Municipal water supplies tainted with sewage led to sickness or death
for literally millions of people in these cities. This health disaster
was mitigated in some places (such as New York and Boston) by piping in
clean water from remote places and in others (such as Philadelphia and
Pittsburgh) by building filtration plants to purify polluted river water.
With the water made safe to drink, disease rates dropped dramatically,
but any impetus to undertake the Herculean task of stemming water pollution
at its myriad sources was lost.
Pollution became so severe in many places, including Philadelphia, that
the rivers and lakes became dead zones, devoid of the dissolved oxygen
needed to support aquatic life. Fish kills were common occurrences. Dockworkers
were sickened by the fumes of hydrogen sulfide, a byproduct of the decomposition
of sewage. The same fumes also tarnished the silver coins in sailors'
pockets and rusted any metal buildings along the riverfronts. Many cities
and industries continued to use adjacent bodies of water as sinks for
their wastes until federal mandates in the 1970s, including the Clean
Water Act, forced them to do otherwise.
Much of the failure to develop proper methods of sewage disposal in the
19th century can be attributed to an adherence to a mistaken theory of
disease. We now understand that many diseases are caused by microscopic
bacteria, a number of which readily live in water and are easily transmitted
through a polluted water supply. Before 19th-century scientists identified
and isolated bacteria in various laboratories, other
theories of disease held sway. The most prevalent was the "miasma,"
or anti-contagionist," theory, which claimed that disease was caused
by bad odors, or "miasmas," arising from rotting organic matter
or other filth.
According to this theory's proponents, these dangerous and deleterious
odors could emanate from a variety of sources. The stench of coffee beans
rotting on a wharf was one mistaken explanation for a 1793 yellow fever
epidemic in Philadelphia that killed thousands of people; mosquitoes were
the actual vector of transmission. The odor of naturally rotting organic
matter in low-lying swamplands was also suspected of causing disease,
which was one justification for draining and filling thousands of acres
of tidal marshland in the city.
Human wastes were a ubiquitous source of miasmas, especially in densely
populated urban centers. Before the introduction of the water closet,
or flush toilet, human wastes were collected in privy pits, commonly located
beneath backyard "outhouses." These brick-lined pits usually
had open bottoms that allowed the liquid components of wastes to drain
into the surrounding soil. Even so, privies would gradually fill up and
needed to be emptied periodically, a task regulated in 19th-century Philadelphia
by the Board of Health. The board investigated complaints of foul-smelling
or overflowing privies, requiring homeowners to empty them and fining
those who refused to comply. They also licensed the privy cleaners, who
often performed their nasty work at night when most residents were inside
and thus less susceptible to the malodorous miasmas that such cleanings
inevitably stirred up. The nocturnal nature of the work led to the creation
of a nickname-"night men"-for those engaged in it
and a common euphemism-"night soil"-for the material they handled.
In the first half of the 19th century, Philadelphia maintained several
"poudrette pits" on the outskirts of the city into which the
night men would dump casks of night soil they excavated from the privies.
In these pits the wastes were mixed with charcoal and swamp muck, gypsum,
or other materials that absorbed excess liquid and odors and encouraged
their decomposition. The resulting "poudrette" (from the French
for "powder") was considered an agricultural fertilizer, and
Board of Health records from this period indicate a number of sales of
this human-based manure to farmers. After the Civil War, these wastes
were generally disposed of in a simpler manner by diluting them with water
and applying them directly to farmland or market gardens that still existed
in rural areas of the city.
According to an 1886 U.S. Census report, Philadelphia issued about 9,000
privy cleaning permits in 1880, when about 20 licensed cleaners removed
roughly 27,000 tons of waste. This figure included an estimated 22,000
tons of actual human "excreta" and, according to the report,
"5,000 tons consisting largely of coal ashes and cinders, brickbats,
broken dishes and glass, bottles, kitchen-utensils, boots, shoes, tin
cans, cast-off wearing apparel, and, in fact, every imaginable thing which
servants and others find it more convenient to hide in the privy-vault
than to expose in the ash-barrel or to throw into the streets."
As flush toilets became more popular after the Civil War, they were often
connected to the household privy pit, which overtaxed the privy system.
The toilets used several gallons of water per flush, while privies were
designed to accommodate only directly deposited wastes containing far
less fluid. Privies filled up more quickly and overflowed more often.
The need for an alternative waste disposal system soon became clear. The
common solution, used in Philadelphia and many other cities, was to connect
households and businesses with underground sewers that quickly drained
wastes from populated areas and dumped them in the nearest body of water.
In Philadelphia, the receptacles of these wastes included not only the
city's drinking-water sources, the Delaware and Schuylkill, but also many
smaller streams that were tributaries of those two rivers.
From a miasmist's point of view, this solution seemed entirely reasonable:
it got the dangerous, disease-causing stink out from under people's noses,
out of densely built neighborhoods, and into the rivers. If the theory
had been right, public health would have improved. In reality, however,
such a system of sewers, coupled with municipal drinking-water plants,
proved to be an efficient delivery mechanism for bacteria and other disease-causing
organisms. From the intestines of the sick, microbes were flushed into
the sewers, dumped into the rivers, and then drawn into the reservoirs
at the various pumping stations. To complete the deadly cycle, they were
distributed in water pipes to households and businesses throughout the
From 35 miles of sewers in 1855, the Philadelphia sewer system had expanded
to more than 1,000 miles by 1900. By then these sewers were emptying untreated
wastes into the rivers and their tributaries at more than 100 discharge
points, the largest of which was a pipe 20 feet in diameter. Between 1860,
when the Board of Health began publishing detailed tabulations of causes
of death, and 1909, when a city-built filtration system finally managed
to supply the entire city with safe water, more than 27,000 people died
of typhoid fever, the most prevalent of several deadly waterborne diseases
carried in the drinking water. For each death, 10 to 15 others became
ill, meaning that this disease ultimately affected hundreds of thousands
of people in Philadelphia alone.
