s unique application of chlorine technology. (Race 1950)


Baker, Moses N. 1981. The Quest for Pure Water: the History of Water Purification from the Earliest Records to the Twentieth Century. 2nd Edition. Vol. 1. Denver, Co.: American Water Works Association.

Hill, Henry W. 1920. “Water Supply: For Municipal, Domestic and Potable Purposes, Including Its Sources, Conservation, Purification and Distribution.” In The Encyclopedia Americana, 39–65.

Nesfield, Vincent B. 1903. “A Chemical Method of Sterilizing Water Without Affecting its Potability.” Public Health. 15(7): 601–3.

Nesfield, Vincent B. 1905. “A Simple Chemical Process of Sterilizing Water for Drinking Purposes for Use in the Field and at Home.” The Journal of Preventive Medicine. 8: 623-32.

“Pure Water.” 1907. Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. 10(January 15): 30.

Race, Joseph. 1918. Chlorination of Water. New York City, N.Y.: John Wiley & Sons.

Race, Joseph. 1950. “Forty Years of Chlorination: 1910–1949.” Journal Institution of Water Engineers. 4: 479–505.

Edwin Chadwick

Edwin Chadwick

January 24, 1800: Edwin Chadwick is born. 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.

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

December 25, 1908: Drought Cartoon; 1913: Water Stories Wrapped Up in a Bow

1225 Drought CartoonDecember 25, 1908: Drought Cartoon. The Los Angeles Times has published cartoons over more than 100 years that depict the many droughts that California has suffered and the reactions to them. Here is one that I think you will enjoy.

December 25, 1913: A number of interesting water stories from the pages of the Municipal Journal.

Hetch Hetchy Dam

Hetch Hetchy Dam

Hetch-Hetchy Bill Signed. “Washington, D. C.-The bill giving the city of San Francisco the right to secure its water supply from Hetch Hetchy Valley, in Yosemite National Park, to which considerable objection has been taken, was signed by President Wilson. President Wilson attached a statement to the bill in which he set forth his reasons for signing it: he is of the opinion that the pressing public needs of San Francisco will be best served, and that the usefulness of the park will not be impaired.” Commentary: This is the bill that killed John Muir one year and one day later.

0504 Sacramento Water SupplyInvestigate Possible Sources of Water Supply. “Sacramento, Cal.-It was decided by the City Commission to begin an investigation of possible sources of mountain water supply beginning January 1st. The work will be in charge of City Engineer Albert Givan. The investigation will be of a preliminary nature and will occupy three months. The cost is limited to $2,400. Three men will be employed to analyze the waters of the middle and south tributaries of the American River, the middle and south tributaries of the Cosumnes River and the Mokelumne River. Gauge measurements also will be made. The total cost of the investigation is expected to reach $10,000.” Commentary: We know now, of course, that the city decided to tap the American River in the city limits. The Mokelumne River was left to the East Bay Municipal Utilities Department to develop as a water resource.

Sewer Work in Watertown N.Y. “Watertown, N. Y.-There are 46.2 miles of sewer within the city at the present time, according to totals secured by City Engineer Earle W. Sayles in figuring up the work done this season and in previous years….Mr. Sayles believes that by the expenditure of $5,000 for its purchase and maintenance the city could secure a sewer cleaning machine which would result in fixing up some of the old sewers in the city and cause a big saving. There are in use in the city at the present time some sewers that are close to a half-century old.” Commentary: They had aging infrastructure problems in 1913!

0726 Allen HazenCombining Municipal Water Systems. “Norfolk and Portsmouth, Va., neighboring cities, have municipal water works systems, each of which has been found to be reaching the limit of its resources, especially for meeting unusual demands; and the cities are now considering an arrangement for combining the plants for the mutual benefit of both. The consulting engineer of the Norfolk Water Commission, Allen Hazen, in a communication to the commission points out a number of advantages which would he obtained by such combination.

According to the conditions as outlined by him, the two systems would in an important measure supplement each other. This is because of the fact that the Norfolk system contains a storage capacity which is larger than is warranted by the tributary drainage area, while on the other hand the Portsmouth drainage area supplies more water than it has storage capacity to fully utilize. Commentary: Once again the outstanding engineer, Allen Hazen, steps in to solve a thorny water problem at the beginning of the 20th century.”

