90th anniversary of Shoal Lake aqueduct — Winnipeg’s early drinking water was neither clean nor safe

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)

Despite its significance to the city of Winnipeg, the historic event was ushered in with little fanfare. In fact, its announcement was buried on page 6 of the Manitoba Free Press. On April 7, 1919, the newspaper reported that after five years of construction, water from Shoal Lake had two days earlier begun flowing through the city’s water mains.

Soft water brought to Winnipeg via the 156-kilometre aqueduct was a “practical demonstration of the culmination of the gigantic project — gigantic for a city in the stage of development of the capital of Manitoba — which had been the dream of progressive citizens for years.”

In particular, the aqueduct had been the dream of Mayor Thomas Russell Deacon, who recognized that a reliable and clean source of potable water was essential for the progress of the city and the health of its citizens.

Historically, Winnipeg experienced great difficulty ensuring that the water its residents consumed was safe or reliable. 

Water carts had delivered the life-giving liquid to city residents by at least 1873. George Rath used horse-drawn carts to carry 11 barrels of well water to local citizens in what then could be best  described as a small town, although it was incorporated as a city in the same year. Rath eliminated the need for pails by using a 40-foot hose to carry  water from the barrels directly into the homes of his customers.

Sergeant James Irvine also went into the business by putting up a scaffold over the Assiniboine River and pumping water up for delivery to residents.

By 1880, the city signed a 20-year contract with the Winnipeg Water Works Company, which was financed by British investors,  to supply local waterto residents. The private company’s original charter called for water to be provided from the Assiniboine River, which turned out not to be a good idea. Not only was the river prone to severe drops in water level during the warmer months of the year, but the water was foul tasting and often contaminated, especially with typhoid bacilli.

Assiniboine River water was routinely filtered, but no amount of filtering could eliminate the disagreeable taste. Actually, the river was so turbid in the spring, summer and autumn months that the filters were nearly always clogged and of no practical use in providing any measure of potable water.

The scourge of Winnipeg at the time was typhoid. In fact, the disease had been so prevalent since the 1870s that the city was known as the “Typhoid Capital of North America” — the result of recording more cases and deaths per capita than any other major city on the continent. Whatever the source of the disease, it became quite evident to city officials that an effective sewage system and clean drinking water would prevent typhoid outbreaks.

Engineer Rudolf Hering presented a report to the city in September 1897 on potential sources of water, including Poplar Spring, located about 26 kilometres north of Winnipeg. The report was commissioned as a prelude to the city’s intent to take over supplying water to Winnipeg residents.

Hering rated Poplar Spring first, saying its “water is clear and contains no organic pollution;” second was artesian wells; third, the Winnipeg River; and fourth, the Assiniboine River. In all cases, he indicated the water had to be softened for human consumption, as well as Assiniboine water be filtered.

He did not recommend the city purchase the Assiniboine River pumping plant used by the Winnipeg Water Works Company.

In early 1899, the city purchased the Winnipeg Water Works Company for $237,000. Artesian wells became the primary source of Winnipeg drinking water by 1900.

“The engines (for the pumps) worked beautifully and as ... (they) ... increased their speed the pumps at the old buildings were shut off and instead of water from the Assiniboine River pulsating through the mains the city has clean drinking water from the new artisan well,” reported the Morning Telegram on October 24, 1900.

By 1909, seven wells had been dug to depths of between 40 and 102 feet, supplying 10-million gallons daily. Two reservoirs stored 6.3-million gallons of water.

But the era of clean water became a myth when sewage seeped into and contaminated water mains and wells. In 1900, there were a reported 582 typhoid cases among the city’s 42,500 residents, resulting in 34 deaths. Two years later, the city’s population reached 45,500 and there were 356 cases and 29 deaths. When the population stood at 67,300 in 1904, the number of cases jumped to 1,276 and 133 people died. In 1905, there were another 1,606 cases and 106 deaths.

In 1905, Mayor Thomas Sharpe, after an investigation of water and sewage systems in 11 eastern cities in the United States and Canada, commissioned Edwin O. Jordon, a professor of bacteriology at the University of Chicago, to prepare a study of Winnipeg’s typhoid epidemics.

“One of the great troubles in Winnipeg is that the city has grown from a village ... so rapidly that the municipal services dealing with many problems ... have not had the necessary considerations to make them adequate to the needs of the case,” said Sharpe.

