Within the past twenty years three essentials of municipal sanitation have been installed in New Orleans: an adequate system of drainage, an efficient sewage system, and a modern water supply. Almost from the day of the foundation of the city the need of these conveniences was felt, but their introduction was delayed by many conditions, of which the lack of means was only one, and probably not the most important. The drainage problem was the most urgent and difficult; with its solution the sewage and the water supply became possible.
In any historical consideration of the subject, then, it is necessary to begin with the drainage. This matter was considered by Bienville and by his engineer, La Tour. The latter recommended that the site of the city be placed at Manchac, on account of the difficulty which he foresaw of keeping the capital of the Province of Louisiana free from inundation if located where Bienville, for a variety of reasons, finally established it. Bienville had to consider the relation of the proposed city to the defense of the mouth of the Mississippi, and to the means of access to the French settlements along the Mississippi sound; and these factors proved final in determining his choice.
As early as Perier's time the protection of the city from flood was attempted. A clever writer had compared New Orleans to a saucer floating in water: the city sits in a basin, the raised rim of which prevents the outside water from getting in, but also stops that which is within from getting out. The rim of the saucer is a system of levees, the inception of which is traced back to Perier's administration, when a levee was thrown up in front of the city to defend it from the river floods. No attempt was made to drain the city till the time of Vaudreuil, and then with very indifferent success. Carondelet went further. By opening the canal which still bears his name, in 1794, he drained the greater part of the then existing city. About 1836 the excavation of the New Basin Canal, and, shortly after, of the Melpomene Canal, helped relieve a similar situation in the upper or American part of the city. But these enterprises only attacked the problem . The necessity of a comprehensive drainage system was apparent. In 1835 a "grand speculative company," as Condon calls it, under the name of the New Orleans Drainage Company, was formed to meet the demand. It proposed to drain and reclaim all the land "between the upper limits of the Faubourg Livaudais, the line of the New Canal, to Lake Pontchartrain, along the lake to Bayou Cochon, and in a straight line to the Fisherman's Canal, and thence to the Mississippi."1 It was capitalized at $1,000,000. Both the city and the state were large stockholders. Unfortunately, the company was an offspring of the speculative movement of the middle '30s, and collapsed with it. It does not seem ever to have progressed with its plan far enough to have formulated a scheme for the drainage work it was organized to undertake.
Map of New Orleans showing Completed and Proposed Drainage Construction
p567 The next attempt to solve the drainage problem was made in 1857. In the preceding year the State Legislature appropriated $5,000 to pay the expenses of two engineers who were to make a survey of the swamps in the rear of the city, with a view of drawing up a plan for their drainage and reclamation. The then city surveyor, Louis Pilié, denounced this work as a mere waste of public funds. He himself appeared before the city council in 1857 with a plan looking to drainage. This, however, contemplated the drainage only of the section of the city lying in the rear of Claiborne Avenue. He advised the construction of open canals for drainage and of levees to protect the city from inundation from the lake. He did not state clearly what disposition of the drainage was to be made, but it is supposed that he expected to deliver it to Lake Pontchartrain. As his report was not accompanied by maps, the proposed location of the pumping machinery necessary to lift the drainage water is not clear, but probably it would have been placed along the lake shore. "When the drainage of our swamps shall be perfected," he said, in commenting upon the importance of drainage to New Orleans, "our city will be among the healthiest in the world. The growth and population [. . .] will rapidly appear, our commerce will be largely benefited, our population, far from seeking a residence during the summer and sickly months, will remain in the city and erect delightful residences along the lake shore, and upon the new swamp lands of our city, and thus a large amount of property at present valueless will amount to millions and swell our assessment rolls."2
It is not clear how far the Pilié project affected the action of the State Legislature in 1858, when by the passage of Act 165 it for the first time took definite steps towards the solution of the drainage problem in New Orleans. But it seems reasonable to say that the relation was very close. The act in question divided New Orleans into three drainage districts and authorized the appointment of a drainage commission in each. It also provided a mode of assessment in each district in order to raise the funds necessary to carry out a drainage plan. The boards were empowered to levy an assessment upon the superficial feet of the area to be drained, and were directed to expend the money upon the construction of canals, levees, machinery, etc., substantially in conformity to the Pilié plan. In the following year another act3 was passed amending the anterior legislation in order to give the boards authority to issue thirty-year bonds, to the amount of $350,000 in each district. Under these acts boards were appointed by the city council. They organized and determined upon a plan of procedure. They had the technical advice of Gen. (then Maj.) P. G. T. Beauregard. Beauregard proposed to effect the drainage of each of the four districts separately. The First District comprised the area between the Old and the New Basins towards the rear of the city, with Julia Street as the boundary on the upper side, and St. Peter as the boundary on the lower side. The Second District was above Julia Street and extended as far as Carrollton. The Third District included all the lower part of the city below St. Peter Street.4 Work was not largely undertaken in any of these districts, owing to the p568 outbreak of the Civil war. In the Second District more was accomplished, however, than in both of the others combined. By 1871, in the First District, which included the commercial center of the city, something had been done towards securing drainage from the river back to Claiborne Avenue. Thence to Metairie Ridge the drainage was less efficient. Back of the Metairie Ridge towards Lake Pontchartrain nothing had actually been done. After the Civil war, when the drainage boards were reconstituted and set about resuming their labors, this then remote part of the First Drainage District was made the scene of a careful inspection by N. E. Bayley, president of the board, and J. D. Hill, one of the commissioners, and they found that a large part of their work had to be done in a boat.5 However, before the boards as thus reorganized were able to accomplish much the State Legislature began to interfere by passing acts designed to transfer the drainage assessment funds to the hands of private corporations. It was claimed that private parties would be in a position to carry out the drainage work more successfully and on a larger scale; as a matter of fact, the assault on the drainage boards was only a part of the general exploitation of the public funds which prevailed during the Reconstruction epoch. To the three drainage boards, however, the city owes the excavation of its first drainage canals and the erection of its first pumping plant.
