Parisian sewage and potable water, part two

Touring Paris was a fantastic journey filled with museums and major points of interest. I'd read about the sewers of Paris and felt obligated to visit this oft-overlooked museum. I started discussing Paris' sewage and potable water supply in the January issue (pg. 26). Lois was not exactly thrilled with the idea of touring a subterranean vault where we were likely to encounter a river of sewage, but

Touring Paris was a fantastic journey filled with museums and major points of interest. I'd read about the sewers of Paris and felt obligated to visit this oft-overlooked museum. I started discussing Paris' sewage and potable water supply in the January issue (pg. 26). Lois was not exactly thrilled with the idea of touring a subterranean vault where we were likely to encounter a river of sewage, but after all the art galleries and above-grade museums we'd seen, she owed me at least one of my choosing!

The entrance is unassuming and you immediately descend a steep stairway to a hallway filled with exhibits, which include photographs of finely attired Parisians floating along a serene river — of poop! It's at once comical and astounding to see what was obviously a group of refined ladies and gents seated at tables — afloat on a boat in a moat of effluent.

Next up were glass-enclosed scenes of sewer men at work, complete with stuffed sewer rats! You quickly come to understand that sewer men are quite well respected. If you drop a valuable — keys, wallet, jewelry, etc. — down a sewer grate in Paris, a phone call brings sewer men to your rescue, and their reputation for assisting folks in distress is remarkable.

Exiting the first, rather small tunnel leads you to a central "hall" where a well-lit exhibit displays a time line of the historical development of the Paris sewer system. In order to view the double-sided ceiling-suspended storyboards, you must leave the relative comfort of the concrete sidewalks and venture out over a river of sewage while walking over metal grates. As you read the sewers' history and gaze upon historical figures responsible for development, such as Napoleon Bonaparte, your peripheral vision picks up the rapid flow beneath your feet.

Water-borne diseases often killed thousands.

The sewage tunnels were built so that "a man can walk upright" through them. They are sort of egg-shaped with the wider portion toward the top. As a result, you'll find that virtually all utilities are run through these convenient conduits. Two separate water systems run here: potable for drinking and water from the River Seine for washing sidewalks. Evidently this is where all of those cigarette butts come to die as well. At the center of the exhibit halls, several sewers come together and form a large whirlpool where objects that float (such as butts, plastic bottles, balls, etc.) congregate while spinning a whirling dervish dance until retrieved by sewer men wielding a screened pole.

But there's more than just sewage history here. Water carriers, or water men, worked in Paris from the early 1300s until 1910. As with any major city where large numbers of people began to settle, water and sewage were linked directly to quality-of-life issues and so intertwined that it's hard to look at the history of one without the other. The major source of drinking water for Parisians was the Seine, which runs through the center of Paris.

The river became the center of commerce and a much-desired spot for businesses, residences and social activities. Waste by-products were casually disposed of by dumping them into the Seine. Many buildings were built to overhang the banks for dumping restaurant scraps or chemicals used in tanning, for bathing facilities and for 2,000 spots on well-used laundry barges! Water men needed access, too, and their customers were limited, at one time by law, to 2.5-liters (0.66-gal.) of "drinking" water per day.

In the 1300s, a rather brisk business of collecting the contents of chamber pots was done at night. The work was conducted by rather unsavory characters who were quite mysterious as they were seldom seen. Unscrupulous fellows would allow their horse-drawn vessels to leak so that they could service more customers along their routes that were supposed to lead them to central dumping areas. Shortcuts included dumping sewage directly into the Seine. Forget to pay your chamber pot collector — or worse yet, fail to tip him — and you could find your home smeared with the contents of their load!

Water-borne diseases often killed thousands. In 1348, 800 people a day were dying from typhoid and cholera. In 1832, 3,500 Parisians died in one week! Following each horrific outbreak, attempts were made to upgrade sanitation.

Cesspools were mandated at one point but were awful to maintain and clean. Cesspool men earned a well-deserved unsavory reputation and many died after entering cesspools. Early sewers consisted of trenches dug in the center of streets. It was common practice to simply fling the contents of a chamber pot onto the street below while letting the rain wash away the filth. During heavy rains, enterprising fellows would lay planks across these sewage ditches and charge a small fee for crossing! Early attempts at covered sewer tunnels led to many deaths when attempts were made to clean blockages, which developed with maddening frequency.

The tour boats we'd seen in the photos in that first tunnel performed a valuable service: Their stern held a board contoured to divert the effluent's flow forcefully along the drain's perimeter, thereby scouring it and whisking along solids, such as sand, with the current. The Seine presented a challenge for drainage as sewage lines had to dip below the river bottom to rise and rejoin sewers on the other side.

An ingenious cleaning method was developed. Huge wooden balls that were only slightly smaller in diameter than the drain line itself were lowered into the sewer, held back against the flow by sturdy chains. The raging effluent ripping past the balls forcefully created turbulent flow that caused all solids to become suspended and move along.

I wish our U.S. sewers had been constructed in a similar manner with displays of their history for all to see. Without this much-needed sanitary conveyance of waste products, our life expectancy would be greatly diminished. Modern sanitary plumbing has saved more lives in the past 100 years than all the advances in medicine in history! Live long and prosper — you are protecting the health of the nation.

Dave Yates owns F.W. Behler, a contracting company in York, Pa. He can be reached by phone at 717/843-4920 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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