Flushed Away

The Hamilton Waterworks

Flushed Away

The Hamilton Waterworks

Matteo Camara

Hamilton - 2022

The city of Hamilton, located in the Canadian province of Ontario, contains a historic landmark known as the Hamilton Waterworks Pumping Station which was not only required by the city in the nineteenth century, but also continued to serve the people of Hamilton for decades. This paper discusses the numerous benefits of this historic landmark, particularly its ability to supply clean drinking water to the people of Hamilton during numerous cholera outbreaks. The use of a filtration plant and pumping station, the station’s numerous improvements throughout the 20th century, such as a more advanced filtration system that fully harnessed the station’s capabilities, and a functioning sewer system that assisted with cleaning up the city all proved to be crucial in improving the health, well-being, and quality of life of Hamilton residents.

Hamilton Waterworks Pumping Station was responsible for an increase in clean drinking water, and it set the stage for future sanitation upgrades within the city. The importance of the station was most apparent during two deadly epidemics of a water-based infection, known as cholera, which swept through Hamilton and killed many people in 1832 and 1854. Before Hamilton Waterworks was established, Hamilton residents had retrieved their water supply from five wells that were placed in different parts of the city in 1833 and served as the prototype for a public water system.1 The entire city was plagued by a lack of proper water regulations during this time, as the well system was quite primitive. It could be argued, however, that Hamilton residents were not fully aware of the dangers that the well water could cause.2 To some extent, the government was more concerned with improving transportation as opposed to taking the time necessary to build strong sewers and water systems.3 However, the cholera outbreaks prompted the city of Hamilton to address the fact that their water supply was vulnerable. The wells themselves were often at risk of being polluted with various contaminants because of material originating from the sewer systems invading the wells.4 The city could not ignore the lack of basic water regulations since water was an essential resource that was threatened by the epidemics. The 1854 cholera epidemic had the ability to severely damage a population, as a staggering total of 72 deaths happened in just one day and an estimated 550 out of 16,000 Hamiltonians died just in a few weeks.5 These statistics outline the severity of the outbreak and emphasize how hard the city had to work to overcome the challenge of securing a safe water source.

Despite the cholera epidemics causing many people in Hamilton to become ill, the 1800s prompted numerous positive developments to the city’s water systems and infrastructure. Hamilton created their first pumping plant to provide the city’s residents with clean water and to limit the spread of cholera through contaminated water. As chief engineer of the Montreal Water Board, Thomas C. Keefer, was consulted to judge the propsals for Hamilton’s waterworks system.6 He gave his consent towards the construction of the station and for its water supply to stem from Lake Ontario.7 Born in Thorold, Ontario, Keefer was an extremely significant figure even before the creation of Hamilton’s Waterworks, as he was one of the engineers who noted the odd colour and strange taste of Hamilton’s water supply.8 Key engineers and surveyors were crucial for a project this large, and they were permitted to inspect any piece of land they thought would be fit to provide the population with clean and safe water.9 Keefer remained the chief engineer for the project until the construction was complete in 1859.10 The Hamilton Waterworks Pumping Station was extremely revolutionary for the city because it was a strenuous process that Hamilton undertook to combat the presence of cholera. Clean water offered the people of Hamilton far better protection against waterborne diseases.

Although Hamilton Waterworks was useful, it was not effective enough on its own to eliminate cholera and other waterborne viruses. For example, the city of Hamilton was forced to heavily modify its sanitation system amid a horrible outbreak of typhoid fever in 1888.11 Hamilton Waterworks, like many other city sanitation projects, were not perfect after the initial construction and required updates especially with new technological developments and as viruses continued to appear. Nonetheless, Hamilton Waterworks Pumping Station provided the city of Hamilton with cleaner drinking water than they had prior to the 1860s, which prevented new or re-emerging viruses from being as catastrophic as they could have been had Hamilton still lacked a cleaner water supply.

