New Waring Sewer System Salvages The Future

By Aaron Klimek, with Mark Fleischer

(a version of this story appears in May’s Central Gardens eNews)

This month’s newsletter references the Standard History of Memphis, Tennessee, From a Study of the Original Sources by John Preston and A.R. James (published 1912) to introduce us to one man that played a key role in Memphis, Col. George E. Waring, Jr., and his role in one of Central Gardens’ more important infrastructure components that provided adequate sanitation and helped pull our city out of bankruptcy and despair in the late 19th century: the sewer system.

Col. George E. Waring, Jr. (1833-1898) Ironically, died of yellow fever in New York City. Photo from various sources

A Battle For A Decimated Memphis

With the worst of the yellow fever epidemics taking over 8000 lives in the 1870s, decimating the city, Memphis lost its city charter and thousands fled for safer areas. By August of 1879 the population inside the Taxing District had dropped to an estimated 16,000 (down from 40,000 the previous year) with almost the same amount living in refugee camps outside of the city. Memphis refugees in St. Louis met to discuss the future of Memphis and decided that complete sanitation and pure water were the only solutions to the problem (although years later it was discovered that mosquitos – not impure water – carried the deadly yellow fever).

Yellow fever refugees. “Hungry Citizens Seeking Food at the Commissary Depot, Memphis.” One of seven illustrations on the cover of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper on September 21, 1878. Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center.

These refugees were determined to spare no reasonable expense for an efficient sewer system and to petition the Legislature to aid in carrying out the work. Memphis, they agreed, must be saved soon or entirely lost. As she stood then, strangers would not go to her bluffs, and current inhabitants were leaving by the hundreds to seek more healthful homes.

The State Board joined these national and city workers and they investigated a thorough sewer plan and a house to house inspection, to be rigidly enforced. Memphis inhabitants had not all returned to their homes when the house-to-house inspection began. On November 22, the American Public Health Association met in Nashville and Col. George E. Waring, Jr., an experienced civil engineer of Newport, Rhode Island, had been invited by Doctor Cabell, president of the association, to offer a plan of sewerage to be considered and discussed.

Ironically, Colonel Waring was well known in Memphis. He had commanded a brigade of the Federal cavalry operating in Memphis. He was often engaged in fierce combats with General Forrest and, though he was generally bested by Forrest, was considered a brave and chivalrous soldier.

Portrait of Colonel Waring, inventor of the Waring sewer system
Colonel Waring during the Civil War. Various sources

This time he was returning to Memphis for a battle of another sort.

Colonel Waring was invited to make a special plan for sewering Memphis with the new, small-pipe, separate system he proposed. Numerous meetings were held in the city, when all sorts of sewer systems were discussed. These discussions terminated with a general agreement to adopt Waring’s sewer plan, and the inventor was employed to put in this system.

The situation in Memphis aroused the sympathy of the nation and was largely responsible for the creation of the National Board of Health. Later, the committee of the board visited Memphis and engaged Waring as consulting engineer. The National Board made many recommendations: the ventilation of all houses; the disinfection of houses throughout the city; the tearing down of unsanitary buildings; the cleaning of wells and cisterns; the cleaning out and filling with fresh earth all excrement vaults; and the introduction of Colonel Waring’s sewer system.

Work on the sewers began January 21, 1880. “Within four months after breaking ground,” wrote Colonel Waring, “we had laid the whole of the west main, the submain east of the bayou, and all of the laterals shown on the map of 1880, making a total length of over 18 miles with 152 flush-tanks and with four-inch house-connecting drains extending from the sewer to the sidewalk, or in alleys to the line of each private property.”

Colonel Waring remained in Memphis during the first part of the work on the sewers, but the efficiency of the city engineer, Mr. Niles Meriwether, obviated all necessity for the superintendence of the inventor and the greater part of the responsibility of the work devolved upon Mr. Meriwether and his assistants.

Undated map shows Waring sewer system
Undated Memphis Sewer Map. University of Texas

The Waring System Is Implemented

This system of sewerage, known as the “Waring System,” was one not heretofore used to any extent and was hence uncertain, but to a city as impoverished as Memphis, it seemed reasonable in that it was cheaper than the big-pipe sewerage recommended. Waring designed a system he thought Memphis could afford, but also one he felt would work: a separate system using house connection of 4″ diameter connecting to  6” diameter laterals, with 112-gallon flush-tank mechanisms placed at the upstream terminal end of each of the lateral (collector) sewer runs — to be flushed once every 24 hours. These six-inch vitrified pipes discharged into pipes of eight inches diameter, these sub-mains increased to ten and twelve inch pipes where the flow was greater. The mains were from twelve to fifteen inches, and when the mouth was neared the increase grew to twenty inches of brick inclosure. The small pipes were easily ventilated and their glazed smoothness allowed sewerage to pass through easily.

Workmen were instructed not to allow the slightest roughness in joining the pipes, as even a small defect of this sort would gather and hold silt and rubbish. These pipes were for sewerage only, excluding surface and underground drainage, but they were regulated and cleansed from flush-tanks and ventilators, so they could be kept constantly cleaned and half full of water. The pipes or drains for disposing of storm-water was an independent system, and discharged into the bayou. Vitrified clay pipe (with a salt glazing applied to both the pipe’s interior and exterior surfaces—a “carry-over” process from Europe) was the material of choice.

