The History of the Newark Sewer System

by Glenn R. Modica

Images of the Newark Sewer System from the booklet.


Between 1997-2000, a team of historians, architectural historians and archaeologists were contracted by the City of Newark to evaluate the historical significance of the city’s brick sewer system prior to its proposed rehabilitation. The investigation found the 68-mile network of brick sewers to be historically significant in improving public health and fostering the urbanization and growth of Newark. Furthermore, its design and construction, primarily egg-shaped in cross section, represents a distinctive style of brick sewers installed in urban America from the mid to late 19th and early 20th century. As a result of the investigation, Newark’s 68 miles of brick sewers were found to be a significant historic resource and therefore eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

The investigation was the result of a process by which historic, architectural and archaeological sites are managed today. In 1966, the National Historic Preservation Act was passed by Congress and signed into federal law. This law requires agencies, such as the Newark Department of Water and Sewer Utilities, who need certain federal funds or licenses for their projects, to consider the effects of their actions on historic properties. Those properties that are determined to be of national, state or local significance are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the official list of cultural resources significant in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering or culture. New Jersey’s historic cultural resources are managed by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Historic Preservation Office.


Since the colonial period, cities did not provide services we take for granted today-clean water, garbage disposal, street paving, sewer facilities, and police and fire protection. Instead, early American cities were more concerned with promoting commerce and trade rather than improving public works, which was considered a matter best handled by the individual. Beginning in the nineteenth century, rapid industrialization and a soaring population burdened the built environment, straining limited water supplies and taxing conventional patterns of waste disposal. Cities were degenerating into unhealthy places putting their residents at risk. For modern cities to survive, they had to implement large public works programs to improve and safeguard public health. Sewer systems, also called the “invisible city,” perceptibly altered the shape of the city, allowing it to expand into its modern form. The process of constructing Newark’s sewer system reflects the dynamic changes in nineteenth century urban America.

In May 1666, thirty Puritan families from New England landed on the south bank of the Passaic River and established New Ark, named for the English town of Newark-on-Trent. The settlers laid out the town on a grid pattern typical of New England towns, with spacious tree-lined streets, public spaces such as a commons, and a drilling ground for military training. Emanating from the intersection Broad and Market Streets, small artisan shops, spacious homes and churches gradually gave way to large agricultural fields on the outskirts of the village. Being surrounded by salt marshes on three sides severely impeded transportation to and from Newark, and throughout the colonial period, Newark remained a relatively isolated agricultural community.

Newark’s favorable location between the Passaic River and Orange Mountains provided all the natural advantages of an abundant water supply and drainage. The confluence of two streams formed a pond near the center of town known as “the watering place,” where residents came to water their cattle and fill their pails and buckets. Several watercourses originating from the high ridges of the Orange Mountains meandered through the Newark plain and carried away excess rainwater before descending into the river. These streams and watercourses also provided a convenient outlet for depositing all matter of garbage, waste and refuse. During periods of heavy rains the watercourses overflowed their banks onto the city’s unpaved streets, creating a sea of mud and filth and posing a serious health hazard.

To remove household waste and garbage, privies, also known as outhouses, were small wooden sheds that served as a receptacle for human waste. However, privies tended to leak their contents into the rear yards, where the household well was also located, thereby contaminating the water supply. To remedy the problem, Newark employed scavengers who drove their wagons through the city during the middle of the night and removed the contents of the privies. The “night soil” from the privies was carted to farms on the outskirts of the city, but this only worsened the problem as waste spilled onto streets from their uncovered wagons, garbage was dumped in vacant lots and the outlying districts were neglected.

Beginning in the 1830's, after the completion of the Morris Canal and two railroad lines to Newark, the city swelled from a compact village into an industrial center. Manufactories producing a variety of goods- cabinets, carriages, pottery, shoes and soap- were established alongside breweries, tanneries and mills. The Irish immigrants stayed after building the canal to work in Newark’s new factories. Soon they were followed by a large migration of Germans. Newark’s industrialization attracted so many foreign born that between 1840-1856, the city’s population more than tripled from 17,000 to 56,000. By 1860, Newark could boast of being not only the largest city in the state, with double the population of second largest city, but the principal industrial center in the nation.

