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May 2, 1877: Our filthy, squalid and 'unsewered’ metropolis

Posted by: Ben Welter under Minnesota History, Newspapers Updated: October 18, 2012 - 7:22 PM
 
There’s a day devoted to just about everything, worthy or not, from World Braille Day (Jan. 4) to Pi Day (March 14), from National Cancer Survivors Day (the first Sunday in June) to National Cat Day (Oct. 29). But as far as I can tell, there’s no Sewage Treatment Awareness Day. A pity. Technological advances in the handling of human waste have saved millions of lives worldwide and made urban life far more pleasant than it was 140 years ago. 
 
As noted in the Tribune editorial below, nearly every dwelling in Minneapolis had its own cesspool in the 1870s. Thanks to sandy soil, the decaying contents of these containers commonly commingled and formed “a substratum of liquid poison” underneath the rapidly growing city. The Tribune urged the City Council to address the resulting filth and squalor.
 
Officials took heed, and by the end of the century, more than 120 miles of sewer lines were carrying wastewater from homes and businesses directly to the Mississippi River. You can imagine the impact: According to the Minneapolis Department of Public Works, “floating islands of sewage solids, scum on the water surface, and an abundance of dead fish” marred the river. The stench was noticeable more than two blocks away, and typhoid outbreaks were frequent. Minneapolis continued to dump untreated wastewater into the Mississippi until 1938, when the sewage treatment plant at Pig’s Eye Lake, downriver from St. Paul, began cleaning up the mess.
 

THE INVITATION TO DEATH.

 
We desire to call the attention of the proper authorities to a concern of the most vital importance to the health and future well-being of the citizens of Minneapolis. It is a lamentable fact that there are so few sewers in the city that we can almost say with truth that Minneapolis is an undrained and unsewered metropolis. It is a well settled fact among scientists that all other provisions for the health and comfort of a city are subordinate to the one vital desideratum of adequate sewerage. It should be as much a matter of concern to afford the body politic the means of cleanliness and sweetness, as the individual body. The city should no more squat down in the midst of its accumulating filth and squalor, than an individual, imitating the habits and nature of a pig, should do so. There should be conduits threading every thoroughfare, to serve as cleansing and renewing purifiers, and insuring the atmosphere against the fetid and poisonous miasmas arising from ten thousand separate and individual stenches.
 
It is the misfortune of Minneapolis that a perfect system of drainage is of more consequence to her than to almost any other city of our acquaintance. Its soil is sandy and porous to an unusual degree, and the liquids percolate through it with the utmost facility. When we add to this condition the fact that almost every dwelling in the city containing a sink, a bath-room, or a water closet, is drained into a cess-pool on the premises; that these cess-pools mingle their fetid and decaying contents with each other, and form a substratum of liquid poison under the residence portion of the whole city, and that their deadly exhalations, taking the form of gases, pour up through the loose and porous soil, mingle with the atmosphere, and are taken into the lungs of the people, the wonder is no longer that this is one of the unhealthiest cities for children in summer in the country, but that even adults are able to survive the noxious poisons which they are continually inhaling. In several residence blocks with which we are familiar there are as many as a dozen of these murderous cess-pools. Distributed between them are often as many wells, in which these cess-pools hasten to mingle their contents, and that portion of them which the people do not take into their lungs from the pipes conducting to them, they draw up from the wells and drink. The picture is not a pleasant one to contemplate, and it is all the more revolting because it is true. The hot season is again upon us, and we speak as one with experience when we say that unless something is done by the council to obviate this distressing condition of affairs by the adoption of some adequate system of drainage, parents having children will be confronted with the unpleasant necessity of taking them during the season of exposure to some more hospitable and congenial clime.
 
Construction of a sewer line in the new Minneapolis-St. Paul Sanitary District in December 1934. Can anyone identify the location? (Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society)  

 

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