Historicist: Into the Sewers of Political Corruption
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Historicist: Into the Sewers of Political Corruption

Every Saturday morning Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Garrison Creek sewer, circa 1890s. City of Toronto Archives, Series 376, File 2, Item 106.

By the 1880s, historian J.E. Middleton writes, “Toronto no longer felt itself a compact little city, but a straggling big one, outgrowing its civic services as rapidly as a small boy outgrows his pantaloons.” Clearly the municipal government needed to adapt—by expanding its powers and influence over the lives of its citizens—to meet the needs of a bustling industrial city. While some emerging public services, such as public transit and the waterworks, could be developed by private investors, other less profitable—but equally essential—ventures were left to municipal officials. Thus, sewers became one of the first public works undertaken by city council. The scandal surrounding the construction of the Garrison Creek sewer in 1884-1885 illustrates the problems encountered when city officials stretched beyond the modest capabilities of their traditional function.

Bellmouth, Northwest Branch, Garrison Creek sewer, circa 1890s. City of Toronto Archives, Series 376, File 1, Item 16.

Sewers were far from an automatic feature of the streetscape in early Toronto. Even by 1885, when Toronto’s first Medical Health Officer, Dr. William Canniff, conducted a door-to-door study of 11,000 homes—or about two-thirds of the city—6,700 were still using privy pits. Some privies were connected to a surface drain discharging into a nearby stream or were connected to one of the handful of sewers that drained into the Don River or into Lake Ontario. Others had to be drained manually. Canniff’s report strengthened the resolve of middle-class urban reformers who’d been pushing public health—and the provision of clean water and sewage infrastructure—to the forefront of the municipal political agenda since 1870.
Writing in the March 1995 issue of Urban History Review, Catherine Brace described the common process for getting sewers constructed in Toronto since 1859: “If the residents of a street wanted a sewer they had to submit a petition to City Council, signed by at least two thirds of the residents whose property had to add up to at least one half of the assessed value of the properties affected.” To foot the bill for these improvements, municipal officials assessed a tax on the residents affected, taking into account the value of the property and how much it would be benefitted by the sewer. Petitioners, therefore, were often driven by the self-interest of increasing the value of their properties. Between 1859 and 1881, the number of petitions grew steadily—as did the number of miles of sewer laid by the municipality.
The woefully inadequate human resources capabilities of the bureaucracy, however, meant the city was not in a position to construct anything itself. With few permanent staff, the Public Works Department relied entirely on private contractors. Even the city’s inspectors who were charged with supervising construction projects were hired on a temporary, project-by-project basis.
Under new legislation in 1877, the municipality gained the power to plan sewers considered necessary for sanitary reasons, even if the petition received by council lacked sufficient signatures, and assess the costs to the affected residents. In principle, this power lay with City Council. But, in practice, broad discretionary powers were granted to the City Engineer, whose technical expertise was relied upon by the Board of Works. Aldermen frequently deferred to his judgement unquestioningly.
The number of insufficiently signed sewer petitions approved by the City Engineer rose from 21 in 1878 to 61 in 1881. On one hand, the municipal government seemed to recognize the need for a more comprehensive approach to sewer development that would benefit the city as a whole. On the other hand, the City Engineer’s broad powers and the over-reliance on private contractors meant the conditions were ripe for patronage graft and petty fraud. “It was common knowledge,” Desmond Morton wrote of the era in Mayor Howland: The Citizens’ Candidate (Hakkert, 1973), “that city works were conducted in a miasma of corruption and incompetence.” The public believed many aldermen to be “literally owned by contractors,” as a letter writer put it in the Globe on May 25, 1886.

Plan of the Northwest Branch, Garrison Creek sewer, circa 1890s. City of Toronto Archives, Series 376, File 1, Item 13.