In this connection we must note the drainage plan of L. Surgi, city surveyor, which was presented to the council in 1868, and has some historical interest. Surgi, in effect, advised the improvement and extension of the work already done by the drainage boards. He advocated the construction of additional open canals, and the use of improved machinery. His report, however, included no data on the amount of water which it would probably be necessary to handle. He referred to Bayou Bienvenu as "one of the main natural drains of the city, especially of the lower section, from Esplanade down." From this it seems clear that he contemplated delivering the drainage water ultimately into Lake Borgne. This is the scheme now followed. This appears to be the first time that this route was suggested. In accordance with Surgi's suggestions, the city council in 1869 appointed a board to work out a plan for the complete drainage of the city.6 This board was composed of Gen. Braxton Bragg, A. G. Blanchard, R. J. Evans, John Roy, H. C. Brown, G. W. R. Bayley, L. Surgi and J. A. D'Hemecourt. This commission, after organizing, recommended as a measure of immediate relief that the Surgi plan be immediately inaugurated. As the ultimate drainage plan it recommended the construction of underground canals discharging into the Mississippi. The report of this body was prepared without any accurate knowledge of the topography of the city or of the volume of water to be handled. As a matter of fact, engineers today have, after exhaustive study, determined that, while not impossible, it would be impracticable to collect the drainage water in a system of sewers of the type proposed by the Bragg board and deliver it into the river.7 For this reason the project must necessarily have failed; but it never reached the point of actual application, for in 1871 the State Legislature put the entire matter of the city drainage in the hands of a p569 corporation known as the Mississippi and Mexican Gulf Ship Canal Company, where it became involved in the politics of the period and the whole matter of the city drainage was held up for many years.8
The Mexican Gulf Company, or Ship Canal Company, as it was usually referred to, was originally formed to excavate a ship canal through St. Bernard Parish to connect the city with the Gulf of Mexico. After expending $480,000 on this useless enterprise the work was abandoned. The effect of Act 30 of 1871 was to abolish the three drainage boards and put the drainage of the city under the control of this company, which, through its president, made an effort to get possession of the books and papers of the dispossessed commissioners. The act subrogated the city council in all the rights and privileges of the old boards and authorized it to collect the old drainage claims and levy an assessment of two mills on every superficial foot of drainable area in the Second and Third Drainage districts and of three and one-third mills per foot in the First District. These taxes were made collectible on lands where such had not been the case under the previous acts. All the revenues thus obtained were to be put at the disposal of the company. The company paid more attention to the collection of these revenues than to the execution of the drainage work, although something, too, was done along that line. Its officers endeavored to obtain judgments against individuals and were aided in this endeavor by the heavy liens which the law created on drainable property. They tried to enforce the collections through the notaries and sheriffs, holding them accountable for any deficiencies in the tax which they insisted should be paid over to them out of the general funds of the city. In effect, the city was co‑operating with the company. These financial arrangements were continued until they became a matter of public scandal, inasmuch as such drainage work as was being done afforded no commensurate benefit.
The matter was finally brought to a head when a suit was instituted against John Davidson for the drainage tax alleged to be due on a piece of property which he had acquired in 1859 from the cities of New Orleans and Baltimore,a and which comprised the area surrounding the City Park on the north, east and west sides. The company sought to obtain a judgment personal against Davidson, regardless of the value of the real estate on which the tax was laid. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court of the state, and then on a writ of error to the United States Supreme Court. There it was permitted to lie dormant for years. It was evident that the drainage tax collector had no wish to press the matter to a decision, for fear that the judgment in his favor rendered by the State Supreme Court would be set aside by the higher tribunal. In the meanwhile, of course, the collection of the drainage tax was systematically enforced.
Finally, the Davidson case was brought to trial in Washington. This was in the late '70s. The Supreme Court held that the issue was purely a state affair, declined to review the judgment and sent the case back to the State Supreme Court. Thereupon the executors of Davidson, who had died in 1872, instituted a suit to annul the judgment on the grounds that no work had been undertaken to effect drainage in the area where the property in question was situated, and that the effect of the tax, p570 when collected, was solely to benefit the stockholders in the Mexican Gulf Company. In due time this suit reached the State Supreme Court. The membership of this tribunal had greatly altered in the interim. Chief Justice Bermudez, who was now at its head, handed down a decision which had the effect to putting an end to the collection of the tax. The result was that the enforcement of the law on the subject through the notaries ceased. The City of New Orleans, however, continued to be a victim of the company, and was obliged, under the act of the State Legislature, to pay a large sum for work which was never performed.9
The financial operations of the Mexican Gulf Company were quite apart from its engineering projects. The latter were carried on steadily until 1876, in accordance with a plan prepared by the city surveyor, W. H. Bell. Bell's plan was the first one contemplating the drainage of the city from a practical point of view which was put in operation and which met with some measure of success. No complete description of his plan is available, but it is evident that he proposed to deliver the drainage water into Lake Pontchartrain. He contemplated the construction of a substantial breakwater and levee along the shore of the lake from the upper Protection Levee to the People's Avenue Canal, and along this revetment the construction of the pumping stations necessary to lift the water up for delivery. The pumping stations were requisite to create the necessary slope to insure the flow of the drainage water through the canals which he proposed to excavate. The foul drainage of the city was to be delivered into Lake Borgne. Bell did not intend to depend upon a single line of drainage machines located along the lake and at the head of Bayou Bienvenu. He recommended that in locating them they be placed with a view to the ultimate division of the city into urban and suburban drainage districts, the former to be drained through large sewers, or cast iron pipes, into Bayou Bienvenu, and the latter into Lake Pontchartrain. The first step, in his opinion, towards drainage was to prevent the city from being overflowed either from the river or from the lake. The location of the pumping machinery was a matter secondary to this fundamental consideration.10 The principal feature of the Bell system was a canal •65 feet wide and 15 feet deep.11 Under this plan about thirty-six miles of canals were actually dug, widened or deepened. The upper Protection Levee and a canal about five miles long were completed. On the lake front, however, only about one-half mile of levee was built. About five miles of the lower Protection Levee were erected. •Thirteen miles of canals were dug •from 50 to 60 feet wide and 15 feet deep. These included the Upperline Canal from the lake to Metairie Ridge, the Orleans Canal from the lake to the Bienville drainage machine at Hagan Avenue and Bayou St. John; the London Avenue Canal, from the lake to the London Avenue drainage machine, and the People's Avenue Canal from the lake to Florida Walk.12 Charles Louque, who was a member of the city council in 1892, and was chairman of a committee which investigated the subject, in a report which he published at that time, says that the Bell plan could have been carried out with satisfactory results within two years, but a change in the city government put an end to the project after about $2,500,000 had p571 been spent, and thereafter seven dredge boats which were then at work were allowed to rust and sink in the various drainage canals, which they long continued to obstruct.
