As it were

Early sewers took quickest path to river


Today most people take sewers for granted. We assume that when we empty a sink, flush a toilet or drain a bathtub, the water is going to go somewhere underground far away from where we happen to be. And generally speaking, that is exactly what happens most of the time.

It was not always as confidently so.

How Columbus managed to dispose of waste water of all sorts over the years is a fascinating story. It is also a long one. We will tell a bit of the early part of it today.

Columbus was founded in 1812 to be the new state capital of Ohio. It grew slowly at first and only had a small population until the Ohio Canal and the National Road reached Columbus in the early 1830s. By 1834, 5,000 people called this place home and Columbus officially became a city. But it was a city without a sewer. Not even one.

To understand why, we need to know a bit about geography, land management and the way people lived in those days.

Stand at Mound and High Street some time and look in all four directions -- north, south, east and west. The land slopes away rapidly in all directions. Perhaps that is why Native Americans placed a forty foot mound at that place. It was the highest place around. Behind it to the south was a steep incline to a creek hurtling down the hill toward the river. Named for a local family who lived there, the creek was called Peters Run.

Unable or unwilling to disturb the mound, surveyor Joel Wright moved down the hill to a high plateau with apparently good water. Today we call it Statehouse Square.

Traveling further north along an old trail one came to another marshy spot and another creek moving east to west to the river. Comprised of the runoff of nearby springs, the creek gave its name to a street running by its side -- Spring Street. Until well into the 1830s, if one wanted to cross the creek at Spring Street at High Street, one used a footbridge to do so.

Columbus was laid out in the midst of a large and impressive forest of old growth walnut, maple, syca-more and chestnut trees. The average settler cleared enough land for a home and garden plot. The rest of nearby neighbors lay along country trails through that remaining forest.

In the backyard of each house, each newcomer dug a hole down through the topsoil and a layer of clay until water was found. It was not all that deep because below the soil and clay was a large deposit of limestone. Near the new well, the settler dug a separate privy pit over which he erected an outhouse of some sort. The two sites -- well and privy -- often affected each other and gave early residents typhoid, dysentery and worse.

It was not until 1841, almost 30 years after the founding of Columbus that the first sewer was completed. A few years later in 1849, a 3.5-foot brick pipe ran from what is now Jefferson Avenue 18 feet under Broad Street to the Scioto River. East Broad Street was beginning to become a popular place to be and the land around the Insane Asylum was wet and marshy. The new sewer helped alleviate that problem.

Over the next several years, other areas were addressed as well. The creek along Spring Street was "sewered and filled" from Front Street to Third Street in 1852. This was considered to be "an excellent thing for the north part of the city" which was quite wet and marshy at the time.

A completion of the Spring Street Sewer to the river was strongly urged to remove a large pool of sewage and filth between the end of the sewer and the river. Before that could happen a number of cellars along Spring Street were flooded when part of the sewer collapsed. Construction of brick sewers and their occasional collapse became a rather common story. For all of that, some of the brick sewers held and are still down there to this day.

The real problem was not the sewers themselves but the lack of any rhyme or reason to their construction. If one part of town needed a sewer, one eventually was built and emptied into the Scioto. An 1872 account noted that "the controlling motive had been to discharge the sewage into the river by the shortest possible route. Many of the conduits were so defectively constructed as to lodge the filth at their turning points, and discharge both fluids and gases through numerous leaks into the streets."

The problems continued. In 1883, a report on sewage suggested "the importance of choosing municipal officials on the basis of qualification rather than that of political belief."

Perhaps that was the one of the lasting lessons of the story of the sewers of early Columbus. Another was that a comprehensive rather than piecemeal approach to sewage and water treatment was needed. And in time, that is exactly what happened.

Local author and historian Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek News.