By Katherine Hon
Imagine stray dogs and wild pigs consuming sewage and garbage dumped into streets and empty lots. A town in Crete in 2500 B.C.? Yes. But also San Diego in 1880. The modern sewer design of underground pipes with access manholes for cleaning and repairs was not envisioned until 1882. And it took until 1917 for almost all houses built in San Diego to have wastewater removal either by the city system or septic tanks.
It is not a topic we want to think much about. In contrast, the newly built, eight-foot diameter sewer tunnels in Paris during the 1700s were considered an engineering feat and a public attraction. People toured the sewers in barges to admire the efficient system.
Live tours of the sewer system in neighborhoods like North Park are not feasible, since the typical pipeline diameter is only eight inches. However, the construction of the system had a significant effect on development throughout San Diego.
In 1868, fewer than two dozen people lived in New Town, the core of what has become San Diego’s Downtown. But within a few years, waste generated by the growing population created problems. The Sept. 5, 1872 issue of the Daily Union recommended some more effective means of carrying off sewage be developed, because the flows emptying into the bay on the beach at Alonzo Horton’s wharf above low water mark were creating very offensive odors.
As dire as this situation may seem, it was 10 years before the city’s Committee on Sewerage released a report on how to address the problem. The May 30, 1882 issue of the San Diego Union printed the committee’s recommendations, which involved constructing several sets of sewers in New Town and Horton’s Addition as soon as possible, especially south of B Street and west of 12th, which was the “present centre of population.” Modern features of the system included access manholes and provisions for periodic flushing. The committee also recommended that the underground pipeline system carry only sewage collected from direct connections to households and businesses and not carry any surface runoff, in order to keep the pipeline sizes as small as possible.
At this time, East Coast cities typically provided large pipelines for carrying off combined flows of rainfall runoff and sewage. Separate pipelines for rainfall runoff and sewage were called the “Waring System,” after Colonel George E. Waring, Jr., who championed this concept and was instrumental in having such a system installed in Memphis, Tennessee in 1880. That city was in dire financial shape at the time and could not afford a “combined flow” system.
Waring (1833-1898) was born in New York. He served in the Union Army during the Civil War and became an expert in sanitary engineering, including facilities for drainage, sewers, and garbage removal. The San Diego Board of City Trustees sought his guidance in February 1887, when a bond issue was approved for the construction of buried sewers by the city. Waring offered to supervise the project and came to San Diego in April 1887. Work began in July that year. Neighborhoods in New Town, Sherman Heights and Golden Hill were the first to benefit from the pipeline system. The first trunk sewer to collect urban flows was the Market Street Trunk Sewer. It discharged into a tank located in San Diego Bay about 1,100 feet offshore. The tank failed to operate properly, however, and was removed a year later.
As a new century dawned, the sewer pipeline system expanded, while disposal into San Diego Bay through multiple outlets continued. The April 5, 1912 issue of the Evening Tribune announced final sewer connections for a system serving University Heights from Georgia to Kansas streets west to east, and University Avenue to El Cajon Boulevard south to north. This sewer system was dubbed the “North Park” line, and also connected homes south of University Avenue and west of Oregon street. Two other trunk lines were completed at this time. The “east side” trunk line ran in Switzer Canyon under the 30th Street bridge and drained to the sewer system at junction of Switzer and Powder House (now Florida) canyons. It served homes along Utah, Sherman (now Granada), Kansas and 30th streets. The “west side” sewer started at University Avenue and Fifth Street, and drained into the bay at Olive Street.
By the end of the 1930s, San Diego Bay was a polluted mess that was corroding the paint off Navy ships. In 1940, the Navy helped the city obtain the necessary funds for a treatment plant and deep outfall to be constructed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). President Roosevelt signed the proposal. The plant was located on Navy property at Harbor Drive and 32nd Street and was completed in June 1943. It was enlarged in 1950, but even so, increasing flows degraded water quality in the bay to the point that the County Department of Health quarantined the entire bay in 1955. It took eight more years for the Point Loma Treatment Plant and ocean outfall to be completed. In 1963 — nearly 100 years after New Town residents started discharging raw sewage into San Diego Bay — the Metro system began operations, and the bay finally was able to recover its natural water quality.
— Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619-294-8990.