Sewage irrigating Seattle vegetables reported on February 5, 1901.

  • By Greg Lange
  • Posted 8/29/1999
  • Essay 1646

On February 5, 1901, The Seattle Star starts a series of reports on seven sewer lines that end along an eight-block area of the Beacon Hill neighborhood allowing the offal to flow directly onto the ground. The sewers empty at about Norman Street between 21st and 28th avenues and some of the sewage flows down gulches and ditches to irrigate Italian-run vegetable farms.

Stench Pervasive

The farms were located along both sides of the Renton trolley line that ran along Rainier Avenue S. The neighborhood was concerned about unhealthy conditions as well as the summer stench.

On February 5, 1901, a reporter from The Seattle Star responded to a tip about sewage used to irrigate vegetable farms. He noticed a number of farms with extensive ditching filled with “pools of stagnant water” (The Seattle Star, February 5, 1901) along both sides of the Renton trolley line -- the trolley ran down Rainier Avenue S -- between S. Judkins and about S. Spokane Street. The sewage flowed from seven sewers between 21st and 29th avenues south at about S. Norman Street. A. G. Keen of Keen Mercantile stated: “[T]he entire system is permitted to empty into a small brook, which later drains the water from two adjacent gulches. Frequently an area of vegetable gardens half a mile square is inundated with this vile water and offal to a depth of a couple of feet and the stench which arises at times is stifling” (The Seattle Star, February 6, 1901).

These conditions had prevailed for at least six or seven years but had gotten steadily worse due to increased population in the area and additional hookups to the sewer lines.

Wells Is Disgusted

G. W. Wells, who lived nearby at 1413 24th Avenue S (about S Atlantic Street), denounced the "death-dealing odor" of the sewage flowing in open ditches and maintained that toilet paper hanging in the bushes tended to "depreciate the value of property in the locality.” He went on to say:

“The smell last summer was horrible in the extreme, and next summer it will be infinitely worse. During the winter the population of the ward has greatly increased, more connections with the sewers in question have been made ...” (The Seattle Star, February 6, 1901).

Unhealthy Conditions

Nearby residents feared that these open ditches and cesspools promoted diseases. Dr. A. Raymond said that typhoid fever and diphtheria “prevail” in the area. He mentioned that J. M. Frink’s daughter-in-law, who lived nearby, had typhoid fever and had “been at death’s door for days” (The Seattle Star, February 6, 1901). J. M. Frink was an officer of Washington Iron Works, a large Seattle manufacturing firm. Dr. Raymond also noted that these conditions defeat “the very object of civilization, which supplies sewers or closed conduits to carry off the offal" (The Seattle Star, February 5, 1901). Dr. I. M. Harrison also “expressed himself very forcibly” on the subject. He said:

“I have attended a number of diphtheria cases in the second ward, and the illness in each case, in my opinion, was caused by the unhealthy condition of the neighborhood. Vegetables fertilized with offal from the sewers and irrigated with drainage water from the same source are not fit to be eaten. Milk from cows which drink at these contaminated pools should not be used” (The Seattle Star, February 6, 1901).

The farmers harvested and sold the vegetables in downtown Seattle to buyers who were unaware of the conditions under which they were grown. Nearby residents also expressed concern that it was next to impossible to keep children from playing in these open ditches.

Thomson Calls Sewage Concerns "Bosh"

R. H. Thomson (1856-1949), City Engineer, who wielded much influence in prioritizing public works projects, stated:

“This idea of sickness in the Second ward being caused by offal from the sewers is all ‘bosh.’ For over 100 years the sewage in Berlin has been emptied on the ground to be taken up by vegetation as the best means of disposing of it, and in Baltimore it is carried on scows to the opposite shores, where it is used to fertilize the celery gardens. … My observation has been that there is more swill and filth piled up in the backyards of many of the residents of the ward than is dumped from the sewers a mile away from many of them and of which they complain. Any sickness that is prevailing, in my opinion, is due to this cause and not to sewage” (The Seattle Star, February 7, 1901).

Seattle Councilman Vincent, who represented the Second Ward, had a different view: He stated, “I am aware of the fact that the people of my ward are suffering from the unhealthy condition of things, and I will do all in my power to alleviate their distress. I know that something must be done and that quickly” (The Seattle Star, February 7, 1901).

Residents Fight Back

A. G. Keen was so fed up with the longstanding putrid and unhealthy conditions that he announced his intention to sue the city for keeping a nuisance and was collecting funds for legal fees from residents who felt the same. He said:

“The condition of affairs is this: The municipality has constructed about five miles of sewers, and compels people along the route to connect with them. If they refuse to do so, they are jumped by the health officer and, if necessary, arrested and prosecuted for emptying their sewage in their yards. Still the city authorities have consummate nerve to collect the sewage from all over the ward and carry it down to our neighborhood and dump the whole business on our property. It certainly is an outrage, and if there is any such thing as justice, we are going to seek our redress in the courts” (The Seattle Star, February 7, 1901).


The Seattle Star, February 5, 1901, p. 1; February 6, 1901, p. 1; Ibid., February 7, 1901, p. 1.

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