Most Stocktonians today take it for granted that their waste flows downhill. After a flush of the toilet, we’re blessed with the ability to go about our daily lives without any consideration for the whereabouts of our bodily excrement.
And yet, for a few nightmarish years in the 1910s, the Stockton public was forced to endure extremely unsanitary conditions along Mormon Slough (then known as Mormon Channel). Beginning in 1910, the City began dumping all of its daily sewage into Mormon Channel. Despite stern warnings by engineers, health professionals, and community leaders, the city continued this practice for years. By 1915, a working-class coalition of South Stockton community leaders was in an uproar over the “foul stench of human excrement” that plagued the town.
The story begins with good intentions. In 1902, an act of Congress, pushed for by Theodore Roosevelt himself, authorized the federal government to build the Stockton Diverting Canal, which would divert water from Mormon Channel into the main channel of the Calaveras River (Mormon Channel is itself a fork of the Calaveras River). The new canal would allow for water flowing in Mormon Channel to bypass Stockton, which would provide Stockton flood control and prevent Stockton’s harbor from piling up with river silt.
The diverting canal project broke ground in 1908, and was completed in 1910. Immediately, the community saw dividends, as the floodwaters of 1911 bypassed the city. The canal was not without its drawbacks, however. The City had for years pumped excess sewer water into the Mormon Channel and relied on the river flow to wash the sewage out to the Delta. By 1911, the channel was almost entirely dry due to the upstream diversion. The result was that Stockton’s sewage was being pumped into the channel, without any sanitation or water to flush the sewage away.
By April 1913, City Engineer E.L. Grunsky estimated over 2,000,000 gallons of sewage was being dumped into Mormon Channel per day. The community, and in particular the working-class Black, Jewish, Chinese, Japanese, and Italian communities that lived near Mormon Channel south of downtown, were in an uproar. The Record reported that community members had taken to wearing masks while walking the streets. The article clipping shown below showcases the Record’s editorial stance quite clearly:
Beginning in 1913, the idea of municipal bonds for sewer construction became a weekly staple of the Record, Independent, and Daily Mail columns. The State Health Board got involved and threatened to pull funding for city health programs. Prompted by public outcry and the prospect of losing funding, the “City fathers,” led by Commissioners D.J. O’Keefe and C.H. Kenyon, were able to get $550,000 in bonds for the construction of a new sewer system on the June 1915 ballot. Despite the general uproar, the passage of the bonds was not assured. Due to the segregation of Stockton at the time (enforced by racial and class housing covenants), North Stockton (anything north of Acacia was considered North Stockton) voters rarely had occasion to visit the working-class Southside. Awareness outside of the South side neighborhoods and the government community was minimal.
To raise awareness for the bond vote, the South Side Improvement Club, a multi-ethnic coalition of working-class voters who lived between Washington Street and South Street (the later Charter Way), met on June 2 at Jackson Hall School. They presented their case to city commissioners Kenyon, Matthews and Sievers, and acting Mayor O’Keefe. Prominent African-American businessman E.N. Fessier declared at the meeting that he couldn’t believe anyone would so “low down” as to vote against the sewer bonds. Chastised into action, the city commissioners in attendance promised to hold town hall meetings in North Stockton to promote the issue.
The next day, June 3, City Engineer Grunsky pronounced that the current sewer system was pumping 2,750,000 gallons of sewage into the channel per day. The Record editorial board clearly agreed with the Southside community, running scathing editorials and investigative pieces about the problem. The more conservative Evening Mail, a favorite amongst the city’s upper class, agreed with The Record that the new sewer system should be built, but suggested that South Stockton should bear the costs alone. The South Side Improvement Club disagreed vociferously, leading to heated confrontations at City Hall. Ultimately, on June 15, the City voted to pass the bonds, with an 85% majority voting in favor of passing.
Two bonds were passed – one for storm drainage and one for a new sewer system. Bonds were put to the financial sector in July of that year, and by 1916 the City had built its new sewer system, replete with a septic plant on Boggs Tract near Rough & Ready Island. That sewer system is now 106 years old and still continues to pump the sewage of Stockton from the Calaveras River to Arch Road. Let it never be forgotten that it was the community organizing of the South Side that built the city’s first modern sewer system.