I sometimes like to think of the vast network of streams and rivers as a wormhole portal of water. The portal is a transportation conduit on the surface of the Earth that moves water from the sky, back to its original birthplace, the ocean. Humans manipulate that transportation portal in all sorts of interesting ways. We dam it up in places, create massive levees and flood walls, harness it for energy, move it around in canals, create billions of miles of underground pipes, aqueducts and pump it to all sorts of weird places. The vast network of stream portals are always flowing, 24/7/365 around the clock. It’s always in motion like some planetary cosmic dance between nature and humans.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
The water portal of streams and rivers are in a constant state of flux, as are we humans. As years, generations and epochs pass by, the water moves from one place to the next. As it moves, we try our best to follow along.
Some of the most mesmerizing images of this planet are time lapse satellite imagery of untouched streams and rivers in remote portions of the planet. Even without our human intervention, the great water portal transporting water from the sky, back to the ocean is in a constant state of turmoil, twisting and turning, flooding and eroding the landscape with each passing day and year. Take a look at this time lapse of the Ucayali River located in the mountains of Peru. Foreshadow warning: we’ll come back to Peru later on in this post.
Landsat Satellite Time Lapse Imagery of the Ucayali River near Pucallpa, Peru
There are some universal truths when it comes to the planet’s stream portals. First, it should be recognized that flooding along and near the portals is imprinted into this planet’s DNA. I think we sometimes lose sight of that fact, and think flooding can somehow be “stopped”. Second, being in close proximity to the stream portal, especially when the sky really opens up, can be very dangerous place to be. Third, water is a powerful force, perhaps the most powerful force on this planet, it literally carves valleys and mountains.
Mapping Pittsburgh’s Lost Historic Stream Portals
If you’ve at all been reading this blog you know how much I love crafting posts around our environmental history and legacy. Pittsburgh’s history is especially amazing given our importance on the world stage in driving the industrial engine of our modern world. Perhaps the era I’m most captivated by is the mid to late 19th century, as America and much of the western world transitioned from an agrarian economy built around small farms to an industrialized economy built around global capitalist corporations. How this shift in work productivity resulted in the mass migration of populations into cities looking for employment, stable income, food and shelter. Population exploded in Pittsburgh, like many other American cities.
One of my absolute favorite things on the internet are the digitized G.M. Hopkins Company historic maps on Historic Pittsburgh’s website.
Screen Capture of Late 1800’s Pittsburgh Historic Maps
The G.M. Hopkins Company was a civil engineering and surveying company in the 19th century that made stunningly beautiful hand drawn real estate plat maps all over the eastern portion of the country. You can buy one on this website for a cool $1000.00. Most of them are locked safely away in city archives, university libraries, or museums. What I love about these maps is not only did G.M. Hopkins Company map real estate boundaries, but they also mapped with incredible detail streams, rivers, lakes, and ponds. Many of which no longer exist due to human interventions.
One rainy Sunday a couple weekends ago, I decided to digitize the locations of all lost historic stream portals drawn on the G.M. Hopkins maps of the City of Pittsburgh. Below are the depressing results of the locations in comparison to what is left today. Here is a link to an interactive GIS map I created if you want zoom in on areas of the City and display the old maps.
Map of Historic 19th Century Pittsburgh Streams
Map of Remaining 21st Century Pittsburgh Streams
What Happened to Pittsburgh’s Historic Stream Portals?
The simple and most straight forward answer is they were put into sewers.
It might be a natural inclination for some reading this to look down upon the people of this era for lacking any sort of environmental consciousness or education. Undoubtedly burying or encapsulating a stream within a sewer would be illegal under today’s Clean Water Act laws. But I would encourage folks to instead reflect for a moment on the challenges Pittsburgh residents faced and their living conditions at the time.
Perhaps the most difficult part of the transition from rural agrarian lifestyle to industrialized urban city centers was access to clean and reliable drinking water and sanitation. In the late 19th century, cities were just not ready nor equipped to handle the mass influx of population. Large concentrations of humans congregating into one spot in a short amount of time without proper planning will usually result in a big large mess. In the 19th century, water born illnesses such as cholera and typhoid fever were rampant throughout cities. Many people were violently ill and they didn’t really know why until John Snow studied and mapped cholera outbreaks to drinking water wells in London. Book recommendation: The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson.
Now as promised earlier let’s go back to Peru for a quick side story. Believe it or not, I’ve had typhoid fever in the past, and let me tell you it is one brutal wet and wild ride. In 2007, I went to Machu Picchu with my then girlfriend (now wife), and I contracted salmonella, and developed typhoid fever. Four days of hell. I had the worst stomach pains, could not hold down any liquids, was covered head to toe in muscle and body aches, and had chilling sweats with a 103 degree fever. I had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance in Cuzco, Peru on Thanksgiving Day where I was given an IV, antibiotics, and an overnight stay with clear soup broths and chicken. Had I been living in 19th century Pittsburgh, without the aid of modern science and antibiotics, there is a semi-decent chance I would have died. Silver lining to this story: I still got to see Machu Picchu, which happened a few days before said hospital incident. Silver lining part two: the hospital bill in Peru was a grand total of 230 American dollars including the ambulance ride, easily $20000 in America.
