The inventiveness of early builders constantly provides us with wonder at their ability to create systems from available materials.  The use of wood logs as piping for water and sewer is one of those logically illogical things that makes a lot of sense, but also boggles the mind when you consider the immensity of urban infrastructural systems that relied on this as the primary water and sewer conveyance technology for many years.  A May 2017 article in The Washington Post, “Discovered: Philadelphia’s high-tech, totally natural plumbing of 1812″ shows the use of tree trunks, in this case, a series  “…of 10-foot pine logs, laboriously drilled to create a 4- to 6-inch center opening and bound together by iron couplings… The pine pipes lay buried and forgotten for two centuries until a worker sank a backhoe in the 900 block of Spruce Street earlier this week.”

Part of the original 45 miles of wooden mains in Philadelphia, expert on all things water in Philadelphia, Adam Levine via his great site PhillyH20 (see also my post here for more) provided some, including some additional history and imagery of the wooden pipes, in this case “A section of wooden water pipe, long out of service, removed from a Philadelphia street in 1901.  It had been installed about 1801.”

Other cities obviously used similar technologies, via a fascinating site by Jon C. Schladweiler, The History of Sanitary Sewers we can find some good history and lots of imagery of wood pipes, including bored elm & hemlock used in London as well as Philadelphia and other US Cities where it was employed.  From the site:

“The use of bored elm pipes underground with quills of lead running off into the houses of the well-to-do seems to have begun in London as early as the 13th century. All the old London water companies that appeared between the 16th and 18th century used bored elm pipes for distributing water. “

The natural taper of trees allowed for fittings that mirror the flange of modern pipes, and the holes were bored out manually, aided some times by the use of fire to burn out heartwood.  A couple of images from The History of Sanitary Sewers , showing “Bored hemlock (wood log) water pipe, laid about 1754. Early wood log pipe was used often for either water or sewage conveyance.”

The concept of ‘fire plug’ was also explained, where wood pipes could be tapped when there was a fire, auguring through the wood to get at the water (or installed at intervals) and once marked, could be replaced by driving a redwood plug into the hole – thus, the fire plug.  An image of this, an example from Philadelphia from a wood pipe with metal banding that was removed in the early 1900s.

An pair of articles from the NYC Environmental Protection mentions the discovery in 2013 of a section of 19th Century Wooden water main during repairs, and some of the history of this in New York infrastructure back as far as the 1820s.

The image above shows the excavation and pipe, with some context via their site.

“The wooden mains were installed in the early 1800’s and were discovered in 2006 during routine utility upgrades that included the replacement of water mains in Lower Manhattan. Adding to the uniqueness of the discovery, when unearthed, the two wooden pipes were still connected, to form a 26-foot section of the city’s original 19th century water distribution system. While several New York City institutions, including the New-York Historical Society, have pieces of wooden water mains in their collections, there are no known examples of complete sections still intact. Once on display, the wooden mains will help educate New Yorkers and visitors about how clean drinking water helped New York grow into a modern metropolis.”

Another image shows wood water supply pipes, in this case excavation of some pipes installed in Bristol, England, dating back 500 years.

Historical precedents for the use of wood as pipe date back even longer, up to a few millennia, probably to when people began to convey water in earnest by ‘mechanical’ means.  Via Dr Susan Oosthuizen (who posts great stuff on Twitter) there was an interesting link about Dutch dam builders (from New Scientist, 1996), which along with the fact they were ‘plagued by lice’, mentions preserved wooden logs used as pipes that were found, using dendrochronology, to have been from around 100-70 BC. “The dig has also uncovered dams and sluices built along an estuary. The dams were shut to keep out high tides, and the sluices were opened at low tide to allow water to drain from farmland that would otherwise have been tidal marsh. One dam, says de Ridder, is in the same place as a modern bridge with a similar tidal barrier and sluice. “They were regulating the water level on a large scale,” he says.”

A sketch showing what these tidal sluices using logs may have looked like comes from a sketch Dr. Oosthuizen posted via Twitter along with the quote “Late IronAge banks kept seawater off Dutch coastal marshes at high tide; & were set w/ wooden pipes to drain dams of fresh water at low tide”

Later iterations use wood in somewhat different ways, typically using ‘staves’ that were milled in lengths and banded with metal straps to create a tight fit, and didn’t require boring. The use of wood that had natural waterproof characteristics, such as cedar and redwood, aided in water tightness. As the saying goes, ‘Wood Pipe is Good Pipe’.

The wood stave offered the option of being able to reach dimensions much larger for greater conveyance (the above shows a range from “3 to 120 inches in diameter”, and allowed for greater expansion in the use of projects, shown here as a diagram of outfall sewers from Niagara Falls which includes both brick tunnel sections and a super steep wood stave flume.

This one below is via shows a wood stave sewer line here in Seattle, from around the 1930s, which was a common type of installation of the era.  You also see the images of Tanner Creek from this previous post show installation of a similar wood stave and brick in Portland in the 1920s, the preferred method of erasure of urban creeks. along with brick sewers that were becoming more common.  Will do a bit more digging on where this is but looks like the image below shows an outfall to Lake Union?


HEADER: Image of 200 year old wood pipe discovered in Philadelphia in May, 2017.  Via Washington Post, image Jon Snyder/Philadelphia Inquirer

2 thoughts on “The Water in the Wood

  1. No clue where one would acquire such a thing, as the ones i’ve seen are typically found in museums – and probably not an ebay or craigslist find. Let me know if you track one down!

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