Meanwhile, living conditions deteriorated. Pigs roamed the streets in search of garbage, animal carcasses littered the streets, and the waterways that traversed the city carried away household wastes in full view for all to see. The poor and immigrant classes lived in dark, wretched tenements without running water or basic sanitary amenities. Consequently, Newark, like most northeastern cities, was periodically plagued by outbreaks of epidemics. Infectious diseases such as cholera, typhoid, yellow fever, dysentery and small pox claimed thousands of lives, mostly the poor. For years, the medical profession believed that these infectious diseases were caused by the inhalation of poisonous gases known as “miasmas-” noxious fumes emanating from rotting animal and vegetable matter.

At the same time, sanitary reformers in other cities were taking extensive surveys connecting disease with squalid living conditions. In 1842, Edwin Chadwick, a London sanitarian, found a positive correlation between the location of sewers and the lessening of disease. His report on London’s slums claimed that an integrated sewer system would vastly improve the “uncoordinated morass” of individually administered sewers. Three years later, John Griscom, the New York City health inspector, published a report clearly influenced and modeled after Chadwick’s that called for more sewers to carry away refuse and wastewater. Despite these reports citing the correlation between improved health and sewerage, it would take over a generation before these ideas would finally be accepted.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, it was clear that Newark’s natural drainage was no longer adequate. In 1849, at the urging of Newark’s business class, an addendum to the city charter authorized the Common Council to build and repair sewers. These “common sewers,” merely open ditches dug in the middle of the street, only exasperated the problem. Since almost all of Newark’s streets were still unpaved, during heavy rains the sewers overflowed their banks creating a quagmire of mud and waste. In some instances, the streets were clogged with household garbage, human waste and decaying animals, flooding nearby homes and gardens. The city’s newspapers lambasted the Common Council’s futile attempt to improve drainage, calling their efforts “utter folly” and a “public nuisance.”

In an effort to remedy the situation, a citizens committee formed to urge the Common Council on Sewerage and Drainage to construct underground sewers that it believed “would prove permanently useful and durable public works.” In August 1852, the Common Council adopted a plan to build underground sewers that would empty into the Passaic River. The plan had been devised after length consultation with engineers employed in sewer construction in New York City and was based on sewer advances that had been made in Europe.

Work began on the Newark’s first sewer in 1852 and was completed in 1854. Built under Broad Street, the sewer ran east under Park Place and Rector Street before emptying into the Passaic River. This circular brick conduit, which still serves the city today, is five feet in diameter, 1305 feet long and 23 feet below ground. Market Street was sewered later that year between Washington Street and New Jersey Railroad Avenue under three separate contracts, the longest segment over a mile long with an outfall also at the Passaic River.

In addition to man-made sewers, the extant streams that once flowed through the city were used as sewer receptacles but were gradually covered over to contain offensive odors. Of these vanished streams, Mill Brook or First River was the largest and most important. Mill Brook was formed by the junction of two smaller brooks near what is now the southern end of Branch Brook Park. By 1863 Mill Brook, as a watercourse, had outlived its usefulness and began to disappear as new streets were laid out above it, until by 1890 the last piece was covered to from the approach to the Clay Street Bridge. Mill Brook still flows today, but it is contained within a twin-tubed sewer, each 6 feet 9 inches high and 9 1/4 feet wide.

Almost all of the city’s sewer built in this period and up until the early twentieth century were brick. Although limited sewer systems built during colonial period used wood- Boston being the most notable example- it proved to be too porous and was replaced by brick in the mid-nineteenth century. Newark’s sewers were built in all different shapes and sizes- circular, arch-shaped, U-shaped, horseshoe-shaped, box-shaped, egg shaped and eye shaped. Circular sewers were considered to be the strongest, but oval shaped sewers gave the optimal flow. The egg-shaped design was introduced in 1846. It promised both optimal flow capacity and the greatest movement during low levels of use. Most of Newark’s brick sewers employ the egg-shaped with horseshoe-shaped and circular-shaped used to a lesser extent.

