‘Emancipation Day’: Passing the 1908 Trunk Sewer By-law


An 1898 plan for an intercepting sewer in Toronto, one of many such proposals. University of Toronto Libraries, G3524 T61N46 20 1889-1901.

By the 1870s many Torontonians had come to accept the necessity of public ownership of its waterworks. The city’s ratepayers – residents who paid property taxes – had approved the takeover of the city’s drinking water services. Since the system needed high expenditures of capital to expand, private interests could not do the job as affordably as the city could.[1] But many ratepayers also had grave concerns about raising large sums of money by issuing bonds and turning that money over to the Works Department. Ratepayers would ultimately have to pay these debts if politicians were unable to balance the city’s budget. The problem of providing safe drinking water was raised many times by municipal leaders, but voters were often loath to approve large capital projects.

At the turn of the century, newspapers acted as both a mouthpiece for political parties, and as a ‘fourth estate,’ keeping public officials honest by reporting political news of the day.[2] The press told voters to defeat a 1907 plebicite that asked them to approve an expensive trunk sewer project, and was equally vocal in supporting another trunk sewer proposal the following year. Toronto’s medical health officer, Dr. Charles M. Sheard, made use of the Toronto media to win approval for his 1908 trunk sewer plan. Despite opposition from some quarters, ratepayers could be convinced of the necessity of such projects.

This essay builds on the work of Heather MacDougall, Elwood Jones & Douglas McCalla, and especially on a study by Catherine Brace that asked how public health informed the development of Toronto’s sewage infrastructure at this time.[3] It does so by looking at reports in the Toronto daily press in the first decade of the twentieth century. These reports suggest that while public health concerns motivated Dr. Sheard, he won approval for his proposed infrastructure projects by appealing to the economic concerns of business leaders anxious about the harmful effects an unclean harbour could have on trade. Dr. Sheard was instrumental in securing passage of the 1908 trunk sewer by-laws. His success shows that many ratepayers were receptive to arguments for investing in infrastructure to promote public health when these arguments were well articulated, and when they were urged by business leaders and the press to consider them.

The problem of getting Torontonians potable water troubled municipal leaders for more than half a century. In 1841, the city gave exclusive rights to The Toronto Gas Light and Water Company to provide the city with water for drinking and to supply fire hydrants.[4] But the system – and the company that operated it – were never popular with residents of the city. The cost of using the system was too high, and the services provided were deemed too low. Water pressure was sometimes not high enough to feed fire hydrants when they were needed. Even worse, the water was often undrinkable because the pumping station at the foot of Peter Street that drew fresh water from the Toronto Harbour was adjacent to the city’s sewer outflow.[5]  In 1872, the City purchased Toronto’s waterworks and ratepayers approved borrowing over a million dollars to expand the system to meet the needs of the growing metropolis.[6] At the time, civic leaders recognized that public ownership of utilities like waterworks was not only acceptable, but might be the only way to provide necessary services.[7] With the purchase of the waterworks, the city was in the business of building and maintaining the Toronto’s infrastructure.


Burst pipes – like this 1893 break in the intake line – were one of many problems Toronto faced in meeting the city’s demand for water. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 376, File 1, Item 29b.

The provision of sewers complicated the city’s obligations to supply clean water. Rate payers exhibited a growing concern for sanitation in the 1870s and 1880s when Toronto’s network of sewers were greatly expanded.[8] Before the existence of regulations that made connecting buildings to sewers mandatory, property owners petitioned City Council to have their block connected to the system and agreed to bear the expense of this work through increased taxes. City Engineer C.H. Rust proudly presented the work being done in Toronto to the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers in 1888.[9] Sewers were being expanded on a voluntary basis across the city. But in 1884, newly elected Mayor Arthur Radcliffe Boswell sounded what was already becoming a familiar refrain:

‘Where does all the filth from these sewers accumulate? In the Bay of Toronto, of which you and I are so proud. Gentlemen, this cannot go on with safety, for our Bay will soon become a cess-pool, and we cannot expect Toronto to retain the character for healthfulness it has hitherto borne if a remedy is not found by which the sewage may be taken elsewhere.’  [10]

