These Photos Capture the World’s Sewer Systems When They Were Brand New

Jan 10, 2020


Below our city streets lies an ad-hoc world of subterranean tunnels and pipes. The oldest are brick and concrete sewers that once carried waste streams in one direction, rainfall overflow in another. Today, these waterways must contend with newer sewers, subway tunnels, power lines, and fiber-optic cables. But in the 19th century, these labyrinths were the only man-made things that existed below ground.


Archival photos reproduced in Stephen Halliday’s An Underground Guide to Sewers give us a rare view of these sewers of the past, as they looked to the people who engineered, built, and maintained them.

Most of these photographs—dating from the 1880s to the 1940s—show new construction; the before without the after. Pristine iron bars free of rust, walls too freshly mortared to settle and crack, cement yet unstained by water and waste. Older photos show brick-lined culverts, each brick having been laid by hand.

These images are evocative, sometimes beautiful, appearing like black-and-white outtakes from a forgotten film noir. Storm drains appear as volumes of space, empty by design most of the time. Circular and oval tunnels lead from crawlspaces to caverns beneath reinforcing arches. Concrete corridors and junctions, absent any signage, make one wonder what would have happened if Robert Frost’s traveler had gone underground.

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