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Full text of "The early history of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission / Wade H. Elgin, Jr."

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APRIL 36, 1926. 

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission' a Offioe Building 
on Kalston Avenue in Hyattsville 


Water Tower in Hyatt avi He Bought By the Commission when They 
Bought the System in 1916 




Fifteen years ago quite a number of populous com- 
munities had grown up, and. more were forming all the time 
ah out the stream and electric railroads which radiated out 
from the Dstrict of Columbia into Ilaryland. As these 
communities grew larger in number as well as in size, they 
had the many problems facing them that all suburban com- 
munities have to solve sooner or later in order to survive. 
Of these many problems thus confronting these suburban 
people the greatest and the one most difficult to accomplish 
was that of obtaining a proper water supply and sewera ; e 

some of these communities had some sort of a water 
and sewerage system, but the majority of these systems were 
found to be unsatisfactory due to improper construction or 
the over- taxing of these small plants as the demands for 
their usage grew with the increasing population. 

upon later investigation it was found that nearly 
one -half of the public systems in what is now the Washington 
Suburban oanitary District delivered water which was unsafe 
for human beings to use or that it had such a taste as to 
render it nearly impossible for drinking purposes. The 
methods of sewerage disposals were fastly alarming the 
people as to the offensive and dangerous conditions then 
existin . 


As early aa 1910 the plea for the correction of the 
admittedly "bad sanitary methods of sewerage disposals and 
the unsatisfactory water conditions "began to take on a def- 
inite form. During this year public meetings were held in 
the different localities and many suggestions made as t o how 
these unsanitary and unsatisfactory conditions could "be 

She people in the District of Columbia "became con- 
cerned at the same time when it was discovered that Little 
Falls Branch, Rock Creek and the Anacostia River were "be- 
coming polluted due to dumping of untreated sewerage into 
them "by the neighboring communities in Prince George's and 
Montgomery Counties. 

Gentlemen from "both of these counties met in 1911 
with members of the Maryland state Board of Health and Mr. 
Asa E. Philips, who was at that time superintendent of 
sewers in Washington, at the office of Mr. Ralston a member 
of the committee which was later appointed in 1912. At this 
meeting it was decided that the communities should appeal to 
the General Assembly of Maryland for the solution of this 
great problem of how to obtain proper sanitary conditions for 
the Maryland suburbs and thus stop the growing pollution of 
the Washington streams. 

It was largely due to this meeting that there was 
introduced and passed in the General Assembly of 1312 a 
resolution authorizing the Governor of Maryland to appoint 
a commission from the counties of Prince George's and Mont- 


gomery to investigate and report upon the sewerage 
conditions in the assigned territory, This commission was 
to be known as the 2 J rince George's and Montgomery Counties 
Sewerage Commission. The Governor appointed the following 

William T. 3. Curtis T. Howard Duekett 

Dr. J. Dudley Morgon Dr. John L. Lewis 

John I. Cassidy J. Dawson Williams 

Oliver 8. Metzerott Jackson E. Ralston 

J. Enos Ray Jr. Dr. Charles A. Fox 

Louis L. Dent Dr. William H. Welch 

Dr. M. Langton Price 

In June of 1912 these gentlemen met in Mr. Ralston' s 
office and elected Mr. William T. S. Curtis to serve as 

As is the case in the appointment of many commissions 
this commission was supplied with no fUiids. The duties 
of tliis commission were such that they could not fulfill 
their purposes without the aid of a trained engineer and 
some assistants. This condition of affairs place the 
gentlemen in an embarrassing predicament, and it was the 
State Department of Health who offered them their Eng- 
ineering Force with their Chief Engineer Mr. Morse, who 
had had much experience in sewerage work in both lev; York 
City and Baltimore. 

Mr. Morse ?;orked on the scientific solutions to the 
problems facing him while the commission made investigations 


of existing conditions and held meetings for the discussion 
of the subject . 

