Summer Reading: Highgate stinker

HISTORY buff RICHARD OFFEN is the author of Lost Perth, and the former executive director of Heritage Perth. In this week’s HERITAGE CORNER he tells us about  “Dumas’ Folly”, a towering sewer ventilation stack in Highgate which caused a stink with locals.

STANDING high over the surrounding area of Highgate, many assume the noble art deco structure of the Lincoln Street sewer ventilation stack, at 38 metres high, is some kind of war memorial.

In reality, it is a memorial to a good idea which rapidly became a failure.

In the 1840s the lakes in the area where Lincoln Street is now situated were drained to create more fertile land to feed the growing population of Perth.

Eventually, in the 1880s the new suburb of Highgate Hill began to grow and displace the market gardens and farms.

The gold rush of the 1890s brought about a huge population explosion in Western Australia, and Perth in particular.

Typhoid cases

To create better living conditions for the increased population better infrastructure was required including a bespoke a sewerage system.

The earliest sewerage system consisted of septic tanks and drains dug alongside town streets to carry refuse and wastewater to the Swan River.

These systems could not cope with the substantially increased volume and contaminated water began to seep through the sandy soil into drinking water supplies, resulting in 2000 typhoid cases being reported in the 1890s.

C Napier Bell, a Scottish civil engineer who had worked in New Zealand for the Christchurch Drainage Board, was commissioned to create a sewerage scheme for Perth.

As a result, septic tanks were built in 1912 at Claisebrook, with an underground pipe transporting the contents to filter beds on Burswood Island, from whence the treated water flowed into the river.

This system was significantly enlarged in 1927 by the construction of the Subiaco Treatment Plant, which was again enlarged in 1935 to create the basis of the present sewerage disposal system.

The 1935 improvements, which included pumping stations in East Perth to move sewerage from the low-lying eastern regions, followed complaints of algal blooms in the Swan River around Burswood, produced by the concentration of nitrogen nutrients in the water from the effluent discharge.

A year later, the Claisebrook and Burswood Plants were closed and all sewerage was diverted to Subiaco, and after treatment, pumped out to sea.

Spectacular failure

As part of the new system, ventilation towers were to be built along the central mainline sewer every three miles.

Ventilation had become standard practice in sewer system management from the late 19th century, as airflow was important to keep sewerage ‘fresh’ and prevent a build-up of anaerobic bacteria, which produces noxious and corrosive gases.

Apparently, hydrogen sulphide (‘rotten egg gas’) was present in high concentration in the expanded Perth sewerage system and it was decided to remove this gas from the system using the newly built ventilation towers, which were to be fitted with motorised extractor fans, to pump the gas out into the atmosphere above the surrounding residential areas.

The first tower, a basic steel shaft, was built on the hill behind Subiaco Treatment Plant, near the corner of Selby and Hay Streets.

The second stack, known as Lincoln Street Ventilation Stack, was opened in late 1941. Constructed for the Metropolitan Water Supply, Sewerage and Drainage Department, it was designed by A E (Paddy) Clare, architect of the Public Works Department, and the project supervised by chief engineer Russell Dumas.

Once commissioned however, things did not go according to plan. The foul smelling and poisonous hydrogen sulphide gas did not disperse into the air as planned, but fell on the surrounding houses, causing vehement complaints from residents.

The acidic gas also corroded the extractor fans so quickly the tower became completely inoperable four weeks after opening. In 1942, Lincoln Street Ventilation Stack was given a new function as a mast for the WA police department radio system.  Sadly, the ventilation system was a spectacular failure in the otherwise illustrious career of Russell Dumas and the tower became known locally as “Dumas’ Folly”.

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