Early sewer systems in the United States were developed on an as-needed basis -- for a variety of reasons ranging from resolving private property sewering needs on an individual basis, to sewering small areas/towns. The primary motivation was to get sewage (human wastes) away from the sources of water (private wells). Most of these systems were designed and built by common sense, with little or no guidance from trained "professionals," for there were few such trained people in existence in those times (colonial days through the 1840-50s). In early times, "conveniences" were few and far between. The human activities took place outside in the woods, or, at best, inside utilizing chamber pots (a.k.a. thunder mug, jordan, slop jar, peggy, badger, or just plain jug). Later on, people began to use privies (called a "Handsome House of Office" by the more well-to-do, and by others the "outhouse" -- a.k.a. One-holer, Lou, Ajax, Throne, Willie, Oklahoma Potty, etc.). Another approach -- the "earth closet" (inventor: an Englishman, the Reverend Henry Moule) -- also came into use to some degree.

In the early 1800s, new community sewers were initially (and primarily) installed to take care of storm water; privies and "leaching" cesspools were used for human wastes. Still, a lot of human wastes from the early residents of the larger towns (following the model of their European forefathers) were unofficially put into the sewers -- those wastes were either thrown out (from chamber pots) into the streets, leaked onto the ground from poorly designed/maintained privies/cesspools, or were directly deposited on the ground; wastes were then conveyed by storm water into the streets and on into the sewers.

One of the problems to be dealt with during the mid-1800s was that many sewers were initially designed, built, owned, and (supposedly) maintained by private individuals or companies. Sooner or later, they wanted the involved/adjacent cities to take them over, which most of them willingly did. An example, from a report done by Rogers, Chesbrough and Parrott for the City of Boston in 1850, is as follows:

"As the law now stands, any proprietor of land may lay out streets at such level as he may deem to be for his immediate interest, without municipal interference; and when they have been covered with houses and a large population are suffering the deplorable consequences of defective sewerage, the Board of Health is called upon to accept them and assume the responsibility of applying a remedy."

Many of these early sewers basically provided an underground path for sewage to be conveyed from its point of origin to nearby rivers, creeks, etc. Most of them were of unique materials; some were of constant size; some had no grade (or, worse yet, reverse grade). For example, a sewer was built in 1857 in Charleston, S.C., with no slope. It was 2.6 miles long, 3.5 ft. wide, and 4.5 feet high, constructed of wood plank bottom, with brick sides and top arch. Its unique feature was that it had tide gates at both ends to provide a source of water for flushing. It was evident that cities/towns (not individuals) had to play an ever-increasing role in the design and construction of sewers instead of leaving that role up to individuals. Thus, the need for civil or sanitary engineers was beginning to become evident.

Philadelphia realized in the 1850s that its sewerage system was receiving both storm water and human wastes -- all basically through the sewerage conveyance system's catch basins. That entrance point for human waste was causing odor and maintenance problems. In 1857, Strickland Kreass, Chief Engineer of the Department of Sewerage for Philadelphia, made the following statement:

"There should be a culvert on every street, and every house should be obliged to deliver into it, by underground channels, all ordure or refuse that is susceptible of being diluted. The great advantage in the introduction of lateral culverts is not only that underground drainage from adjacent houses should be generally adopted, but that by the construction of frequent inlets, our gutters would cease to be reservoirs of filth and garbage, breeding disease and contagion in our very midst."

Thus was born the American version of the "house lateral," "house connection sewer" (HCS), "building lateral," etc.

Many of the earlier and more comprehensive sewage conveyance systems were designed (sized) based on very little (and very unreliable) information. The result was that years later -- after more streets were surfaced, more buildings built, and more people moved into the service area... and overflows, sewage backed up into basements, etc, occurred -- it was learned that more and better designs were needed. Again, the need for not only reliable design standards but also trained engineers was becoming all too evident. Many of these "engineers" came up through the "school of hard knocks" to become good designers of sewerage systems; their acquired wisdom (often gotten by trial and error) was then passed on to others, often through published papers via organizations such as the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Some Early Examples of How Certain American Cities Addressed Their Sewerage Needs

Boston, Massachusetts
  • Prior to the 1700s, many homes were sewered to the nearest streams -- via hollowed logs.
    In 1647, the first "water pollution control" regulation was put into effect in the British colony of Massachusetts.
  • In the early to mid-1700s, the need for a collector sewer system was recognized and it was installed.
  • By the 1870s, sewers were too small; an "interceptor" was needed. The first "combined" interceptor (in the U.S.) was authorized in 1876. Materials were mostly brick. The new "main drain" (combined sewer) system was designed by Joseph P. Davis and resembled (to a certain degree) the London plan of sewage interception. One sewer design utilized wood for the invert, brick for vertical sidewalls, and slate for the crown.
  • One of the earliest sewage pumping systems (steam driven) was put into service in Boston's "main drainage works" in 1884.
  • Boston used one system of wood log water pipes from 1652 to 1786; the city then replaced those pipes with another set of wood log pipes which stayed in service until 1848.

