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The State of Our Sewers: A Historical Perspective

by Michael Horne “To say that we cannot organize an efficient and successful public service for removing the organic waste of a city to the land, where it belongs, is to acknowledge that we are not industrious and enlightened enough to clean up our own filth; is to confess that municipal self-government is a failure.” –1879 Health Commissioner O. W. Wight, M.D.

An examination of the Milwaukee River after a sewage discharge does not present an encouraging sight. The best that can be said is that it’s nice to see that people are using condoms nowadays. As we debate the merits and failings of the Deep Tunnel system, designed twenty years ago to prevent the problems we still face, it’s interesting to note that Milwaukee’s sewage disposal system had already confounded and divided experts more than a century ago. In the late 1800s, the condition of the river was far worse than it is today. There was no process for the sanitary treatment of liquid waste, and people held a wide range of theories and ideas about how to treat the waste. The Common Council, in August 1879, created a special committee on the “defiled state of our rivers, and the remedies suggested for cleansing the same.” It described the Menomonee, Milwaukee and Kinnickinnic Rivers as “the natural channels for the drainage of our sewerage; they must in time thus defiled affect the health of the people.” At the time, Milwaukee was a rapidly growing manufacturing city of about 160,000 inhabitants, with most industry located along the three rivers. The waterways provided transportation and power in those pre-electric days, but they also provided a dumping ground for solid and liquid wastes from slaughtering places, packing houses, breweries, and “the soakings of the hides and the spent steepings of bird manure…albumenoid substance, grease and other putrescible matters” from tanneries. Even distilleries were a problem, since they kept cattle on hand to eat the spent grain, as were the “six or eight thousand horses and mules in private and public stables.” Much of this manure was flushed into the river. Existing laws were flouted. It was permissible to dump liquid waste in the rivers, but people also illegally dumped solid waste. Health Commissioner O. W. Wight, M.D. wrote: “The stinking rivers may not add greatly to sickness and mortality, but they are a discomfort and a terror to the people.” (Some discomfort! From August to October, 1879, the commissioner would record 630 burial permits, 571 deaths, 59 stillbirths, 376 sick cases reported to schools, 265 houses disinfected; 312 placarded and “365 diphtheria cases reported, 68 fatal.” He also issued 3 permits for visitors to the “yellow fever district.”) The polluted rivers “may be the means of making diseases like typhoid fever epidemic,” he guessed, indicating the limited degree of scientific knowledge that prevailed, even among public health experts. Furthermore, “expert chemical analysis and microscopal examination revealed traces of sewage in our drinking water. … The danger is still small, but it ‘grows by what it feeds on,'” the commissioner wrote. Fed by the Sewers The pollutants in the drinking water, the commissioner knew, were fed by the sewers. The city had begun supplying Lake Michigan water to the residences and businesses of the community in 1871. For the first time the community had a reliable source of water to fight fires, and hydrants were an integral part of the system. (In fact the very first water drawn from the city’s mains went to fight a house fire.) Before long the precious fluid was pumped into homes in the community, starting with the wealthy who could afford the expensive piping and fixtures. There were 3,342 water-closets (flush toilets) in the city at the time, used by an estimated 15,000 people. “They are the source of a very considerable amount of sewage of the most offensive kind,” the commissioner noted. “If they are left to run their contents through the sewers into the rivers, the great nuisance under consideration will not be wholly abated.” Thus, the flush toilet, which had done much to improve sanitation, provided the chief source of pollution for the community at large. Wight figured “the whole product of human excreta in the city is over 125 tons daily, or some 45,625 tons yearly. A large portion of this gets into the rivers.” Kitchen drains contributed about half as much pollution in addition. The solution was simple to Alderman Stirn, who introduced a resolution that would require building owners to “have their privy drains discontinued and disconnected from all city sewers within a given time, and to dispose of their ordure in the same way and manner as they did before the water works were in operation.” In other words, citizens should return to using outhouses. The health commissioner agreed, saying “the privy house can remain. Under each hole in the seat let a strong pan of galvanized iron be placed. … direct the householder to husband the ashes from his fires and use them to keep the contents of the pans aforesaid dry, and consequently free from smell.” He calculated that a team consisting of “a good laboring man and a boy, with a dump cart and a strong house, can empty the ash-dried contents from the pans of one hundred privies in a day. … As there are about 15,000 places to visit every other day, the removal would require 75 carts.” Man, boy and horse would cost about $3 a day. The operation would cost $75,000 a year. Another advantage of dry removal was that it “enriches farms and gardens in the neighborhood helping to create business and benefiting the laboring classes. “To say that we cannot organize an efficient and successful public service for removing the organic waste of a city to the land, where it belongs, is to acknowledge that we are not industrious and enlightened enough to clean up our own filth; is to confess that municipal self-government is a failure.” Although the commissioner can be credited with a ferocious commitment to his beliefs, the commission was opposed to dry collection. Their decision: “[We do not] think that our people could be prevailed upon to relinquish the great convenience of the closet flushing system as now in practical operation through our sewers and water works… the whole sewage of the city should be wasted into the lake independent of our rivers through a system of intercepting sewers.” Additionally, a pump located along the shore would move about 30 million gallons a day of lake water into the river to help flush the 1.2 billion gallon river basin, with its pollution and sediments into the 1,197 cubic miles of water that is Lake Michigan. Of all the proposals of the summer of 1879, this latter one was adopted, but not until 1888, when the situation had deteriorated even further and the population had swelled to over 200,000. The Milwaukee River Pumping Station, powered by the largest hydraulic pump yet constructed, fed not 30 million but up to 500 million gallons of water a day through a 12 foot diameter tunnel running 2,534 feet underneath East Kane Place. The outfall is just downstream from the former dam, and is clearly visible from portions of Riverwest. Milwaukee has come a long way since then, but some things never change. The city continues to struggle to find an adequate sewer disposal system. The Flushing Station, dedicated as a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark in 1992, is now partially occupied by an Alterra Coffee Shop that opened in September to immediate popular success. The remainder of the building, including the pump and some of the original machinery related to it, is open to the public and includes a number of informative displays. Some things do change, though: the landscape of the project includes a system to provide natural filtration of parking lot runoff. Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 10 – November 2002