A First Nations family outside of their residence near Rossland. Date unknown. (Courtesy of the Rossland Museum & Discovery Centre)

Ron Shearer: Sanitation problems in early Rossland

Typhoid was the scourge of late nineteenth century mining camps in British Columbia.

Typhoid was the scourge of late 19th century mining camps in British Columbia — and Rossland was no exception.

At root were polluted sources of drinking water and inadequate provision for disposal of waste, domestic and industrial. Early prospectors and miners squatted in tents and shacks on any available land. Pit toilets were standard and kitchen waste was dumped on the ground outside the door.

Trail Creek, and its tributaries — particularly Centre Star Creek, that flowed south just west of Spokane Street — were common sources of water for domestic purposes. They were also receptacles for domestic and industrial waste and they captured the runoff from the land.

They soon became badly polluted and festered disease. Away from the creeks, some people drew water from shallow wells, also readily polluted, or purchased water from water sellers, some of whom drew water from polluted creeks. In the summer of 1895 there was an outbreak of typhoid, but community boosters played down its seriousness, saying it was not an epidemic.

After all, only 20-odd cases were reported and “only three fatal cases occurred.” By any reasonable standard, that was an epidemic.

The premier visited Rossland in the early summer of 1896 and found the sanitation and health problems alarming. He directed the Provincial Board of Health to do what it could to alleviate them. More significantly, he was persuaded of the merits of creating a local government with the legal and administrative tools necessary to deal with the situation, at minimum cost to the provincial government.

When Rossland’s petition for incorporation was received in early 1897, the government acted with alacrity, passing a bill that incorporated the city and gave it the power to immediately borrow up to $50,000 for public works, particularly the creation of a sewerage system.

A major step toward the solution of the water supply problem was taken before incorporation. Although some people and laundries continued to draw water from badly polluted creeks or wells, a private corporation obtained the right to draw water from Stoney Creek, north of the city, and built a wooden flume to carry it to two large wooden tanks that served as reservoirs.

Pipes were installed to service Rossland’s commercial district and some, but not all, residential neighbourhoods. The Provincial Medical Officer worked diligently to educate people about safe practices and — often in the face of angry protests from inconvenienced residents and businesses — to develop and enforce regulations for the cleanup of Centre Star Creek and promote the installation of “dry earth closets” in the place of pit toilets.

The compartments of the closets would be emptied, for a fee, by licensed commercial scavengers, who were supposed to dump the waste at a designated safe location (but weren’t always diligent). The problem of sewage disposal was far from solved. Again, there was a limited private initiative.

A subscription was raised to build a short sewer line for part of the downtown business area: for hotels along Spokane Street and businesses at the western end of Columbia Avenue. One of the first acts of the first city council was to commission a plan for a more comprehensive sewerage system.

A plan was prepared for a system with a main line along Columbia Avenue and feeders along First Avenue and up Washington and St. Paul Streets to Second Avenue.

The system drained toward St. Paul Street and then south to the city line. Finances would permit building only part of the system, but by winter, Rossland had a sewerage system that could be expanded. But where was the sewage to go?

The original plan was to drain the system into Trail Creek, but the residents of the rapidly growing town of Trail objected vigorously and the Provincial government prohibited that connection. The mayor favoured a plan put forward by some Chinese gardeners to drain the system onto their gardens, a proposal quickly rejected. Plans were drawn up in Victoria for two solutions.

One was a long, open, wooden flume from the end of the sewer line, skirting around the mountain and draining into the Columbia River above Trail — with all of the ongoing problems of odor, physical deterioration and winter damage.

This would have been a band-aid solution at best. Far more imaginative — and startlingly modern — was a plan to drain the system into a septic field on the present site of the Redstone Golf Course. Both schemes were regarded as too expensive; neither was pursued.

Rossland had a system of sewers, but there was nowhere for the system to drain. People were not permitted to connect to it.

Finally, in mid-1899, the provincial government accepted the inevitable and Rossland was permitted to drain her sewerage system into Trail Creek.

The residents of Trail were left to deal with the unsavoury consequences.