Foundations of Construction: Noxious sewage was a smelly problem   

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Constructing the Avenue Road sewer, ca. 1905. Photographer, Toronto City Engineers Office, Credit: Toronto (Ont.) Records & Archives Division / Library and Archives Canada / PA-055736, Mikan 3649909. (Copyright expired) Retrieved from https://collectionscanada.gc.ca/pam_archives/index.php?fuseaction=genitem.displayItem&rec_nbr=3649909&lang =eng&rec_nbr_list=3649909,3649899,3649900,5030348

By Susanna McLeod

Special to Ontario Construction News

The water-closet, the loo, the bathroom, the toilet, there are many titles for the small modern room that we all truly appreciate when the need arises. After finishing up our… um, business, a flip of the handle whisks away the stinky stuff down the PVC pipe and into the sewer system. In minutes, it’s gone and forgotten until the next time.

In the mid-1800s, lack of municipal drainage was a health concern. Many used outhouses in backyards. Chamber pots were employed at night instead of running out into the cold, and someone in the house–perhaps a servant or the youngest family member–would be assigned to empty the pot. Occasionally the contents were dumped out of the bedroom window or flung onto the street. (Kinda gives “heads up” a different perspective, doesn’t it?)  Potable water sources readily became contaminated and health hazards abounded. Toronto residents were among the first to experience the cleanliness of sanitary sewers.

Benefitting from an urban water system, “by 1841, the city gave exclusive rights to The Toronto Gas, Light and Water Company to provide the city with water for drinking and to supply fire hydrants,” said Adam Patrick in Development of Toronto. Incoming water was helpful for health and sanitation, but outgoing sewage was a smelly problem.

Construction of new streets and homes did not automatically include sewers. Starting in 1859, petitions had to be filed with city council to request sewer installation on their street blocks. At least two-thirds of the block’s residents were required to sign before consideration. Upon approval, the sewers were built and property taxes were reassessed to pay for the improvement.

“In theory Council had the power to lay a sewer without consulting the residents but it could not force the residents to pay for it,” said Catherine Brace in “Public Works in the Canadian City; the Provision of Sewers in Toronto 1870-1913,” Urban History Review, Vol. 23, Number 2, March 1995. However, without being able to recover costs, Council chose to voluntarily construct sewers only in exceptional cases.

Appointed as Toronto’s Medical Health Officer in 1883, Dr. William Canniff understood the connection between cleanliness and prevention of dreaded infections such as typhoid and cholera. Canniff “spent the next seven years slowly educating his fellow citizens in basic principles of sanitation and disease control,” said Heather MacDougall in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. 13, 1995. His efforts irritated councillors and others in power, thereby limiting the doctor’s success.

“Water in Toronto Bay was a cesspool of city runoff, industrial pollution and human waste,” said City of Toronto in “An Infectious Idea: Clean Water and Sewage Treatment.” The sewer system “emptied directly into Lake Ontario, and Torontonians got their drinking water right from the lake.” The situation was grim.

Dr. Canniff and a city engineer recommended that the water intake pipe be relocated near Toronto Island. “Such a project required vast amounts of capital, and during the 1880s the city was more interested in straightening the Don River, constructing a new City Hall and Courthouse, and completing the Garrison Street sewer,” described MacDougall in “The Genesis of Public Health Reform in Toronto, 1869-1890,” Urban History Review, Vol. 10, No. 3, 1982. The problem of polluted drinking water went unresolved for several more years.

While use of sewerage was expanding, by 1885, there remained a substantial percentage of homes without indoor plumbing. Inspecting 11,000 homes in that same year, “which covered two thirds of the city, 6,700 were still using privies,” said MacDougall. Many outhouses were in poor condition, with nearly 30 percent full and 20 percent “foul.” Overflowing and leaking outhouses contaminated water sources. With the Board of Health in agreement, Canniff “urged that (privies) should be cleaned and disinfected annually,”

The next Medical Health Officer, Dr. Charles Sheard, initiated another step toward sanitation, the trunk sewer line. “In 1907, Sheard launched a campaign to promote his own plan for a trunk sewer, a filtration plant for the sewage it collected, and another filtration plant for fresh water being drawn from Lake Ontario,” Patrick wrote. Well-spoken and influential, Sheard’s expensive but essential plan became a by-law in 1908.

At first filtering sewer water via the Ashbridges Bay marshlands, a filtration plant was completed at the site in 1910. Expanding and improving as the city grew, Ashbridges Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant and three other Toronto facilities continue the critical services, presently collecting wastewater from “3,730 km of sanitary, 1,411 km of combined and 401 km of trunk sewers.”

Presently reconfiguring the Ashbridges Bay plant, new tunnel systems with conduits and bypasses are being constructed. The chlorine treatment process will be changed over to a UV disinfection system. Ultraviolet rays are able to neutralize bacteria and viruses, especially important in today’s drive for clean, fresh water.

Flushing has never been so good.

© 2020 Susanna McLeod.  McLeod is a Kingston-based writer specializing in Canadian History.

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