The Mexican Gulf Company became involved about the year 1874 and transferred its contract to a man named Van Nordon. It had borrowed extensively from Van Nordon, and now finding itself without the means to pay those debts, assigned the contract and all its apparatus to him. He carried on the work for two years, when by another act of the Legislature13 the city was authorized to purchase the rights, appurtenances, etc., of the company. An ordinance was passed shortly after by the city council directing that negotiations be opened to this end.14 In June of that year the purchase was effected, whereupon the city instituted the office of drainage tax collector, and J. B. Guthrie was appointed to it.15 The city paid $300,000 for the contract, besides $20,000 in warrants to compromise a claim which the company held against the municipality for assessments levied on the parks. While the company was handling the work it was paid in the city's warrants as the work progressed at the rate of 50 cents per •cubic yard for all levees erected and all canals excavated. It was generally supposed that Van Nordon made money out of his contract, but as a matter of fact he left New Orleans a poor man. It seems that the warrants which he received from the city were pledged at the banks for money to carry on the work as fast as they came in. In 1881 there were $683,000 of these warrants outstanding, held by Crossley & Sons, an English firm, which the city was compelled to redeem at par, with interest, a feat which was made possible by the collections made through Guthrie's office. The collection of these taxes was, as we have seen, terminated in 1881, as a result of the litigation brought to a close in that year. The final judgment in the courts held that Act 30 of 1871 was unconstitutional, because its provisions were not described in the title and in it were incorporated matters not relating to drainage. This had the effect of making illegal the warrants issued to the Mexican Gulf Company.
From this time on till the establishment of the Sewage and Drainage Board no progress was made towards a solution of the great problem of the drainage of the city. We may note, however, the project formulated by Joseph Jouet in 1880. Jouet, in a communication to the mayor and the council, proposed a system of sewage as well as drainage. It is not clear from his publications how the sewage was to be disposed of, but apparently it was to be discharged into the drainage canals and both sewage and drainage water were to be handled together. •Three hundred feet from the shore of Lake Pontchartrain he proposed to excavate a canal. A large central canal extending the length of the city from the Upper Protection Levee to Bayou Bienvenu was to serve as the "main tail race to receive all rain water within the levees, increasing in depth and width to People's Avenue; to be •six miles long, with locks at both ends." The upper lock opened into Lake Pontchartrain and was to be used to admit clear water from the lake, while the lower lock was to p572 regulate the outfall into Lake Borgne. It is not clear whether the canal as Jouet sketched it was to be excavated all the way to Lake Borgne, or whether he expected to canalize Bayou Bienvenu; but he speaks of a lock at the far end, where his system terminated at Lake Borgne. He also provided for two drainage machines with a wheel system, having a capacity of •6,000,000 gallons per hour.16 Jouet estimated that his system would cost $2,500,000 to install and could thereafter be maintained at an annual expenditure of $15,000.
In 1881 another somewhat similar enterprise was launched. In April of that year the New Orleans Drainage & Sewage Company was organized with J. H. Oglesby as president and W. W. Howe as secretary. This corporation negotiated with the city a contract to perform both of these necessary works. An ordinance approving the proposed arrangement was passed by the council on April 14. While this measure was being considered by the mayor, a strong public sentiment developed against any system which contemplated the underground disposal of sewage as the company proposed. A petition was sent to the mayor asking him to veto the ordinance because sewer gas would be produced in the mains which would affect injuriously the health of the community. The soil, argued the petitioners, was of a character to make it impossible to lay the pipes satisfactorily; grease would collect and choke the mains. The mayor, however, signed the ordinance on April 19, stating that in his opinion the proposed works were needed, and as the city was not financially able to undertake them itself, it was necessary to entrust them to private enterprise. The contract with the New Orleans Drainage & Sewage Company called for the construction of what was somewhat vaguely denominated "the system introduced in Memphis, Tennessee," in the preceding year. This, it was understood, had been devised by George B. Waring, who was also to supervise the work in New Orleans. What was projected may be inferred from a passage in the contract as reproduced in one of the city newspapers, in which the plan was described as: "To lay drains and sewers not less than •four feet deep, house connections not less than •two feet deep, watertight for sewage, but not so for drainage, which is intended to pass off as before in gutters and canals, [. . .] porous undersoil pipes to subsurface drainage; sewage to terminate at a point to be agreed upon in a receptacle or receptacles, so as to give same facilities as if they discharged into a natural low outlet, to be pumped into the river. The subsoil water to be pumped into canals at the option of the company. All city buildings to discharge sewage without charge."17 It was the intention that operations should begin in the area bounded by Louisiana Avenue, Enghien Street, Rampart, Carondelet and the river. One-fifth of the work was to be completed each year until the whole was finished, and then the system was to be extended at the same rate to the other parts of the city. The city bound itself not to adopt any other project for twenty-five years, but after twenty years it was to enjoy the right of purchase. As in the case of the Jouet plan, nothing was ever done with this ambitious project.
In 1889 a plan for the drainage was presented to the city council by J. L. Gubernator, which, with some modifications, was later submitted p573 to the Advisory Board appointed in 1893. The general features of his plan was the delivery of the drainage water to Lake Pontchartrain, the improvement of the existing canals, the construction of additional open canals, and the placing of a large number of drainage machines. Similar features marked the plan of S. D. Peters, presented about the same time. He proposed to deliver the water into Lake Borgne through a large main central canal. The drainage received from the different areas of the city was to be pumped into this canal and the canal itself relieved by a pump at its lower end.18
In 1890 the Orleans Levee Board, which, on account of the intimate relation between the problem of drainage and of levee construction, had an interest in the matter, offered a prize of $2,500 for the best plan for the drainage of the city. The only data which it could furnish was a general map of the city. No exact knowledge of its topography, areas, hydrography or other data essential to the formulation of a scientific plan were available. Several plans were submitted, but none of them were of any value, for the reason that they were prepared without any real appreciation of the factors which determined the nature of the problem. The need of such data was, however, fully appreciated. As early as 1888 the State Legislature had been asked to pass an act making the appropriations necessary to pay for the collection of scientific information on these points, but it failed to do so. An effort to raise funds for this purpose by private subscription also failed. It was not till September, 1892, that the first step was taken to this end, so necessary as a preliminary to the formulation of an intelligent and efficient drainage plan. In that month an ordinance was introduced into the city council appropriating $17,500 for the purpose. It met with considerable opposition, chiefly on the supposition that such data had been collected by previous administrations and could be found in the city archives if looked for; but a careful search failed to reveal anything of the kind. The ordinance was finally adopted in February, 1893. Work was inaugurated thereunder in the following July. Except for a brief interruption, due to litigation, in December, 1893, it was pushed continually and brought to a close in January, 1895. This investigation may be regarded as the first step ever taken towards a scientific drainage plan. On the information then gathered all the subsequent drainage work in the city has been predicated.
