Sanitary Plumbing

571 Timpson Place Bronx, NY 10455

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Published on
November 24th, 2023

4 Plumbing Mistakes and Disasters That Made History

Many historic plumbing disasters occurred because of a lack of infrastructure, but some resulted from neglect. Modern amenities and access to plumbing and municipal water supplies can cause complacency and misplaced confidence in the luxury of time.

Sometimes, insignificant problems can point to a more significant issue. If a property owner ignores any minor problems, they may never learn of the major issue until it is too late.

Property owners can ensure building health and tenant well-being by learning from past mistakes. Discover some of the most significant plumbing-related disasters of the past.

Top 4 Plumbing Disasters Through History

1. The Cholera Pandemic

The first cholera pandemic lasted seven years, from 1817 to 1824. The bacterial disease originated in Calcutta and spread across South and Southeast Asia, eventually affecting regions in the Middle East, Eastern Africa, and the Mediterranean coast.

Cholera stems from a bacterium found in feces. The first pandemic of the 1800s resulted from a lack of adequate sewer systems and sewage control. Exposure to and spread of the disease resulted from people eating and drinking from contaminated sources.

Trade between countries pushed later cholera outbreaks further. London and large areas of Europe experienced the pandemics of 1841 to 1859 and 1863 to 1875.

In 1854, Filippo Pacini discovered the germ responsible for the continuing outbreaks of the disease. Robert Koch independently verified Pacini’s research in 1883, giving credence to germ theory.

The development of Joseph Bazalgette’s sewer system from 1865 to 1875 helped protect London from later pandemics. Sewer systems also helped to link the connection between sewage and the disease.

Today, developed countries rarely experience cholera outbreaks. Still, 3 to 5 million people experience the disease annually, with over 100,000 people succumbing to the illness. A lack of infrastructure and plumbing disasters are probable causes of modern spread.

No country, developed or undeveloped, is completely safe from the disease. Sewage system breakdowns happen all the time and present risks of infection and contamination. To avoid disasters, hire Sanitary Plumbing to inspect your building’s plumbing annually, making repairs as needed.

2. The Great Stink

Before the creation and installation of Joseph Bazalgette’s sewer system, London’s existing system emptied waste from its population of 3 million directly into the River Thames. The river ran through the city, and based on witness accounts, sewage was visible on the water’s surface.

So much human waste polluted the river it piled on the shores. While no one intended for the river to become a sewer, in 1858, no one could deny the severity of the water’s condition.

The year produced a hot summer. The overwhelming presence of fecal matter and urine in the Thames created an unbearable stench permeating the city. Contaminated air became a health concern, especially with the threat of cholera — no one knew the only way to contract cholera was from contaminated water, not air.

With public scrutiny and panic on the brink, leaders commissioned Joseph Bazalgette, and the rest is history. One of the greatest plumbing disasters of all time led to one of the greatest engineering marvels in the world.

3. The SS Sultana

Greed and neglect resulted in one of the most significant plumbing-related disasters in history. April 27, 1865, just 18 days following the end of the Civil War, the SS Sultana was transporting Northern POWs from Mississippi to Illinois when its boiler exploded, causing the ship to sink and ending the lives of up to 1,900 people. The tragedy was avoidable.

To speed up POW releases, the government paid $5 per prisoner to steamboat captains willing to transport POWs home. The Vicksburg Quarter Master, Reuben Hatch, wanted his share of the money and knew of one steamboat captain needing cash. He approached the Sultana’s captain, J. Cass Mason, promising 1,400 POWs, far beyond the ship’s capacity, if Mason agreed to split the commission. Mason agreed.

On-route to the transfer, the Sultana’s boiler developed a leak. Captain Mason knew a proper repair would delay the trip by several days, so to avoid losing the commission, he ordered a patch that was insufficient for the leak. A day later, the SS Sultana arrived in Vicksburg and picked up 1,400 men, bringing the ship’s total occupants to over 2,000.

Of all historical plumbing disasters, the explosion and shipwreck of the SS Sultana are among the most tragic and avoidable. If it weren’t for the greed of the two men, 1,900 people would not have lost their lives.

4. The 1933 World’s Fair

The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair celebrated the city’s centennial, dubbed the Century of Progress. The celebration ran from May 27 to November 12. It was quite a spectacle — meant to symbolize hope during the Great Depression. Unfortunately, Chicago did not keep up with plumbing advances and infrastructure, leading to another significant and preventable disaster.

City planners did not expect Chicago’s population to grow as rapidly as it did, resulting in undersized water mains and sewage systems. Add to the strain of the system thousands of visitors to the city and you have the makings of a backflow problem.

Two of the hotels used for visitors to the World’s Fair had cross connections, leading to contaminated water supplies. Amoebic dysentery infected nearly every occupant of the hotels throughout the fair.

Amoebic dysentery has an incubation period of 12 to 30 days, so most people did not experience symptoms until they were back home, making it difficult to narrow the source. The incident resulted in over 2,000 documented cases across 206 cities and nearly 100 deaths.

Best Way To Prevent Plumbing Disasters

Call Sanitary Plumbing

Many historical plumbing disasters resulted from a lack of adequate plumbing knowledge. Still, some occurred because people avoided proper maintenance and system installations or corrections. In modern and developed societies, disasters can still occur. Call Sanitary Plumbing at 212-734-5000 to schedule an inspection to protect your building and tenants. Ask about annual service contracts so you never miss an essential inspection or routine maintenance again.

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