EDITOR'S NOTE: First in a two-part series on the history of water issues in Traverse City and the Great Lakes. The second part will appear in next Sunday's Record-Eagle.
TRAVERSE CITY -- The Boardman River in Traverse City wasn't a pretty sight at the turn of the last century.
It was a city sewer, and it flowed into West Bay, the source of the city's water supply. By 1899, it flushed an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 tons of sewage each year into the bay. Currents grabbed it at the river mouth and transported it past two swimming beaches east of the river and then back across the bay near city intake pipes.
Like many municipalities those days, Traverse City used "her slop pail as her water pitcher," as one state health official said.
The river mouth itself was "a cesspool," the Evening Record noted in a 1906 editorial.
The Record, a Record-Eagle forerunner, published eight obituaries that year for people who died of typhoid, and four of cholera. The fatality count may have been higher because the paper often didn't list cause of death or publish all deaths.
In October 1906, the city board of health quarantined 33 typhoid cases and declared the Boardman a "menace ... full of rubbish, garbage, excrement and filth."
It urged removal of a sandbar at the mouth of the Boardman and other river obstructions that blocked sewage flow from the city and Northern Michigan Asylum into the bay.
"Running waters are life-savers. Throw nothing into them to contaminate, poison and make them destroyers. It is selfish, vulgar and even criminal,'' the notice warned.
Public knowledge of the link between poor sanitation and serious illness was still rudimentary. Germ theory was known by the late 1800s, but many people believed diluting sewage eliminated health dangers.