Flushing away Truckees outhouses took years
Truckees health and sanitary conditions around 1900 were nothing to brag about; in fact poor waste disposal had become such a major health problem that it was causing a multitude of illnesses in the mountain town. It would take several decades but the push to a healthy community would be won by the town leaders.Since its evolution from a stage station in the mid-1860s through 1900, Truckee was a town of outhouses. On one hand, residents wanted the outhouse close to the warm house for winter trips, but that close proximity had drawbacks in summer that included a presence of disease-spreading flies, and the horrible odor.As early as 1875, a suggestion was made to install sanitary sewers, but nothing came of it. In 1886, the first crude sewer systems were built. James Sherritt, owner of the Sherritt House at Front and Bridge Streets, and Stewart McKay, owner of the Truckee Hotel across the tracks, each installed their own crude open wooden flume sewers.While it carried sewage away, these sluice boxes spread disease on the way and dumped the sewage directly into the Truckee River. This system only appears to have been used a short time, then abandoned.As 1903 arrived, sickness in Truckee increased. Scarlet fever, smallpox, diphtheria, typhoid fever, influenza, and unidentified illness were of increasing concern. Local physician and Nevada County Health Officer, Dr. G. Waldo Bryant, declared a health emergency. Bryant issued an order requiring residents to clean all refuse and offal, and sanitize outhouses or face prosecution.The order also prohibited the dumping of garbage on public or private property in town. While this policy caused much grumbling, the citizens complied and made some progress toward a healthier town.
It took an editorial by the Truckee Republican newspaper in August 1904 to get the attention of the leading citizens that the danger was real and the solution had to be found or residents would further risk more illnesses and deaths.By early September 1904, a meeting had been held and support for construction of a sewage system was found to be very favorable, including that of Truckee saloon owner and Nevada County Supervisor John Fay. One of the political problems that had hampered Truckee for decades would need to be resolved, and that was Truckee had no government body to take on such a public utility task.Instead a committee of leading businessmen got together, and formed the Truckee Sewer Committee. They quickly found a site east of the rail yards for a cesspool, leased it for free from the Sierra Nevada Wood and Lumber Company of Hobart Mills, and started raising funds from potential users. Money was quick to flow, and by October enough had been raised so that the sewer committee authorized John Sherritt to start buying materials for immediate construction.Down the Truckee River, Reno newspapers realized that Truckee was serious about installing a sewer system that might threaten their drinking water, and set up a howl of protest. The Republican responded by reassuring Reno that Truckee would not foul its downstream neighbors drinking water, as Reno was then doing, by dumping untreated sewage into the river.Undaunted, the committee, led by President Warren Richardson, proceeded by collecting more money and signing up more users all winter. In June of 1904, construction started on a 3,500-foot-long sewer line from the cesspool site up Church Street to Front Street. It was estimated that it would cost $1.50 per building frontage, and most commercial building owners had signed up.Construction superintendent John Fay was able to get most of the work done during 1904, but there were difficulties. As expected, rock the size of houses had to be blasted, and smaller ones proved just as tough.When the construction of a cesspool near the river was nearly complete, the local downstream ice companies threatened to sue, and the hole was filled in. A new cesspool site acceptable to all was chosen and the work done over.In May 1905, the Sewer Committee filed a report that listed all funds raised and spent. It revealed that 2,450 feet of pipe had been laid up Church Street as far as the schoolhouse, but all the money raised had been spent. The cesspool had been dug, but not completed. Pipe was on hand to finish the job, but there wasnt enough money left to pay the bill to Gladding McBean for the clay pipe.Members of the committee had chipped in funds of their own, begged and borrowed, but needed more money to finish the system. There were several business owners that wouldnt pay what they had subscribed until service was on line, and a few others who wouldnt participate at all. This led to a collapse of the Sewer Committee efforts at a community sewer system.Meanwhile, more cases of typhoid pneumonia and scarlet fever were being directly linked to the pollution of Trout Creek flowing through town.
In November of 1905, the former committee members and others met at the Moody & Rutherford law offices, and drew up a petition to hold an election to form a new government agency for the construction and operation of a sewer system for Truckee.The Republican boosted this new effort, reminding those who might vote no, that the ground is now so thoroughly saturated with impurities that it is bound to make the environments of the community foul and dangerous.All through the first months of 1906, the campaign to create the Truckee Sanitary District was waged within the town. Though it was never in much doubt, the vote on April 2, 1906, was 60-to-17 in favor of creation of the district. A slate of commissioners were elected.The process was slowed for the rest of 1906 with the creation of assessment rolls, the hiring of George Lewison as assessor and tax collector, the hiring of surveyor Ed Uren to lay out the district boundaries and the proposed sewer lines. Once that process was complete, then the challenge of selling bonds started. Until then, the district had little funding with which to work.By April of 1907, the surveyors report was in with estimates for the tax base, the cost of construction, and the expected operating fund requirements. Another election was held in late May of 1907, with the bonds easily passing by a 115 to 30 majority. It looked like the solution to Truckees health problems could really begin.Another few months dragged by while the bond election was approved by the Nevada County courts, the law firm of McGlashan & McGlashan hired to prepare and advertise the bonds for bids, and the other legal formalities. Engineering of the cesspool had to be updated as well, due to a new state law prohibiting any sewage disposal directly into any California river.When the time came in September 1907 for the bond sale there were no bidders. Another winter the wastes of Truckee remained untreated and spread more disease. The Truckee Hospital opened in March of 1907 to deal with the illnesses and related required operations. The number of appendectomies and stomach surgeries had risen dramatically in direct proportion to the increase in pollution.Finally in the spring of 1908, the League of California Municipalities sponsored the bond funding, solving the districts financial woes. With the money in hand, construction actually began in August when contractor C.D. Vincent of Oakland started work. It consisted of two sumps to the east, one on either side of the tracks, and over 17,000 feet of clay pipe. Even then it served just over half of the town. The old system from 1904 was included in the new system, though most of it had to be re-installed at the correct grade.The construction was nearly complete by November of 1908 the biggest issue being the removal of the large rocks known as dornicks, uncovered in the excavation. By July of 1909, more than 110 buildings had been hooked up to the new sewer system. A few outhouses persisted for another year, but the health of Truckee was dramatically improved by the new flush system. After over 20 years of trying to solve the problem, Truckee had organized itself and accomplished a life-saving project.Now over 100 years old the Truckee Sanitary District continues it mission of maintaining a healthy community.Gordon Richards is the historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. Past articles by Gordon Richards are available at sierrasun.com in the archives. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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