Caroline Gully – 1883, July
“Cleanliness, says the Bible, is next to Godliness. The force of that remark is particularly appreciable just now.. From the East come reports of the ravages of a dread disease. It grows strong and flourishes in summertime. The hot weather is very favorable to it. Under the fostering care of heat, fever grows up strong and healthy as a country babe. It also draws heaps of nourishment from back yards and alleyways. In the festering slums of the poor quarters, where poverty reigns supreme and where want and sickness, disease and fever, stalk about like gaunt advance guards of death, the dread disease is born and inhales the noxious odors that give it life and strength.”
“Health of the City : What the Inspector Has to Say About It”
Spectator. July 26, 1883.
The spread of contagious disease via the cesspools, and dirty back yards and alleyways, was a major source of concern during the summer of 1883 in Hamilton.
On Tuesday, July 24, 1883, a reporter for the Spectator conducted the following interview with Assistant Health Inspector Ford:
“Do you have many complaints of places around the City?
“No, we have very few this year, and they are getting less every day. When we get a report, we attend to it promptly, and don't let our work get ahead of us.
“Is there much sickness in the city among the poorer classes?
“Well, I don't think there is. Dr. Ryall looks after that. But he is away in Muskoka just now.
“Yes, there are some parts of the city worse than others. The worst report comes from about the flats around the Northern and Northwestern railway. But the backyards on the principal streets need a good deal of looking after too.”
The reporter was somewhat dubious about the assistant health inspector's opinion that the general health of Hamilton's citizens had never before been so good :
“Is this a phenomenally healthy city? Some close observers seem to think not. This city has its slums as well as other larger places. Almost at the foot of Caroline street, there is a deep gully. Here, refuse of all kinds is thrown. The decaying forms of dead cats and other animals decorate its sides. Rotten refuse of all sorts finds a resting place there. Along the bottom a sluggish stream of refuse water winds its dismal way. Stagnant pools border it. The place is disgusting to look at.
“The fouls smell that arises from this festering hole is something awful. It is stifling. Like the deadly upas tree, its odors and vile vapors are poisoning. Yet any afternoon, the forms of children can be seen on its banks inhaling the noxious gases which breed pestilence and death.
“These children do not look very healthy. The majority of them have pale thin faces and wretched attenuated forms. Red festering sores on their cheeks. Sore, inflamed eyes, with a sickening lack lustre in such young children, gaze up stupidly from their unwashed faces at passersby. The wailing cry of sick children is constantly heard. Does this look like a healthy city?
“Does Mr. Ford want more of these instances to assure him the denizens of Hamilton’s slums are not living in a Utopian health pot? If he does, it is not at all a difficult matter to oblige him. Near the foot of Simcoe street, right off Bay, there is a gully that is, if anything, worse than the other. The foul odor that arises from this receptacle for putrefying garbage and decaying flesh floats out on the air that blows pure and sweet from the bay, and poisons it. It goes on, carrying the germs of fevers, spreading its contagion to all winds that blow.
In the summer of 1883, there were concerted efforts by many citizens and local health organizations to pressure the municipal government to legislate and enforce strict health bylaws, especially regarding the draining of cesspools and water closets.
The local newspapers took up the campaign, and on Friday, July 27, 1883, there appeared two articles describing two of the major problems in the city as regards unsanitary conditions.
The sewer on Cathcart street, north of Robert street, had made the area barely habitable :
“The neighbourhood is in a most disgraceful condition, presenting as it does the appearance of an immense sewer without any restrictions and it is a great wonder that pestilence and sickness do not rage there to an alarming extent, as there is certainly nothing to prevent it doing so, and everything to favour the spread of disease should one get a start there.”
“A Terrible Sewer : Disgraceful State of Things on Cathcart Street”
Spectator. July 27, 1883
The Cathcart street sewer was box-type, designed to carry raw sewage into the bay. Whenever there was an excessive amount of sewage passing through, the seams of the sewer would give way to the pressure and open up in the areas where the sewer ran above ground, the raw sewage collecting in stagnant pools in the nearby ditches and low-lying areas :
“These ditches and pools are filled with all kinds of cotton garbage and weeds to which they give growth, and the whole has the appearance of a swamp in the depths of some forest rather than a public thoroughfare in a city.”
