A Look Back in History: San Francisco’s Sewer System

From the earliest days of the sewer system’s existence, the San Francisco Department of Public Works documented the projects it worked on, not just in written contracts and plans, but in photographs that meticulously recorded the construction of tunnels, pumping stations, reservoirs, outfalls, and sewers in and around the city. Such forward thinking left the residents of San Francisco with a valuable pictorial record of how our city’s public works were created.

As the SFPUC’s Sewer System Improvement Project (SSIP) continues its progress, the photography department in the Engineering Archives searched for historic images of San Francisco’s sewer system but found very few in their own collections. Luckily, the hundreds of photographs taken by the Department of Public Works had not been lost over the years; they are safely housed at the San Francisco History Center on the 6th Floor of the San Francisco Public Library. The Engineering Archives and The San Francisco History Center embarked on a joint project to digitize these photographs and make them accessible, not just to the people involved in SSIP, but to the greater public as well.

After looking through more than 70 albums and hundreds of glass plate negatives, 200 images dating from 1910 to the 1940s were selected for digitization. These include construction of the original sewers at Hunter’s Point, Forty-sixth Avenue, Springdale Avenue, Sansome Street, and Laguna Street, as well as Sea Cliff Pumping Station, Pumping Station No. 2, and Twenty-sixth Avenue outfall.