This work was now to be inaugurated in earnest and to be carried with great and courage to a successful termination. At this time the drainage of the city was substantially effected in conformity with the Bell plan. Briefly, the drainage apparatus in 1895 consisted of a system of open canals which received by small street gutters the water delivered from the higher portions of the city and conveyed it to the drainage machines, which, in their turn, delivered it to Lake Pontchartrain. The drainage machines were four in number, and were located in the bottom of the basin between the river and the Metairie and Gentilly ridges, excepting the London Avenue drainage machine, which was located on Gentilly Ridge. These machines were equipped with under shot wheels operated backwards and had a capacity of from •150 cubic feet per second, as in the case of the Melpomene drainage machine, p574 to •450 cubic feet per second at the Dublin Avenue machine. The area of the city was divided into three drainable areas by the two navigation canals. The actual area drained, however, extended only from the river to the Metairie and Gentilly ridges, and even in this district there was a considerable region which was without drainage. The Fifth Municipal District, commonly known as Algiers, lay without the drainage area entirely. In other words, on the left bank of the river the drainable area covered •13,357 acres, of which much was very imperfectly served, while on the right bank of the river an area of •about 10,000 acres had no drainage facilities whatever. The drainage machines were primitive in type, and the machinery, after nearly forty years of age, was in need of renewal. Neither canals nor machines had capacity to deliver the drainage water to the outfalls with sufficient rapidity to prevent the inundation of large areas whenever an excessive rain fell. The topographical and hydrographic survey showed, as a matter of fact, that they were capable, when working at their maximum capacity, of removing only •about 12⁄ inch of rainfall per hour. This, in comparison with the precipitation in such storms as that of August 13, 1884, was wholly inadequate. The water left by that storm remained on a large part of the city territory for seventy-two hours before the existing machinery, working at its full capacity, was able to remove it.19
The next step in the working out of what was justly called "a unique and intricate problem, unparalleled in this country or in Europe," was taken in November, 1893, when the city council adopted an ordinance authorizing the appointment of an Advisory Board on Drainage.20 This board was promptly appointed. It consisted of the mayor, ex‑officio; R. M. Walmsley, J. C. Denis, A. Baldwin, B. M. Harrod, H. B. Richardson and Rudolph Hering. The last named three members were engineers, and constituted the Engineering Committee.21 The ordinance authorizing the board also set aside the sum of $700,000 received from the sale of the franchises of the New Orleans City & Lake Railroad for the purposes of drainage. The board first occupied itself with the collection of data, and in conjunction with the city engineer, L. W. Brown, was able to prepare a great topographical map, showing all the conditions which had to be met in planning an adequate drainage system. Meanwhile observations as to rainfall were made which established the interesting fact that the average annual precipitation was •53 inches, mainly due to small showers, although a precipitation up to •6 inches per hour during a few minutes and one of •7 inches was known. At the end of two years of labor the Advisory Board formulated a plan of drainage which, with minor modifications, suggested as the work developed, became the basis upon which the whole vast work was carried to a completion.22
In July, 1896, the State Legislature passed an act creating a Drainage Commission for New Orleans and investing this body with exclusive control both of the construction and operation of the proposed system. The act also made provision for the financing of the enterprise.23 The p575 commission organized in October of that year, with R. M. Walmsley as president. The other members were Otto Thoman, Manual Abascal, Louis Cucullu, A. Brittin, C. F. Claiborne, Paul Capdevielle, J. C. Morris, and W. C. Flower. Major B. M. Harrod was made chief engineer and F. G. Freret was elected secretary. In August, 1897, a group of contracts was let for the construction of pumping stations, electric power stations, machinery, and for a considerable amount of canal work. These contracts inaugurated the active constructive period. Together with other similar contracts concluded during the next two years, they resulted in the building of so much of the contemplated system that in 1900 it became possible to abandon the whole previously existing drainage machinery and to put into operation the new one, with immediate and conspicuous benefit to the city, not only insofar as the drainage was concerned, but also with regard to sanitary conditions, the improvement being seen at once in the mortality .24
As now in existence the drainage system of New Orleans consists of a main canal extending along Broad Street, which lies at the lowest point in the city, about midway between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. Into this canal the drainage of the area between the river and Broad Street flow by gravity through a system of sub-canals, which canals are, in their turn, fed by open gutters in the older parts of the city, and by sub-surface drain-pipes in the newly paved streets. The main canal receives all the water from the daily flow, and from storms of moderate intensity only. The natural slope of the ground is such that there is a fall from the river front back to Broad Street of •from 12 to 18 feet; thus the canals are graded and the water flows through them at a velocity sufficiently high to prevent the accumulation of deposits. Not only does this slope suffice to insure the delivery of the water at the pumping stations, but it thus makes the canal self-cleaning. The main canal, however, runs through what is practically level territory. It extends from the upper to the lower part of the city, a distance of •about ten miles. To give it a sufficient slope from one extremity to the other would require excavations progressively deeper, so that at the lower end the work would be impracticable. To overcome the difficulty five pumping stations have been built along the canal, at intervals of •approximately two miles, thus dividing it into nearly equal sections. The function of each pumping station is to lift the water from the section below to the section above, and thus create a "head" great enough to cause it to flow rapidly along to the next pumping station. Upon reaching the fifth pumping station, the water is discharged by pumps into the main outfall, which leads into Bayou Bienvenu and thus ultimately into Lake Borgne.