Boswell was not the first – nor by any means the last – to call for the construction of an intercepting (or ‘trunk’) sewer to connect the network of sewers and deliver all the waste somewhere more convenient for the residents of the city. Boswell articulated mounting frustration with the system as it existed. Yet he could not offer any practical solution and left office at the end of the year without having made any progress. Two years later, council commissioned a report from City Engineer Charles Spratt and engineers Kivas Tully of Toronto and William McAlpine of New York. Their report recommended building a trunk sewer that would carry waste to a point east of the city and filter it so it would not affect the supply drawn from the lake. The recommendation had the support of the Medical Health Officer of the City, but Toronto taxpayers balked at the $1.4 million pricetag and rejected the plan when it was put to a vote in 1886 and again in 1887. It would be 20 years before civic leaders settled on a plan to deal with the problem once and for all.[11]

Plans to build a new pumping station brought the matter of drinking water before rate-payers in 1904. In March council put the question of borrowing another $1 million for the waterworks to the electorate. The Retail Merchants Association announced it would not support the proposal. According to the RMA’s Municipal Committee, the Works Department had demonstrated its incompetence time and again and taxpayers shouldn’t underwrite such a large sum.[12] Despite this warning from members of the business community, the vote passed. The conservative leaning Evening Telegraph reported that because of low voter turnout ‘a small minority was able to endorse the Works Department and give it a vote of credit for $1,000,000.’ The Telegram lamented that no politician or media outlet had taken the ‘responsible’ course of action to defeat the measure.[13]

The inadequacy of Toronto’s port facilities gave new impetus to efforts to clean up the city’s harbour. In 1905 the city requested funds from the federal government to dredge the harbour to allow larger vessels to anchor there. The government refused, citing the unsanitary state of the water.[14] The water was so filthy according to one commenter, that one could ‘find that your white-painted boat will have a streak on it if you try to cross the Bay.'[15]

The following year, City Engineer Rust presented a plan to end the discharge of sewage into the Toronto Harbour.[16] Rust’s plan would see the construction of a trunk sewer to send waste ‘to the furthest possible point easterly.'[17] By this, Rust meant outside the borders of Toronto, somewhere in the vicinity of the Scarborough Bluffs, where the sewage would once again be discharged into the lake. This point would be distant enough – it was hoped – that it would not threaten the water intake pipe (located by this time on Toronto Island). At some undetermined time in the future it would probably be desirable to filter this sewage rather than send it raw into the lake. In the meantime, Rust maintained, the work on the trunk sewer could begin. Rust estimated that the whole operation could be done for a mere $3 million.[18]

The 1907 ballot thus presented the ratepayers of Toronto with the question of authorizing another large loan. If, as the Telegram had reported, they were not well served by the small minority who had approved the $1 million loan for the apparently incompetent works department in 1904, they would not be fooled twice. Most of the daily papers came out against the plan, reasoning that it was a lot of money to ask for what was an admittedly temporary solution.[19] Only the World stood by embattled Mayor Emerson Coatsworth who had staked part of his political fate on Rust’s plan. But even the World‘s support was tepid. It reprinted verbatim the endorsement of councillors for the by-law,[20] but would not support Coatsworth’s call for the city to print and distribute literature in support of the trunk sewer in the days before the vote.[21]

Smash all but the power bylaw

The Telegram made its position on the 1907 trunk sewer by-law very clear. The Toronto Evening Telegram, December 31, 1906.

Coatswoth and the by-law were both trounced.[22] ‘I am convinced that the trunk sewer was in the interest of the people,’ he said in defeat, ‘but the papers pulled the wool over their eyes. They don’t realize what a grave thing they have done.'[23] But it was not only the papers that were against Coatsworth and the trunk sewer plan.