Reference: Municipal Journal. 1913. 35:26(December 25, 1913): 856, 866-7.

December 13, 1899: Death of Julius W. Adams

1018 Julius W AdamsDecember 13, 1899: Julius W. Adams dies. Julius Walker Adams was a noted civil engineer who planned the sewer system for Brooklyn, New York. He was also one of the first engineers who conceived the idea of building the Brooklyn Bridge. For several years he was Consulting Engineer of the Board of City Works, Brooklyn, and also consulted on the distribution of water in New York City. He found time to edit Engineering News and was President of the American Society of Civil Engineers from 1874-5. Adams was the last surviving member of the twelve founders of ASCE. He was a member of the New York Academy of Science and of the Association for the Advancement of Science.

November 13, 565 CE: Basilica Cistern; 1988: Sewage in Santa Monica Bay; 2003: Death of Sewer Worker

1113 Basilica CisternNovember 13, 565 AD: End of the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, builder of the Basilica Cistern. “The Basilica Cistern (Turkish: Yerebatan Sarayı – Sunken Palace, or Yerebatan Sarnıcı – Sunken Cistern), is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), Turkey. The cistern, located 500 feet southwest of the Hagia Sophia on the historical peninsula of Sarayburnu, was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. This cathedral-size cistern is an underground chamber approximately 453 by 212 feet – about 105,000 square feet in area – capable of holding 2,800,000 cubic feet [or 21 million gallons] of water. The ceiling is supported by a forest of 336 marble columns, each 9 30 feet high, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns each spaced 16 feet apart. The capitals of the columns are mainly Ionic and Corinthian styles, with the exception of a few Doric style with no engravings.” (edited by MJM)

Istanbul has always had limited water resources. Water supplies had to be transported to the city through long canals and aqueducts. Istanbul has also been the target of invading armies and has had to rely on stored water during long sieges. For these reasons, underground and open-air cisterns have always been a part of the city fabric. Sometimes stored water in local cisterns had to last the city’s population for months. There is no official count of the number of cisterns that had been built in ancient times, but dozens have survived and many can be visited. The Basilica Cistern is the grandest of them all.

Commentary and Update: The Basilica Cistern is one of the locations for the movie “Inferno” starring Tom Hanks and released October 28, 2016. Somehow they create destructive waves in this underground water reservoir.

1113 Santa Monica BayNovember 13, 1988: New York Times headline—Sewage in Santa Monica Bay. “Nearly seven miles of beaches are closed for the weekend because a cap on a sewer main 15 miles inland failed, causing a gush of raw sewage into Santa Monica Bay. The overflow, which apparently began Wednesday, caused bacteria levels in the ocean near Marina del Rey to rise to more than twice the safe levels for swimming, a city biologist, John Dorsey, said Friday.”

1113 Ed Norton Sewer WorkerNovember 13, 2003: New York Times headline—Appreciations, Death of a Sewer Worker. “New York is a mythic place, and one of the most mythic parts of it is the part that nobody ever sees: the sewers. Alligators and giant rats barely begin to sum up the state of our fears about the sewers, when we acknowledge those fears at all. So it’s worth remembering how great a joke it is that the New York city sewers should also contain Ed Norton, played on ”The Honeymooners” by Art Carney, who died on Sunday at 85.”

October 25, 1949: Patent issued on ductile iron pipe; 1848: Lake Cochituate water delivered to Boston; San Antonio Water Company incorporated; 1987: Sewers below Paris.

1025 Ductile Iron PipeOctober 25, 1949: Patent issued on Ductile Iron pipe. On this day, patent Number 2,485,761 was issued to Mr. K. D. Millis and others of the International Nickel Company, for “Gray Cast Iron having Improved Properties.” It has since become known as ductile iron.  Gray iron becomes ductile iron through the inoculation of the molten mix with magnesium, changing the graphitic carbon from random flake forms into a more geometrically arrayed and spherical form. The new matrix provides greater yield strength, ultimate strength, and elongation properties.

