Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 28, 2009

150 Years: Bay served as sewer, water supply


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.

Ironically, typhoid epidemics across the nation helped cure that myth, especially after an 1891 outbreak claimed 1,997 lives in Chicago. The Windy City's sewage ran from the Chicago River into Lake Michigan near city water intake pipes.

Chicago's epidemic apparently attracted notice in Traverse City, as typhoid reports grew in the 1890s and prompted local leaders to question continued use of West Bay as the city's water supply. Grand Traverse Herald publisher Thomas Bates called it the "most important question the people of Traverse City had to solve."

In 1897, the city hired engineer George Rafter to identify other possible water supply sources, such as East Bay, Long Lake, artesian wells, Boardman Lake and the river. Rafter spent two months here and recommended East Bay and a reservoir system.

His recommendation proved to be a controversial topic at an 1899 sanitary convention called by city leaders with the help of the state health board. The convention was sparsely attended, but a long report in the Aug. 24, 1899, Grand Traverse Herald, another Record-Eagle forerunner, offers insight into arguments of that day.

"Suicide," is the term Elvin Sprague, longtime publisher of the Traverse Bay Eagle, used to describe continued use of West Bay for drinking water. State. Sen. J.W. Milliken, a pioneer businessman, favored pumping fresh water from East Bay to a hillside reservoir.

"We are not seeking a water that will do, but the one that is absolutely the best for us and the generations that shall succeed us," he said, the Herald reported. "We are seeking a system that will be best for cooking, for fire protection, for drinking purposes" ... and industry.

H.D. Campbell, who founded the city water works 20 years before, opposed the East Bay plan. Never had there been a single case of typhoid fever or other contagious disease caused by the use of bay water in his 47 years of living in Traverse City, he argued.

Campbell also announced that "sewage could not contaminate the water to a distance greater than 35 feet below the surface and that if the intake pipe were sunk to 50 or 60 feet, the water would be perfectly safe," the Herald reported.

Rafter was astounded.

"New York, Rochester, Syracuse and all the large cities in New York state are putting in reservoirs, and now I come to Michigan only to find that they are all wrong," he said.

"We also learn that there is no sewage contamination beyond 35 feet below the surface of the water. Our friend Mr. Campbell, who has made this valuable discovery, should not hesitate to spread the news all the world over, for it will revolutionize the systems of water works of the world."

Little changed. A 1915 city survey and follow-up reports indicated that 450 toilets in the city were not connected to existing sewers and another 394 were out of the sewer's reach. The city ordered everyone who could to connect to the sewer. Traverse City began chlorinating its water about 1915. Regular city garbage pickup was instituted in the city in 1924.

Typhoid continued to make headlines through the 1920s, as did the crucial need for better sewers and a sewage treatment plant. James Milliken, J.W.'s son and father of former Gov. William G. Milliken, led that three-decade effort.

Traverse City called itself the "Heart of Michigan's Playground," by 1930, but the Boardman River suggested otherwise, Richard Capps, a Harvard medical student wrote in a state report.

"There is, of course, no treatment of sewage at all," he said. "Floating sewage of all kinds can be seen, especially toilet paper and occasionally fecal material. Logs protruding in the river are festooned with the former."

It took several elections from 1914 on before city residents finally passed a municipal bond on Oct. 23, 1931, to build a sewage treatment plant -- after the state sued the city and shut down West Bay beaches "to protect tourist visitors." The sewer treatment plant opened in 1933.

Today, East Bay is the source of Traverse City's water supply.

The Great Lakes have been through a lot in the last 150 years: sewage, over-fishing, pollution, the lamprey and other invasive species.

In 1970, Gov. Milliken, following in the footsteps of his grandfather and father, signed the strong Michigan Environmental Protection Act into law. A major concern in Great Lakes water issues today is the potential for large-scale withdrawals for export to dry regions here and around the world.

But that is another story.

Next week: "Water Wars" and the public trust doctrine.