Historical European Sewers - Part One

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

When were sewers invented in Hamburg?

Have you ever wondered about the mysteries that lie beneath our urban streets? There are many interesting nuggets of historical information (and even some urban legends) that will surprise you. This is the first in a series of blogs that will explore the important role and historical significance of our underground sewage and drainage systems in urban areas throughout Europe. Today, we cast a spotlight on the history of sewers in Hamburg, Germany.

Some historical perspective

When the older half of the city of Hamburg burned – back in the 1840s – a new sewer system had to be built. A brilliant English engineer, William Lindley, designed a revolutionary system that was vented to (and through) the roof drains of all the connected buildings. Using nature itself as a flushing force, Lindley built a flushing system that would use the tide water – once every week – to clean the new main sewer lines. The installation of the new system began in 1842 and, twenty-five years after its initial construction, the sewers were still clean and virtually free of any foul odors. This urban sewer system design concept caught on and cities throughout Europe – and in the United States, as well – began to follow suit. And many of these historical sewer lines still exist – including the city of Hamburg.
My heart flutters when I hear the word ‘historic’! These old sewer still have soul to me. They make me remember a time where craftsmen/masons, by the sweat of their brow, laboriously and with great attention to detail, built these old sewer systems. It’s very important to me that these historic systems are well maintained so that they stay in optimal condition because of the apparent historical value of Hamburg’s drainage system – which we  must preserve in parts.
Hans-Joachim Hoch , District Manager, Hamburg Wasser

Caretakers of the underground

Herr Hans-Joachim Hoch, District Manager for Hamburg Wasser (the city’s water utility company), has never regretted his decision to become what is essentially the district’s underground caretaker. He considers himself to be “at the service of the environment and our citizens – contributing to keeping the water of the city clean and safe.” And he takes this responsibility very seriously – so much so that he devotes a lot of his time to educating the public (through television broadcasts, press briefings and videos) and lobbying “for more understanding and respect for the daily work of the sewer workers in the water systems of Hamburg.” And, as you can see from this video (below), Herr Hoch obviously loves his job!

21st century challenges with old sewer lines

At least a few hundred kilometers of the original sewer lines are still in place today – and in pretty good original shape. Some have been updated with a new inner liner.  But still, there are a few challenges.
In the early days of the sewage system, the housewives only washed their dishes and clothes with soap. Nowadays, countless chemical cleaning detergents find their way into the sewer system and form an unknown and ever-changing chemical cocktail. This attacks the substance of the masonry and its joints. The second problem is fat built-up, which can clog the sewer lines – especially now that rainwater and sewer water are often separated. There’s less flow in the old sewer lines, making clogs an ever bigger risk. 
Hans-Joachim Hoch
And there’s another cause for concern: the city now has more storage space and therefore when it rains, less water flows into the sewer. With less water flow, more debris accumulates in the system and this causes problems for the infrastructure. 

When asked what advice he would give to engineers designing city sewers today, Herr Hoch said “From time to time, think and take note of the innovative ideas of our ancestors (i.e. cleaning with wastewater, surge flushing, targeted diversion of wastewater flows that differ weekly). Modern high-pressure washers cannot do everything.”  These are words of advice that are worth listening to!

Catch a glimpse of history

The evolution of sewer management throughout history is actually quite fascinating. Changing socio-economic conditions, city structures and the environment have played key roles in how these systems have been designed, constructed and maintained over time. In Hamburg, they actually will give you a tour – upon request. Herr Hoch suggests that people should first visit a small Art Nouveau-style boarding house – built specifically for a visit by the Chancellor of Germany. The adjacent dressing room also includes a boat chamber.  And worth a visit is the main entrance of the historical sewer line – under the Lombard bridge of 1868 – as well as the sewer intersection on the harbor road. The original state of the old Altonaer Grenzsiels on strasse Pepermöhlenbek is currently being renovated.

For more information on how to get a private tour of the historical sewer system in Hamburg, go to the Hamburg Wasser Facebook page. And stay tuned as Wavin continues its exploration of the historical sewer systems through Europe in our upcoming blog series.