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Bill Thayer

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A Wonderful Drainage System

(an article in Collier's Weekly, Vol. XXVII No. 23, September 7, 1901)​a

[image ALT: missingALT. It is an old mansion in New Orleans.]

The details are worth seeing:
the six photos in this montage are further reproduced below (on bistre-colored backgrounds).

New Orleans is building the largest, costliest and most elaborate drainage and sewerage system in the world. The first section has just been completed, and the Crescent City is delighted with the progress of a work that will mean much in favor of public health and comfort. The total cost of this comparatively gigantic undertaking will be twenty million dollars. Of this amount, twelve and a half millions in bonds were sold last December. Security for this bond issue is in aº special tax of two mills on all taxable property for forty years. The citizens agreed to this tax by a vote that lacked only four hundred of being unanimous. Contracts involving four millions of dollars have already been awarded.

[image ALT: missingALT. It is an old mansion in New Orleans.]

The old basin — one of the unlined canals

[image ALT: missingALT. It is an old mansion in New Orleans.]

Suction Pipes

Six years more will be required to complete the task. At the end of that time New Orleans will be like an opium joint robbed of its pipe. In other words, the city will be without that receptacle of obnoxious odors, the gutter. This gutter, at present, is a ditch which fails in its purpose of carrying water. It gives up the water with such reluctance that, on the outskirts of the city, a green scum accumulates and is a menace to public health.

[image ALT: missingALT. It is an old mansion in New Orleans.]

Digging the canal

From the Mississippi the land slopes into Broad Street, but so gradually that the soft earth would absorb any amount of water before it would drain. Broad Street is also two feet below the normal level of Lake Pontchartrain. But the principal obstacles to effective drainage are these three: The rainfall in New Orleans reaches the phenomenal maximum of six inches per day; the surface of the city is practically one level; and the soil is silt. All these are difficulties which other cities are not obliged to meet. By the present system of drainage, the sewers empty into canals built years ago for the purpose. These canals — very picturesque in appearance, with their rows of oaks on either side — frequently overflow and the city is flooded.

[image ALT: missingALT. It is an old mansion in New Orleans.]

The Drainage station under construction

[image ALT: missingALT. It is an old mansion in New Orleans.]

under Canal Street

By the new system, the drainage will be pumped to a higher level than the city. A network of sub-surface piping will take the place of gutters. This piping will lead to canals under the streets, which will in turn lead into open canals in the rear of the city. To secure fall enough for the canals to carry off the water rapidly, the canals are divided into sections at the end of each of which is a pumping station. Here the water will be raised to a higher level that it may flow on to the next station. Thus sewage will be carried into the Mississippi and water drainage into Lake Pontchartrain. The heart of the city has already been made cleaner and sweeter by doing away with the gutters. The pumping stations and pumps necessary for even this part of the work are the largest in the world, and the main station is yet to be built. Two stations now lift seven hundred and fifty cubic feet ten feet high per second. The main station will lift three thousand cubic feet twenty feet.

[image ALT: missingALT. It is an old mansion in New Orleans.]

Working in Chartres Street

This work, which New Orleans has been putting off for many decades, is the result of the yellow fever epidemic three years ago​b and its consequent awakening of public spirit. Investigation showed that the defensive gutters and an inadequate sewerage system were largely responsible for the spread of the dread disease. The pioneer and prime mover in arousing public interest and developing the scheme that is to save the city millions of dollars now lost in trade as the result of frequent quarantines is Engineer L. W. Brown. He was assisted by the quarantine authorities, and after years of incessant labor, he finally, in 1896, brought about the sale of the first issue of bonds to the amount of one and a half millions of dollars, for the purpose of beginning work on this great masterpiece of municipal engineering.

[image ALT: missingALT. It is an old mansion in New Orleans.]

Laying the corner-stone of the power and pumping station
of the New Orleans drainage system

Thayer's Notes:

a I transcribed the text from the page of an original exemplar of Collier's, much creased and torn, bound in with other New Orleans material in a collection (TD 525.N4N5) at the University of Chicago's John Crerar Library. My transcription has been carefully proofread and is thus presumably errorfree; if, of course, you should find the inevitable error, please let me know.

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b The 1898 epidemic would not be the last: four years after this article, there would be one more, final, terrible epidemic of yellow fever in New Orleans. For a brief collection of eyewitness accounts, see Eleanor McMain's report, Behind the Yellow Fever in Little Palermo.

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Page updated: 1 Jun 17