Despite these initial advances, by 1858, the city had built only 4 ½ miles of sewers; by 1870, only 12 miles. Immediately following the Civil War, sewers were built on the outskirts of the city as real estate promoters acquired cheap land in the hope of attracting new residents to the area. Public improvements “ran mad...Streets were laid out in pasture lands where they would not be needed for years to come...Sewers were built in streets that were not graded, and while all this was going on, the center of the city was neglected.” For a city with the largest and densest population in the state, a city attracting more and more factories and warehouses, a city building outward every year, the pace of sewer construction was woefully inadequate.

Newark was not alone. Most of the nation’s urban centers lacked the necessary infrastructure to ensure public health. As was common in the nineteenth century, sewers were built in an arbitrary fashion without a master plan. The result was poor drainage, constant blockages, chronic leaks and expensive maintenance costs. In some cities, such as Baltimore and New Orleans, sewers were simply not built at all.

Several reasons particular to the era explain Newark’s lack of sewers. Sewer construction was an expensive and time consuming process. By 1855, only one year after its first sewer had been completed, Newark had spent over $111,000 on sewer construction. During the nineteenth century, all excavation had to be performed by hand, and costs could further escalate if rock was encountered that had to be blasted away. Additionally, the Common Council required that proposed improvements had to be advertised in the press; the cost of these advertisements could sometimes amount to one-third of the total cost of construction. All of Newark’s early sewers were built of brick, an expensive material to produce. Not until the latter part of the nineteenth century did technological improvements, improved methods of financing, and use of cheaper materials make sewers easier and cheaper to build.

For years, Newark’s Common Council pursued a policy to keep taxes low and avoid public debt in an effort to attract capital and labor to the city. While this policy did have the desired effect of promoting industrial growth, it bankrupt the city with regard to all public improvements. As a result, sewers were financed by assessing all property owners to be connected. Consequently, private sewers accounted for almost 12% of all sewer miles by 1910. While private financing allowed for new sewer construction, it precluded the possibility of designing an integrated system. It also ensured that sewers were built in only the more affluent areas, leaving the poorest and most overcrowded areas without means of sanitation.

Construction of an effective sewerage system demanded technical expertise and the efforts of technical experts who possessed a knowledge of hydraulics, surveying and construction. Newark’s first City Surveyors, men such as Gustave Lehlback, Peter Witzer, John S. Schaeffer and Ernest Adam, who were oversaw the city’s sewer construction had little training in either sanitary or civil engineering. Not until the twentieth century when a growing cadre of civil, municipal and sanitary engineers, such as Edward Rankin, who held the post of Newark City Engineer from 1903-1945, did they assume a central role in the growth and planning of the American city.

Finally, the long-held belief in the miasma theory severely limited public support for new sewer construction, as the inhalation of sewer gas was held responsible for all sorts of afflictions ranging from arthritis to insanity. The prevailing attitude is best exemplified in Lott Southard’s 1877 report on the status of Newark’s mortality. After the studying the effect of dumping excreta and waste water into privies, cesspools and sewers and allowed to putrefy and decay, Southard concluded that it created “an untold amount of deadly gas, which if it does not find its way into the dwellings and sleeping apartments, diffuses itself into the atmosphere surrounding these dwellings...with the effect of silently, slowly, but surely poisoning the unconscious victim.”

But in 1880, Edgar Holden, president of the board of medical directories for the Mutual Life Insurance Company produced a landmark report. Plotted on two sewer maps of Newark, one from 1872 and the other from 1876, Holden marked the location of “preventable diseases,” such as diphtheria, cholera and typhus, then he compared the mortality rates between both years. Holden was a firm believer in the miasma theory, but seeing the direct correlation between sewer location and the reduction of mortality altered his opinion: “Indeed own conviction prior to this investigation was, that the sewers were a source of increased mortality, a conviction which does not appear justified by the facts.” Holden’s report provided the first local evidence proving the beneficial effects of sewers. And, as a result, Newark’s Board of Health launched a vigorous campaign to construct sewers and rid the city of privies, cesspools, manure pits, and other vestiges of an unsanitary era.