Cast iron pipe producers had raced International Nickel to the patent office, but International Nickel got there first. Cast iron pipe producers soon began the commercial production of ductile iron pipe, which has supplanted cast iron due to its greater strength and toughness. Cast iron and ductile iron pipes form the backbone of America’s drinking water distribution systems.

Source: Maury D. Gaston, American Cast Iron Pipe Company.

Lake Cochituate Dam

Lake Cochituate Dam

October 25, 1848: First delivery of water from Lake Cochituate into Boston. “Lake Cochituate was created by the construction of Lake Cochituate Dam to provide a reservoir for water supply to the City of Boston, via the 14-mile Cochituate Aqueduct. Lake Cochituate was the first major water supply system built for the city, and replaced the previous usage of Jamaica Pond. Developed from 1848 to 1863, it supplied Boston’s water until 1951, when the larger Wachusett and Quabbin Reservoirs replaced it. The surveys and plans for the project were performed by American civil engineer James Fowle Baldwin (1782–1862), the son of Loammi Baldwin who designed the Middlesex Canal, and younger brother of Loammi Baldwin, Jr. (1780–1838) who authored the earlier studies for a Boston water supply. The dam, located on the lake’s former northwestern outlet, formed the headworks of the water supply system, and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.”

1025 San Antonio Water CompanyOctober 25, 1882San Antonio (California) Water Company, Mutual Water Company, incorporated; natural waters of area part of ‘The Cucamonga Rancho’, 1839 land grant, portion of original territory granted to San Gabriel Mission; statement of purpose: “Acquiring by appropriation, purchase, or otherwise, water, water rights, water privileges and right of way in the Counties of Los Angeles and San Bernardino and to furnish, lease or sell the same for irrigation, milling, manufacturing and other purposes. To own, hold, construct and maintain canals, ditches and all structures, lands, easements and rights appertaining thereto for the purpose of taking and conveying water as herein mentioned to owners of lots and blocks in the Village of Ontario and to stockholders in this Corporation and none others. To make improvements, borrow money and transact any and all business and things connected with the business of the Corporation and relating thereto”; development of water rights, delivery services initiated as migration of people resulted in development of agriculture, business, residency; 1890s – irrigation by Zanjeros (ditch walkers; derived from Spanish words “zanja”, meaning “deep ditch or irrigation ditch”, and “zanjon”, which means, “ditch rider or overseer”; employees who constructed acequias (canals) to provide controlled, dependable water supply to farmers; gave way to automated systems.

1025 Paris SewersOctober 25, 1987: New York Times headline–The Worlds Beneath Paris. “The great historian of the Paris sewers was, of course, Victor Hugo, who not only has his hero Jean Valjean escape the authorities through the sewers, carrying the wounded Marius Pontmercy on his back, but who also devotes six chapters of ‘Les Miserables’ to a history of the sewers and their peculiarities and dangers. Paris, Hugo wrote, ‘has another Paris under herself: a Paris of sewers, which has its streets, its crossroads, its squares, its blind alleys, its arteries, and its circulation . . . .’

By the time he wrote these words (the book was published in 1862) the city’s ancient sewer system had been considerably modernized. It has been continuously and ingeniously improved since then so that today a 1,305-mile network of canals – one so extensive that if straightened it would reach to Istanbul – carries off, treats and returns to the Seine the city’s daily discharge within the span of a single day. If in a sunny street you have ever paused to wonder at the primitive-seeming phenomenon of Parisian street-cleaning, the gurgling gutter waters directed this way and that by bundles of rags, down here you learn just how sophisticated waste disposal really is.

The tour begins with the smell, which no amount of cleansing can quite eradicate. But once into the small, well-done Musee des Egouts you quickly forget it. Here in documents, engravings, photos, diagrams and models of machinery is a short course in the evolution of the sewer system from the time when chamberpots were dumped into the streets to the present gravity-flow system whose complex network is shown in a map.”

Commentary:  I have crawled through my share of sanitary sewers and there is no way that any museum will ever help me forget the smell.