Well spoken and politically connected, Dr. Charles Sheard had set about transforming Toronto’s Public Health Department in the 1890s.[24] He combined medical knowledge with an ability to persuade audiences and created a public health department that took an active role in the hygiene of individual citizens. His leadership also resulted in renewed efforts to tackle larger environmental problems like that of sewage disposal. But engineer Rust, and public health officer Sheard did not see eye to eye. Sheard claimed credit for defeating Rust’s trunk sewer plan: ‘as a man claiming to have some knowledge of the sanitary needs of a community, and the sanitary rights of adjacent communities…I believe I was instrumental in delaying that project.'[25]

Sheard was the first public health officer in the city committed to germ theory.[26] At the dawn of the twentieth century, medical professionals were beginning to understand how disease was spread. Germ theory replaced and discredited miasma theory. The older theory had held that rotting organic matter spread disease through invisible vapours which could be detected by smell.[27] Proponents of germ theory showed that micro-organisms were the vectors of disease. Yet this idea was more difficult to understand than the more intuitive miasma theory – smell was at least palpable. Microscopic organisms were the domain of expert scientists. Non-experts could only look to the successes of medical professionals who fought epidemic disease, or take them at their word. MacDougall has shown that many residents were happy to do so. According to the Telegam Dr. Sheard’s expert opinion was treated with something approaching reverence.[28]

Toronto was slow to adopt these measures because budget conscious city councillors did not see sufficient commercial benefit in doing so.[29] In England the ‘sanitary idea’ had taken hold in the middle of the nineteenth-century, and had spread to the United States.[30] Sanitation experts applied preventative health techniques like street cleaning and sewage disposal to clean up unhealthy urban environments. While the miasma theory was prevalent, removing waste from the urban environment appeared sufficient. This was the rationale the city followed in 1869 when it merged the board of works with the public health department, partly to save money, and partly because street cleaning and waste removal were the domain of the engineer. Combining these offices meant that other important public health measures like collecting statistics and introducing legislation were ignored.[31] In 1885, the Public Health Officer was once again made a separate and permanent position. Sheard was appointed to this office in 1893.[32]

In 1907, Sheard launched a campaign to promote his own plan for a trunk sewer, a filtration plant for the sewage it collected, and another filtration plant for fresh water being drawn from Lake Ontario.[33] Sheard appeared determined that his plan would not fail because of the ‘ignorance’ of voters as Coatsworth and Rust’s plan had the year before. The success of his plan would depend on a concerted publicity campaign.


Dr. Sheard’s 1907 plan for water filtration with the prevailing currents of Lake Ontario shaded in pencil. The intake pipe and filtration plant is shown on Toronto Island, and the treatment plant and the outflow pipe is shown at Ashbridges Bay. City of Toronto Archives Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 266.

Sheard was establishing a reputation for bringing the efficiency of private enterprise to government administration, even as he was criticized by some social reformers for not going far enough.[34]  But Sheard knew the support of the business community would be essential if voters were to pass the measure. On October 24 he addressed the Empire Club of Canada, an influential gathering of Toronto’s business and professional elite.

Sheard criticized the plan developed by City Engineer Rust. Rust had been sent to Europe to inspect sewage systems and make recommendations for Toronto. But, as Sheard argued, Rust had decided that ‘in a new country such as this, in a community where it is so difficult to raise the tax-rate for necessary work, [he was] afraid the process [was] too expensive for the City of Toronto.'[35] Sheard insisted that the expense of properly treating drinking water and sewage was justified. He criticized Rusts plan as unambitious and incomplete, and said his own plan would be ‘the beginning and the end of the matter’: a total solution to both the dirty harbour, and the city’s unclean drinking water.

Sheard’s plan would employ the latest techniques to filter the collected sewage of the city. The city would build septic tanks to treat the sewage. Contact beds with bacteria would do most of the work: ‘these bacteria will eat that sewage if you give them time enough, until every vestige of it is gone, until no matter how concentrated the sludge may be, no matter how much solid matter there may be, if you give those bacteria long enough time, they will devour every atom of it and leave the fluid to flow off without them.’ [36] Once treated in this manner, half the sewage would be removed from the waste water, and the rest would be put through another stage of treatment by being filtered through sand and gravel before being deposited into the lake. Sheard promised this process would remove over 90% of the waste material from sewer water.[37] Combined with a filtration plant at the intake pipe, the plan would do everything possible to secure safe drinking water and a clean harbour.

