Urban Explorations Urban Explorations

Urine for a Treat With a Tour of These Five Sewer Systems

Tunnels, drains and other wastewater structures to explore, from ancient Rome to present-day New York

The sewer museum in Paris. (Gao Jing/Xinhua Press/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

If it weren’t for modern wastewater systems, we’d probably all have cholera. The deadly disease festers in sewage-laden waters—outbreaks in the 19th century killed hundreds of thousands of people, and even today, it runs rampant in areas without adequate plumbing infrastructure. 

To remind us of that devastating prospect, the sewer exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, England, once included a life-size diorama of a funeral for an epidemic victim. The idea was to show what our (short) lives would be like without the help of sewers and related purification systems to prevent disease. Although the funeral diorama was removed as part of a gallery remodel in 2012, the museum now takes visitors through a simulated sewer, crafted from the bricks of a 19th century model, with “fake poo glazed on the walls, piped in sounds of scurrying rats, and a pumped-in odor.”

To experience the real thing, here are five place across Europe and the U.S. to explore these underappreciated urban marvels:

Paris, France

Paris is known mostly for what’s above ground: food, romance, the Eiffel Tower, fashion shows, city life. But a bustling network exists underfoot as well. While the catacombs—underground cemeteries—may be more famous, the city’s old sewer system is a worthy attraction, too. It was the first sewer system to offer tours, way back in 1867, popularized by Victor Hugo’s mention of the fetid netherworld in Les Misérables. At Le Musée des Égouts, the sewer museum, visitors can learn about the history of the system and see parts of it up close—including a giant iron ball that gets squeezed through the tunnels as water builds up behind it and cleans the tunnels by pushing muck out with it. The dark, dank tubes even form their own underground city, with bright blue street signs designating each tunnel. Also on view in the tunnels: a “sewer wagon” (pictured here) and a “sewer boat.”

On a tour, visitors learn about each major era of Paris sewer history, going all the way back to when King Philippe Auguste first installed drainage gutters around the year 1200. The network developed gradually over many centuries, until the modern system was built in the mid-19th century by Baron Haussmann, Prefect of the Seine, and engineer Eugène Belgrand. 

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