The headline of the Auburn Advertiser-Journal of September 9, 1915 was perhaps shocking, but it was not unexpected: “Port Byron water supply grossly contaminated, state report says, blaming Auburn”. This was followed by the headline of the Port Byron Chronicle: “Village water supply condemned by state”.
In 1915, Port Byron had two water sources. The first were the private wells that had been dug throughout the village. The second source was the municipal aqueduct system which distributed water throughout downtown and residential areas. This system had been built around 1865 to help fight fires; however, as indoor plumbing was installed in homes and businesses, this water was used for manufacturing, bathing, watering the garden, and flushing toilets. As water became more convenient to use, people consumed more of it. All that dirty water was flushed into cesspits, open ditches, or, if you happened to live near the outlet, into that creek.
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This problem was that the water for the village came directly from the heavily polluted Owasco outlet, so what was piped into Port Byron homes and businesses was Auburn’s sewage. This was then used and flushed into sumps, and these tended to overflow in winter or in the rainy season into nearby wells. The people of the village knew that they should not drink or cook with village water, but in reality there was not a single water source in the village that did not pose a danger to human health.
The 1915 health department report came as no surprise to anyone as Port Byron had been fighting this battle for years. In 1903 the Board of Health issued a report which noted that “the extremely unsanitary condition of Owasco Creek has long been the source of frequent complaints and serious apprehension by those most closely in contact with it and this condition is due almost entirely to the discharge of sewage and manufacturing waste from the City of Auburn. The adverse consequences are felt both in the city and on the watercourse below the city, and include: (1) The serious danger to public health from the increased pollution and infection of the waters of the streams as a source of drinking water supply, which they are for the Village of Port Byron, and further downstream and to a lesser extent, the Village of Phoenix and the Town of Oswego.
Heavy use of the outlet was part of the problem. Over the years, many dams have been built along the creek, including 10 in the city, two in Throopsville, and three more in Port Byron. All of these ponds created pools that even the rapid flows from the springs could not be cleaned out, so each pond became a mixture of sewage, sediment and organic matter that congealed to form a harmful mixture. When Port Byron first built their water system in 1865, the basin where they placed the water intake was not too polluted. In 1903 and later it was very bad.
Auburn had its own issues with contaminated water. In 1880, scientists established the link between polluted water and diseases like typhoid. In 1891, Auburn was struck by a major outbreak of typhoid fever, which caused the state to report on the water supply. When their water system was installed around 1865, it took water directly from the outlet just downstream of the lake. As the lake and outlet became dirtier, the water intake was moved twice to the lake. The first was in 1883, then finally in deep water in 1907. However, Auburn is downstream from Moravia, Locke, and Groton, and these villages let their wastes flow into the Owasco Inlet. At the time, the reasoning was that time and distance would purify the dirty water, but as the shores of the lake became populated with summer camps, hotels, and even year-round homes, the Lake water was becoming more polluted.
Auburn’s water has been secured by two projects. The first was the chlorination of water in 1913, and the second in 1920 with the construction of the filtration plant. These also allowed the city to start supplying others with drinking water. However, he continued to dump his sewage into the outlet for Port Byron to drink and enjoy. The conclusion of the story happened in 1937 during the Great Depression. The Federal Public Works Administration funded a new water main between Port Byron and Auburn and a new sewer system for the city.
A significantly expanded version of this article is available on the Lock 52 website at www.portbyronhistorical.org. Michael Riley is the interim president of the Lock 52 Historical Society and the town historian of Mentz. The Lock 52 blog can be found at portbyronhistorical.org. Riley can be reached at (315) 704-8874 or [email protected]