Subterranean waterways, massive “re-creations” of rivers and streams, and the disposal of human waste: this is the unromantic focus of one of the most unexpectedly beautiful and little-known collections of photography from the Roaring 1920s and the Great Depression of the ’30s. Housed at the University of Louisville, over 3,000 negatives and prints make up the remarkable Metropolitan Sewer District Collection, an archival depiction of the many public works projects that were carried out around Louisville and surrounding Jefferson County, Kentucky, from the early 1920s until just after the great Ohio River Flood of 1937.
Captured on gorgeous 8×10 negatives, the images are aesthetically accomplished and surprisingly compelling to look at. Some seem like precocious versions of late twentieth-century landscape photography, subtle Jazz Age precursors of the New Topographics movement of the 1970s and ’80s. Fifty years after a team of Louisvillians documented their nascent sewer system, photographers such as Lewis Baltz, Frank Gohlke, and Robert Adams revisited this same basic subject matter, mostly in the American Far West. There, they approached the rugged, mundane, and shabby corners of construction zones on arid city fringes such as Denver with a new eye – both for the unexpected beauty of a suburban building lot, for instance, and for the warnings that such a humble place carried with it in telling the story of human encroachments on the wild.
Like Louisville’s Commissioners of Sewerage, who paid to have the images in this collection made, photographers like Robert Adams captured realities that were so close, so abundantly central to our lives, that they were rarely enunciated in art or even in documentary work. And like the poet Carl Sandburg, who began his famous poem “Chicago” with a bold statement of the blatantly obvious (about that city being “Hog butcher to the world”), it took a certain genius behind the lens to depict the essential structure of the workaday metropolis, the mundane skeleton of what made everything else click.
Yet these images of Louisville’s sewers and public works projects capture much more than architectural and engineering history. They document the birth of a modern city. Twentieth-century cities were profoundly shaped by the problem of overcoming disease and wielding off “nature’s” disastrous wildcards. In fact, these became common photographic subject matter at a time when progress was considered inevitable and based on human advances in city design.
Culverts, ditches, pipes, floods, and sewers. Hardly the first spot one would go to make a case for photographic beauty – or to describe the “spirit of place” in a great, overlooked American city. This, however, is where so much of the modern city’s natural and human history hides. Like Louisville, all the metropolises that came about after the start of the Industrial Revolution were designed largely in response to the public health crises of the 1800s, and most of the engineering projects documented by early photographers were ultimately images of cities fending off disease, disorder, and disaster. To fully appreciate the beauty and significance of these images, some of that history has to be told.
“Slop for sale.” Alley between Melwood & William, Louisville, Kentucky, March 1931. Metropolitan Sewer District Collection, University of Louisville. MSD.092.007
While Louisville’s early “sewers” dated back to the 1820s, the earliest drainage systems here were little more than street-side ditches that helped flush storm water and waste down to the Ohio. Forty years after it was founded by George Rogers Clark at the rapids known as the Falls of the Ohio, Louisville was still a small riverside town with just a few thousand inhabitants. Yet that number alone made it one of the biggest “cities” in what was still called “the West,” a century before these photographs were made. (The population of Chicago, a military outpost, numbered just 300 in 1833. St. Louis, Cincinnati, Lexington, and New Orleans were the only moderately large towns west of the Appalachians.)
The town’s life was partly shaped by the difficulty of living in a “pond-dotted bottomland” of the Ohio. During the first years of Loiusville’s history, until about 1805, hogs roamed the streets at will, defecating into the ponds and creeks that served as a water source for settlers. The practice was curbed by an act of the Kentucky Legislature, called the “Hog and Pond Law,” which banned free-roaming pigs from wandering the muddy streets and called for ditches to be dug that would help drain off the pestilential pools and wetlands that were such a part of the original landscape. Settlers knew from experience, if not from scientific fact, that ponds and sitting water caused them to die.
Before levees were built, the early city was also flood-prone, though the Ohio River was a different river then than it is now. The explorer Meriwether Lewis, who joined up with William Clark in Clarksville, Indiana Territory, across the river from Louisville, in 1803 and spent the next three years traveling Western rivers en route to Oregon and back, knew the original Ohio firsthand. Traveling down from what later became West Virginia, Lewis found the river so dry upstream from Louisville that his boat often got stuck on sandbars. In engineering projects culminating in the 1950s, the difficult river was gradually dredged and dammed, its channels regularized and its flow deepened for navigation. Like the Columbia and parts of the Mississippi, the Ohio died as a free-flowing stream in the mid-20th century and became, in effect, a long, skinny lake, its levels controlled by humans for flood control and the passage of barges.
