Category Archives: Early Sanitation in Boston

Early Sanitation in Boston and the Evolution of Modern Sewerage Systems

Prior to the development of sophisticated sewerage systems like the one that Boston created in the 1870s, urban water supplies posed a significant health risk to residents. Water-borne illnesses such as cholera, dysentery and typhoid  thrived in the unsanitary conditions that came with dense urban living before modern sanitation. Between 1846 and 1863, several cholera outbreaks struck India, then the Middle East, then Europe and Africa, before making their way to the United States. Estimates suggest that these outbreaks  resulted in a total of over one million deaths .

An 1849 map showing the spread of cholera through Boston. (Click to enlarge image)

In the large towns of colonial America during the 17th century, the earliest residents often had a privy at ground level that discharged directly into the street, usually with an open gutter or channel serving as a sewer. Occasionally, privies led to cesspools or vaults which stored the waste until it could be disposed of or until it soaked into the groundOften, however, waste  remained in the streets, in contact with food and water sources, wandering livestock and human feet.   By the 19th century, many urban areas had adopted a dry sewerage system in which residents transported the contents of their privies to a designated area in order to try and stave off widespread contamination.

King Cholera

“King Cholera”, an illustration of unsanitary urban conditions at the time of the outbreak. (Click to enlarge image)

In 1848, over three hundred Italian immigrants who had been exposed to the cholera virus arrived by ship in New York City. Although there were some attempts at quarantine, the city had not seen an cholera outbreak in fifteen years and was unable to contain the virus. Within months, the cholera pathogens spread from New York City to Boston. The disease spread rapidly through the newly crowded cities, sending residents and public officials into a panic.

In Boston, the mayor issued a public announcement advising people to practice hygiene and instructing them to collect waste and rubbish on particular days so that the city could systematically dispose of it. Newspapers published articles on the symptoms of cholera and treatments for it. Nonetheless, the toll taken on the city was significant.

The mayor’s announcement to Boston residents, bringing attention to sanitation issues. (Click to enlarge image)

After the outbreak of 1849, and the following outbreak of 1866, Boston began to look towards an overhaul of  the sewerage system to modernize the city and protect its residents from disease. By 1875, Boston had launched a study to  research pollution and water contamination causing health issues including cholera, typhoid and dysentery.   The study prompted a newly designed sanitation system, which was completed and functional by 1884; this system included the Calf Pasture Pumping Station Complex, and the Moon Island treatment facility. This investment in public health had a huge impact on curtailing the spread of waterborne diseases in the city and brought Boston into the modern age of sanitation.

Sources Consulted:

  1. Burian, Steven, Stephan J. Nix, Robert E. Pitt, and S. Rocky Durrans. “Urban Wastewater Management in the United States: Past, Present, and Future.”Journal of Urban Technology. no. 3 (2000): 33-62.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Cholera-Vibrio Cholerae Infection .” Last modified 5 21, 2012.
  3. Rosenburg, Charles. The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Photo Credits:

  1. Cholera Map –
  2. “King Cholera” –
  3. Cholera Announcement –

A Brief History of Sewers in Boston

Until the late 19th century there was little organized effort to promote public health in the United States. With the growth of America’s urban centers in the mid-late 1800s, however, increasing population density brought public health challenges.   By the turn of the 20th century, the United States had become the third most populous nation in the Western world, after Russia and France. Over 2 million immigrants arrived  between 1871 and 1880 alone. This rapid growth was centered in America’s urban centers such as New York, Chicago, and Boston.  Such population growth meant increased levels of human and industrial waste that needed to be removed, and strained the minimal existing infrastructure.