The administration of sewer contracts came under the purview of the Newark Board of Trade. Organized in 1868 by New Jersey State Legislature to “promote the material interests and prosperity of the city,” the Board of Trade comprised men from Newark’s industrial and mercantile class, men of power, money and influence, men who controlled the city’s factories, warehouses, piers, docks, freight terminals, railroads, just about anything that came into or out of the city. As the Board kept a close eye on safeguarding their material interests, and, in turn, the city’s, they pursued ways to keep Newark a viable place for economic growth. Members of the Board were well aware that improved health and sanitation of the city was of utmost concern. Meeting in 1873, when Newark had only 15 miles of sewers, to discuss the quality of the city’s water supply, the Board warned presciently that “with the constant increase in population, the multiplying of mills and factories...that supply will be neither increasing in quantity nor improving in quality.” Of course it was their “mills and factories” that poured industrial waste into the Passaic River.

The Passaic River had once been an idyllic place for boating, swimming and fishing. Some Newark’s finest estates faced the river and much of the city’s social life, including annual regattas, revolved around the waterway. Contamination of the river reached dangerous levels after the Civil War as factory waste and raw sewage poured directly into the river. Newark tried to blame upriver towns, such as Paterson, for the contamination, but an 1882 study confirmed that all of Newark’s 60 miles of sewers emptied directly into the Passaic River. Water samples taken from the Passaic River showed it to be of dreadful quality: “Instead of sweet-tasting, limpid water, we have a bluish-red liquid, disgusting to the taste and smell.” In 1892, Newark tapped into the Pequannock watershed for its water supply and abandoned the Passaic River entirely, using it solely as a repository of sewerage.

In 1884, the Board of Trade established a special sanitary committee to improve Newark’s pollution and sanitation crisis. Pointed references made by the Board highlighted the deleterious social and economic consequences emanating from such “malaria-producing conditions,” stating further that “stagnant water and filth raises the death rate, and all this, besides distress and sorrow means injury to our reputation as a healthful city.” So pressing had the sewerage problem become to businessmen that they felt compelled to take the initiative to eliminate it. So with its own funds, they invited a group of engineers to survey Newark’s sewage disposal system and recommend improvements.

Some of the country’s most prominent and respected civil engineers of the late nineteenth century- Julius W. Adams, Alphonse Fteley and Rudolph Hering- consulted on this project. Years earlier, Julius W. Adams was an advisor to New York City when they implemented their sewer system. Alphonse Fteley’s had a long career in sanitary engineering consulting cities throughout the northeast on the construction of sewers, dams and reservoirs. But perhaps the most well-known sanitary engineer of his era was Rudolph Hering. Born in Philadelphia in 1847, Hering earned a civil engineering degree in Dresden, Germany, and after returning to the United States, embarked on a prolific career, consulting on water supply and sewage disposal projects in over 100 cities, including Trenton and Plainfield in New Jersey, Chicago, Boston, New York and Los Angeles.

The principal fault with Newark’s sewers, observed the engineers, was that they had been constructed without a preconceived plan. Their report stated: “The condition of things which you desire to improve is, or has been, common to other cities because of the lack of a comprehensive system of sewers; as the population of Newark grew and the limits of the inhabited portion of its territory were extended, sewers were built for the immediate relief of the new districts.” By this time, only 54 miles of sewers existed for Newark’s 131 miles of paved streets, and about two-thirds of the city’s residents were still dependent on privies and cesspools.

For years, the most pressing concern for the city was the inadequate sewerage in the meadows. Sewers in this area had little fall and emptied into sluggish tidal creeks that overflowed their banks during high tide or heavy rains. As early as 1874, the Common Council hoped to reclaim the salt meadows for residential and commercial use. “If wisely treated,” the council claimed, “{it} can be prepared and become a healthful home of 250,000 inhabitants.” Years earlier, the Peddie Street Ditch, 25 feet wide, 6 feet deep and 3 miles long, was dug through the meadows towards Newark Bay. The ditch required constant dredging, requiring a great outlay of money and proved to be an utter fiasco.

