Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Baltimore: The Smell Could Knock a Buzzard Off a $#!* Wagon

An interesting article on Baltimore, and the first installation of city wide sewage.

The Man Made Marvel of Baltimore's Sewers
The need for sewers in 19th-century Baltimore was abundantly clear to those who endured the “2,000-horse-power smell” of the city's harbor. There, streams of human waste, trash, and industrial runoff converged and stewed under the summer sun, breeding deadly typhoid fever. City code required indoor toilets, but it was up to individual property owners to build cesspools, cisterns, or gutters. These emptied into an unfortunate stream called the Jones Falls; its polluted course ran from the wealthier to the poorer areas of town and finally into the harbor. An 1890 news story claimed that harbor steamboat passengers “were known actually to faint from the effects of the vile smell.” Baltimore was one of the last major American cities to build a public sewer system.
 “Night soil men” manually emptied Baltimore's 20,000 cesspools prior
 to the construction of public sewers. (Photo: Public Domain)
Why, while other municipalities broke ground on sewers, did Baltimore languish through a half-century-long public health nightmare? It's a historical puzzle with particular relevance today, as many cities struggle to upgrade their aging infrastructure. Some pieces of this puzzle are familiar enough: political gridlock, cash-strapped governments, and NIMBYism. Other pieces seem a bit more antiquated, like the notion of airborne miasmas and toxic sewer gases.
. . .
“The Great Fire of 1904 was a godsend for the sewers,” said Department of Public Works spokesman Kurt Kocher in a presentation last month to the Baltimore City Historical Society. “After the downtown was incinerated, civic pride was at a peak.” The people and politicians of Baltimore determined to rebuild the city better than before. . .
I think it's hard for modern people to conceive of how bad a problem all the human waste was back in the days before modern sanitation especially in cities where people are packed together. And many people would benefit from a walking tour of a major sewage treatment plant like Blue Plains, to see what goes on there, as I have.

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