Creek and culvert, December 1928. MSD.036.345
Yet like the great New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, which were felt strongly in this area, early floods in Louisville caused little permanent damage or concern, since frontier buildings were primitive, small, and easily replaced. The main danger from floods was the proliferation of disease that occurred after the high waters subsided. A malaria epidemic hit Louisville in 1822 and killed 122 people, a serious blow to a town that numbered just over 2,000.
An improvement on the covered ditches that ran down the shoulders of streets, Louisville’s first true sewer was built in 1850, a three-thousand foot brick-lined conduit running from First Street to Walnut, then emptying straight into Beargrass Creek. Looking back now, to us it seems amazing how poorly the connection between the spread of disease and basic sanitation was understood in the early 1800s, a connection that was often not made at all. The myth of the virgin frontier’s “purity” probably contributed to the spread of sickness.
In fact, humans in cities even today, who have a good knowledge of the causes of disease, would be unable to safely dispose of their own waste without the big engineering projects that created sewers and public treatment facilities. Considering that epidemiologists did not fully uncover the cause of cholera, for instance, until 1854, it is not surprising that our ancestors’ efforts here were weak. (A contemporary anti-cholera poster from New York City suggests that doctors thought the bacillus was spread by the consumption of raw vegetables and unripe fruit, or even by sleeping in a breeze.)
Cholera prevention poster, 1849. New York Historical Society.
Major outbreaks of cholera, malaria, and yellow fever were frequent events on the Midwestern frontier and far more catastrophic to settlers than tornadoes and Indian attacks. Hindostan, a settlement at the White River Falls in southern Indiana not far from Louisville (and where at one time almost as many people lived) was completely wiped out by disease in the early 1820s. Settling in a flood plain and living on houseboats, several hundred settlers and adventurers, many of them polished, educated Easterners, sickened and died in the fall of 1820 from what was probably yellow fever. Four years later, less than half of the town’s population remained, having succumbed to the disease or gotten out of the area entirely. Hindostan (where about 1,000 people are thought to have lived) disappeared completely and the spot was avoided for years. Folklore attributed the unspecified disease to decaying plant matter backed up by the river rapids, but it almost certainly originated with the fact that Hindostan’s migrant population lived largely on flatboats directly atop the water and must have flushed their own waste directly into the stream.
This ill-fated settlement was not the only victim of public health disasters. Much of the United States was struck by a cholera epidemic in 1833, just a year after the disease was first reported in New York City. Originating in the Ganges River region of India, where it had killed millions for centuries, cholera spread west along trade routes in the early 1800s. In 1820, Russian troops brought it from South Asia to Poland and a cholera epidemic was soon devastating Paris and London. In 1832, the bacillus showed up in New York, probably carried in the bilge water of ships. A disease of the bowels, cholera took its victims rapidly, usually within 48 hours, causing severe diarrhea and dehydration.
At Salem, Indiana, thirty miles from Louisville, panic set in June 1833 and the town was almost depopulated. “There were scarcely enough people left in the town to care for the sick and dead,” it was written. “Merchants closed their stores and stampeded.” Salem’s old city graveyard is full of cholera victims, their markers made from whetstone quarried at Hindostan.
That same month, Lexington, Kentucky, the biggest city in the West, almost shut down from fear of cholera. A third of its population fled to farms nearby. “The dead could not be buried fast enough,” the historian George Ranck wrote, and farmers refused to come into town to sell food. The four- or five-thousand Lexingtonians who stayed behind would have succumbed to famine if authorities hadn’t stepped in. Yet an unlikely folk hero, King Solomon, helped save the city. As bodies piled up, Solomon (a vagrant alcoholic who rarely drank water) became a gravedigger. Though public handbills at the time warned citizens in cholera-stricken areas to avoid “ardent spirits,” Solomon’s preference for whiskey over water was probably what saved his life. And as John Wright, a Lexington historian, chronicles humorously: “If any stray bacillus had entered his bloodstream it would have died immediately from the alcohol content.” Solomon survived the epidemic. In honor of his heroism and humane treatment of the dead, the city of Lexington had the town drunk’s portrait painted. It hangs today in the Bodley-Bullock House near Transylvania University.