He also pointed to the experience of Hamburg in Germany. Hamburg was one of Europe’s largest ports, and had been subject to disease epidemics arriving from Asia, where much of its trade was conducted.[38] But by 1907 this threat had been dealt with thanks to the introduction of a water filtration plant for the city. Since the German city had dealt with its water problem, ‘Hamburg today has its portals open and its shipping uniterfered with.'[39] Toronto needed to learn from Hamburg’s example if it wanted to thrive as a port.

The following year, Sheard’s project gathered momentum. On May 26, 1908, council endorsed his plan and recommended the question of raising $750,000 for a filtration plant and $2.4 million for a trunk sewer and treatment plant be put to voters.[40] On June 2, he and other experts addressed a large crowd at Victoria College. ‘There is no doubt, no chance, no preadventure about this thing,’ he assured listeners, ‘it has given other cities absolutely pure water, 99 percent and more.'[41] The gathering resolved to ask Toronto’s Board of Control to ‘bring before every property-owner the main facts involved in these questions, so that a large and representative vote may be cast’ in favour of the proposal.[42] Public information sessions were planned for every ward in the lead-up to the June 27 vote.

One such meeting was hosted by the National Council of Women on June 18.[43] At this meeting Dr. J.A. Amyot promised that with this system ‘99.9 percent of all impurity would be removed from the water.’ More importantly, Dr. Amyot argued that filtration was necessary to reduce Toronto’s unacceptably high rate of mortality from typhoid (known to be spread through drinking water). As The Globe reported ‘a few cases [of typhoid] could be traced to milk and to unsanitary environment, but the big majority came from the water supply.'[44] Dr. Amyot concluded with a question: ‘how can you expect the Ottawa Government to improve [the harbour] when you dump just 200 tons of solid matter into it every day all year round? It is nonsense to think of it.'[45] Amyot followed Sheard’s dual line of reasoning: water and sewage filtration was beneficial to health and to the economy.

The newspapers appeared to be as convinced of Sheard’s plan as they had been opposed to Rust’s. Every daily in the city ran editorials in support of the by-law, and the Daily Star ran a banner headline urging voters to support the measure.[46] The Telegram roused its readers with a promise fit for a hollywood blockbuster, ‘if the by-laws carry this will be looked back upon as the day of emancipation from the deadly bacteria.'[47]


The newspapers seem to have played a part in bringing voters to the polls to support the 1908 trunk sewer. The World noted that the number of votes against the by-law were very close to the number that had been been cast to defeat the 1907 by-law.[48] This showed that there remained a large segment of rate-payers who were apparently not convinced by Sheard’s case. The Star quoted one skeptical ‘no’ voter: ‘How are we to know when this is finished but something else will be needed?'[49] But the by-laws passed by a respectable margin of 3196 to 1021 for the sewage plant, and 2889 to 1314 for the water filtration plant[50] indicating that a large number of voters who had stayed away from the polls in January of 1907 had shown up in June of 1908.

After more than 50 years, Toronto finally had a comprehensive plan to protect its drinking water and to treat its waste water. Construction on the trunk sewer, treatment plant, and filtration plant was completed in 1914. But ’emancipation’ from bacteria did not last long. The growing city quickly overwhelmed the capacity of the system. Still, the vote marked a turning point in the determination of the city to deal with sewage and drinking water in a holistic way.

Why did Sheard succeed where Rust had failed? Resistance to capital expenditures on the part of rate payers partly explains the unpopularity of the Rust proposal. But Sheard’s plan was even more elaborate and costly. Why would property owners support the more expensive plan? It appears that the ‘sanitary idea’ had become accepted in Toronto by the turn of the century. Public health officers routinely intervened in the private dwellings of residents to ‘abate nuisances,’ and it was widely accepted that they were right to do so.[51] Part of the unpopularity of Rust’s scheme must also be attributed to its endorsement by the unpopular Mayor Coatsworth. Personality contributed to the viability of any scheme, and the personality of Dr. Sheard appeared to help rather than harm his plans. By endorsing a large scale engineering project like the trunk sewer, medical experts like Dr. Sheard lent the project credibility. This credibility contributed to the success of the 1908 vote. Voters were wary of writing blank cheques to municipal governments, but they only needed to be convinced that they were getting ‘value for money’ to endorse an ambitious plan.


