I was talking to my neighbor Brett the other day about all the water backing up near a Grand Rapids city storm drain down the road.

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After taking a closer look the culprit was a bunch of leaves and sticks that needed to be cleared out.

Credit: Big Joe Pesh / TSM
Credit: Big Joe Pesh / TSM

As our conversation was wrapping up Brett told me that the Grand Rapids sewer system was ancient as it was the first city in America to have one.

Out of pure curiosity, I asked more about it and Brett told me that was at least what someone told him, he wasn't sure if it was true or just a tall tale.

Does Grand Rapids Have The Oldest Sewer System In America?

After our conversation, I wanted to find out if Grand Rapids really had the first sewer system in America. Turns out that that tall tale was not true.

Chicago skyline at sunset time aerial view, United States

The first sewer systems in America were built in the late 1850s not too far away in Chicago. In 1854 the city was having a cholera epidemic affecting 1 in 18 residents. Cholera is a bacterial disease causing severe diarrhea and dehydration, usually spread in contaminated water.

Since the land in Chicago was so flat, engineer Ellis S. Chesbrough suggested raising the city by as much as 12 feet in some areas, so that sewers could work by gravity.

When Did Grand Rapids Get A Sewer System?

Credit Big Joe Pesh / TSM
Credit Big Joe Pesh / TSM

According to the Grand Rapids Historical Commission, starting out the city of Grand Rapids had a very basic sewer system that used wood.

Then in the summer of 1855, the Grand Rapids Hydraulic Co. began laying underground water pipes in streets and alleys.

Near the end of the 19th century, 118 miles of water mains and 1109 fire hydrants had been installed at a total cost of $1,276,576.

It looks like my neighbor was wrong, Grand Rapids doesn't have the oldest sewer system in America, but it was definitely one of the first.

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