On ?eb. 4 f 1914 the commission presented to the Gov- 
ernor its recommendations and conclusions of its investigations, 
with a hill all ready drawn -up in the form for passage by the 
General Assembly. Governor Go Id sbo rough sent a letter of 
thanks to the commission on Feb. 6, 1914 relieving them of 
their positions and expressing the hope that they would give 
the bill their attention during its cime of passage thru 
the Assembly. There were at least two public hearing on 
the bill at Annapolis during the time it was before the 
Assembly, but like many other bills it was lost in the con- 
fusion of the closing days of the 1914 Session of the Ass- 
embly and failed to pass. 

Several of the gentlemen of this old commission were 
not disheartened by the failure of the bill to pass and were 
instrumental in getting another bill introduced in the Gen- 
eral Assembly of 1916. This bill contained many of the 
points in the old bill which failed to pass and also in- 
cluded that some provision be made to better the water supply 
which was at that time becoming a problem of increasing im- 

The newly introduced bill had a very stormy career 
and finally emerged in the form which can be found in chapter 
313 of the Acts of 1916. In Chapter 313 of the Acts of 1916 
it created the v/ashington Suburban Sanitary Commission which 
was to consist of three men. This Act designed what territory 

Filtration Plant in HyattsvUle Built in 1922 

One of the Kethcis "by which Water was obtained "before 
the time of the .Vashington auhurbaa Sanitary Commigsioa 


was to be included in the Y/ashingfcon Suburban Sanitary 
District over which the Commission was to function. 
One of these men was to be appointed by the Governor, 
one by the County Commissioners of Prince George's County 
and the remaining member by the County Commissioners of 
Montgomery County. Very shortly after this act of 1916 
became a law Mr. J. William Bogie$r of Friendship Heights, 
Montgomery County was appointed by the Governor; the 
County Commissioners of Prince George's County appointed 
Mr. T. Howard Duckett of Bladensburg; and Mr. William T.S. 
Curtis of Chevy Chase was appointed by the County Com- 
missioners of Montgomery County. 

The Washington Suburban Sanitary District over 
which the Commission presided had as its so-called inner 
boundary the District of Columbia boundary line. She 
outer boundary line reached beyond Glen Echo, Alto Vista, 
Garrett Park, Wheat on, Burnt Mills, Beltsville, Lanham, 
and Capital Heights. This area covered 95 square miles, 
54 of which was in Prince George's County and 41 in 
Montgomery County. She area of the District of Columbia 
is less than three -fourths the area included in the San- 
itary District. 

Ho time was lost by these men in organizing, as 
their first meeting was held in June 1916 at which Mr. 
Curtis was selected as chairman and to also act as Treas- 
urer, while Mr. Bogley was to have the position of sec- 


The .Vashington Suburban Sanitary Commission has 
"been deeply .indebted to the Maryland State Board of 
Health ever since their very beginning. As soon as the 
Commission became organized the resident office of the 
State 3oard of Health at Hyattsvilie was used as the Com- 
mission's office. 

This Commission was furnished with some funds 
which \VB.s more than the old Sewerage Commission of 1912 
was. But with the small amount of money at its disposal 
the employment of a private chief engineer and a capable 
staff, although the most important item for consideration, 
was yet impossible. Here at this stage of the early work 
of the Commission the Health Department again came to their 
aid by offering to again loan their Chief Engineer, l,Ir, 
Llorse, his assistant engineer, Mr. Hall, who were both so 
familiar with this work as they had worked up the plans 
of 1914, and as much of their staff as was necessary, on 
a financial b^sis that was satifactory to the Health 
Board and yet within the means of the Commission. 

Many meetings were soon held for ais cuss ion with 
officials and public organizations in order to get the 
viewpoints of all who would be concerned in this great 
work of improving the water and sewerage systems in the 
Washington Suburban Sanitary District. r Jhe members of the 
Commission made a complete physical survey of the District 
and personally investigated every municipal and privately 
owned mater and sewerage system within the territory. It 


was during this period of investigation that Mr. J. 
/ill lam 3ogley died, hut his "brother Iir> Emory H. 
Bogley was appointed to fill this vacant place. 

