April 23rd, 2024

Heritage in the Hat: Down the drain

By Malcolm Sissons on February 22, 2024.

Vitrified clay sewer pipe being manufactured at the I-XL plant.--PHOTO COURTESY Esplanade Archives

“Out of sight, out of mind.” Few think about the network of underground pipes when they flush but a functioning sewer system is an essential service in a civilized society. Tossing the contents of your chamber pot (a.k.a. “honey pot”) into the street and shouting “Gardyloo!” doesn’t cut it anymore.

Initially, every home had an outhouse. This evolved into septic fields where a connection to a sewer main was not possible. The last septic field within the city was dismantled in 2023! An 1893 News article refers to a sewer from the hospital (old site, now police station) to the river.

Wire-wrapped wooden staves were once used for water supply in the city. Wood pipes were only durable if kept saturated which worked with pressurized water supply but not drains. In 1907, a bylaw prohibited brick or wood drains within buildings from connecting to city mains; only cast iron or salt-glazed vitrified pipe was allowed.

In 1903, the Town received quotes from a U.S. supplier of vitrified sewer pipe and there is reference in 1910 to buying pipe from the Ontario Sewer Pipe Co. but that was soon to change to local supply.

The new (1910) Alberta Clay Products plant initially produced brick and hollow tile using red-burning clay from Dunmore in its beehive kilns. Located between the CPR tracks and Bridge Street, the plant was a wonder, the biggest in Canada and second biggest in North America. Upon discovering a source of higher quality stoneware clay at Eastend, salt-glazed sewer pipe was added to the product line.

The salt-glazing process involved adding salt to the kiln at high temperature, which then combined with silica in the clay to create an impermeable coating of sodium silicate. One end was formed into a bell shape, with the other end (spigot) fitting inside the bell. Mortar was used to seal the joint. The stacks of pipe inventory were shipped by rail across Western Canada.

A huge employer, the plant was a dominant local industry, controlled by the Yuill family and managed by Joseph Harlan “Hop” Yuill from 1921 until the business was sold to Marwell Construction in 1955, then to Evans Coleman Evans (both Vancouver companies). Fire destroyed the iconic plant in 1961.

New technology emerged when the Medicine Hat Brick and Tile, operated by Gordon, Tom and Jack Sissons, constructed a brand-new sewer pipe manufacturing plant in 1955, adjacent to its brick plant. It featured the latest in forming and handling equipment and more importantly, an efficient continuous tunnel kiln. The firing technique also ensured such consistent vitrification that no glazing was required, a significant efficiency.

The joint was usually the weak point in the system as the mortar would disintegrate over time. New jointing systems were developed based on asphalt (“slip-seal”), flexible rubber o-rings, nylon and fibre glass collars. By the late 1970s, the boom in Western Canada meant that the renamed I-XL Industries Ltd. had three tunnel kilns (one in Regina) producing sewer pipe with 12-month delivery schedules.

The economic crash in the West in the early 1980s coincided with the widespread adoption of plastic (ABS and PVC) pipe. The era of the vitrified clay sewer pipe ended suddenly and by 1990 production had ceased. The Medicine Hat advantage of cheap gas and access to good clay resources no longer mattered and plastic pipe manufacturing occurred elsewhere. However, the clay sewer pipe manufactured in the city continues to function decades after installation.

So, next time you flush, think of the underground world of sewer pipe and how Medicine Hat once dominated that world!

Malcolm Sissons is a past member of the Heritage Resources Committee of the City of Medicine Hat

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