Chicago, Illinois
  • First sewers installed were hollowed-out logs; they drained by gravity to Lake Michigan.
  • In the mid-1800s, it was recognized that the city must have a better way to dispose of its wastewater. The prevalent use of privies and drainage swales was no longer adequate.
  • In 1850, a plan to build a comprehensive system of "combined" sewers (see Design Choices for explanation of "separate" and "combined" sewer systems) and to drain them to the Chicago River (which, in turn, led to Lake Michigan, the main source of water for Chicago!) was chosen as the then best available choice. Due to topography limits, the level of the city had to be raised from 10'-15' vertically to allow the sewers to freely drain by gravity to the river. An ambitious project, Chicago's system was later recognized as the first comprehensive sewerage system to be built in the United States.
  • In 1885, a particularly heavy storm event caused the sewage in the Chicago river (and the "near-land" areas of the lake) to be flushed out to (and beyond) the drinking water intake points. The resulting typhoid and cholera outbreaks killed approximately 11-13% of the city's population.
  • Later, with the construction of what later became known as The Sanitary and Ship Canal, the direction of flow of the Chicago River was reversed; thereafter, the city’s sewage continued to be discharged into the (now westerly flowing) Chicago River, on down the Des Plaines River to the Illinois River, and into the Mississippi River ... away from Lake Michigan, the city's ongoing source of drinking water.
  • The Sanitary and Ship Canal was a system of three canals built between 1892 and 1922 (built at an estimated overall cost of $70 million); the first was finished in 1900 ... a 28-mile, 24-foot deep and 160-foot wide canal. Two other canals, the North Shore Channel and the Cal-Sag Channel were also completed before 1922. The Sanitary & Ship Canal was cut through a low point in the "regional" continental devide, which separated the watershed drained by the north and east flowing Chicago River, from the basin drained by the south and east flowing system of the Des Plaines and Illinois Rivers. The canals served to not only help resolve sanitation (sewage disposal) issues, but also provided better access to the city for water-carried shipping.

    This reversal of the Chicago River was the largest municipal earth-moving project ever done at that time. The earth-moving techniques learned during its construction helped make the construction of the Panama Canal possible.

    Water from Lake Michigan was used for many years to "flush" Chicago's sewer out periodically -- to the Chicago River and (after 1900) on downgradient to the Mississippi River.

    [NOTE: four years after the flow of the Chicago River was reversed and the city's sewage sent down the Illinois River to the Mississippi, the State of Missouri (whose city, St. Louis, was located just 30 miles downstream along the Mississippi from its juncture with the Illinois River) was pursuing litigation against the Sanitary District of Chicago. Why? Because it was felt that the pollution levels in the Mississippi had risen to a very high level, and the river was one of St. Louis’ prime sources of water. The distance from Chicago to St. Louis (by river flow) was 350 miles; it was then estimated that it took only 2½ weeks for that distance to be traversed. The practice of discharging sewage into a river, and the resultant negative impact that it could have on a downstream neighbor, was rapidly becoming an important issue -- even if the "neighboring" city was 350 miles downstream!]

Baltimore, MA
  • Cesspools were the primary mechanisms utilized for receiving human wastes.
  • Baltimore was one of the last American cities to ban their use; there were 80,000 of them in use in the city in 1879. Many of the cesspools had overflow pipes which led (illegally) to the city "storm water" sewers!
  • It was estimated that the annual cost to properly clean the cesspools (assumed frequency: once per year) was $96,000.
  • In 1906, Dr. Rudolph Hering and others prepared a general plan for sewering the city; this plan was adopted and used to guide the installation of a new sewerage system -- including disposal works.
  • Baltimore: Recognized by many as one of the last (and largest) American cities to install (beginning in 1915) a comprehensive sewage collection system.

Washington, D.C.