When the Commission began its investigations 
some startling facts were disclosed. For instance, 
only about 25$ of the population which was then approxi- 
mately 32,000 or about 8,000 people were served by a 
water and sewerage system. While today the Washington 
Suburban Sanitary Commission furnishes water and sewerage 
service to about 40 1 ^ of the population of about 50,000 
or a total of approximately 20,000 people. 

The investigations of 1917 showed that there 


then existed only 53 miles of water mains and 60 miles 
of sewers. Of the seventeen public water systems then 
existing, not one was adequate throughout for proper pro- 
tection as measured by modern requirements. Nine had 
pipes so small that no fire hydrants could be connected 
to then, while the remaining eight were of little use due 
to the low pressure carried in the mains. In fact, in 
most of these town, the only good derived from the fire 
hydrants was that they offered an excuse for having an 
annual carnival known as the Firemen's Carnival, for the 
purpose of buying uniforms and fire engines, both of "/inch 
proved to be of little use when called into action. 

Using the United States Treasury Department stand- 
ard with regard to the number of bacteria alon allowed in 

a certain amount of water, 47 out of 85 samples of arink- 
ing water taken from private wells scattered thru out the 


District, failed to come up to the requirements. As private 
wells constituted the main source of drinking i«?ater for the 
people, this one test showed that the majority of them were 
drinking water which was not fit for drinking purposes. Of 
the seventeen public water supply systems only seven supplied 
water which came up to all the requirements that the Com- 
mission subjected it to. 

?rom the very beginning of its exi stance, the Wash- 
ington Suburban Sanitary Commission had planned on obtain- 
ing water from the District of Columbia Reservoir by hook- 
ing up their water lines to the District's mains at certain 
points on the Llary land-District boundary line. Tney had 
planned on iruming lines out from Rhode Island Avenue, 
.macostia Road in Aenilworth, Georgia Avenue, and a point 
between Wisconsin and Connecticut Avenues. 

It was also planned that the sewers in the Sanitary 
District should be connected with the Washington sewers at 
certain convenient points. This would step the dumping of 
sewerage into streams which flowed the District of 

The Commission was further encouraged in this plan 
by the passage of bill in 1917 by the United States Congress 
jiving the Commissioners of Washington the authority to allow 
the Sanitary Commission to receive water from the District's 
mains upon certain agreements between the District Commission- 
ers and the Sanitary Commissioners. 

On January 21, 1918 the Washington Suburban Sanitary 

Sewerage line lading to the Worth West Branch of 
the inaco3tia Biver 

'water Tower in Mount Hainer Built "by the 

.Yaahington Suburban Sanitary Ooramiaeion 


Commission submitted its report to the General Assembly of 
Maryland. This report gave the results of its investigations, 
the preliminary designs for water and sewerage systems for 
the Sanitary District, the methods under which these systems 
might be constructed, maintained and operated and it also 
included a bill all ready drawn up in form for the Assembly 
to pass upon and thus enact it into a law. This report con- 
tained many pages of detail telling the methods of operation, 
cost of purchasing old systems, conditions of these old 
systems, and how to construct and operate a new system. This 
Report also contain seventeen detailed maps prepared by I,Ir, 
Morse and his staff of engineers. 

The 1918 Session of the legislature passed an act 
which differed only very slightly from the one present by 
the Commission in its report. The substance of the act waa 
that it authorized the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, 
consisting of the three gentlemen previously named, to be a 
body corporated to operate and construct a water and sewerage 
system which would serve the people of the Washington Sub- 
urban Sanitary District. 