British cartoon, 1848.
Cholera outbreaks were also among the many disasters that struck young Chicago, a dangerous place since its very birth. In one of history’s tragic ironies, the disease was carried west to Lake Michigan by U.S. soldiers coming from Buffalo, New York, to fight in the 1832 Black Hawk War in southern Wisconsin. Black Hawk’s band of Sauk “warriors” (most of whom were actually women and children repossessing their homes) struck as much panic into the hearts of early Chicagoans as cholera did the following year in Indiana and Kentucky. The disease turned out to be far more deadly than any attack ever carried out by the Sauk, who were driven down the Wisconsin River and massacred that July. When cholera struck again in 1854, killing 3,500 people, that epidemic was one of the three great disasters to befall the imperiled nineteenth-century city, ranking with the Fort Dearborn Massacre and the Great Fire of 1871, both of which effectively obliterated Chicago.
Malaria, too, which flourished in stagnant pools of water, especially after floods, was a serious problem facing settlers in the Midwest. Mosquitoes breeding along the Wabash River after late-winter floods gradually led the Shakers, who had settled north of Vincennes, Indiana, in 1809, to go back to Kentucky and Ohio by 1824. The loss was a major blow to the expansion of the Shaker faith into the West.
Many “non-scientific” causes were also put forward to explain fevers and the high mortality rate facing this area. “Bad air” was one. Some early county historians cited dense fogs along rivers and creeks as the bringer of death. Yet one writer theorized that the disease-stricken town of Palestine, another White River settlement in southern Indiana, owed its demise to sheer bad luck. Settlers there, he speculated, had dug the town well at the site of an Indian graveyard and the old burials were poisoning the water supply. Palestine, the first Lawrence County seat, was abandoned in 1825 and resettled as Bedford, three miles from the river.
1100 block of Eastern Parkway during flood. January 1927. MSD.035.005
Mill Creek: Mystery neighborhood. Flooded area between the side yards of two houses, January, 1937. MSD.091.190
Downtown Louisville during the Ohio River flood, 3:20 p.m., January 28, 1937. MSD.M.538
During a cholera outbreak in Britain in 1854, John Snow, a physician, plotted the sources of cases and finally showed that contaminated water was the culprit. Over the next few decades, improvements in public sanitation, especially in urban areas, led to individual cholera outbreaks becoming less deadly, though still not uncommon.
Culturally, cholera’s spread was also blamed on impoverished Irish immigrants and African Americans, both of whom were major segments of Louisville’s population. The Irish made up most of the labor gangs that built Midwestern canals in the 1840s and ’50s, and the stereotype stuck, especially as cholera did, in fact, flourish on these waterways. Later, they laid railroad tracks and worked in the Butchertown slaughterhouses, all of which at that time dumped their loads straight into Beargrass Creek, remembered for many years as a stinking mess. (One of the biggest “sewer” projects of the Civil War era involved simply enclosing the creek and re-channeling it away from downtown before it emptied the city’s waste directly into the Ohio.) John Snow’s report, however, did little to destroy the racial and ethnic prejudice that fostered misunderstanding about the spread of disease, which was still often attributed to “intemperance” and wild living, not the lack of adequate sewers.
By 1870, a high incidence of malaria around Louisville prompted a city engineer, Brigadier General Isaac Munroe St. John, to study the need for an improved sewer system. (St. John was familiar with the geology of the South, having served in the Nitre and Mining Corps of the Confederate Army, which dug saltpeter from caves in the Southern Appalachians for gunpowder manufacturers.) Between 1871 and 1873, he oversaw the construction of the Western Outfall, a trunk line from Breckenridge Street west toward 14th Street and the Ohio. Untreated waste water and storm drainage was unceremoniously dumped into the river as late as 1959, when Louisville got its first treatment facility.
The tunnels that made up Louisville’s 19th-century sewers had originally been built of brick, but after the 1880s, engineers switched to cheaper and more durable concrete. By 1906, Louisville had 113 miles of sewer lines, but was still considered far behind most other cities of its size. (It was then one of the ten largest in America.) Watching their city become architecturally resplendent, with parks and boulevards designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Louisville’s urban planners were hard-pressed for cash to lay pipes and build drainage networks to protect the infrastructure from very basic demands made on it.