The first city in the United States to install sewer mains made of concrete (as the primary material for the sewers' walls) was Washington, D.C., in 1885. However, those concrete sewers were fully lined with brick or clay tile. Shortly thereafter, only the inverts of the new concrete sewers were lined with brick or clay tile. (It would take another 75-80 years for people to figure out that unlined concrete pipe was not always the best choice for conveying sanitary sewage.)

  • The White House in Washington, D.C. -- as the President's residence -- was modified frequently during its early years:

    • 1801: A water closet was installed.
    • 1812: The British burned the original White House.
    • 1833: During Andrew Jackson's presidency, water was piped throughout the newly-rebuilt White House using drilled-out logs.
    • 1840: A hot-air furnace was installed.
    • 1848: Gas lights were installed.
    • 1853: A hot water system went into service.
    • 1866: A telegraph office was created.
    • 1877: Telephone installed.

Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Salt Lake City is positioned on the easterly slope of the Great Salt Lake basin, and is comprised of varying types of topography.
  • The Jordan River is the dominant natural drainage feature (flowing south to north) through the westerly portion of the city.
  • The area's population in 1890 was 45,000. No sewers then existed.
  • The first planned sewers were built in 1890-91 and conveyed sewage from the Fifth South Street area westerly to the Jordan River area, where the sewage entered a pump station and was pumped further west to a canal, which in turn drained to the Great Salt Lake. Odors became a problem.
  • Later, a new masonry (concrete invert, with brick arch) sewer was built to deliver the sewage instead to a sewer farm (initially, 120 acres) located north and west of the city. The main new interceptor sewer was comprised of 38" and 42" diameter sewers with manholes at 800-foot intervals. The outlying sewer farm concept had to be re-aligned because only one potential farmer bid on the sewage and the one bidder wanted to be paid to take it! (The city also ran short of monies to build the long outfall sewer.) So an alternative concept for a smaller city-operated sewer farm was formed -- a farm located closer to the city near the Jordan River.
  • In 1907:
    • Population of Salt Lake City was 80,000.
    • Total area of city was 47 square miles.
    • Portion of area sewered was 3.4 square miles.
    • Number of miles of sewers was 78 miles.
    • Disposal: a portion was used for broad irrigation; the balance was discharged to the Jordan River.

San Diego (proper), California
  • San Diego was one of the few communities in the United States that installed sewers (a "separate" sanitary sewage system; 6" diameter thru 30" diameter) from the start, while a planned city layout was implemented.
  • The first sewers were started in 1885 when the city's population was about 11,000. Upon completion of the first phase of street/infrastructure improvements, the city had 38.67 miles of streets, 38.1 miles of sewer, and 14.7 miles of "house branches."
  • Unique features:
    • Flush tanks at upstream ends of lateral runs (some utilizing sea water).
    • A "flush tank," using sewage as the flushing medium, was installed at the upstream end of a siphon crossing of a river. When the sewage was discharged from the flush tank, sufficient velocity in the 8" diameter siphon barrel along the sewer’s route was achieved.
  • The City of San Diego was incorporated on March 27, 1850; it became a charter city on April 7, 1931.
  • The goal was to connect every home/building, thereby abandoning the previous privies, cesspools, and other miscellaneous drains that were used.
  • Sewage drained to a sewage reservoir (capacity: 1.5 mg) located offshore in the harbor -- in what would today be the westerly extension of Broadway. From there, the untreated sewage drained out (during high tide) through a 600 linear foot, 30" diameter iron pipe outfall into a deep channel in the San Diego Bay. Over time, another nine outfalls were installed to deliver raw sewage to the bay; another fifteen were built to deliver sewage to the Pacific Ocean.
  • This practice continued for the next 50 years -- until the pollution level in the bay became a health hazard, and also began causing severe paint damage to the metal hulls of the Navy ships.
  • In 1940, San Diego had 525 miles of sanitary sewer serving a population of 200,000 people.
  • In 1941, funding was approved for a new system of trunk and interceptor sewers and a 15 mgd (adwf) primary treatment plant (an Imhoff tank), which was expanded to 40 mgd in 1950 -- by then, the ADWF was 38 mgd, serving a tributary population of 485,000. The plant was located near 18th Street and Harbor Drive next to the bay; the outfall for the effluent continued to go to San Diego Bay.
  • By 1950, the conveyance system for San Diego included 11 trunk sewer systems and 34 pumping stations, with gravity pipe ranging in size from 8" diameter to 60" diameter.

Sacramento, California
  • In 1940, the City of Sacramento encompassed nearly 14 square miles, had  250 miles of "combined" sewer, and had a population of approximately 121,000.


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