Little Did He Know Montezuma Was Plotting His Revenge Under His Green Plastic Poncho
Now back to the 1800s in Pittsburgh. Below are the typhoid fever mortality statistics from at entering the 20th century, prior to and after the implementation of the Pittsburgh Water Filtration Plant (today’s Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority).
To put these stats into perspective here’s more from Carnegie Mellon University Professor Joel Tarr’s fantastic book of collective essays Devastation and Renewal: An Environmental History of Pittsburgh:
“The resulting pollution gave Pittsburgh the highest death rate from typhoid fever of the nation’s largest cities – well over 100 deaths per 100,000 people from 1873 to 1907. In contrast, in 1905, the average for northern cities was 35 per 100,000 persons.”
And it wasn’t just human waste, it’s also important to remember that in the 1800s the automobile has yet to enter the picture. Horses are a significant aspect of ground transportation in cities and are everywhere also making mess. From Clay McShane and Joel Tarr’s “The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century.”
(Can I also just briefly mention how much I love Joel Tarr? If you ever get a chance to hear him speak in Pittsburgh, I highly recommend you do so. I guarantee you will be thoroughly captivated.)
“While the nineteenth century American city faced many forms of environmental pollution, none was as all encompassing as that produced by the horse. The most severe problem was that caused by horses defecating and urinating in the streets, but dead animals and noise pollution also produced serious annoyances and even health problems. The normal city horse produced between fifteen and thirty-five pounds of manure a day and about a quart of urine, usually distributed along the course of its route or deposited in the stable. While cities made sporadic attempts to keep the streets clean, the manure was everywhere, along the roadway, heaped in piles or next to stables, or ground up by the traffic and blown about by the wind.”
And later on…
“Nineteenth century urbanites considered the stench or miasmas produced by the manure piles a serious health hazard, but cleaning was sporadic at best. Manure piles also produced huge numbers of flies, in reality a much more serious vector for infectious diseases such as typhoid fever than odors. By the turn of the century public health officials had largely accepted the bacterial theory of disease and had identified the “queen of the dung-heap” or fly, as a major source. Inventors and city officials devised improved methods of street cleaning and street sweeping became a major urban expense. Increasingly, however, it became obvious that the most effective way to eliminate the “typhoid fly” (so named by L.O. Howard, chief of the Bureau of Entomology of the Department of Agriculture and a leader in the campaign against flies), was to eliminate the horse.”
Pittsburgh streams were buried and inclosed within sewer pipes in the late 1800s largely to alleviate the rapid spread of water born illnesses and save lives as quickly and cheaply as possible. Conditions in many places, especially immigrant tenant housing neighborhoods, were from all indications deplorable. Pittsburgh was not at all prepared to handle the mass influx of migrant populations. The 21st century viewpoint of protecting and preserving the beauty of natural streams would have been laughed out of the room for suggesting such an idea. People everywhere were sick and dying. Terrible illnesses and death by close friends and family members were likely a very regular occurrence. Wretched odors, feces and urine (both human and non-human), grime and general neighborhood squaller were in abundance throughout much of the city.
Eliminating the stream portals was a no-brainer to our recent ancestors. It was the most efficient and simplest solution to addressing an immediate health crisis.
Buried Stream Portals at the Expense of Future Generation Safety
Unfortunately, the reality is we unintentionally created a flooding problem that is nearly impossible to undo. Taking the stream “back out of the sewer” is an engineering technical nightmare. It requires ripping up entire neighborhoods and physically untangling the spaghetti network of sewer pipes from the stream. Once untangled, we then somehow need to bring the stream back to the surface. Then once the stream is at the surface, there’s the other logistical issue of where to exactly put it. Just about all of these historic streams now have occupied homes and businesses sitting on top of them. The Four Mile Run, neighborhood in Pittsburgh is one of the more prolific examples that has gotten a lot of attention, but there are many more.
There’s numerous other technical challenges such as conflicting utilities, dealing with existing railroad easements, and impedances from 20th century interstate highways. All of these issues add up to millions of dollars to find a way to restore the lost stream. You have to give credit to the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority for attempting a Herculean modern engineering challenge of our time in the Four Mile Run neighborhood.
Unfortunately I do not have any ready made solutions to communities next to these historic streams. Streams are meant to flood, and mitigating flooding in these areas is not inexpensive. Your home or business is flood prone in part due to an 19th century health crisis.
Unfortunately, many residents are not even aware that a historic stream is directly under their feet when they decided to call that neighborhood home. I can only hope these maps educate the public as to where our historic stream portals once existed, at least according to our best knowledge from G.M. Hopkins Company real estate maps.
In closing, everyone should take it upon themselves to perform necessary actions to protect your homes from increased risks of urban flash flooding. Having a depressed sunken driveway below street grade to park your car in a basement garage is a very bad idea. Consider consulting with a plumber and ask about backwater prevention valves to prevent the historic stream in the sewer from backing up into your basement through your sewer house connection. Make sure any sunken basement windows have a sill and are flood proofed. If you can, consider walling off all basement windows.
These are just some ideas for a situation that is likely to get worse in the coming decades.