Underground sewer investigation, man in brick-lined segment of tunnel, March 1937. MSD.USI.021.
Metal circular tube, August 1932. MSD.047.290
The Commissioners of Sewerage, who from 1924 to 1937 oversaw the creation of one of the most thorough bodies of urban photographs ever made about a public engineering project, were established through an act of the Kentucky Legislature in 1906 and funded by $4 million in bonds. Beginning in 1908, that money went toward trunk lines and relief for flood-prone parts of the city. Yet over the years, money was consistently hard to come by. As the growing city sank itself in debt, largely for sewers, the most important works project underway finally had to be funded by bonds, not tax dollars. Public relations experts and engineers alike needed photographs.
As the Commissioners hired thousands of workers and invested millions of dollars into effective construction projects, which intensified during the ’20s and ’30s, their efforts came none too soon. Louisville’s population exploded in the first half of the 20th century. Slaughterhouses and packinghouses, tobacco warehouses, beer and whiskey distilleries, and other industries that processed the agricultural abundance of Kentucky and its hinterlands all flourished, drawing in a large population from the countryside, the Ohio Valley as a whole, and from Europe.
The Great Depression increased the flow of workers into the city and exacerbated its already tight housing and sewage problems. One of the greatest difficulties facing the Commissioners during these years was of how – or whether – to separate storm water from waste water in pipes that were not big enough to carry both together during heavy rains. During large storms and floods, the city faced the terrible prospect of raw sewage overflowing and mixing with the bursting creeks, then contaminating wells and other sources of drinking water.
During World War II, Louisville became quite prosperous as industries here contributed to the war effort. The city even became something of a boom town during the 1940s. With the massive out-migration from the Appalachian region during and after the Depression, as “mountaineers” headed to cities like this one, but especially Chicago and Detroit, new construction here was unable to keep up with the demand for housing. Much of what we recognize as the characteristic architecture of Louisville was built between 1920 and 1950. Had the city not wisely invested in expanding its network of pipelines and drainage systems prior to the Second World War, Louisville’s industrial growth would have been crippled.
Intersection at Weisser Avenue, April 1934. MSD.078.018
Goss Avenue at Emerson Street, November 1927. MSD.035.033
Butchertown with mystery. Beargrass Creek near houses and smokestack on a hill, April 1933. MSD.M.371
Like all of central Kentucky, creeks and rivers are major topographical features of the Louisville area. A basic topography of limestone and karst has virtually defined Kentucky’s culture, as its landscape and history are deeply tied to water. Subterranean rivers helped create Mammoth Cave, the biggest cave system in the world, sixty miles southwest of Louisville, and thousands of smaller caves run through the karst belt from northern Alabama into southern Indiana. Kentucky’s groundwater, rich in mineral deposits percolating through layers of limestone beneath the soil, is a major factor in whiskey production here. Legend holds that good groundwater has also created Kentucky’s strong horses and beautiful women. Irish settlers, who helped define the region’s culture, were drawn to this landscape that reminded them of Ireland, where water is also a major presence.
Yet the water-rich Ohio and Kentucky valleys have been the source of many destructive floods. The great 1937 flood on the Ohio, which devastated every town in the valley during late January and early February, was the greatest single disaster ever to hit the city of Louisville. Coming near the end of the Depression, the flood was the ultimate test both of individual resolve and of whether Roosevelt’s New Deal relief agencies would be efficacious. (Shawneetown, Illinois, and Leavenworth, Indiana, two historic river towns, were completely wiped out, then rebuilt three miles back from the Ohio, in two of the most dramatic re-locations of entire communities in American history.)
Louisville, of course, survived the ’37 flood, yet it would be hard to imagine the public health nightmare that would have ensued without the work done over the previous decades to channel water away from the heart of the city. Overpowered levees broke and most other attempts to control the river failed, and the water did a great deal of damage here. But it was public works projects in the city that prevented it from being utterly overcome.
Muddy bank during 1937 Ohio River Flood, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in background, January 31, 1937. MSD.M.602
Louisville’s sewer system, dramatically expanded in the early twentieth century to meet the needs of flood control and urban sanitation, was a response to the basic realities of living in this often water-logged landscape. The photographers employed by the Commissioners of Sewerage clearly understood this. As a body of images, the more than 3,000 large-format photographs they produced are one of the most complete documentary works ever made about an American landscape, meticulously recording virtually every corner of the city’s watershed.
