History of Wastewater Removal and Treatment

In 1876 Baltimore dedicated its grand new Second Empire Style City Hall. It was six stories high with mansard roofs similar to portions of the Louvre in Paris. It was capped by a cupola which rose over a magnificent dome. The building had been envisioned just before the start of the Civil War and in 1865 a 22 year old local architect named George A. Frederick was given the commission to design the structure.

The building was located in the historic heart of Baltimore, just across the street from where in 1814 the Star-Spangled Banner was first sung, and just feet from Rembrandt Peale’s Museum which also, in 1814, was the first building constructed in the Western Hemisphere for the specific purpose of serving as a museum. The Museum also served as Baltimore’s first city hall from 1830 until the new city hall was ready for occupancy in 1878.

Baltimore had changed a lot between 1814 and 1876. In 1814 there were approximately 50,000 people in what was then the third largest city in the nation. Although Baltimore’s ranking among cities had fallen to 6th by 1870, its population was around 300,000 in 1875. In spite of the six-fold increase in people one thing remained constant – the stench!

Sewage from the glittering new City Hall emptied into the Jones Falls.

A child born in Baltimore in 1800 would have seen some wondrous changes from his or her teenage years into old age in 1875. Streets were laid and paved with brick or cobblestone, houses were built and the towering Washington Monument dominated the skyline. Masted schooners and clippers gradually yielded the docks to side-wheelers and coal piles.

Horses were the trucks and cars of their age. Animal waste filled the streets. 
Not only horses, but chickens, cows, pigs, dogs and rats added to the filth. Residue from tanneries, breweries, lumber yards and other industries found its way to the harbor. Human waste overflowed from privies and cesspools. Those who could would flee the city and the “miasma” (malodorous gasses) for higher ground during the horrendously ripe Baltimore summers.

Cesspits and privy vaults were not the most pleasant things to be around, but they essentially worked. They also provided employment to those who carted away the “night soil” – which became fertilizer. Of course there were those hot summer days and periodic overflows which could be quite stressful. A hankie to the nose was not a sign of snobbery but was the gas mask of its day.

During the first half of the 19th century if someone wanted to pipe their sewage down to a nearby stream they did so with their own money. It was not the role of government to get involved in such matters. As cities grew in size there was a corresponding demand from the population to have more autonomy from the state and more control over the roads, streetlights and water.

Outbreaks of cholera, typhoid or other diseases occurred fairly often and these were largely blamed on miasma. Kill the odors and you will stop the disease. Although the odors were not the problem, removing them through better handling of sewage, certainly helped to reduce disease outbreaks.

The later half of the 19th century saw the beginnings of modern sanitary practices as well as germ theory. In short, it was becoming well-known that what was in the sewage and how it was disposed could have a major negative influence on one’s health. This same era saw the growth of education in sanitary engineering.

While various committees and commissions had been appointed to study the issues of health and drainage over the years, it was the engineers and municipal employees who ultimately got our modern sanitary system on-track. Yes, there were still some private interests who stood in the way of progress, but by the end of the 1800s there were real needs and real solutions to improving the environment, protecting public health and even raising property values in the process. The bureaucrats were less-beholden to the special interests and pushed and prodded for solutions.

By 1890 Baltimore Harbor was a national joke. The pollution and accompanying odors greeted every boatload of immigrants and every vessel doing business. 
It was not unusual to look out on the Patapsco River and see dead fish, dead dogs and even dead cows floating past.

While other cities in Europe and in the United States had installed sewers, Baltimore lagged behind. While everyone knew there was a problem, the solution was still bogged down in local and state politics. Who would pay the estimated $10 million? Would this be a public or privately built system? Who would operate it? Where would the collected sewage be dumped?

Keep in mind that the problem was only growing daily as the population swelled to a half-million in 1900. Additionally indoor bathrooms were mandated in the 1880s; that meant flush toilets and even more wastewater to treat.

The cheapest solution to disposal would be to pump sewage directly into the Chesapeake Bay. The thought of that was anathema to the state’s massive oyster industry, and rural representatives killed that plan. Sending it to Anne Arundel County, where the natural sands would filter it, was considered but deemed too expensive.

And so it went until February 7, 1904. On that day the Great Baltimore Fire destroyed downtown but it provided the impetus to rebuild bigger and better. Nothing generates civic pride like a disaster. In 1905, voters backed a plan for a comprehensive system of building separate storm and sanitary sewers including primary and secondary treatment of human and industrial wastes before returning the treated wastewater to the Bay. A treatment facility was planned and ultimately built, at Back River in Baltimore County.

Baltimore was fortunate in many ways that it waited to build its system. The city learned from the mistakes made in other localities and was able to take advantage of modern treatment technologies. Building separate systems for stormwater and wastewater meant that less treatment capacity was required; however, the 21st-century stormwater mandates mean that some form of extensive treatment will be necessary after all for stormwater.

Baltimore, at the start of the 20th century, was also able to apply new techniques in wastewater processing, including trickling filters for secondary treatment at a time when most cities had primary treatment only. Baltimore also built sewers of a size to meet the demands of the burgeoning population and built them with newer materials including concrete. This helped to extend their serviceable life.

With additions and upgrades and ever-changing technologies, this, by 1911, was the beginning of the system we know today.

Thank you to Professor Christopher Boone his contribution to this.