Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Don't Drink the Water

The biggest health hazard in Madison, Ind., in the late 1800s and early 1900s was probably not a particular disease. It was the town’s water supply.

Many towns on the Ohio River faced the issue of a water supply that was increasingly polluted. Nor did towns need to be on the river to have problems. The state board of health tested three private supplies in Kent in 1899. None of the water was considered suitable for drinking.

But Madison had special problems that stemmed from the attempt to come up with cleaner water.

A 1901 report by the state board of health noted the town’s sewers, which served a small part of the city, as follows: “All the sewage goes direct to the river, there being eleven outlets along the river front. From one to seven feet of clay cover the gravel strata and many cesspools drain into it.”

The problem was the sewage wasn’t treated, and obviously that applied to the cesspools as well. The same reported said that, “Night soil is collected by licensed men and is dumped into the river opposite the town.”

Despite the city’s efforts, the situation actually got worse In1908, six wells were sunk in the bed of the Ohio River and the water was taken from these wells which were six feet below the river bed, under a layer of sand and gravel. The theory was the water would be filtered by the beds of sediment.

However, the system didn’t work. When the river was low, water had to be pumped directly from the river into the water mains. And at some point, water from the river broke through the sand bed and fed directly into the wells. The result is easy to imagine.

A report by the state board of health for 1909 noted, “There are times when this water is of good quality, but at other times it is entirely unsatisfactory. Twenty-one private supplies have been examined, five of which were of good quality, one was doubtful and fifteen were bad.”

A 1911 report repeated the finding:: “The tap water of the Madison city supply is wholly unsuitable for drinking and domestic purposes in its present condition.” In 1914, tests found the water “seriously polluted and unfit for drinking purposes.” It noted Madison had a “splendid supply” of water available through driven wells which could be place in the river bottom or on its banks. And the latter course would be the eventual solution.

No comments: