Dear PoPville – Wondering About the History of DC’s Sewer System?

Dear PoPville,

This manhole cover, on the northeast corner of Kansas Ave. and Webster St., dates to 1908. I understand that most of the housing in this part of Petworth came much later. So, do you think the manhole cover comes from elsewhere or is the sewer system really that old? Perhaps someone in PoPville knows the local history?

Good eye!

The DC Water website has a really interesting history section:

The District’s sewerage system, one of the oldest in the United States, began around 1810, when sewers and culverts were constructed to safely drain storm and ground water from the streets. These drains were not all built at the same time, and were not linked together to form a “system” as we know it today.

By 1850, most of the streets along Pennsylvania Avenue, from First to 15th Street, had spring or well water piped in, thus creating the need for our first sanitary sewage process. Sewage was discharged into the nearest body of water. In 1859, the Washington Aqueduct was supplying river water city-wide to the District and this, together with the surge in population during the civil war, quickly created a marked increase in water pollution in the nation’s capital. Before the end of the war, there were epidemics of smallpox, typhoid and malaria, which took many thousands of lives. These epidemics prompted the Federal Government to investigate the problem of sanitary sewage.

From 1871-1874, a general construction program was undertaken by the Board of Public Works, building approximately 80 miles of sewers. Although the amount of construction was impressive, much of the work was poorly planned, structurally unsound and hydraulically inadequate. As a result of the program and up until 1880, the foul conditions in the Washington canal and along B Street (now Constitution Avenue) were eliminated by the construction of the B Street and Tiber Creek Sewers and filling in the canal. However, the problem was transferred to the marshes along the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers.

Up to this time, the sewerage system that served the District was a combined system that carried and discharged both sanitary sewage and stormwater into localways. In the 1890’s, there was considerable difference of opinion among engineers as to the desirability of retaining such a system.

A Board of Engineers appointed by President Benjamin Harrison recommended that the combined system be retained but, in addition, that extensions be built to serve new areas as a separate system, using separate lines to carry stormwater and sanitary flows. The Board also recommended that all the sewage flows be discharged at a point far enough down the Potomac River to prevent their return to the environs of the city. This discharge point is still located at Blue Plains, the southernmost tip of the District. Upon further recommendation from the Board, construction of a system of large interceptor sewers was undertaken to collect and carry sanitary sewage and some stormwater to a pumping station on the bank of the Anacostia River and to the discharge point at Blue Plains. The implementation of those recommendations accounts for the major portion of the current sewage system.

Map of Metropolitan District – Sewerage, 1911 via DC Water

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