A beautiful junction where small round red brick pipes from Hamilton's downtown core transition to the large concrete arch that typifies the Wellington St. Sewer's downstream reach.

The Duke of Wellington

Wellington Street Sewer

Water/Sewershed:
Downtown Hamilton storm sewers and CSOs

Year of Construction:
1923

Construction Details:
Round brick pipe, large concrete arch.

Winding beneath Hamilton's downtown core before straightening beneath Wellington Street to head for an outfall in the harbour, the Duke of Wellington, the Wellington Street Sewer, is the Ark of Hamilton drains. Documented in Hamilton Spectator articles in both 1923 and 1973, the conduit is easily one of the most beautiful sewers in Ontario, built competently in a range of styles and materials.

The centrepiece is a concrete arch tunnel that grows to nearly 4 metres in width (and three in height). A range of construction styles and finishing techniques were used on this section of tunnel over the course of its length, ranging from thin horizontal concrete pours to moderately large form panels. This gives the conduit a variety that is even more impressive than its basic details would ndicate. Somewhere near the old foot of Wellington Street, the original mouth of the tunnel has been replaced with a pair of low-slung prefab rectangular boxes to carry the sewer beneath the landfill that was added to (subtracted from?) the harbour to permit the construction of many of Hamilton's more modern steel works. Steel once played an even greater part in the cityscape of this sewert, as Stelco's much older Canada Works once stood either side of the drain's path down Wellington before they were demolished (the east side soon after the plant's closure in the early 1980s, the west side only in the mid 2000s).

Recalling the Garrison Creek Scandal that had gripped Toronto politics forty years earlier, controversy dogged the construction of the Wellington Street Sewer in the early 1920s. Hamilton politicians called into question the construction of the sewer, leading to this fantastic newspaper report:

All criticism of the construction of the new storm system was silenced on Saturday afternoon, when five members of the city council, accompanied by W. L. McFaul, city engineer, crawled down a manhole at York and Macnab streets, and inspected the big drain for themselves.

Donning rubber coats and heavy rubber boots, the party of inspection, which included Controllers Tope, Etherington and Davis, and Ald. Sones and Ald. Lawrence, descended an iron ladder which led to the six-foot sewer, forty feet below the surface. On reaching the bottom, by the aid of flashlights, they made their way southward toward King street, to the point where the new work ceases. Turning around, they retraced their steps to York street, then along Macnab to Cannon street, under the James street intersection to John street. Here they inspected the four-foot sewers branching off, then returned to the larger drain, and followed it to where it merges into the big tunnel on Wellington street. The party saw daylight once again at the outlet at the bay front.

"I wouldn't have missed the trip for anything," Controller Davis remarked afterward.

All the members of the party agreed that the construction was without fault. The various details were explained by the city engineer during the journey. The air in the sewers was quite fresh, and only about an inch or so of storm water lay in the bottoms of the drains.1

The article may refer to Wellington as a storm sewer, but it is a system so riddled with combined sewer overflows and illicit sanitary cross-connections that it is best thought of as an overflow sewer. Condoms, needles (all the ones we saw were thankfully capped), and general filth are frequent finds as you pass through the drain, and there are enough scavengeable nutrients to support a number of large, healthy-looking rats. Once into the upstream brick section of the system, air quality deteriorates to what you'd expect of a combined sewer at this size: humid, misty, and nasty enough to have words like "miasma" running through your head. It is however still safe, provided you're attentive and don't stop to lick the walls (or your hands). The most telling moment of this general sanitary nastiness comes downstream though, well into the largest concrete arch section. Here, a 300mm combined sewer pipe crosses the drain at head level in an open trough to allow high volumes to cascade down into the Wellington tunnel.

  1. 1. Hamilton Spectator, 30 April 1923.
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Michael Cook is available to speak to your organization about infrastructure history, lost creeks, current conditions, and opportunities for change in our management of and communication about urban watersheds, and to work with teams proposing or implementing such change. Get in touch.