The drainage from the section of the city lying between Broad Street and Lake Pontchartrain presents a separate and rather complicated problem. It was at first thought that it could flow by gravity into the main canal. Experience, however, showed that this could not be done satisfactorily under local conditions. The system was then arranged so that the whole area drains to pumping stations 6, 7 and 3, located, respectively, at the upper protection levee, back of Ridge, at Orleans Street and Taylor Avenue, and at Broadway and Marigny streets. For the present the drainage going to the two first-named stations flows p576 thence into Lake Pontchartrain. Eventually it is intended to cut a dry weather and small storm flow intercepting canal across town from Station 6 to Station 7 and on to Station 3, at which station its discharge will join the main canal in Broad Street, and will thence be carried on to Station 5 and up to Lake Borgne.
The main canal could only at immense cost be made large and deep enough to handle all the water from the heavy storms which at intervals discharge upon the area of the city immense volumes of water. It has therefore been deemed economical to provide a supplementary system of outfalls leading into Lake Pontchartrain. Three of these have been constructed, but the fourth will not be opened until the necessity arises through the extension of the occupied regions of the city.25 The objection to discharging all the drainage water into Lake Pontchartrain is based upon the pollution of its waters which in that event would result from the daily flow of sewage water mixed with the drainage. But that objection does not lie in regard to storm water, when, after the first street and gutter washings have been sent down the main canal to Lake Borgne, the residue of comparatively clean water, flowing for only a few hours at a time into Lake Pontchartrain, produces no bad effects. The fully drained and developed area of New Orleans comprehends about •40 square miles and will within a short time contain •over 1,100 miles of streets. This area includes •24 square miles in which about 95 per cent of the population at present resides on •about 600 miles of streets which are, at this time, supplied with water and sewage facilities. The city limits embrace much larger areas on both sides of the Mississippi. Of the 40 miles referred to, all but •two miles are found between the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain, the distance between river and lake varying •from five to seven miles. Along the river lies a ridge of land •from eight to fourteen feet above same level. The levees which have been erected upon this elevation bring its total height up to •about 21 feet above sea level. Except for a narrow ridge •about five feet high which runs parallel with Lake Pontchartrain about two miles from the shore, the remainder of the city is level, and much of it some inches below sea level. During the prevalence of high winds the water in Lake Pontchartrain may be backed up for five to six feet above mean sea level. It is necessary, therefore, to maintain a levee along the lake shore to prevent the city from being inundated from that direction. It is obvious that with the heavy precipitation which occurs in New Orleans at times — the maximum having occurred October 29, 1918, when •3.25 inches of rain fell in one hour — sometimes amounting to •nine inches in twelve hours, an extensive system of drainage is required to keep the water from accumulating in the streets, especially in the lower areas. The removal of nine inches of rain involves the disposal of •over 5,000,000,000 gallons of water. Six self-registering gauges are maintained to determine the rainfall. The precise time and rate of precipitation is registered. These records furnish a picture of the large area subject to drainage. Intensity and direction of storms are indicated as well as the area which receive the major part of the precipitation. These records are submitted daily to the engineering office of the drainage board for plotting and tabulation. The pumping system connected with the drainage plant consists of six electrically operated pumping stations, containing 30 pumps, the combined average capacity of which is •over 7,000,000,000 gallons per day. The p577 drainage system in the Fifth District (Algiers) is operated along lines similar to that of the city proper, the drainage water being discharged into Bayou Barataria.
At present the system comprises •99.2 miles of canal, of which 46.9 are open and unlined; 8.1 wood lined canals; 32.4 miles masonry lined canals which are covered, and 11.8 miles of circular sewer extensions. Including the subsurface drains the system represents a total of over 400 miles.26
The history of the New Orleans sewerage system lacks all of the picturesque qualities of the drainage history. Prior to the opening of the present century sewerage had been attempted only on a very small scale. The only reliance was a surface sewerage of the most primitive type. In the late '70s one of the principal New Orleans hotels discharged its sewerage into the open gutter in front of its premises regularly at midnight, the watchman on duty in that vicinity being bribed to absent himself while this infraction of the law was committed. In 1880 the management of the St. Charles Hotel constructed a private sewer from their building to the Mississippi. This was the first main ever laid in New Orleans. A little later another main was laid by D. H. Holmes Company. With these mains various establishments in the business part of the city were connected. In 1897 the question of sewerage was suddenly rendered acute by the reappearance in the city of yellow fever. Since 1878 that disease had been kept out by the effective quarantine measures devised by Dr. Joseph Holt, while president of the State Board of Health.b Its return, even in the extraordinarily mild form which it assumed in 1897, was fraught with appalling possibilities. The necessity of adopting every sanitary precaution was obvious. With the need for sewerage went that of water supply. Sewerage and water supply, therefore, became of transcendent importance. But both of these facilities were controlled by private corporations. They owned franchises granted by the City Council. In the case of the sewerage, the franchise dated from 1890, when, as we have seen, the city had made a contract with the New Orleans Drainage & Sewerage Company. In 1892 Doctor Holt was made president of this company, George T. Earl its chief engineer, and Rudolph Hering its consulting engineer. The company had considerable local and other financial backing, and in good faith made careful surveys and plans, awarded contracts, acquired a valuable site for its central pumping station, and purchased large quantities of iron pipe to be used in the main outlet therefrom. It built •nearly five miles of sewers in the central part of the city, including •about one mile of the deepest and most difficult work necessary to be done. This section now forms part of the existing sewerage system. The cost of the work was, however, found to be much in excess of the price at which the contractor had undertaken it. This fact, coupled with much public hostility to a privately owned system, rendered the complete financing of the project extremely difficult. In fact, the contractor finally stopped work, and in 1895 the company went into the hands of a receiver, with attendant litigation with the contractor, and complications as to its franchise rights. The works of the company, its franchise and plans, records, etc., were subsequently purchased by the city practically at cost; careful investigation having p578 previously established their value and usefulness. All of the sewers constructed by this company were incorporated into the existing system. They are still used as vital parts thereof.
