Building the city’s sewer system was an ambitious, dangerous undertaking

Updated: December 16, 2014 - 2:19 pm

While contemporary Minneapolitans take safe drinking water and flushing toilets for granted, denizens of the Mill City were not so fortunate in the late 19th century. In these years, Minneapolis joined cities around the world in grappling with the consequences of unprecedented urbanization. One of the most pressing challenges of this new human density was the question of waste. Cities had to figure out what to do with their often overwhelming supply of excrement. 

The answer to this problem: sewers.

City dwellers today cannot imagine life without this underground network of tunnels. But this infrastructure did not just appear. It had to be built. Its construction was expensive and dangerous. And it was watched with great anticipation by everyone in the city.

At the end of the 19th century, the local press regularly printed summaries of new sewer networks, often on the front page. In 1888, the Daily Globe sent a journalist on a “trip through the big hole” to report on the “sight and scenes” of the “great sewer tunnel which will drain North Minneapolis.”

The tunnels themselves were often over a 100 feet underground. They were dug initially with pick-axes, and then with pneumatic drills as the century progressed. Sewer workers “clad in rubber and each with a lantern,” would toil in these subterranean spaces to complete the “difficult, dangerous, and tedious piece of work.”

In 1887, a sewer crew excavating underneath downtown Minneapolis accidently tunneled into a natural cave. According to the Daily Globe, this caused a “great mass of debris” to come “crash[ing] down into the tunnel.” No one was hurt in the collapse, but workers were not always so lucky. Alex Peterson, the “blasting boss” for the Minnehaha tunnel, was seriously injured in a cave-in on Aug. 5, 1922. That same year, a sewer worker named Fred Gardner died in a different collapse in the Garfield Street tunnel in Northeast Minneapolis.

The tunnels were dangerous and expensive to construct but the city had no choice but to expand its sewer system year by year. The community was enduring recurring epidemics of typhoid, a water-borne illness that spread when sewage and drinking water intermingled. According to the Annual Report of the Board of Health, 1897 alone saw 1,534 reported cases and 148 deaths.

In April 1921, work was launched on the Minnehaha sewer tunnel, one of the largest public projects in the city’s history. A group of 500 residents gathered to help celebrate the ground breaking with festivities organized by the Minnehaha-Nokomis Improvement Association. The Longfellow community orchestra and the Minnehaha school glee club performed.

Over the next decade, the project would employ hundreds of workers — earning $1.50 an hour — to dig, chip, and explode their way through miles of solid sandstone. These images, which is from the Tower Archives in Minneapolis City Hall, document these subterranean labors. 

The completed line ran from Minnehaha Parkway to East 52nd street before veering west and exiting into the river. There was one major problem with this ambitious effort. While the tunnel flushed sewage away from the homes of South Minneapolis, it drained straight into the Mississippi River, which was also the source for the city’s drinking water. This created a health hazard that was only remedied by a waste water plant constructed by the Works Progress Administration in 1938. Today these sewage outfalls into the Mississippi River have been converted into storm drains.

These images are from the archives of the City of Minneapolis. Thanks to Bob McCune and Josh Schaffer of the City of Minneapolis Records Department for assisting us with these materials.

The Historyapolis Project seeks to bring fresh attention to the history of Minneapolis and is working to unearth stories that can explain how the city took shape. During 2014, Delegard is compiling an inventory of historical resources pertinent to Minneapolis with the help of a team of students and citizen-researchers associated with the Historyapolis Lab. For more details visit our website at www.historyapolis.com. This project has been made possible by the Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, which is administered by the Minnesota Historical Society. Find it on FB at www.facebook.com/TheHistoryapolisProject