Jordon attributed the typhoid epidemics to contact between infected people, the use of box closets (outdoor privies with a box to collect human waste), the lack of sewer connections, infections from the milk supply and the use of highly-contaminated Assiniboine River water. River water was still periodically pumped into the mains when the artesian supply was inadequate, which was becoming more frequent as Winnipeg’s population increased. 

Allen Hazen, an engineer from New York, was also comissioned to investigate Winnipeg’s water supply and the continuing typhoid epidemics. On February 20, 1905, he presented his report to city council, which he maintained was wholly inadequate.

“I believe it would be possible to construct purification works capable of softening well water and also of purifying river water,” Hazen reported. “Wells could therefore be located near the banks of one of the rivers above Winnipeg, and well water obtained from them and softened. If the supply of well water obtained from them fell below requirements the shortage could be made up with river water.”

Hazen was of the opinion that using Assiniboine River water had played only a minor part in the city’s recent typhoid outbreak, although he recommended that any river water used should be heavily filtered and then softened.

Even Red River water was finding its way into the city’s sewers as a result of it being used to fight fires. However, the river water contained so many suspended solids, that it was eventually considered of dubious benefit due to the lingering disagreeable odour that many believed was worse than the original fire (Western Canada Water, fall 2008, article entitled Winnipeg’s Aqueduct). 

In 1906, the city established the Water Supply Commission chaired by James Ashdown and composed of Mayor Sharpe, aldermen A.A. McArthur, H. Sandison, J.A. Harvey, J.C. Gibson, and Dr. R.M. Simpson, the chairman of the Provincial Board of Health, as well as Andrew Strang and Thomas Deacon.

“Chemically, the water is decidedly unsatisfactory,” said the commissioners to justify the pursuit of a new water supply. “It is very hard and very saline, properties which make it unpleasant and expensive for domestic use, and unsuitable for use in boilers and many industrial processes.”

The commission investigated a wide variety of sources of potable water, including Sturgeon Creek, the Rousseau River, the Winnipeg River, Red River, Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba. 

Among the commissioners, Deacon proposed that the most reliable source of water was Shoal Lake. Members of the commission, including Ashdown and Deacon, visited Shoal Lake in the company of newspaper reporters. Soundings were taken and the water was judged pure, but Sharpe remained unconvinced. The mayor and most commissioners dismissed Shoal Lake as too far, too costly given the city’s financial crisis, as well as presenting jurisdictional problems, since the lake was almost entirely located in Ontario.

A year passed before a new mayor initiated more debate on the water supply issue.

Ashdown, the newly-elected mayor, at first appeared to prefer drawing water from the Red River and went as far as to have the engineers arrive at an estimate of the cost of the scheme, with or without a water-softening plant. The engineers told him the cost of the Shoal Lake and Winnipeg River schemes were essentially the same, and while the Red River proposal would cost less, the engineers warned they would not consider the Red River proposal unless a water-softening plant was part of the plan, which would significantly increase the total cost.

“It is only a question of time until we have to abandon the well system and secure an outside and viable supply of water,” Mayor Ashdown said during a meeting of the water commission on February 7, 1907. “There are two plans I consider feasible, the Red River and Shoal Lake, and as soon as possible we should get expert advice in the question.”

The mayor estimated the cost of the Red River plan at $1.5 million and Shoal Lake at $3 million.

In comparing the two plans, Ashdown said he had reports from various cities that used river water. He said St. Louis used water drawn from the Mississippi River which was then filtered. Mississippi water is far dirtier than Red water, added the mayor, and so he saw no reason the city could not use Red River water.

“If you put in that system,” said the mayor, “you have the advantage of being able to add another filtration plant at any time you wish. On the other hand, there is a question of a gravity supply from east Shoal Lake.” 

C.E. Millican began surveying the route to Shoal Lake, as the commission believed the lake would eventually turn out to be the best source available.

Surprisingly, the potential for a clean water supply from the Lake of the Woods area had been proposed as early as March 1883 by Winnipeg physician Dr. Agnew. But since the nearest source was at Shoal Lake, 160 kilometres away in what was then uncharted wilderness, the proposal was not seriously considered until the early 1900s. 

At the request of commissioner Deacon, Dr. J.H. Leeming, the city’s bacteriologist, took samples of water from Shoal Lake. In a letter to Mayor Ashdown, he wrote: “All the samples proved to be good, and in no instance could I discover any disease producing organisms or other injurious germs.”