The history of the waterworks company has been told elsewhere in this volume.c Under the circumstances the public had no faith in either the sewerage or the water works corporations, and suits were pending for the forfeiture of their franchises. Meanwhile, an energetic campaign was in progress to interest the people in a plan of public ownership of both the water and sewerage systems. On June 6, 1899, the taxpayers of New Orleans voted to adopt an amendment to the State Constitution, levying a two-mill tax upon real estate and requiring that one-half of the surplus arising from the one per cent debt tax should be applied during a period of forty-two years to the development of the sewerage, water and drainage systems. To carry out the will of the taxpayers the State Legislature a little later passed an act creating the Sewerage and Water Board.27 This act took the form of an amendment to the State Constitution. It was ratified at the following general election. The board thus authorized effected an organization in December of that year. It was composed of the previously existing drainage commission, representatives of the Board of Liquidation of the city debt and of the Orleans Levee Board, and seven persons appointed by the mayor of the city to represent the seven municipal districts into which New Orleans is divided. The members were Walter C. Flower, mayor, president ex‑officio; A. Brittin, C. F. Claiborne, and Louis Cucullu, members of the City Council; R. M. Walmsley and J. C. Morris, members of the Board of Liquidation; Otto Thoman, Paul Capdevielle, and Manuel Abascal, members of the Orleans Levee Board; Lewis Johnson, from the First Municipal District; William Adler, from the Second Municipal District; Paul Gelpi, from the Third Municipal District; A. C. Hutchinson, from the Fourth Municipal District; Frank A. Daniels, from the Fifth Municipal District; Charles Janvier, from the Sixth Municipal District; and William Atkinson, from the Seventh Municipal District. Mr. Walmsley was made president pro-tempore of the board. F. S. Shields was appointed secretary in 1899, and served with conspicuous ability and devotion to duty till his voluntary retirement in 1920 on account of failing health. Early in 1900 the board selected George T. Earl as its chief engineer and general superintendent and appointed the following advisory board of engineers: Rudolph Hering, G. W. Fuller, B. M. Harrod, T. L. Raymond, L. W. Brown, and A. C. Bell.
In the light of subsequent experience it is impossible to look back to the formation of this board without admiration for the far-sighted and statesmanlike policy which it represented. In fact, in all this part of the history of the sewerage, water and drainage project, the wisdom which characterized every step is remarkable. It will be seen that board as above constituted brought into effective co‑operation all the authorities and all the experience that had any connection with the vast enterprise. The general superintendent was thoroughly acquainted through his work as chief engineer of the New Orleans Sewerage Company with local conditions. He had given years of study to the problem of drainage and sewerage. Rudolph Hering had equal knowledge of the local situation. He was an engineer of international reputation. George W. Fuller had just completed an investigation of the subject of p579 water purification in Louisville and Cincinnati, which was destined to prove epochal in clearing the way for the economical utilization of the muddy waters of the South and West. Major Harrod was a local engineer. He had served as city engineer, had been active in connection with the original advisory drainage board, and had a wide reputation. Thomas L. Raymond had been Harrod's first assistant while chief engineer of the drainage work some years before. L. W. Brown had been city engineer in 1893, and had taken a leading part in formulating the drainage plans and surveys. He had subsequently been connected with the National Constructing Company, which built the first of the main canals and pumping stations. A. C. Bell was city engineer. He had always been interested in the drainage and sewering of the city, and had co‑operated in every project that had been presented with those ends in view.
All the elements represented on the new board worked together with patriotism and harmony. Two serious difficulties, however, were at once distinguished. The money available was insufficient to construct all three systems. The Act Six of 1899 authorized the issuance of only $12,000,000 of four per cent bonds. Out of this total nearly $4,000,000 had to be appropriated to take up the outstanding bonds of the Drainage Commission and to complete its existing contracts. Obviously, the remaining $8,000,000, if immediately expended for sewerage and drainage, would not enable the construction of systems which would serve the entire city, as contemplated in the law. The other difficulty was, the existence of the sewerage company's and the water works company's franchises. Both companies were prepared to bring injunction proceedings if the city undertook to build anything which interfered with what they regarded as their rights, pending the termination of the litigation in progress. The board was authorized to purchase either or both of these franchises. It proceeded in this direction, however, with the utmost caution. In the case of the waterworks company, if its franchise were valid, the cost of acquiring it would be in excess of the plant's physical value for adoption into a new system. In the end it became unnecessary to incur this outlay, inasmuch as the suits for the forfeiture of the charter of the company were decided in favor of the city.
There was only one solution of the financial difficulty. That was to limit the expenditure for construction. This course, by delaying bond issues, tended to save in interest charges a sum which, added to the proceeds of the bonds when ultimately floated, would realize a total sufficient to complete the work contemplated. A whole program was laid on that basis. But it proved possible to put both sewage and water supply into operation in the populated area of the city in 1908. Active work in sewerage construction was therefore not started till 1903, although it might have been started under more favorable auspices in 1901. Similarly, active work on the water system was postponed till 1905, although portions of it might have also been initiated in 1901. But even had both systems been begun in 1901, it is unlikely that they could have been jointly completed and ready for operation in the populated area earlier than 1908. The sewers began to be put in use in 1907 and were fully in use in 1908. The waterworks system was partially available in 1908 and fully so in February, 1909. Both systems have been continuously in operation since that date.
The flat topography of New Orleans made the construction of the sewerage system exceedingly difficult. It was apparent from the beginning p580 that it was necessary either to lay mains at great depth in order to obtain the necessary flow to insure the movement of the sewage through pipes, or, if the pipes were placed just below the surface, then to install an extensive pumping system to move the sewage through them. As finally worked out, it was found that the difficulties anticipated could be finally surmounted by a combination of the two systems. The main collection system has been aptly compared in shape to the letter T, the top of the T lying parallel with the Mississippi, •about one and one-half miles back from the bank. The stem of the T represents the system as projected back into the city. From these two main lines there are sublines which connect with submains and laterals. It is estimated that there are nearly 80,000 premises in New Orleans, and that 75,000 of these are now connected with the system. The actual number of connections is 51,017, but in many cases one connection serves several different houses. The material employed is terra cotta and cast iron pipe in the smaller units; brick and concrete in the larger units. Cast iron pipe is used in the discharge mains from the pumping stations which deliver the sewage under pressure to the river. The velocity of flow in the laterals is •two feet per second, and at the trunk lines is nearly double that speed. The laterals are laid at •from five to nine feet below the surface of the ground. These empty into submains not over •16 feet below ground, and the submains in their turn discharge into mains not over •24 feet deep. Advantage is taken of all existing natural slopes; these are utilized, in effect, as collection areas where the flow from the smaller sewers is brought together. Thus sufficient quantities of sewage are assembled to require larger mains. These mains are laid between such points, a method which permits them to be constructed so as to flatten grades. In this way the sewage is gradually moved by gravity through much of the system; but where there is not sufficient slope to permit of this, intermediate lift pumping stations have been installed. It is thus seen that the sewage passes either by gravity or by the aid of the intermediate lifts to the pumping station, where it is discharged under pressure into the Mississippi at a point below the thickly habited part of the city. The pumping service consists of seven automatic electrically operated low-lift pumping stations designed to perform the functions of intermediate lift; and three high-lift pumping stations for discharging the sewage into the river. Five of the former stations are entirely below ground; two have superstructures above them. The striking feature of the pumps in these stations is that they operate entirely without attendance, and pass the sewage on without screening. In this way a considerable economy of labor is obtained. The raw sewage is screened only upon arrival at the high-lift pump. The screenings are dried and burned at the station. The lines are laid straight between manholes to facilitate cleaning. Automatic flush tanks are located wherever necessary.