Hamilton Waterworks received many upgrades in the years following its initial construction to compete with the city’s growing population and to maximize its effectiveness. Despite the population fluctuating greatly from 1847 to 1911, there was a general trend towards a population increase, as evident by the population in 1847 being approximately 6,832 people and growing to 70,221 by 1910.12 The population grew so extensively that the amount of water being consumed was greater than the speed of water going into the ground in 1871. This growth prompted the city to usher in numerous changes to the Waterworks such as the creation of an opening which ran from the basin directly to the lake. The water-filtering basin was extended by approximately 400 feet from 1876 to 1877, and a brand new channel was constructed which featured a diameter of 36 inches and a total length of 1,870 feet. The beam engines were also extremely important components to the entire system and made up the pumping mechanics themselves. The diameter of the engine cylinders was expanded from approximately 24 inches to 30 inches.13 These upgrades allowed Hamilton Waterworks to remain useful and able to accommodate the rapidly growing number of people residing in Hamilton. These modifications allowed the station to provide cleaner drinking water and reach a larger population, thereby improving the city’s overall quality of life.

One could argue that the improvements made to Hamilton Waterworks did not completely remove diseases to begin with, and simply extending the Waterworks’ dimensions would not do anything to remedy the situation. However, the city of Hamilton was almost required to constantly update its infrastructure because of the factors previously discussed. Specifically, Hamilton’s growing population meant that increasingly more people required healthy, clean water for them to use for a variety of purposes.14 The expansion of the Waterworks' original form and the maintenance of its equipment was necessary because even a couple of years after its initial construction, the station could not meet the city’s demands and there was always a risk of the mechanics breaking down.15 Action had to be taken to lessen the severity of potential cholera epidemics and modifications to Hamilton Waterworks was a helpful solution, as it not only dealt with disease, but the availability of water could help when fires occurred due to homes at the time being constructed from wood.16

The Hamilton Waterworks Water Filtration Plant, constructed in March of 1933, was also extremely important and served the people of Hamilton for many years. The plant provided the city with filtered water through the use of a cohesive system which included the low lift pumping station, a room containing four larger pumps which had a Venturi meter to transcribe the water being pumped as it was passing through to two flash mixing machines. The water would then be combined with a chemical compound known as alum and four mixing units would retrieve the water-alum combination. Both the chemicals and the mixing motion would separate the water from large clumps of material, known as floc, in order to filter the liquid.17 Through these processes, it is evident that the ability to further filter and purify Hamilton’s drinking water prevented the city from being further at risk of major health concerns and safety hazards.

Hamilton Waterworks also led to the development of the city’s sewer system which was a significant piece of its operation. The sewer system was created to be an amalgamated system with the systems that received the waste spanning the escarpment’s end all the way to Hamilton Harbour. In 1925, intercepting sewers were eventually created to cut off and take the sewage to a pumping plant. The waste was brought to a pressure main which carried it to a screening station and then the sewage was dumped.18 This sewer system was extremely useful as it provided better means of sewage disposal, which allowed the city environment to be more clean in general and contributed to positive health outcomes among the residents. The sewage system received upgrades just like Hamilton Waterworks itself, but these updates were more recent. For example, in 1955, the actual sewage flow of Hamilton was recorded as being 45 million gallons per day (mgd), which prompted city officials to try and build a treatment station that could manage about 60 mgd.19 In 1956, other lands were surveyed next to Hamilton Harbour with the intention to develop sewer systems for those areas. City planners were aiming to properly dispose of sewage even with a predicted population increase of approximately 100,000 people or, if the trend continued, possibly 600,000 people.20 These upgrades meant that the sewer system could hold and dispose of more sewage as time passed, which helped the city maintain its cleanliness. Both the sewage system and the pumping station combined were a formidable force that worked together and allowed unsanitary conditions, which influenced epidemic outbreaks, to be dealt with properly.21

A possible counterargument to the sewage system, however, could be that dumping sewage could cause further pollution, such as sewage being dropped into Hamilton Harbour without being treated.22 Simply dropping waste into a body of water posed an environmental threat to the water and the animals which lived in it, a valid concern that the designers did not consider, as they seemed to be more concerned with providing the city a functioning sewer system that could effectively flush the dirt and grime from the streets. In other words, they appeared to be indifferent towards where the sewage ended up.

