A large sinkhole opened up in the vicinity of Charles Street recently, bringing downtown traffic to a standstill. The ensuing maintenance repairs took teams of engineers several weeks to complete, but it afforded passers by a rare glimpse of what goes on beneath our city streets.
The complex systems that are right under our feet
Most of us go about our daily business, blissfully unaware of the complex utility services literally under our feet. Huge pipes, and a multitude of service cables snake across from side to side beneath the paving. From the pipes carrying water to the TV cables, and gas mains, the range is enormous. The largest of all are the gigantic sewer pipes, that carry away enormous amounts of liquid waste each day. These monstrous sewage pipes can be eight feet or more in diameter. Modern city life would be completely untenable without these massive drainage systems that keep our homes and streets free of sewage. The maintenance repairs required to keep these systems functioning is mind boggling. In some European cities there is a veritable underground labyrinth of tunnels which make up the sewerage disposal system.
The cobbled streets of old Europe
Turn back the clock a few hundred years and you’ll be confronted with an entirely different scene. One can still get an idea of how different conditions were when visiting some of the historic areas of many old European cities. The cobbled streets all had a shallow channel running down the middle of the road. The roadways were constructed so that they sloped from the buildings downwards towards this channel, which served as an open sewer. The town residents would simply pour their waste and effluent out into the roadway, whether from the doorways or from overhead windows and balconies, from where it would eventually be washed by the rain, down the channel, discharging eventually into the rivers that flowed past most built-up areas. Towns and cities were usually built next to rivers. These served as ready supply of water, which would have to be boiled before it was fit for human consumption, and as natural sewers to carry away the effluent that was constantly dumped into them. Maintenance repairs were unknown, and unthought of by our ancestors!
The miracle of modern plumbing
The concept of covered sewers was a much later invention, but even those originally depended on rain to flush them clean. The idea of water piped into and out of homes, was a modern invention that our forefathers of a few hundred years ago, never remotely dreamed of, and even the palaces of kings had no faucets supplying running water. All household drinking and cooking water had to be purchased from the village water carrier or lugged home from a nearby well. Indoor plumbing did not yet exist, and a hot bath usually meant a trip to the closest public bathhouse. For a fee, an attendant filled a tub with heated water and one waited one’s turn to take a bath. A far cry from the lovely hot shower we take so for granted today!
The little house in the back yard
The generation of our grandparents can probably still remember the visit to the little house in the yard that had to be undertaken, rain or shine, whenever nature called. Horrifying as it sounds to our modern generation, those were the bathroom facilities that everyone accepted as the norm. Imagine putting on your overcoat and trekking out in the middle of the night, in a freezing downpour, to get to the bathroom! Of course the alternative was a chamber pot that you stowed under the high-rise bed until the morning! Hygiene was, of necessity, very different in those days!
Did you pull the chain?
The earliest flushing toilets were very different to the ones we know today. Water was piped high up the wall into an overhead cistern from which a long chain dangled. A pull on the chain released the water down another larger diameter pipe and into the toilet bowl, from where it did its job of flushing away the waste, and maintenance repairs were much simpler than today. The low level cisterns which are found in today’s homes are a much newer innovation. Today’s young children would be mystified by grandparents asking them if they had “pulled the chain”, the original version of asking: “have you flushed the toilet?”
How grateful we should be today for the facilities that are commonplace to us, but were an undreamed of luxury to our great-grandparents. The only time we are reminded of this is when the toilet backs up or some other plumbing mishap occurs. Fortunately we have the local plumber to call on our cell phones to carry out our maintenance repairs, should such an eventuality arise!