The Mississippi affords a safe and convenient means for the ultimate disposal of the city wastes. The estimated cubic flow of the river is •191,000 cubic feet per second, or an average of •500 cubic feet of stream flow per 1,000 inhabitants of New Orleans. This insures a dilution of the sewage of the city far in excess of the standard of •three feet per second recommended by sanitary engineers. This method is known as the "dilution method." No hard-and‑fast standard of permissible stream pollution can be set up, each stream being a law upon itself; but expert p581 opinion is agreed that at New Orleans the margin is exceedingly large. Below the city there are only a few small settlements. There is no reason therefore to fear that the sewage of the city will pollute the water supply of other communities. The only problem is to dispose of the sewage without creating a local nuisance, which is effected by taking advantage of the river current at the shore line, where it sweeps downstream without eddies. The problem raised by the seeping into the sewer pipes of storm water at times of exceptionally heavy rainfall is disposed of by discharging the increased flow into the drainage system at a point near the outskirts of the city. Otherwise the New Orleans sewage system is strictly of the "separate" type — that is, is separate and distinct from the drainage system. At present the daily discharge of the sewage system is •nearly 40,000,000 gallons of which •15,000,000 is estimated to be seepage.
The history of the water supply of New Orleans has been told in detail elsewhere in this volume.d For other than drinking purposes the supply was originally drawn from the Mississippi, and handled by a waterworks company. The report of the Board of Health for 1850 indicates that the supply of drinking water was already inadequate. "It is painful to reflect upon the frequent sufferings of the working classes for the want of an abundance of pure water. Cisterns are at times of drought soon emptied, the means to purchase water hauled from the river to the back parts of the city are soon exhausted, and then no resource remains but an impure well water." The board went on record as believing that the use of this polluted water was responsible in large measure for the cholera of recent years. For many years thereafter the river continued to be a principal source of drinking water. Its purification was left to individual initiative. It was most frequently effected by treating it with alum in large earthenware jars, some of which may be seen today on the lawns and gardens of the city. Later, wooden cisterns were used to collect and store the rain water. In 1892 the entire city depended upon this source of supply.28 The present water system was begun, as stated above, in 1905, and went into use in 1908. When the work was commenced, there were in the city •125 miles of water mains, with about 5,000 connections, but the supply, as already stated, was relied on for uses other than human consumption. The creation of the present system is due to the skill and energy of the same men who are responsible for the sewage and drainage systems.
The source from which New Orleans now takes its drinking water is the Mississippi River. The project was first broached in a report by Mr. Earl in April, 1900. In June the Advisory Board of Engineers took up the matter. It did not seem practicable then to purify the river water to a degree where it would be fit for human use. A year of study and experiment, however, showed that the scheme was entirely possible, and in 1903 a plan was worked out for the installation of a modern system. The principal obstacle which had to be overcome at this stage of the work was the prejudice against the river water, arising from the idea that it was contaminated by the sewage of the cities in the upper Mississippi Valley, all of which is discharged into the Mississippi. But an exhaustive series of tests showed that the raw water at New Orleans was free of all p582 pollution, so far as it is possible for human senses to detect it. The nearest cities above New Orleans which discharge sewage into the river are Vicksburg, Alexandria, Baton Rouge and Natchez, the nearest being •135 miles away; the farthest, •554 miles. It was ascertained that the sewage from these places underwent a dilution nearly 1,500 times greater than required by the ideal engineering standard — •three cubic feet of flow to every 1,000 inhabitants. An additional factor of safety is found in the fact that this highly dilute sewage travels over a hundred miles before it reaches New Orleans, thus affording ample opportunities for self-purification. Moreover, in designing her own system of sewage, New Orleans was careful to avoid the possibility of contaminating her own water supply.e The intake in the upper part of the city (at Eagle Street, in the Seventh District) is situated •ten miles away from the point where the city sewage is discharged into the river, at the foot of Spain Street.
The other difficulty which had to be surmounted was mechanical. The turbidity of the Mississippi water is due to large amounts of suspended mud. This sediment amounts to •nearly a ton in every 1,000,000 gallons of water. An efficient system would have to provide means to eliminate economically this suspended matter. This was ultimately effected by adding a coagulant to the water before passing it through a layer of sand. At the Eagle Street plant the water is drawn from the river through an intake pipe, from which low-lift pumps take it into the head house, which is the controlling center of the reservoir system. The water then passes into one of a series of grit reservoirs, where the gross particles of mud settle by gravity. After this preliminary sedimentation the water returns to the head-house, and is discharged thence into a lime-mixing reservoir. As it passes along the baffles of the reservoir, sulphate of iron is added. This, in combination with the lime, serves as a coagulant. This softened, prepared water passes back through the head house into the coagulating reservoir, where it remains until the mud in suspension is precipitated. It is then ready for filtration. Again it passes through the head house, and then goes on to mechanical type filters. After having passed through the filters it is received in the clear water, or equalizing, reservoirs which connect with the clear water well. Here a battery of high-lift pumps discharge the water into the distribution main.