Densely populated downtown Boston in the 1860s
(Source: “Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It”, 1860, Boston Public Library, Print Department, (Click to enlarge image)

In the 18th century,  Bostonians did not address waste in any organized or systematic fashion.  Household waste and storm water routinely flooded basements and houses. Sometimes, people built small drains to take away both household waste and storm water; sometimes groups of people built a drain together and charged newcomers an access  fee. These drains were built underneath roads, and used gravity to discharge waste directly into the nearest shoreline . Such drainage projects were built haphazardly and often damaged the local infrastructure.

early drainage systems were not built to handle human waste.  While household waste and storm water were removed from the city via these street drains, before the consolidation of drainage in Boston,  human waste was collected in privies or outhouses. These simple systems consisted of a hole in the ground, often lined with rocks or boards. Privies required frequent upkeep, and needed to be cleaned out when they became full.  People of means could hire private companies to clean out the privies; often, people simply filled in the rest of the hole with dirt, and dug a new privy hole somewhere else on site.

In the 1830s, Boston storm drains were consolidated under city control but new drainage problems arose as the city undertook many large scale land making projects that more than doubled the size of the city over the next century. Filling in the marshy tidal flats surrounding Boston created new neighborhoods and expanded the city. Many of these new lands were either at or above the high tide level, so gravity could not take care of waste drainage. In 1833, the city permitted the release of sanitary waste into household drains which led to a much larger problem. The city’s old drainage systems depended on the tides to pull the waste away from the city and out to open ocean; more frequently,  the waste, both household and sanitary, remained when the harbor tides pulled out, leaving them to fester on the flats surrounding the city.

E. S. Chesbrough circa 1870 Head of the Commission assembled to investigate the state of sewerage in Boston in 1875. He previously had been the head engineer in the design and construction of America's first comprehensive sewer system in Chicago.
E. S. Chesbrough circa 1870
Head of the commission assembled to investigate the state of sewerage in Boston in 1875. He was previously head engineer for the design and construction of America’s first comprehensive sewerage system in Chicago.
Source: The Chicago Historical Society. (Click to enlarge image)

The introduction of the water closet and indoor plumbing in the second half of the 19th century exacerbated this waste problem.  Similar to our modern flush toilets, a water closet uses water to quickly sweep away human waste. Early water closets emptied into privy vaults, but the added water filled these privies faster and often led to overflowing. City planners hastily devised a quicker way to get this dirty water away from the city and into the harbor. When water closets were attached to the already ineffective storm sewers, the harbor and tidal flats that surrounded the city became even more polluted as tides failed to pull away the waste.

The entire city faced this problem, declared the City Board of Health — “large territories” that “have been at once, and frequently, enveloped in an atmosphere of stench so strong as to arouse the sleeping, terrify the weak, and nauseate and exasperate everybody.” (Main Drainage Works of the City of Boston, Pg. 20)  Officials believed that the stench and inadequate waste disposal were responsible for Boston’s high death rates . Outbreaks of diseases such as cholera, which is contracted through contaminated drinking water, added to the demand for a cleaner city.   In 1875, the City created a commission of civil engineers to report on the state of sewerage in the city. The Commission’s report revealed the dire need for a new sewerage system, and proposed a plan for the construction of the Main Drainage System, with consolidated drains leading south of the city to the Calf Pasture at Dorchester.

The Commission's 1875 plan for Boston's Main Drainage System
The Commission’s 1875 plan for Boston’s Main Drainage System
(Source: Boston City Document No. 3 1876) (Click to enlarge image)


Sources Consulted:

  1. Clarke, Eliot C. Main Drainage Works of the City of Boston. Boston: Rockwell & Churchill, 1888.
  2. Melosi, Martin. The Sanitary City: Environmental Services in Urban America From Colonial Times to the Present. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008.
  3. Tarr, Joel. The Search for the Ultimate Sink: Urban Pollution in Historical Perspective. Akron: University of Akron Press, 1996.

Photo Credits:

  1. “Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It”, 1860, Boston Public Library, Print Department
  2. Clarke, Eliot C. Main Drainage Works of the City of Boston. Boston: Rockwell & Churchill, 1888.