Long Overdue: Explaining Delays in Building Baltimore's Sewers, 1850-1905.
Christopher G. Boone
Baltimore was one of the last cities of its size to build modern, comprehensive sewers. The city invested considerable time and money in sewer plans in the 1850s, 1880s, and 1890s, but did not implement construction until 1905. A number of factors explain the delay. Long standing suspicion between Baltimore and the State of Maryland, coupled with a weak city charter, created institutional bottlenecks. Concern about pollution in neighboring counties and threats to the oyster industry forced Baltimore to consider expensive treatment solutions, which it could not afford without support from the State or changes to the city’s charter. Vested interest in privy vaults and concerns of high fees dampened enthusiasm for modern sewers. Baltimore’s natural drainage into the harbor made conditions more tolerable than they would be in a flat and poorly drained setting. A culture of privatism also hindered the development of a publicly-funded sewer system. The great fire of 1904 and enthusiasm to rebuild spurned the city and state into action. Pressure from public health officials, the city’s elite, and from local businesses forced the issue to referendum in 1905, which Baltimoreans supported. Continued strength of the Maryland Legislature and the oyster business ensured that sewage would be treated rather than diluted in the Chesapeake Bay.
Keywords: Sewers, Decision-making, Oysters

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