The reservoir system consists of eight reinforced concrete reservoirs grouped around the head house. These include two grit reservoirs, with a combined capacity of •6,560,000 gallons; two lime mixing reservoirs with a capacity of •5,660,000 gallons; four coagulating reservoirs, the total capacity of which is •30,000,000 gallons; and ten concrete filters of the mechanical type. Each filter covers an area of •1,431 square feet, and has a daily capacity of •6,000,000 gallons. The sand used in these filters is brought from the Gulf of Mexico. It is taken from the bed of the sea •five miles from shore, in order to guarantee its purity. Beneath the filters are concrete equalizing reservoirs with a total capacity of •750,000 gallons. The clear water reservoir is used to store water against emergencies. It is built of concrete and covered, and has a capacity of •15,000,000. The entire plant at Eagle Street covers •70 acres. It is located •4,000 feet back from the river. It is thus safe from any possible pollution from the shipping, which does not lie at the river bank in this part of the city.
p583 The distribution system consists of four low-lift pumps with a combined daily capacity of •140,000,000 gallons, and four high-lift pumps, with a combined daily capacity of •93,000,000. At present the consumption of water per day in New Orleans is •33,000,000. There can be no question of the adequacy of the installation for many years to come.
The water supply of the Fifth District (Algiers) is entirely independent of that on the other side of the Mississippi. The principal plant is a miniature of the Eagle Street plant. The supply is taken from the Mississippi. The character of the Mississippi River bed makes it impossible to pipe across to Algiers. It is for this reason, among others, that a separate drainage and sewage system had also to be installed there.
The organization of the drainage, sewage and water systems, under the general board and the general superintendent, is distinct for each branch of the service. The drainage work is divided into canal system and the pumping service. An efficient engineer is at the head of each department. The sewage system is arranged also in two general departments — a construction and a maintenance department. There is also a plumbing inspection department. These are each headed by competent and highly trained men. The water supply consists of the purification department and the maintenance departments.
The desirability of consolidating the work on sewerage, water and drainage under one control was obvious, if for no other reason than to avoid the repeated disturbance of the city streets. Therefore, in 1903, steps were taken to merge the Drainage Board with the Sewerage and Water Board. The effect was, not only to increase the general efficiency of the whole enterprise, but to curtail the size of the directing body. By eliminating the members from the Orleans Levee Board, the membership of the board was reduced from sixteen to thirteen. Thereafter all three systems were harmoniously developed under Mr. Earl's superintendency. It was not found necessary to dispense with any of the experienced men in the drainage department, inasmuch as the work there slackened, that in the other departments increased, and they were transferred thither as the need appeared.
In conclusion a word may be said regarding the recent financial history of the board. The drainage, sewerage and water systems as far as completed in 1908 proved of immense utility, but still left much to be desired in the way of increased facilities. To maintain the service at its then standard strained the resources of the board. It was clear that, to perfect the three systems over the whole populated area, the issuance of new bonds could not be avoided. The two mill tax and the one-half surplus of the one per cent debt tax yielded a total sufficient to justify a bond issue up to $8,000,000. The general superintendent and the secretary recommended this course as early as 1894. In 1906, at the request of the board, the Legislature passed an act authorizing the new bond issue.29 There was great difficulty in placing these bonds.30 Additional legislation had to be procured before they were sold. It was not until May, 1911, that the sale was finally effected. But with the proceeds of this bond issue the board was enabled at length to prosecute its work. Without repeating the detail of these recent operations, it may be said that up to the end of the year 1920 the amount expended by the Drainage Commission, p584 and by its successor, the present Sewerage, Water and Drainage Board, for the construction of the three systems, has been over $30,000,000. Of that sum $20,000,000 has been derived from outstanding four per cent bonds. The remainder was, for the most part, an accumulated surplus yielded by the two-mill tax and the one-half surplus of the debt tax. At the present time 97 per cent of the premises of the city are served by the waterworks system, and 95 per cent by the sewers. It seems likely that the present revenues of the board will suffice to maintain the systems at this capacity, as well as to meet interest charges and provide sinking funds. A hundred per cent service, however, will not be possible as long as five per cent of the population continues to reside in homes scattered over a vast area, isolated in such a manner that the extension of the sewers and water mains to them can be accomplished only at prohibitive costs.31
1 Martin's "Louisiana," Condon's "Annals," 438.
2 Report on the Drainage of the City of New Orleans by the Advisory Board, 1895, p47.
3 Act 179 of 1859; Act 57 of 1861.
4 Ibid., 48. The statement that Act 165 of 1858 divided the city into four drainage districts is erroneous.
5 Statement of J. D. Hill to author.
6 Ordinance No. 1148, N. S.
7 Report on the Drainage of the City of New Orleans, 1895, p48.
8 Act 30 of 1871.
9 Statement of J. D. Hill to author.
10 See letter from A. C. Bell in Times-Democrat, December 31, 1894.
11 Picayune, April 8, 1881.
12 Charles Louque, in Picayune, January 28, 1895.
13 Act 16 of 1876.
14 Ordinance No. 3448, passed April 5, 1876.
15 See Ordinance 3539 of May 29, 1876, which directs the purchase and transfer before G. LeGardeur, N. P. The act of transfer was executed June 7, 1876. See the Picayune, April 8, 1881, where these details are set forth.
16 Times-Democrat, July 18, 1880.
17 Picayune, April 14, 1881.
19 Ibid., 51.
20 Ordinance 8327, C. S., adopted November 24, 1893.
21 Report on the Drainage, etc., letter of transmittal, p. ix.
22 Eighteenth Semi-Annual Report of the Sewage and Water Board, December 31, 1908, pp56‑60.
23 Act 14 of 1896.
24 Eighteenth Semi-Annual Report Sewage, Water and Drainage Board, 61.
25 Eighteenth Annual Report Sewage and Drainage Board, 59.
26 Dodd, "Report on the Health and Sanitary Survey of the City of New Orleans, 1918‑1919," 108‑111.
27 Act 6 of 1899.
28 Dodd, "Report on the Health and Sanitary Survey of the City of New Orleans," 94.
29 Act 19 of 1906.
30 Item, May 30, 1914.
31 Statement of George T. Earl to author. I am indebted to Mr. Earl for a very careful revision of this chapter.
a That the city of Baltimore should be mentioned here may seem strange; but that municipality actually owned a large parcel of land in New Orleans, in and around what is now City Park bequeathed to it by John McDonogh (see Chapter 42).
e Such a precaution seems obvious, but much more recently at least one other American city failed to take it: in 1993, Milwaukee suffered 104 deaths in an epidemic that is estimated to have sickened 400,000 people; the cause was traced to a sewage outlet too close to a water intake.
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