After a couple of years, the “Rawlinson” approach — the use of manholes, placing manholes at all changes in horizontal or vertical alignment, and the use of larger (no less than 8″ diameter) gravity sewer pipe — was deemed to be an improvement, one that should be blended in with Waring’s basic approach. Waring agreed to the changes, and his designs were used to expand Memphis’ system.

Memphis Public Works sewer cover (manufactured by W C Ellis & Sons). Wikimedia Commons, Thomas R Machnitzki, photographer

Charles Hermany, in his report to the Memphis Water Works and Sewerage Commissioners, had this to say: “As sanitary measures, large sewers are very objectionable, for the reason that the ordinary flow of sewerage spreading over the inverts of large sewers has not sufficient volume and scouring efficacy to remove promptly the heavier particles of undecomposed animal and vegetable matter constantly finding their way into them. The constant accumulation of such matter during the dry season of each year, when the flow of sewage does not keep the main sewers clean, would convert them, as it were, into ‘elongated’ cess-pools, and thus originate or aid in prolonging epidemics to a fearful extent. To keep sewers of this magnitude clean by flushing them with water from the public water supply, would involve an expense for elevating water for this purpose alone.”

This small-pipe system brought another good. In the large sewers it is necessary that men go into them often, requiring manual labor to rid the sewers of their filth. This is exceedingly unpleasant, unwholesome and dangerous work, and an abolishment of such labor is a benefit to humanity. Said Hermany, in his report: “My conclusions were that the Memphis system answered fully the purpose for which it was intended, and which is primarily the object of all sewerage systems, but which seemed to me to be attained more perfectly in this case than in any other I had ever known of to carry off domestic and industrial wastes with rapidity and without offense to their destination. So regular and rapid was the flow through the pipes of the Memphis system that no time was given for putrefaction to take place between the time at which the waste products entered the system and were delivered into Wolf River.”

Waring’s System Expands Worldwide

This innovation in sewerage was watched with interest by engineers all over the civilized world, especially in England, where a separate system had never been used and where the engineers had grave doubts of its working efficacy. In France the new system was looked upon favorably, and Mr. E. Lavoinne, chief engineer of the department of Rouen, said “the sewerage of the city of Memphis had solved the sewerage problem for Paris.”

Other cities went on to adopt the system. And eight years after the adoption by Memphis, the inventor wrote: “The sewers of Memphis have now been in operation for eight years. Their original extent has been more than doubled. That they have been successful is shown not only by their increased use there, but by the quite remarkable extension of the use of the system throughout the country.” During that time, the Waring system had been put into thirty-seven other towns, including Lennox, MA; Norfold, NI; Omaha, NE; San Diego, CA; Buffalo, NY; Tucson, AZ; and Dayton, OH.  Colonel Waring concludes his extensive book of 1889 on Sewerage and Land Drainage, thus: “The city [Memphis] would not have adopted this plan but for its sore need and its great poverty. Work of the same sort had never been done before anywhere in the world. Other engineers predicted the failure of the system. Notwithstanding their predictions, it succeeded, and those who once opposed it have since adopted it. Memphis itself, now rich and prosperous, still adheres to the plan.”

“Memphis began to come back from the dead with the installation of the Waring sewer system and the discovery of a large artesian aquifer in 1887. With potable water and modern sanitation practices, Memphis regained its (lost) city charter and began a slow steady population growth.” (from Judith Johnson’s The Art of Architecture, Modernism In Memphis, 1890-1980. c. 2000)

And so it became, that the many and various misfortunes and poverty of Memphis caused her to be the starting place of a system of cleanliness that would be widely used, benefitting much of the civilized world. Memphis honors Waring today, with a street named for him: Waring Road, which runs from Walnut Grove Road north to Macon Road at Wells Station Road, going through the Berclair neighborhood.

Waring Street, named after Colonel Waring, inventor of the Waring Sewer System

Prior to his successes in Memphis, Waring had made a mark in New York, in the 1850s, when he was appointed agricultural and drainage engineer for the construction of New York City’s Central Park.

View of Willowdell Arch with the team that created Central Park. Standing on the pathway over the span, from Right: Frederick Law Olmsted, Jacob Wrey Mould, Ignaz Anton Pilat, Calvert Vaux, George Waring, and Andrew Haswell Green. Photographed in 1862. Wikipedia and Victor Prevost’s 1862 Photos of the New Central Park

The Central Park effort was considered to be the largest drainage project of its time, with much of the area of the proposed park a wetland. He designed and supervised construction of the drainage system that created the scenic lakes and ponds of the park. With his appointment, Waring joined a team that included park designer Frederick Law Olmsted, whose work inspired George Kessler, who went on to design Memphis’ own Overton Park.

Aaron Klimek lives in Central Gardens and is a contributor to StoryBoard Memphis.

The 1912 Standard History of Memphis, Tennessee, From a Study of the Original Sources is a rare, hard-to-find book that is often published in eBook form from a variety of online booksellers. Or, contact Burke’s Books for ordering information. Burke’s is located in Memphis’ historic Cooper-Young neighborhood.

Judith Johnson is an architectural historian and Memphian

2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the Central Gardens Neighborhood Association. And for this year’s newsletters they are celebrating by exploring the history of the neighborhood with highlights from various historic city records.

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