Flow of history: From outhouses to sewers

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Flow of history: From outhouses to sewers” is the second article in a series outlining the history of wastewater treatment in Madison. Be sure to read the first article, “Flow of history: Early concerns prompted community action,” in the History section of our blog.

By Paul Nehm

History Blog Outhouses To Sewers

In May 1866, the Wisconsin State Journal reported on the demolition of the ornate red brick outhouse built on the west Capitol lawn in 1844. While outhouses served their purpose well, the convenience was replaced by an indoor water closet, a device very similar to modern toilets. 

At this time in history, individual outhouses and chamber pots were the standard methods of handling human waste throughout Madison. Since water closets were expensive, only wealthier residents could afford to install them starting in the early 1870s. Initially, there was no city pressurized water system, so the tank in the water closet had to be refilled by hand. The construction of a city waterworks system in the early 1880s solved this problem, making water closets easier to operate. 

An obvious issue with the installation of a water closet was how to get rid of the wastewater. Early on, private sewer lines were constructed, and all these sewers discharged into the Madison lakes. Although the health-related issues of such a practice are now apparent, it was believed that the dilution potential of the lakes was adequate to handle the wastewater at the time. 

The isthmus area along East Washington Avenue west of the Yahara River was known as the Great Central Marsh. Many homes had cesspools to store wastewater, and contents of the cesspools were often dumped in the marsh area, creating odors and health issues. Recognizing the continuing problems, the Common Council passed a sewer construction code for the private sewers in 1884. At that time, the city did not have the authority to own and operate a sewer system in its city charter. The state provided that authority in March of 1885. 

In 1884, UW professor Allan D. Conover submitted a proposal to the Common Council for an integrated wastewater treatment system that included a 60-acre area east of the Yahara River. With this system, the material would be discharged on the ground and used as fertilizer for crops. Because of the expense — $130,000 in 1884, which would be $3.5 million today — the city could not bond for the project. As such, city engineer John Nader was asked to come up with a less expensive solution. He proposed that 26 sewer districts be created and that each sewer discharge into a lake; the cost of his proposal was $25,000. Nader’s long-range goal was to eventually build an interceptor that would connect to the individual sewer lines and take the wastewater to a treatment plant. 

In April 1885, the Common Council authorized the building of the sewer districts but did not provide for the interceptor or the treatment plant. About 80% of the sewers were discharged into Lake Monona, and the remainder were discharged to Lake Mendota. 

By the early 1890s, problems with this system became evident. The discharges into Lake Monona were causing odor issues. In addition, some of the sewer lines had not been laid with sufficient grade to prevent plugging of the lines. The city was in a poor position. While basement backups could be prevented by flushing the lines, this activity sent more unwanted material to the lakes. To address this problem, the council requested proposals for a collection system that could take all the wastewater to one location and discharge the wastewater at a spot far from the densely populated area of the city. 

Four proposals were submitted, all of which ran the sewer lines to the Great Central Marsh and discharged either to the Yahara River or to a treatment plant on the east side of the Yahara River. The costs of these plans ranged from $50,000 to $120,000, which was above the city charter-imposed borrowing limit of $48,000, so the council didn’t carry any of the plans forward. 

During this same period, several influential citizens proposed piping the raw wastewater at least 200 feet out into the lake and discharging it in at least 10 feet of water. In 1894, only 30 cities in the United States had installed sewage systems. The leaders of Madison continued to look for solutions to their waste problem.

Much of the information for the article series, including this article on outhouses and water closets, was found in “Madison – A History of the Formative Years” by David V. Mollenhoff and in articles written by early leaders from Madison’s public works sector.