ST. ALBANS HISTORICAL MUSEUM photo
An age without hope of ending pollution locally
ST. ALBANS — Imagine a stinking ribbon of sewage meandering through back yards and human waste flooding Main Street during heavy rains.
What if the best solution offered was to pipe the community’s excrement to a marsh right on the shores of a nearby lake? After all, that would allow the sewage to “purify naturally.”
What if a brook traversing the nearest farmland became so foul that health officials within those farmers’ out-of-state market refused to accept their milk?
Imagine the state’s laboratory director not only questioning that but also adding that “the cow herself was the very best filterer” of any toxins found in her drinking water.
Now, allow another disturbing turn.
The stench of the sewage, which everyone admits contains chemicals from a gas plant, is so bad that those living near the brook worry for their lives.
The evening newspaper carries these desperate words from seven farm families:
“If the fathers and mothers of your city would consider the position of their neighbors standing by the bedsides of sick and perhaps dying loved ones, and would remember that this is due to their own negligence, this question would be settled at once.”
This was the reality of life in much of this country, state, and, as the above examples show, in St. Albans in the early years of the 20th Century. The city by 1913 was allowing its sewage to flow downhill via some 15 miles of pipe — dumping the problem elsewhere.
The St. Albans Messenger’s headlines between 1909 and 1914 are alarming not only for what they describe but for the lack of scientific knowledge they reveal.
The technology of the age simple couldn’t cope. Equally clear is why a small community would be unwilling to risk bankruptcy on unproven methods. Leaders and voters were frozen in their inability to do anything at all.
“The sewage of the city is now taken care of in no other way than merely dumping it into Stevens Brook, wrote the Messenger in a March 18, 1913 editorial. That situation had existed since the first sewer pipes were laid decades earlier.
Now there was new urgency.
In late 1912, seven St. Albans Town farmers whose cows grazed near and drank from toxic Stevens Brook were notified their milk would no longer be accepted in the Boston market. They had to scramble to find new customers.
In a series of meetings, the City Council gave those farmers and town selectmen assurances that something would be done. To avoid a certain lawsuit, the city would vote on whether to construct a filtration facility.
At first, $75,000 was thought adequate for a plant utilizing a sand filter and the legislature was asked for bonding authority.
However, during open discussion at a citywide April 1913 meeting the proposed investment was first cut to $40,000 and then defeated — by a single vote.
The state board of health entered the fray urging the farmers to sue. A second city vote, forced by a petition two months later, also failed and officials – without voter support for any measure — admitted the courts might have to intervene.
No one, anywhere, had a good solution, or at least an affordable one, and there was the realization that without action the situation would worsen.
On June 3, Mayor Selden Greene discussed a trek he and other council members had taken along nearly a 5-mile stretch of Stevens Brook.
Alderman P.C. Sullivan spoke of encountering “brook cess pools,” essentially overflows as large as city hall auditorium and “full of black sludge.” These pools produced the strongest odors, which worsened considerably after significant rainfalls.
Sullivan and others were for straightening the brook, and clearing it of obstacles so that the bulk of solids and heavy sewage would flow to a marsh located on the Smith and Foss farms at St. Albans Bay. What those farmers said about that was not recorded.
There were detractors. Professor J.W. Votey, of the state board of health, issued a report commissioned by the city. “The discharge of sewage into the swamp which itself discharges into the lake, would seriously intervene with the development of the bay as a summer resort,” he said.
As some pointed out, there was enough sewage in the bay already. At one meeting, St. Albans banker John Branch said cottages owners around the bay simply dumped their sewage.
The St. Albans Clinical Society, an organization of area medical men, took up the matter but made no determination as to whether sewage caused diseases to families living near the brook. That question also lingered for bay shore dwellers that were reporting illnesses.
An outbreak of typhoid fever in Rutland at this time couldn’t have calmed nerves.
Solutions were sought. The city investigated Boston and Vermont Health boards’ findings. Council members and others went to 10 New York State communities to tour newer sewage plants and then, after careful inquiry, including taking samples entering and leaving those plants, determined that results were sadly lacking.
Meanwhile, estimates for building a filtration plant grew to $240,000 (roughly the equivalent of $5.5 million today) and this at a time when state and federal help were nil.
A May 19, 1913 Messenger editorial was blunt. No one knew how to purify sewage and the remaining question was how to eradicate the stench and health threat as best possible.
The newspaper also proclaimed, “It seems a little hard-hearted to put all the blame on the gas plant, but it would be good common sense to see just what the division of responsibility is.”
The St. Albans Gas & Light plant, located on Maple Street at the site of today’s Colony Square apartments, produced fuel to light homes, buildings, and streets. Almost nothing remains in local records about the plant. It most likely captured and distributed gas released from heated coal. In some cases and most likely at the St. Albans facility, too, the released gas was subjected to chemical reactions with other gases — carbon monoxide, methane, hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide.
The St. Albans plant decades later became an EPA-designated brownfields area that is still monitored as a potential pollution risk.
Truce or war?
The Messenger headline on May 21, 1913 was, “Truce reached in sewage war.” The bereaved farmers now backed a city plan to improve flow along the brook as a means to push the odiferous mass out and away.
However, by May 28, the tide had swung the other way. The seven farmers’ already-mentioned letter to the editor was published. In it they also charged that recent meetings with the city had “developed into an attempt to show us that we were asking the impossible in expecting the city take care of the filth, which is produced within her borders.”
Furthermore, they said, any suggestion that the gas plant might be adding to the horrid odor was met with unresolved questions on how to dispose of its waste otherwise.
Regarding that they wrote: “We have seen many people in the City of St. Albans much wrought up about the special privileges to rich corporations and yet apparently these same persons are willing to be partners with the fellow cities in destroying the property, comfort, and health of their nearest neighbors.”
They added, “But to us the great question is the dangers to the health of our families.”
If the city was unprepared to pipe sewage past their farms, if a full-fledged filtration plant wasn’t the answer, then, at the very least — buy their farms, they said.
“The man in the city,” the farmers added, “may not keep a pig if his neighbor objects. It may be due to simplicity on our part, but we cannot see that the City of St. Albans has more right to cause a great nuisance than the individual a small one.”
They concluded saying, “The condition of the brook has grown worse very fast, and it is now so offensive and dangerous that some of us cannot longer live in our present homes with safety and self-respect.”
The city as of late June 1913 was still awaiting word of a possible lawsuit from the aggrieved farmers. In the meantime New York City had announced a possible $37 million upgrade to its sewer system, nearly $890 million in today’s money.
On June 28, the Messenger carried a tongue-in-cheek editorial page snippet, saying, “The sewage disposal in New York City is causing considerable trouble to the authorities and various plans have been advanced, voted on, turned down and nothing has been accomplished. Well, New York may be having its troubles but it has not a Stevens Brook and until it has the metropolis does not know what real trouble is along the line of sewage disposal.”
With that the pre-1920s quest for a solution fell from the pages of the newspaper, as did additional note of the farmers’ plight. There is no record of a lawsuit having been filed by anyone.
Even though in 1910 it had purchased land from a man named Frank Charon for a filtration plant, it wouldn’t be until the later part of the 20th Century that St. Albans built a state-of-the-art tertiary treatment facility that eliminates most odors and pollution.
Today human waste is no long the single biggest water pollution threat locally. Ironically, the story has, in a way, come full circle. Today, cows get much of the blame.