Sewer History Revealed!


Underground Construction

Interesting times, these. Turn on the radio, and they're talking about conventions and superdelegates, about budget shortfalls and gas tax holidays, about rising food prices and foreclosures, and about pilots who take little naps while they're driving airplanes up there in the sky.

It's all enough to make a body fret.

Well, when life gets to you, what better relief than to take refuge in history? And I've got just the place — it's

No kidding. is an entire website devoted to, well, to the history of sewers.

Sponsored by the Arizona Water & Pollution Control Association, the Pima County Wastewater Management Department, and the Collection Systems Committee of the Water Environment Federation, provides an unexpectedly enlightening look at something that most folks have truly never thought about. It's "a journey through the history of sanitary sewers from prehistory to the present," according to one promo piece, and if you'd like to know how our sewer infrastructure got to where it is today then this is the place to start.

A Site with a Mission

The intent of the site is "to offer some insight into the history of sewers and the role its operators, engineers, and builders may have played in making our current environment, homes and communities better and healthier places to live."

Now sewer construction is something that's familiar, one way or another, to most folks in the construction industry. Utility contractors, of course, actually do the sewer building. But road contractors have to deal with 'em too, as they seem to cross the right of way disturbingly often. Building contractors have to consider 'em when laying out and constructing their projects. And everybody has to avoid digging into them when working underground.

Since sewer construction is a frequent component of many construction projects, it really is a website with some practical value to folks in the construction industry.

But it's not just a website. There's a traveling exhibition involved in all of this too. On the site I learned that Jon Schladweiler (he's the historian of the Arizona Water & Pollution Control Association) has, for the last 15 or so years, been researching and collecting "materials related to the history of sewage conveyance systems." Now there's a delicate way to put it if ever there was one! But his efforts have paid off with a remarkable collection of artifacts, photos and more, a collection that's displayed in "The Collection Systems Historical Photo and Artifacts Display." It's a collection that, according to the website, covers sewers all the way back to about 3,500 B.C.

Adventures in Sewer History Land

When you visit the site you'll find history, old photos and timelines, of course — all the usual offerings of historical sites such as this.

But wait. There's more.

Like what? Well, to show the cultural impact of sewers on various aspects of human civilization, including the arts, the site includes a collection of "poems and other examples of sewers in our culture."

You can even buy nice 16-by-20 sewer history posters with which to decorate your walls or surprise your friends. No kidding. Available titles include "Sewer Maintenance Tools of 1899," not to mention "The Cultural Side of Sewers" and "Manhole Covers Through the Ages." There's even one entitled "Cloacina — Goddess of the Sewers." I hope to get a couple of them to put on my wall. You may want to as well.

Historians get really excited about this sort of thing, and a surprising number of utility contractors do, too. After all, as one put it, you can't tell where you're going if you don't know where you've been. And if you've got some old sewer-type artifacts, tools, or documents lying around the house but don't know what to do with them, the folks at always welcome donations. Just drop Mr. Schladweiler a note to see if they'd be interested. The website will tell you how to get hold of him.

So the next time the regular news gets you down, take a break and check out this little website to learn about the origins and background of this fascinating element of our infrastructure.

And who knows? You may be building, this very day, a sewer system that'll someday be featured on this most unusual history-focused site.

Author Information
Steve Hudson is the editor of Dixie Contractor, a sister ACP magazine of Rocky Mountain Construction.