On the other hand, samples he took from the Red River at the St. Vital Ferry from a depth of just over a metre contained plenty of “intestinal bacteria,” as well as “an abundance of gas formation in glucose bouillon.”

The services of four engineers — G.C. Whipple and James H. Fuertes from New York, R.S. Lea from Montreal and J.E. Schwitzer, the assistant chief engineer of the CPR — were engaged to investigate a new water supply for Winnipeg. Their August 29, 1907, report prepared by the engineers singled out Shoal Lake as a viable option.

“The water is very soft in comparison with the water at present supplied to Winnipeg,” reported the four engineers. “The water ... may, therefore, be termed an excellent one for domestic, boiler and general manufacturing purposes.”

The engineers said, when considered solely for quality, “... the Shoal Lake water is unquestionably the best source of supply.”

In the meantime, Ashdown and city councillors, in the face of public concern over soaring electricity costs imposed by the private sector, began to emphasize the developing of a hydro-electric plant on the Winnipeg River, which for years tabled any mention of a new source of water for Winnipeg.

Another blow to the water project was the world-wide recession that hit in 1907. The recession and a city debt nearing $14 million combined to hinder Winnipeg’s ability to raise funds for municipal operations and major projects. In fact, the financial situation was so dire that banks were reluctant to provide loans in order for the city to continue its day-to-day operations.

It was only with great difficulty that Ashdown was able to resolve the city’s financial situation by convincing the London, England, market to accept Winnipeg-issued bonds. Eventually, $7.5 million in bonds were sold at 99.5-cents on the dollar. With the city’s financial dilemma resolved, the hydro-electric plant at Pointe du Bois, 80 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, finally got underway in January 1909 and was completed by 1911.

It was only when municipally-owned electricity was flowing through the city’s power lines that the water question re-emerged, with Deacon leading the debate by again emphasizing Shoal Lake as the best option.

The Voice of April 22, 1910, ran an extensive interview on the condition of Winnipeg’s water supply from artesian wells with A.J. Andrews, who was mayor at the time the Winnipeg Water Works Company was purchased. In the interview, Andrews recollected that Rudolph Hering recommended to city council to use artesian wells, despite many people expressing doubts that such a source was adequate for a growing city. 

“Any shortness of water that has been expressed by the city of Winnipeg has been caused by the failure to carry out the recommendation of Col. Ruttan as to the wells to be put down owing to the unexpected great volume of water found in the first well, the city neglected for a long time to sink sufficient wells, and the result that there was for a time a shortage of water ...

“Since then the city has been persuaded to sink more wells, with the result that at the present time, though we are using much more than we have ever used before, we have today much more water than is required.”

The supply was so plentiful that Andrews maintained it was adequate for a city 10 times Winnipeg’s size.

He claimed that water obtained from the Winnipeg River would not be drinkable unless treated, as “construction camps along the Winnipeg River have been compelled to forbid the use of ... the water without being boiled or filtered, because of the typhoid fever in the camps, caused by drinking it unfiltered.”

Andrews said that since sewage from towns along the Winnipeg River, Lake of the Woods and Rainy River all went into the water, these were not viable options for obtaining a safe supply of drinking water for Winnipeg. 

“I became satisfied of the sufficiency of our water supply only after very careful consideration, and instead of having any reason since to doubt the conclusion reached at the time, each year has confirmed my conviction that we have no reason whatever to fear any shortage of water, even if our wildest dreams as to Winnipeg’s growth are, as I trust they will be, verified.”

But Andrews’ views were steadily becoming the opinion of a minority of Winnipeggers. Even as early as 1906, councillors were disillusioned with engineer Col. Ruttan’s “glittering theories.”

A July 17, 1906, editorial in the Telegram  deplored the artesian well system as expensive and disappointing. Yet, the same editorial proposed Lake Manitoba as a source of Winnipeg’s water.

A 1913 bylaw for a $1-million pipeline for the city’s Poplar Springs artesian well system was defeated in a referendum by ratepayers, which prompted city council to hire professor C.S. Schlichter of Wisconsin to undertake yet another investigation into the city’s water supply. 

In his report to the public utility commissioner, Schlichter indicated he favoured the Shoal Lake option, calling for the city’s use of artesian wells to “be abandoned at the earliest possible date. The water is excessively hard, and is corrosive and destructive to an unusual degree.”

He said if the city decided to use Shoal Lake as a water source, it should ensure the area surrounding the lake “must remain in its present wild state.”

(Next week: part 2)