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A Public Sewerage System Comes to Guelph: 1902 – 1921

In the early 1900s, Guelph had a sewage problem. Complaints about polluted rivers were common. Letters regarding the condition appeared in the Guelph Mercury. One stated that the water between the Dundas Bridge and to just below the Gow Bridge was “polluted by dyes, chemicals or some other impurities.” These made swimming dangerous, and the author blamed the indifference of the City Council writing it was “not sufficiently interested to see that the stream is kept clean.”

In 1902, the matter came to a head. At a meeting, Dr. Howitt, the city’s Medical Officer of Health, pointed out how the lack of a sewage system not only negatively impacted the health of residents but also the city’s prospects. It appears Guelph was the only city in Ontario that did not have a sewage system. Dr. Howitt said “No doubt there are many who would have located to Guelph if they had had sewerage.” He struck the point home by stating these would have been “people of means” who “will not locate in this town, no matter whatever other advantages we may have, unless they have modern conveniences in the way of sewerage.”

The message struck the right chords, not only with the Council but also with the Guelph Board of Trade. That year, the city passed a sewer by-law and began construction. A major part of the work involved in laying the trunk line was given to Reid and Co. Guelph’s engineer posted plans of the route in storefront windows along Wyndham Street.

Work began in 1902. It started at Pound Creek on Bridge St at Holliday’s Brewery and extended upwards. Workers “dug to the rock along Fleet Street and halfway up the hill on Yorkshire Street to the railway crossing” by April 29, 1902.

Construction did not proceed without conflict. That same year, John Lambert and 13 other residents on Nottingham Street protested publicly to City Council about the sewage lines being built. In a letter to the Council, they protested it being laid on their street. They claimed a minority on Nottingham had asked for it.

However, the construction of Guelph’s public sewage system continued. In 1903, work was described in the local newspaper as “progressing rapidly with large groups of men employed.” Many of these, ironically, were Italians. They lived in St. Patrick’s Ward where sewers were not to be constructed until over 10 years later.

Work on the system went ahead into the next decade. This included installing the lines and building a sewage plant. In 1911, work was declared to be “making excellent progress.” Of six new filtration beds, six were already completed. These beds consisted of multiple layers:

  1. Bottom layer of broken stone
  2. Layer of crushed stone
  3. Three layers of different grades of gravel
  4. Final layer of sand

The sewage entered the beds through wooden troughs. They filtered through it. This led to a covered drain. From there, the “filtered” sewage entered the river.

The plant was supposed to become operational in the next few months and planned to operate on an intermittent system.

Expansion and Its Accompanying Problems

The system continued to expand throughout the city. However, certain parts of the city remained without this service. Most notable of these was St. Patrick’s Ward. It remained without sewerage. The industries there had cesspools on their properties. By 1915, they had become filled.

Although the residents had complained, it was not until the owners and managers of the factories located there made their displeasure known that anything was done about it. IMICO and Guelph Stove were very vocal and, at last, something was done. In 1915, a sewerage system was slated to come to the Ward. Work began on Beverley between Stevenson and Kingsmill. Other lines ran from York Road to Harris and to Beverly and from Hill Crescent to Prospect Ave.

Problems continued to plague the sewage system almost from the beginning. While the pipes seemed to escape censure, the sewage disposal plant did not. Despite an agreement reached between Guelph and Guelph Township, disputes continually erupted. In 1908, the “authorities of Guelph Township” complained to the provincial officials that the Speed River was being polluted by sewage from the City of Guelph. This was contrary to an agreement between the city and township that the Speed River would not be polluted by sewage. The sites were then visited by Dr. Roberts of the MHO and Mr. Young, the Sanitation Inspector for the Township.

The farmers voiced their opinions to the duo, stating they said the Speed River’s water was unfit for their cattle to drink. It appears that the “Disposal Works” aka City of Guelph Sewerage Farm, was at fault. This enclosed system of so-called septic tanks was located 300 or 400 yards southwest of the Sleeman Brewery west of Silvercreek Road and in the Township. They said raw sewage was flowing into the river. At fault were the filter beds. The number of beds had not been completed.

The Township complained time and time again to the city. The city always promised to put the sewage plant into good shape – “asking the indulgence of the township authorities for a short time in order to perfect their arrangements” but failed to do so even after the township threatened legal action.

Such complaints featured prominently in the annual Report for the Ontario Department of Health. Although the City Clerk had written a letter in 1916 stating how they planned to improve both the plant and the filter beds, the representative of the Board of Health said nothing was done in 1917. This was even after Mayor Newstead, Chairman Kelly and Engineer McArthur agreed to accompany officials with the Department of Health on a tour of the facilities.

The first thing noted on this visit was “a large opening in the main sewer a short distance above the tanks from which the raw sewage was pouring out and spreading over the flats and finally finding its way to the river.” The Guelph officials said it was “ a sort of safety valve to protect the plant in case of flood.”  The Department officials were not buying it and concluded that no real “effort had or was being made to prevent absolutely raw sewage from running direct into the river.”

The Township representatives and Dr. H. G. Roberts MOH, withheld any immediate action. They hoped the local Board of Health would take some measures to ensure the City remedied the situation. If not, they would call upon the law to rectify the persistent problem.

Adding to the problem was the city’s ongoing construction of sewers. Guelph continued to expand the system without making additions to the sewage plant. This was to finally change in 1919/1920. Secord and Company finished their part in the construction of the sewage disposal plant. The “old septic tanks” had been cleaned out and “new apparatus placed in them.” No mention is made of the filtration beds, but it can be assumed they, too were updated. The entire cost of expenditures by January 1, 1921, was $43,477.


In the 19th century, industries led the way to expansion in their part of a city notoriously neglected. As noted above, in 1915, the complaints of several important companies resulted in this sector of the city finally getting sewage services. In 1935, a similar push was made. Wellington Packers and Matthews-Wells (the Pickle Factory) wanted to connect to a sewerage system. The city reached an agreement with them. For  20 years, the two companies would pay a monthly sum – M-W $5 and WP $35); the city would construct the eight-jack line.

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  1. Curtis

    This is fascinating. The racism… and just how NEW our systems actually are. Cool Read!