Below the Grand Trunk Railway line, the Cathcart street sewer was joined by another sewer from the Barton street and Ferguson avenue area:
“At the junction of these two rivers and in the culvert formed by the embankment of the two railroads, there is an extensive cesspool, some three feet deep, reveling in all the luxury that filth and reeking odors can ensure.”
Another tour of inspection by the Spectator reporter was directed towards the Caroline street gully. The gully, once an inlet from the bay, was a low-lying swamp which had been designated as a location for refuse disposal to fill it in.
Caroline street north, near Stuart street, had a row of houses on the west side, facing the gully :
“Looking over the edge into the hole, the observer finds a sink of dirtiness which should not be allowed o exist. The residents in the vicinity have been trying to fill that gully up and have used dead cats, dogs and chickens, rotten potatoes, onions, cabbage and other vegetable refuse, old tin cans, bottles and discarded and household utensils”
“Caroline Street Gully : What an Eyewitness Has to Say about It”
Spectator. July 27, 1883.
To add to the stench produced by the rotting refuse, another dilapidated box sewer emptied into the gully and, not being able to run off into the bay, collected in fearsomely stagnant pools:
“The sewage at the bottom and the refuse of fish cleaners and hog pens which decorate the sides, vie with one another in causing the most nauseous odors and the whole combined makes their neighbourhood abominable.”
While the reporter at first guessed that “no bird or beast, to say nothing of a human being” could exist near such disgusting smells, he was surprised to find that such was not the case :
“Cows and goats are turned out into this gully and are fed upon the grass which flourishes from the cesspools that abound there. All along the sides of the dump and raking among the stinking refuse may be seen little children.”
The reports about the unsanitary conditions at the Caroline street sewer and the Caroline street gully caused widespread reaction. On the Sunday afternoon following the publication of the reports, a Spectator reporter was sent back to the Caroline street gully to gauge the reaction of the residents.
“Well,” said one of them, “I read your article in the Spectator and if anything, the gully is worse than described there. A person can't have any idea of the state of this place, unless they live down there.”
“The Caroline Street Gully : What Residents in That Locality Say About It”
Spectator. July 30, 1883.
Another resident was quoted as saying “the smell from decayed vegetable matter is bad enough, but there are three sewers running into it, one from Grant's Brewery, one from the soap works, and another from the gas works, and when all these are running the stench arising from them is simply unbearable. As soon as I can possibly get another place, I am going to leave this locality.”
When another man was asked about the smells, he claimed not to be bothered by them :
“I don't smell anything, and I have lived here ever since it was a street.”
When the reporter discovered that the man owned his Caroline street home, he assumed that the man had a vested interest in not running down the locality in case he might want to sell his house.
On the following Monday, the Spectator reporter was granted an interview with Alderman Carruthers, chairman of the health committee. When asked whether anything had been done about the two unsanitary localities described in the previous week's Spectator, Alderman Carruthers replied that nothing had been done.
“Do you intend to do anything with”?”
“Well, no; there is nothing to be done there. The place does not smell at all.”
“Ought there not to be some notices put up round the gully to prevent persons from putting refuse matter there?”
“Yes. There should be. I have thought it advisable to have notices put up, prohibiting people putting any more there. The chairman of the board of works is having the stagnant water that has accumulated in the gully below Barton street drained off. That is the only place there, and when that is cleared away, the gully will be alright. There was one thing I saw there, and that was a bed of watercress that I should have liked to have had some of.”
“Is anything being done to the Cathcart street sewer, do you know?”
“No, I don't. I spoke to Ald. McLagan, the chairman of the sewer committee, and he said they were getting along with it as fast as possible.”
Both Hamilton's daily newspapers, the Spectator and the Times, urged the health inspector to do something about the disgraceful state of affairs in various parts of the city.
The editorial on the subject in the Times wanted “an infusion of activity into the health department. Renovate the sewers, clean up all alleys and back yards. See that no stagnant pools remain, make strict regulations about the disposal of rubbish.”
The Spectator editorial was mainly a direct attack on the competency of Mr. Murison, who was in charge of health inspections :
“It appears that this locality is in a condition not only disgraceful to the corporation, but scandalous to the gentleman who is supposed to enforce the health bylaw. It is the duty of this gentleman (and he is paid to protect the inhabitants from any possibility of contagion or infection) to look after the welfare of the citizens. If he has not done so in the past, he should make a pretense of doing so now, so that the council may believe that he is fulfilling the requirements of the position.”