At first glance, one wonders why the Commissioners wanted images of hundreds of seemingly mundane spots in Louisville and rural Jefferson County. Not all of these photographs document construction projects, and clearly many would never be used in public relations. Some of the most striking images are exciting because of this simple fact: their purpose remains utterly mysterious. What, for example, was the reason behind these three images, whose composition suggests that the photographer was not driven by a desire to show anything other than how completely engrossed he was in the mystery of a watery landscape?
Grinstead Drive near Beargrass Creek, April 13, 1926. MSD.025.001
Mill Creek road, January 1937. MSD.091.134
Flooded road, 1100 block of Eastern Parkway, November 1927. MSD.035.020
Though a shortage of money just before and after World War I led to cutbacks in sewer construction, new bond issues in the 1920s raised nearly $15 million and 154 new lines were built during that decade. Work continued into the Great Depression, when the bulk of these images were made. They are interesting counterpoints to the famous documentary photography carried out by the Federal Works Project Administration.
Much material created by the WPA was, in fact, government propaganda in a positive sense, intended for federal and state publications, ultimately meant to bolster the “American spirit” in a dark time. Those photographs showed the American people working when there was a major shortage of work. Photographers like Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee captured the dark realities facing Americans, but also depicted their resilience and the efforts of the New Deal agencies to alleviate economic and social problems. (Russell Lee, one of the leading Farm Security Administration photographers, visited the Ohio Valley in February 1937 to document the aftermath of the catastrophe at Shawneetown, Illinois.)
By contrast, few of the Metropolitan Sewer District images focus on the human workers involved in construction. Rather, like a later school of American landscape photography (the generation of Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams) they approach the visual appeal of those works themselves. They are landscape photography, first and foremost. As the New Topographics photographers would have instantly recognized, in some ways these are also pictures of the fence that we have thrown up between us and the gulf of human history that came before us, and on which our own society depends. Without this, ours would be a different civilization.
Now buried under earth and invisible like the men who built them, like past generations these subterranean systems are the “secret sharers” that underly our own lives, subtle underground doppelgangers, ghostly counterparts of the world above. The material captured here by photographers tells much of the 20th-century story, one woven between the complex geometry of pipes, the sinuosity of culverts, and the grid slowly being laid out over the great city and the face of nature.
PHOTOS FROM THE METROPOLITAN SEWER DISTRICT COLLECTION
Southwest Outfall, 1933. MSD.067.084
Southwest Outfall. Close up view of brick porch with lattice ladder, 1933. MSD.070.016
Beal’s Branch, Spaulding-Braeview area, 1931. MSD.049.095
Man inspecting drainage pipe with measuring tape, May 1926. MSD.M.005
Manhole covers on display, Louisville, December 1930. MSD.M.061
Bells Lane vicinity, May 1928. MSD.036.190
4th and Chestnut, NE corner, old post office entrance. MSD.033.052
Laying of bricks in tunnel, 1932. MSD.047.325
Tunnel or cave with rough stone walls, Spaulding-Braeview area, 1931. MSD.049.095
Southwest Outfall, 1933. MSD.067.085
Grinstead Drive 2500 B looking east, 1926. MSD.025.051
Entrance to a tunnel, Beals Branch area, December 1930. MSD.049.074
719 W Liberty, 1928. MSD.035.058
Sewer under constructrion, 1926. MSD.025.055
Pipeline under construction, 1932. MSD.047.238
Eastern Parkway, November 1927. MSD.035.023
Napoleon Boulevard, March 1935. MSD.079.019.4
Children stand in a creek or flooded ditch, 9:00 AM, June, 29, 1928. MSD.M.034
Southwest Outfall, December 1933. MSD.067.108
Men inside tunnel, August 1931. MSD.047.160
Entrance to tunnel, Brownsboro Road, August 1935. MSD.085.136
Standing inside a tunnel or large drainage pipe, Spaulding-Braeview area, July 1931. MSD.049.108
Brownsboro Road area. MSD.037.065
Model of a house next to various sized pipe models with two small trucks, 1932. MSD.new.024
Lumber installation, 1932. MSD.047.298
Boats and ice, Ohio River flood, February 2, 1937. MSD.M.637
Downtown Louisville, 3:00 p.m., January 28, 1937. MSD.M.535
Alley between Melwood and William, April 1936. MSD.092.008