Besides facilitating the widespread pollution of the city's rivers and
streams, constructing this type of sewer system required a drastic remaking
of the urban landscape. As urbanization expanded into undeveloped, rural
sections of the city after the Civil War, the engineers who laid out these
new neighborhoods decided to drain these areas by placing sewers in stream
beds. The sewers carried the stream flow, any stormwater runoff from streets,
and sewage from homes and businesses in a single large pipe. The engineers
were not building sewers alongside the streams; they were subsuming the
streams in their entirety into the city's sewer system. Such a flagrant
manipulation of nature for man's purposes may seem unthinkable today,
but it was standard practice in many cities well into the 20th century.
A number of practical reasons made the building of sewers in stream beds
almost irresistibly appealing to municipal engineers. Sewage is 99.99
percent water, and like water, it flows most cheaply and efficiently when
gravity does the work. The streams, of course, already flowed downward
into either the Schuylkill or Delaware rivers. In addition, the moving
water had already done much of the excavation work, having carved channels
out of the landscape over eons-something that would have cost the city
millions of dollars to do.
As engineers completed sewers and diverted the streams into them, they
filled in the land over the pipes, sometimes 40 feet or more over the
original stream bed. Once the fill had settled, the urban street grid
could be extended across the valleys without the former expense of building
a bridge at every stream crossing. The city installed water mains and
gas mains under the streets, giving owners of the real estate through
which the streams had run a readymade infrastructure for any new houses
they built. Other than a small fee collected from adjacent property owners,
the city paid for the majority of this sewer work. These expenditures
were easily justified by the increased revenues that came from the transformation
of barely taxed rural land into densely built urban neighborhoods. About
200 miles of Philadelphia streams were subsumed in this way. Mill Creek
once drained much of West Philadelphia, with its main branch running southeast
from the aptly named Overbrook train station for five miles to the Schuylkill
near 43rd Street. Sandy Run had its source near Fox Chase and ran for
several miles; today only a small open section of the creek remains near
its confluence with Pennypack Creek. Midvale Avenue in East Falls, Winston
Road in Chestnut Hill, and Leverington Street in Manayunk all follow the
former courses of small, unnamed streams. Thomas Run emptied into Cobb's
Creek, Wissinoming Creek and Gunner's Run into the Delaware, Rock Run
into Tacony Creek, and Little Tacony Creek into Frankford Creek.
All now have gone underground and appear only on the city's sewer plats.
For anyone who has ever been confused by the truncated creek that, on
modern maps, changes names from Tacony Creek to Frankford Creek for no
apparent reason, the missing piece of the puzzle is the Wingohocking Creek.
In the city's most extensive creek-to sewer transformation, more than
20 miles of streams in the Wingohocking Creek Valley were subsumed into
the sewer system. Before this stream went underground, it joined the Tacony
to form the Frankford near present-day I and Ramona streets in the city's
Juniata Park neighborhood-precisely where the name change on the map now
In some watersheds, it took many years to obliterate completely the main
stream and its tributaries. The Mill Creek conversion from creek to sewer
took nearly 30 years, and the Wingohocking project took almost 50 years.
Early in the 20th century, city planners realized the benefits of creating
parks in stream valleys, and many of the streams in Northeast Philadelphia,
the last section of the city to be urbanized, remain open today as a result.
Unfortunately, this change of heart on the part of the city's designers
came too late for most. The modern map of the city's surface streams is
now disturbingly blank.
Philadelphia and other major cities no longer grossly pollute their own
waterways, but it took many decades to stem the flow of sewage. In 1905,
the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law banning the discharge of sewage
into state waters, and it required municipalities to submit plans for
collecting and treating their wastes. Philadelphia's plan, published in
1914, called for three sewage treatment plants and many miles of large
pipes to capture the sewage before it reached the streams. The drinking-water
filtration system, completed a few years earlier, was the city's largest
public works project up to that time, costing about $35 million. The sewage
treatment system, when it was finally completed in the mid-1950s, set
a new financial record, costing hundreds of millions of dollars.
Even with this system in place, the treatment processes removed only part
of the solids and none [correction: some] of the bacteria (see note
below) from the sewage before dumping the effluent back into the Delaware
River. Only with the Clean Water Act of 1972 were municipalities and industries
held to higher standards, and only then did life begin to return to the
rivers. With additional treatment processes added to the city's three
plants in the 1970s and 1980s, Philadelphia can now say that its sewage
treatment effluent is cleaner than the raw water drawn out of the rivers
at the drinking-water plants. This achievement is something in which the
Philadelphia Water Department, as manager of the city's sewage treatment
and drinking-water systems, can justly take pride, but it was a long time
Note from Debra McCarty, PWD Deputy Commissioner, on the operation
of the city's three sewage treatment plants, Northeast, Southeast, and
Southwest: "There is one minor correction that I'd like to offer
for future reference. In the last paragraph you wrote that "the treatment
processes removed only part of the solids and none of the bacteria."
In fact, Northeast Plant was a secondary treatment plant in the 1950's
and thus removed a large percentage of bacteria/pollutants. The plant
did not perform as well as it does today and after the expansion in the
mid-1980's but it did achieve a fairly high level of treatment. While
Southwest & Southeast were only primary treatment plants, bacteria
is removed in primary treatment, just not a large percentage (25-40% BOD).
Again, I know this was in no way the point of the article, just felt I
should set the "record" straight. (Source: Email from DM
to AL, 7-27-2010)
Contact Adam Levine
Page last modified August 1, 2010