< Browse to Previous Essay | Browse to Next Essay >
Seattle ordinance requiring residences to connect to sewer lines is adopted on December 4, 1885.
HistoryLink.org Essay 3137
: Printer-Friendly Format
On December 4, 1885, the Seattle City Council approves Ordinance
No. 696, requiring that residential property be connected to existing sewer
lines. Mayor Henry Yesler (1810-1892) signs the ordinance the same day. At the
time, a great many homes in the city have no sewer lines to attach to. Not
until the 1890s will Seattle begin construction of a city-wide sewer system.
Sewage and Disease
During the nineteenth century, as more and more people
crowded into cities, particularly in Europe, with the advance of the Industrial
Revolution, and as scientists began to understand the causes of disease, the
connection between sewage disposal and health began to be made. Awareness of
sanitation and the importance of sewage disposal grew around the world after 1854,
when a cholera epidemic in London, England, claimed more than 10,000 lives, and
spurred a frenzy of sewer construction.
At the time of London's epidemic Seattle was a new settlement
of a few hundred people, but its population grew rapidly over the next three
decades. In the mid-1870s, Seattle experienced several diphtheria epidemics that
killed many young children and some entire families.
In the early 1880s the first rudimentary sewers were
installed in the city, including wooden-box sewers in Yesler Way and James
Street and a vitrified clay pipe along Union Street from 8th Avenue to 1st Avenue.
Other early sewers and cesspools were little more than open ditches that
endangered the health of residents and contaminated springs and other water
Connecting to Sewers
-- and Building Them
By 1885, half way through a decade in which Seattle's
population grew more than 10-fold, from fewer than 4,000 to more than 42,000, city
officials decided that all residences should be connected to sewers. Ordinance
No. 696, passed by the city council and signed by Mayor Yesler on December 4, 1885,
mandated that residential property be connected to existing sewer lines. But it
did not call for the construction of additional sewers, and there were no lines
for many residences to connect to.
In addition, most of the lines that did exist discharged
untreated sewage into the water bodies that surrounded the city -- Lake
Washington, Lake Union, and Elliott Bay. Although tides and currents dispersed sewage
flowing into the bay, the lakes, then still a source of drinking water, became
increasingly polluted. In 1889 city officials consulted sewer expert George E.
Waring Jr. (1833-1898), who prepared a design for a sewer system. Waring did
not include plans for handling stormwater (rain and snow runoff), which he
believed could be handled on the surface. That seemed unlikely to those
familiar with the volume of stormwater during Seattle's rainy winter months,
and officials likely feared that building Waring's sewage-only system would
soon require costly construction of a separate system for stormwater.
Instead, the city turned to hydraulics engineer Benezette
Williams (1844-1914), who
also prepared the first plans for Seattle's Cedar River water-supply system, to
design a combined sewer system to carry both sewage and stormwater to outfalls
in the bay and lakes. The city council adopted Williams's plan in 1891, and,
like his Cedar River design, it was implemented over the following years by
City Engineer R. H. Thomson (1851-1949). In 1892, with half the city's population
(three-quarters of its land area) without sewers and cholera threatening the
West Coast, Thomson recommended construction of 50 miles of sewer lines. Work
got under way the following year.
As he did with the water-system plans, Thomson
made significant changes to Williams's sewer design, in particular rejecting a
plan to direct some sewage to Lake Washington. Nonetheless, the decision to
build a combined system, rather than separate ones for sewage and stormwater,
would have consequences -- including discharge of untreated sewage into the
lakes and bay during heavy rainfalls -- that the city would be dealing with
through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.
of Seattle Ordinance No. 696, "An Ordinance in relation to sewers and
drainage," passed December 4, 1885, Seattle Office of the City Clerk
website accessed November 11, 2015 (http://clerk.seattle.gov/~public/CBOR1.htm);
Myra L. Phelps, Public
Works in Seattle: A Narrative History, The Engineering Department, 1875-1975
(Seattle: Seattle Engineering Department, 1978), 198-199; HistoryLink.org
Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "City of Seattle adopts plan
to build a combined sewer system, to handle sewage and stormwater, on November
30, 1891" (by Jennifer Ott), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed November 11, 2015).
Note: This essay replaces a previous essay
on the same subject.
Travel through time (chronological order):
< Browse to Previous Essay
Browse to Next Essay >
Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that
encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both
HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any
reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this
Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For
more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact
the source noted in the image credit.
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided
By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins
| Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry
| 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle
| City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach
Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private
Sponsors and Visitors Like You
This essay made possible by:
Seattle Office of Arts & Culture
Seattle's Elliott Bay waterfront, ca. 1885
Courtesy MOHAI (Image 474)