With the accumulated refuse of neighbourhood privies, by the 1880s Garrison Creek was little more than an open sewer that affected both health and property values in north-western Toronto. For years, politicians and Dr. Canniff had called for the waterway’s conversion into a sewer. The project was delayed largely because, as Brace argues in the 1997 issue of Historical Geography, its prohibitive cost couldn’t be financed by the usual method of localized taxation. In 1884, City Council finally called upon Charles Sproatt, the City Engineer, to investigate the costs and benefits associated with bricking up the creek and petitioned the provincial government for permission to issue special debentures to pay for the improvements. With financing in place and Sproatt’s designs approved, the tender process secured two contractors who were responsible to construct the sewer to match Sproatt’s specifications. Alan J. Brown would build the section from Wellington to Queen at a cost of $20,485. He was also subsequently awarded the contract for the portion of the sewer between Wellington and the lake. A.W. Godson would build the section from Queen to College at a cost of $44,909. With that, work got underway.
Shortly afterwards aldermen began complaining that Godson was using “bad material” in his section. Investigators were dispatched. In September 1885, they reported that the sewer’s gradient was too shallow. Furthermore, Brace recounts, council heard “with amazement of gross violations of the specifications in the construction of the Garrison Creek sewer by the use of worthless brick.” Through shoddy workmanship, many bricks at the bottom of the sewer were worn or broken, and mortar of was being washed away. Eventually, part of the wall collapsed entirely. Allegations of misconduct and breach of duty were levelled at the City Engineer, the City Commissioner, the city’s inspector, and the contractor. Convinced that “gross negligence has been shown by one or more of the [city] officials,” the Board of Works called for the whole matter to be referred to a full judicial inquiry on October 13, 1885.

Garrison Creek sewer, northwest branch, circa 1890s. City of Toronto Archives, Series 376, File 1, Item 15.

The public, having long suffered the graft and corruption fuelling municipal politics of the day, could finally identify culprits and looked forward to a juicy scandal. For weeks during the winter of 1886, County Judge Joseph E. MacDougall heard testimony from dozens of witnesses, including appearances by Sproatt and Emerson Coatsworth, the city commissioner—both of who faced the possibility of jail time if evidence of outright corruption was found. That spring, MacDougall’s report stopped short of any punitive action—which was left to the purview of council—but placed a portion of blame on each of those implicated. Sproatt, he felt, was negligent in supervising the work in progress and guilty of a breach of duty. Emerson was censured to a lesser degree for failing to ensure the quality of materials. Mr. Rolston, the city’s inspector, received the greatest blame for, in Morton’s words, “allowing, through corruption or laxity, over six hundred feet of the sewer to be constructed from sub-standard bricks and cement.” Finally, the contractor, Godson, was found guilty of grave misconduct and breach of duty for having provided the inferior material in the first place and for the serious error in the level of the sewer. MacDougall’s report raised significant concerns about Toronto’s method for undertaking public works and expressed hope that the current scandal would lead to departmental reform. He concluded: “The statements made by the various witnesses as to the system under which our public works have been constructed in the past will, I trust, lead to some sweeping changes—changes will render it impossible for contractors or inspectors to ignore so palpably, in this case, the plain and unambiguous terms of specifications and contracts.”
When considering the report, some aldermen were hesitant about firing Sproatt and Coatsworth because, as the Globe reported, it “would result in serious embarrassment to the department.” Apart from the inspector, who had been long since dismissed, no one was suspected of outright misconduct. Aldermen rallied around the engineer and commissioner as two over-worked and under-supported civil servants who didn’t have the means to adequately supervise all contractors and public works of the rapidly growing city. They suggested hiring an additional engineer to reduce the work-load. William Howland, elected mayor in 1886 on a reform platform, also endorsed this position. The problem as Howland saw it, according to Morton, “lay in the hopeless inefficiency of a system designed for a much smaller city.” He ordered a reorganization of the department.
The Globe felt let down by the supposed reformer. “Never again will wrongdoing be brought so clearly home,” the newspaper editorialized on November 6, 1886. “Never again will the corrupt ring that manages our city affairs be brought so near to exposure and punishment.” But, the Globe argued, while the city scape-goated the contractor, the two who ought to be fired kept their jobs and were even to be rewarded with a reduced work-load. The reputations of Sproatt and Coatsworth suffered little damage over the long term. The Globe began sarcastically referring to Sproatt as “His Lordship High Commissioner,” but the Board of Works still relied on his expertise as City Engineer. And Coatsworth was eventually elected mayor at the turn of the century.
In the short term, the scandal negatively impacted the city’s ability to gain support for public works projects. A plan to raise taxes to bankroll a much needed trunk sewer system (which would better address the growing contamination of the lake) was soundly rejected at the polls by ratepayers in 1886 and 1887. Over the long term, the scandal illustrated the inadequacy of the city’s ability to administer and control public works projects demanded by a modernizing city without reform. The structural problems of the Garrison Creek sewer were eventually rectified under Sproatt’s supervision. Just as the city’s sewer infrastructure expanded broadly in the 1880s and 1890s, the Garrison Creek sewer would be extended and improved—the accompanying photographs appear to be drawn from the 1890s—until the waterway had been completely buried by the 1920s. Few reminders of the waterway exist today.