In conclusion, Hamilton Waterworks Pumping Station was an extremely significant piece of the city and its history. The station brought numerous important benefits to its residents for decades and assisted with the removal of diseases such as cholera, effectively flushing them out of the streets. From its main function providing clean and purified water to the people of Hamilton, to its numerous enhancements over the course of its production and even a fully functional sewer system that helped maintain cleanliness in the city, it is evident that Hamilton Waterworks was extremely influential and paved the way for future sanitation efforts in the city.

  1. Mark Osbaldeston, “Hamilton Waterworks 1835/Built to different plans,” in Unbuilt Hamilton (Hamilton: Dundurn Press, 2016), 57. 

  2. Nathan G. Garrett, “Sanitary Conditions in Early Hamilton,” in Ch2olera: Hamilton’s Forgotten Epidemics, eds. D. Ann Herring and Heather T. Battles (Ontario: Department of Anthropology McMaster University, 2012), 121. 

  3. D. Ann Herring and Heather T. Battles, “Ch2olera: Hamilton’s Forgotten Epidemics,” in Ch2olera: Hamilton’s Forgotten Epidemics, eds. D. Ann Herring and Heather T. Battles (Ontario: Department of Anthropology McMaster University, 2012), 5. 

  4. Garrett, “Sanitary Conditions,” 121. 

  5. The Hamilton Spectator, “June 26, 1854: Cholera Epidemic Claims 550 in Hamilton,” The Hamilton Spectator (Hamilton, Ontario), September 21, 1892, accessed January 28, 2022, https://www.thespec.com/life/local-history/2016/09/23/june-26-1854-cholera-epidemic-claims-550-in-hamilton.html

  6. City of Hamilton, “Historical Highlights Celebrating 150 Years of Municipal Drinking Water,” accessed June 2022, http://www2.hamilton.ca/NR/rdonlyres/9915FB7F-A4C1-47A5-A157-969C0C9E41E9/0/2010RateBookHistoricalHighlightsPart1.pdf, 88. 

  7. Ema Rubignoni, “Flushing Away the Flu: Systems of Hygienic Thought in Hamilton, 1889-90,” in Miasma to Microscopes: The Russian Influenza Pandemic in Hamilton, eds D. Ann Herring and Sally Carraher (Ontario: Department of Anthropology McMaster University, 2011), 131. 

  8. City of Hamilton, “Historical Highlights,” 89; Osbaldeston, “Hamilton Waterworks,” 59. 

  9. City of Hamilton, “A by-law, relating to water works for the city of Hamilton” (Hamilton, 1856), 5-6. 

  10. City of Hamilton, “Historical Highlights,” 88. 

  11. Rubignoni, “Flushing Away the Flu,” 132. 

  12. Willis Chipman, Andrew F. Macallum, and Hamilton Board of Control, Report No. 1 On Waterworks Improvements (Hamilton: CIHM Microfiche Series, 1911), 4, accessed January 28, 2021, https://www.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.80720/7?r=0&s=1

  13. Chipman, Macallum, and Hamilton Board Control, Report No. 1, 4. 

  14. City of Hamilton, “A by-law,” 5. 

  15. Chipman, Macallum, and Hamilton Board Control, Report No. 1, 8. 

  16. Garrett, “Sanitary Conditions in Early Hamilton,” 124. 

  17. W. L. McFaul, “The Water Filtration Plant of Hamilton, Ontario,” American Water Works Association 28, no. 1 (1936): 57-64, accessed January 28, 2022, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41226493

  18. D.B. Redfern, “Design of the Hamilton, Ontario, Sewer System and Treatment Works,” Water Pollution Federal Control 34, no. 10 (1962): 1052, accessed January 28, 2022, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25034711

  19. Redfern, “Sewer System and Treatment Works,” 1054-55. 

  20. Redfern, “Sewer System and Treatment Works,” 1054. 

  21. Rubignoni, “Flushing Away the Flu,” 132. 

  22. Redfern, “Sewer System and Treatment Works,” 1052.