As soon as the Commission was given the poller by the 
passage of the bill in 1916 which made the Washingf Suburban 
Sanitary Commission a corporate body, it purchased the public 
water and sewerage systems in its district with the once ex- 
ception of the water system of Glen Echo, which desired to 
furnished its own water. The water and sewerage systems 
were bought from the different towns and real estate com- 
panies who, in so;;ie cases had built thftir own plants in order 


The construction of n ew service lines and plants 
was not started until during the month of September in 
1919. Up to this time, of the total of sixty engineers, 
assistants, draftsmen, and laborers, only ten h^d been 
used for real construction work. The work of these ten 
men was the replacing of old worn out pipes with new ones 
when necessary, and to see that the present system was 
kept in proper operating conditions, making repairs when 

Che remaining fifty men were used to locate and 
map the lines of the purchased plants as well as draw up 
the plans for the new work as planned by the Commission. 
rhe task of locating the existing lines was no small job 
as most of them had been laid by contractors who had kept 
no record of their definite locations and their locations 
were plotted only after much hard and painstaking work. 

Che Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission was 
fortunate in getting llr. Robert ilorse as their Chief Eng- 
ineer and Mr. Hall as Assistant Chief Engineer in 191 8. 
Mr. Horse is a man well versed in Sanitary Engineering as 
he had previously been assistant Sanitary Engineer in the 
Metropolitan Sewerage Commission of New York, 1910-12, as 
well as Chief Engineer in full charge of supervision over 
water supply and sewerage systems in Maryland, for the 
Maryland State Department of Health, since 1912. Mr. Hall 
had been Mr. Morsels Assistant Engineer in the Health De- 
partment, and was also familiar with the work in the 


Sanitary District as he had worked with Mr. Horse in their 
previous reports to the General Assembly. 

In order to pay for the costs of operation, con- 
struction, and service, the v/ashlngcon Suburban Sanitary 
Commission uses three methods; - first, taxation; second, 
special assessments; and third, the rates based upon 
service. The whole district bears the burden of the con- 
struction costs of the trunk line, which is something the 
entire district will eventually use. The cost of the in- 
stallation of the laterial lines is paid by the property 
owners upon whose property it abuts. The user pays a ser- 
vice charge for the installation of meters and service, and 
a definite rate for the exate araoiint of water he uses. 

The present location of the offices of the Wash- 
ing on Suburban Sanitary Commission is in Hyattsville on 
Ralston Avenue in their new building built in 1923. The 
offices were formally in a wooden building on the Wash- 
ington Baltimore Boulevard in Hyattsville. 

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission is a 
corporate body created for the purpose of furnishing the 
people in the Washington Suburban Sanitary District with 
an adequate and sanitary water and sewerage service. The 
Commission is not a profit making body and if any profit is 
made during any one year, this profit is taken to help pay 
for the operating cost of the next coming year. The Public 
Service Commission of llaryland goes over their books but 
has not power to change their rates for service as it has 


in the case of street railroads and other utility corp- 
orations which are permitted to make a fair profit on 
their investment. 

In conclusion it can be said that the Washington 
Suburban Sanitary Commission is a municipality, chartered 
"by the State, to serve the people within its district with 
both a sanitary and an adequate water and sewerage system. 
And there i s no doubt but to it should go some of the 
credit for developing the territory witihin its borders 
into such towns and communities as to be a credit to the 
State of Maryland as well as to our national Capital. 

The information for this thesis was obtained from 
the following sources: 

1. Hep or t submitted to the General Assembly of 
Maryland by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission 
on January 21, 1918. 

2. Personal interview with Mr. Hobert Morse, Chief 
Engineer of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. 

3. Personal interview with Mr. Harry H. Hall, A-'Sist- 
and Chief Engineer of Washington Suburban Sanitary Com- 

4. Article in August 1924 iseue of "Washington 
Suburbs"; a magazine; by Mr. Hobert Horse entitled "The 
Washington Suburban Sanitary District, What It Is and 
Why It Exists".