[1] Elwood Jones & Douglas McCalla, ‘Toronto Waterworks, 1840-77: Continuity and Change in Nineteenth-Century Toronto Politics,’ Canadian Historical Review 60.3 (1979) 322; Catherine Brace, ‘Public Works in the Canadian City: The Provision of Sewers in Toronto, 1870-1913′ Urban History Review 23.2 (1995) 41.

[2] Paul Rutherford, A Victorian Authority: The Daily Press in Late Nineteenth-Century Canada (University of Toronto Press, 1982) 190.

[3] Heather MacDougall, Activists and Advocates: Toronto’s Health Department, 1883-1983 (Dundurn Press, 1990); Jones & McCalla, ‘Toronto Waterworks’; Brace, ‘The Provision of Sewers in Toronto,’ 33-43.

[4] Jones & McCalla, ‘Toronto Waterworks,’ 305.

[5] Ibid, 304.

[6] Ibid, 320.

[7] Ibid, 321.

[8] Brace, ‘The Provision of Sewers in Toronto,’ 36.

[9] The Canadian Society of Civil Engineers, Transactions Volume 2 (Toronto: John Lovell & Son, 1888) 302.

[10] Brace, ‘The Provision of Sewers in Toronto,’ 40.

[11] Ibid.

[12] The Toronto Evening Telegram, March 9, 1904.

[13] The Toronto Evening Telegram, March 24, 1904

[14] The Toronto Daily Star, June 26, 1908.

[15] The Toronto Evening Telegram, March 24, 1904.

[16] City of Toronto Council Minutes 1906, Appendix A, 1451.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid, 1452.

[19] The Toronto Evening Telegram, December 31, 1906; The Toronto Daily Star, January 2, 1907; The Globe, January 2, 1907.

[20] The World, December 28, 1906.

[21] The World, December 27, 1906.

[22] The World, January 2, 1907

[23] Ibid.

[24] MacDougall, Toronto’s Health Department, 23.

[25] Charles M. Sheard, ‘City of Toronto Disposal of Sewage,’ in J. Castell Hopkins, ed., Empire Club Speeches (Toronto: William Briggs, 1910) 70.

[26] MacDougall, Toronto’s Health Department, 23.

[27] Heather MacDougall, ‘The Genesis of Public Health Reform in Toronto, 1869-1890,’ Urban History Review 10.3 (1982) 2.

[28] Ibid; The Toronto Evening Telegram, November 23, 1906.

[29] Ibid, 3.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Brace, ‘The Provision of Sewers in Toronto,’ 36.

[32] Heather MacDougall, ‘Sheard, Charles’ Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. 15 (University of Toronto Press, 2005).

[33] Sheard, ‘City of Toronto Disposal of Sewage,’ 66-80

[34] MacDougall, Toronto’s Health Department, 24.

[35] Sheard, ‘City of Toronto Disposal of Sewage,’ 69-70.

[36] Ibid, 73.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Richard J. Evans, ‘Epidemics and Revolutions: Cholera in Nineteenth-Century Europe,’ Past & Present 120 (1988) 129.

[39] Sheard, ‘City of Toronto Disposal of Sewage,’ 78.

[40] City of Toronto Council Minutes, May 26, 1908, minutes 369, 370.

[41] The Globe, June 2, 1908

[42] Ibid,

[43] The Globe, June 16, 1908.

[44] Ibid,

[45] Ibid.

[46] The Globe, June 26, 1908; The World, June 26, 1908; The Daily Star, June 26, 1908.

[47] The Evening Telegram, June 26, 1908

[48] The World, June 28, 1908.

[49] The Daily Star, June 27, 1908.

[50] City of Toronto Council Minutes, 1908, Appendix C, 119.

[51] MacDougall, ‘The Genesis of Public Health Reform,’ 5.

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About Adam Patrick

Adam was an undergraduate student in History at York University. He's interested in the development of public health infrastructure in Canada and in early consumerism and waste.

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