The engineers proposed a large trunk sewer that would collect wastewater from sewers in the meadows divert it into Newark Bay. In 1884, work began on an intercepting sewer and pumping station in the meadows. Known as the Great Intercepting Sewer. It was completed three years later at a cost of $600,000. Sewage was conveyed to a pumping station on the edge of the meadows, where it was lifted and pumped through culverts to an outlet some 200 feet into Newark Bay. The sewer was a success. Proposals soon followed to connect sewers within the city to the intercepting sewer, thereby reducing the pollution of the Passaic River.

Relief could not come soon enough. In 1890, Newark had the highest mortality rate in the country. With over 27 deaths per 1000 population, more people in the city were dying from disease than before the Civil War. Years of neglect, improper maintenance, and political indecision were taking its toll on human life. In his 1894 inaugural message, Mayor Lebkuecher stated that Newark’s sewers, “built in the main without regard to general utility or future requirements, fall far short of our needs, and the lack of them, in many sections, is a menace to public health.” During the Lebkuecher administration, the city embarked on an extensive sewer building campaign. Between 1894-1910, approximately 200 miles of sewers were built, almost double the amount already in existence, marking the city’s greatest era of sewer construction. In fact, during this period over 17,000 miles of sewers were built throughout the United States. By 1919 Newark had sewered over 95%of its improved area, and its mortality rate had dropped nearly 60%.

While almost all of Newark’s homes and businesses were properly sewered, all waste still flowed into the Passaic River. In 1895, the boards of health of the lower Passaic River Valley in 1895 met to discuss and remedy the nauseating odors, increased sickness, and economic losses brought on by the river’s pollution. Pressure was also applied by the Newark Board of Trade and the communities bordering the river. Organized the following year, a state investigatory commission studied various methods of sewage disposal in the United State and Europe. They recommended constructing a trunk sewer along the course of the Passaic River below Paterson to intercept and carry away sewage into Newark Bay. In 1902, the Passaic Valley Sewage Commission was established to oversee construction of the sewer, but with the outlet in New York Bay instead. Not begun until 1912 and delayed by World War I, the trunk sewer was completed in 1924, with a pumping station built in the meadows. The Passaic Valley Trunk Sewer linked 22 municipalities along the Passaic River and drained an area of 80 square miles. After raw sewage was treated at the pumping station, it plunged into the Newark shaft to an outfall in Newark Bay and eventual diffusion into New York Bay. This shaft, some 280 feet deep, and lined with concrete, was America’s first deep shaft outfall pressure tunnel.

The system of sewers that designed in this period served two purposes: to remove human waste and to remove excess rainwater from the city streets. Household wastewater is introduced into the sewer system through small pipes (generally 12"-18" in diameter) known as lateral sewers that lead from the house and connect to a collector pipe, or sub-main. The sub-mains carry wastewater to large mains or trunk sewers that are connected to treatment plants by interceptors. Since World War II, combined sewer overflow regulators and wastewater treatment plants have been added to the sewer system. Today, the western portion of the city is served by the Essex and Union County Treatment Plants in Elizabeth, while the remainder is served by the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission treatment plant in southeastern Newark.


Sewer construction in Newark reflects a nationwide shift in nineteenth century urban planning. As municipal governments moved from a long-standing policy of promoting commerce and trade to ensuring the public health, they embarked on an unprecedented public works campaign. Made possible by improved construction methods and advances in science, American cities strove to eradicate disease, improve living conditions and ensure future prosperity. What began as a piecemeal and poorly administered program developed into intelligently designed public works. By the early twentieth century, sewer systems were some of the largest, most ambitious and expensive capital improvements ever undertaken by American cities.

Newark’s present 170-mile sewer system is largely the result of construction that took place during the nineteenth century. The system has remained largely intact and functioning for over 100 years, with some segments nearly 150 years old. The 68 miles of brick sewers, primarily of the egg-shaped design, rank second in the city to reinforced concrete. Although part of the “invisible city,” Newark’s sewer system was an essential ingredient that reduced mortality, enhanced public health and made the city a viable place to live and work. Without this system, Newark’s residential and industrial growth, from a small village to a modern metropolis, would not have been possible.


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