The Canals of Providence City: Water Dangers
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For forty years or more, the vast majority of Providence residents “relied upon the mountain stream, Spring Creek, and the Blacksmith Fork canal for their domestic supply.” There were “few wells...in existence.” The water from Spring Creek and the canal were diverted to ditches which ran along the sides of the roads. Unfortunately, water on the roadside created problems. The lack of bridges across the canals was an issue throughout this period. Bridges were expensive, but without them crossing a canal could be treacherous or impossible. Citizens complained about “long stretches of glassy ice” in the winter and they (correctly) blamed multiple disease outbreaks on the ditches’ “impure water.”
The idea of purifying water is an ancient one but the recognition and study of waterborne diseases was still in its infancy in the late nineteenth century. Scientists had only recently realized that diseases like Cholera and Typhoid could be spread by contaminated water. In spite of this growing knowledge the practice of sanitizing water seemed to be a priority only in large cities, not in small farming communities like Providence; it was in unclean city conditions that water became polluted, people thought. While it is possible that household water treatment took place in Providence—sedimentation, filtration, additives, or boiling—the goal of such treatment was likely water “clarification” as opposed to disinfection: clear water was viewed as clean water. Even in households that cleaned their water effectively there were other activities that could lead to waterborne illness: accidental ingestion could occur while swimming or washing (no doubt some children took dips in the ditches in hot summer months—and crops watered with impure water could carry bacteria.