Water Sanitation at MSU

Given the national focus on the Flint water crisis, where I am a resident, I thought I would take a closer look at water safety and its conveyance within MSU. Water and its safe supply has been a concern for human populations for thousands of years from the Neolithic into the present (history of water cisterns). Many cities across the country have lead based pipes for their cities water mains, similar to Flint. The main reason for this is cost. It is expensive to dig up water mains and re-lay them with all new pipes. Having witnessed a water main being tapped for a new house main while conducting archaeological monitoring, these city water mains are huge! They lay in the center of roads about four foot down, so not only do you have to excavate the water pipes, you also have to replace the roads that are torn up in the process. Simply put, it is expensive and often takes years of deliberation before water mains are overhauled for any public area.

Here at MSU, our administration discussed this very issue for about twenty years. Through the MSU Archives, I searched for discussions regarding switching water pipes and water mains. The discussion started in 1881, with new water mains being laid to buildings as our university expanded. Our administration noted that we needed to start switching out wooden ones for iron ones. At the time, the state of the art water pipes in use were Wycoff wood pipes. We here at campus archaeology find pipes all the time in excavation work around campus. We even, surprisingly, excavated one of these Wycoff pipes along faculty row which our first Campus Archaeologist, Dr. Terry Brock, wrote about. You can find his blog post here. These were state of the art for water conveyance in the mid 1800’s. Although believed by the general public to have been changed out prior to 1886, here at MSU we used them until just into the twentieth century due to cost. Surveying had to be done to generate a map of the existing water lines and estimates for costs started to be generated.

By July 23, 1902, as new medical discoveries were made and the field expanded, the discussion about changing our water infrastructure, by our administration, shifted from fire safety to health safety. In this 1902 meeting, a medical doctor stated to the board that the water coming from the wooden pipes was not safe to drink in the warmer months due to bacterial growth. By May 26, 1903, the new water main lines were being installed around campus at a depth of five feet. This is what a responsible governing board does. When a medical issue was brought before them, they immediately put the health and safety of our students first. We see evidence of the old water and heating systems in our excavations around campus.

Wycoff Pipe - Found near Beaumont Tower
Wycoff Pipe – Found near Beaumont Tower

Most of the pipes found by Campus Archaeology are drainage and steam pipes, where they come out in mass quantities of broken insulation and steam conduit remains, as they are rarely dug up and disposed of. Traditionally, old pipes are left in the ground and new ones are lain with only the connection being excavated and replaced. The topic of Flint’s water is a discussion that I am emerged in no matter where I go as someone inevitably asks when they find out I live here; these daily discussions lead me to this blog post. I began to wonder when MSU begin to deal with issues of aging infrastructure and health safety issues. Archaeology is the perfect tool to utilize when trying to answers questions of the deep past. Our role here at Campus Archaeology is a vital one, allowing us to document and write important pieces of MSU’s past that are often left unwritten or to add material evidence to the written record. Using this deep past, we can begin to look at issues that are often the subject of our blog posts. Our archives here at MSU are an amazing resource and many of them are available digitally here. Check them out for your own research and tell them Campus Archaeology sent you.

Wycoff Pipe Metal Bands - Faculty Row
Wycoff Pipe Metal Bands – Faculty Row Excavations

Author: Nicole Raslich

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