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The Excellent Acoustic Properties of a Sewer; or, Mayor Low's Wild Ride

Jul 26, 2011 3:00 PM | 1 comment

Raw sewage weighs heavily on the minds of many Brooklynites these days, ever since a massive load of the stuff (about 200 million gallons) was flushed into the Hudson River last week.  Four of the city's beaches have been closed due to unsafe levels of bacteria and icky things, including Brooklyn's own Sea Gate Beach.  It's unpleasant enough to think about all that voided matter clogging up our river and carrying that awful offal to the ocean, but it's more unbearable still for such a thing to happen during one of the hottest weekends on record.  In the wake of the incident, environmental activists and understandably grossed-out citizens alike are taking a hard look (but not a sniff, thank you) at the city's antiquated sewage system.


There was once a time, however, when the city's sewers were adored and celebrated, when each new subterranean channel was hailed as an engineering marvel, and a walk in the underground waterways was an exciting treat for the curious and adventurous.  If there was ever a golden age of civic sewer pride in Brooklyn, it came in the late 19th century, when the "Great Storm Sewer" was built under Brooklyn's streets. 

The city was growing faster than its infrastructure could keep up.  A boom in building had caused tin roofs and paved streets to replace open fields; when rain fell, it was deflected off these hard surfaces and routed into sewer drains rather than soaking into the earth.  The result was flooding in the streets, flooding in the cellars, and thousands of dollars in damage every time a storm struck, as the water inevitably traveled downhill, left to pool "in the low lands along Flushing Avenue," as the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported in 1891.  The city of Brooklyn conceived a solution in the form of an enormous, underground sewer tunnel, which would collect runoff from the low lands and carry it out to sea.  The project drew attention for its ambition and ingeniousness and was covered extensively the pages of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and Scientific American.

Image from the January 30, 1892 issue of Scientific American, showing a cutaway of the "Great Storm Sewer", running below a church at Clermont and Greene Avenues.

Crews of about 40 men worked round the clock in two shifts to burrow a tunnel 35 to 80 feet below today's Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, and Gowanus neighborhoods.  Running for about two miles under Greene Avenue to Fourth Avenue to Butler Street, the storm sewer emptied into the Gowanus Canal.  The tunnel ranged from 10 to 15 feet in diameter, and the Eagle boasted that it would be possible to "drive a span of horses and a road wagon with two men on the seat, two miles through this sewer, a much more remarkable performance than the boating which is done in the lighted sewers of Paris."  The writer did concede that the horses would at one point have to be switched out with ponies, as the tunnel ceiling dropped near its terminus at the Gowanus Canal.  At the time of its completion, it was believed to be the third largest working sewer in the world.

Image from an extensive article on the working conditions in the sewer in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 9, 1891. Night-shift workers take their dinner break at midnight, 80 feet below Bedford Avenue.

By February of 1892, the great sewer was ready, and the city invited the public to inspect the impressive tunnel.  As described in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, these tunnel tours seem to have been a festive affair.  Visitors descended by elevator at Washington Avenue in groups of six, stopping at a cavernous arched passageway 73 feet below ground.  "There were a number of women among the visitors and they gave expression to excited 'Ohs' and 'Ahs' ", as women of the 1890s were apparently wont to do.  "A number of boys were there, of course, and they tested the excellent acoustic properties of the sewer with a great show of satisfaction. They whistled and sang songs and were delighted when the melody was carried along through almost the entire length of the cavern, gaining in force and change in tone as it reverberated against the walls."  In all, nearly ten thousand people had the pleasure of enjoying the sewer's charms before public inspection was closed in March.   

A visit to the big sewer tunnel was not a charming experience for all, however.  In November of 1890, an Officer McLaughlin was making his rounds near the construction site of the sewer line when he heard "moans and cries coming apparently from the bowels of the earth."  Upon investigating, he found that the sounds were coming from the sewer opening at the corner of Bedford and Greene Avenues, where a man who was "found to be gloriously drunk" had fallen into the sewer "while navigating from one side of the street to the other."  After recovering from his bumps and bruises, the man pleaded not guilty to a charge of intoxication.

Brooklyn didn't stop there -- by the turn of the century Public Works Commissioner William C. Redfield had plans to connect disparate sewer grids in the borough into a large web of drainage.  It would be the "most complete system in the world," the Eagle boasted (again), allowing sewage from Flatbush to drain out into the bay via a Bay Ridge sewer tunnel.  

A map from the Eagle, August 31, 1902, showing the Bay Ridge sewer line, then under construction.

The Bay Ridge sewer project received much the same fanfare as its Greene Avenue predecessor, with visits from engineer's clubs to breathless coverage in the Eagle.  Civic pride for wastewater passageways undoubtedly reached its peak in May of 1902, when no less a personage than Mayor Seth Low himself descended to the dark depths of the Bay Ridge sewer main, a silk hat atop his head.

No sewer had ever before received the honor of a visit from the mayor of New York City, and the Eagle covered the momentous occasion exhaustively.  The trip to the tunnel was just one stop on a day-long excursion into Brooklyn by automobile.  After a ceremony at Erasmus Hall High School declared the mayor "a patron saint of Flatbush," Low and his party of over 50 friends, dignitaries, and reporters approached a shaft "near the terminus of the Bay Ridge elevated railroad at Sixty-fifth Street."  This humble hole in the ground was where the mayor would make his descent into the unknown.  Automobiles had already been lifted down into the tunnel by crane in anticipation of the visit, so that the guests could enjoy a cruise through the bowels of Brooklyn.  Not all of the mayor's entourage would be along for the ride, however.  According to the Eagle, "There was no elevator, only a series of slim ladders with nothing but very slender rungs to hold one above the bottom of the shaft.  Several of the more portly suddenly discovered an interest in surface tunnel work and refused to go below."

Yes, it's true.  Mayor Low climbed down the ladder himself, to a red-brick tunnel lit by incandescent bulbs that barely illuminated the cavernous sewer.  The two waiting automobiles "stood panting and shaking," apparently eager to carry the Mayor and his party on a subterranean tour that the Eagle called, variously, "the event of a lifetime" and "a ride such as no mortal man ever had before".  It is unknown whether or not Mayor Low agreed with that assessment; however, his first utterances upon setting foot in the sewer tunnel are recorded for posterity. "Ugh, Redfield," he cried, upon stepping from the ladder into a puddle of standing water, "you've already put this sewer to use, haven't you?"


8/1/2011 1:42:29 PM #

Greetings from your cousin in Palmer, Alaska. I came across this blog several months ago and was encouraged by your mom to post some responses.

Very interesting article. The thought of all the politicians in the sewer....the jokes just write themselves!

Seriously though, the invisible infrastructure of sewage and water mains are something that we take for granted until they don't work. As our public infrastructure networks and systems deteriorate nationwide, with the potential to seriously disrupt civilized life as we know it, these kinds of public celebrations for tax-funded public amenities are importan rituals to acknowledge our civic responsibility.

Last summer our small Alaskan town had major surgery on its watermains as the arteries cracked and popped open all over town. Repairs in one section would increase pressure in other sections, with more repairs and more breaks leapfrogging all over town all summer long. Businesses and homeowners struggled with water/sewage problems from May - October.

I enjoy reading all the articles about Brooklyn.

Bridgette Preston