St. Louis Sewer Explosion Explained
The sewers that run under St. Louis streets go mostly unnoticed, except when things go wrong. These same sewers have had a significant impact on the history of St. Louis. They are responsible for making the city safer and removing waste from homes, businesses, and other places. Last week I mentioned that the Mill Creek Sewer had drained flat land in the city’s heart, allowing for massive railyards to be built, which still divide St. Louis into the north and the south. The history of St. Louis might have been different if it weren’t for the sewer that created the division through the city core.
The Mill Creek Sewer’s “prehistory” begins with the destruction of Chouteau’s Pond. This was created in 1821 by damming Mill Creek. It was blamed for the 1849 cholera outbreak, most likely incorrectly. The pond and creek had been polluted by the dense urban environment. Death records also show that there were more than a few drownings in Chouteau’s Pond. In the early decades of the 19th Century, it was anything but idyllic.
The Civil War was not the first time that documentation of the sewer’s construction began. The 1852 Edward Schultze map shows how Chouteau’s Pond was becoming encircled by development and streets after it was condemned for its role in the cholera epidemic. Its northern border was Clark Street and its eastern border was 8th Street. It followed the natural layout of the land, wandering to the south and west. The sewer and Mill Creek were actually on a course that ran from the pond southeast up to the Mississippi River and then emptied south of Chouteau Avenue.
In the late 1850s, major construction started. The Globe and democrat reported that $20,000 was appropriated for Chouteau Avenue, Mill Creek. On July 12, 1862, the newspaper reported that $15,000 was needed to complete the Mill Creek Sewer. However, construction of the South Mill Creek Sewer District No. 2 continued. 12 (The city’s sewer system was still divided into “trunks”, with smaller lines branching from the main lines, and began on February 18, 1868, after Ordinance No. 249. Charles Gottschalk was once a partner in Bavarian Brewery alongside Eberhard Anheuser. He now worked in public service for St. Louis and organized the creation of the new district between 14th-16th streets. According to a Westliche Post article, Patrick and John Sheehan had just completed a portion of the 10th through 12th streets.
Construction continued with another $25,850. This was reported by the Westliche Post on July 17, 1869. It showed the huge capital expenditures that the city was making to complete the Mill Creek Sewer. Residents and businesses were also inconvenienced by the construction of the sewer. A maze of pipes and conduits ran through the densely populated blocks south of downtown. The Globe Democrat reported that water lines were disconnected for sewer construction at 5th Street on September 10, 1869. Willis R. Pritchard was the superintendent of waterworks and warned residents south of Chouteau Avenue, which included many breweries, that they would be without water. It was a significant infrastructural investment. The Westliche Post reported that 4,333 feet had been completed for $153,265.43. A further $70,151.66 was required to complete the remaining 400 feet. Once the sewer was completed, it continued to work quietly and without any problems.