Libby Reuter and Joshua Rowan
Sewer south of Forest Park
To learn where water goes when it runs off the street or down the bathroom drain, representatives of the Metropolitan Sewer District took artists Libby Reuter and Joshua Rowan into large sewers called “the Tubes”, just south of Forest Park. In the first image, the blue and green glass FLOWer Cairn sits in 6–12 inches of mostly rainwater on the curved floor of a 30-foot-diameter concrete tunnel. At intervals, grates in the bottom of the tunnel drain some of this ground water into the wastewater in their own tubes, the sanitary sewers, below. The air is damp, a fog rises from the water and the place smells strongly of ammonia. The only light comes from the tunnel opening to the west and a few flashlights. In the second image, the Cairn is in a human- scale arched opening connecting this tunnel with a second, similar- sized tunnel about one-quarter full of a dark liquid, the main source of the odors.
What’s the story of this eerie place? In the 1800s, the River des Peres and its many tributaries twisted from Creve Coeur and through Forest Park on its way to the Mississippi River in south St. Louis. Early landowners, then later whole communities, used the flowing water to dispose of waste. By 1900, the river had become a smelly ditch, so wooden sewers were built under Forest Park to hide the effluent and to keep its odors from visitors to the 1904 World’s Fair. When the entire park flooded in 1915, it was clear that the wooden channels were not a long-term solution, and the city looked for a more reliable way to transport wastewater.
Beginning in 1929, concrete tubes were constructed to carry the wastewater. The two tunnels coming from Forest Park surface in an industrial area just south of Manchester Boulevard where they are joined by a third conduit from the Tower Grove Park area. The sanitary sewers continue below ground, following the concrete-lined River des Peres, carrying wastewater to a Metropolitan Sewer District treatment plant. Then, the decontaminated water is returned to the Mississippi River. This works most of the time, except during heavy rainfall when the excess combined sewage and storm water fill the Tubes and flow into the open, concrete-lined channel of the River des Peres and— untreated—into the Mississippi River. Read more about the River des Peres/Sewer at:
Historic images of the tunnels being built in 1929