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November 9, 2013

Creating better sewers helped many during Great Depression

The Daily Star

---- — Many remember from the 1950s sitcom “The Honeymooners,” Ed Norton worked in the sewers and made plenty of funny remarks about his job. It wasn’t a glamorous job, but someone had to do it.

“Like we say in the sewer,” Norton once quipped, “time and tide wait for no man.”

During the Great Depression many unemployed men in Oneonta were probably happy if not relieved to take on jobs to expand the city’s sewage and water facilities. The city was required by the state to do so if they wanted to have a new state tuberculosis hospital built here. That became the Homer Folks Tuberculosis Hospital, where the Oneonta Job Corps Academy is now.

The Oneonta Star reported on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 1932, that the Parish farm site, “located near the Pony Farm crossing over the D. & H. tracks on the Otego road, has been definitely picked for the location of the city sewage treatment works.” This is the area known today as Silas Lane in the city’s West End between the Susquehanna River and Interstate 88.

The city had been under pressure from the state Board of Health as far back as 1912 to end the dumping of sewage directly into the Susquehanna. Voters in March of that year approved about $14,400 worth of improvements to what was a rustic system, expanding the lines, but still dumping contents into the river near the outlet of today’s millrace below Neahwa Park. Not surprisingly, popular youth swimming holes of the day along the river were found well above this site.

The 1932-33 project made vast improvements and expansions to the city’s system. The city offered $150 per acre to the Parish estate for the new site, while the Parish estate asked for $400 per acre. The city in turn went to condemnation proceedings to obtain the land. After negotiations, the city agreed to pay $4,000 for the 12 acres of land.

Bids for contracts went out in September 1932 to build the sewage treatment plant and all the new or improved sewer lines. Property owners had approved a bond issue of $375,000 for the projects several months earlier. In October it was announced that a New York City firm, F.H. McGraw Co. won the contract for the plant, while the Street Brothers Co. of Syracuse won the contract for the sewer lines.

Exact numbers weren’t given on how many were employed, but the Star reported on Thursday, Oct. 27, 1932, “the two contracts, coupled with the construction of the state hospital building and other projects under way, should absorb all Oneonta unemployment and do much to relieve conditions throughout this vicinity.”

The “other” projects referred to in the article already in progress involved building two storage tanks for water below the “Normal reservoir.” That’s today’s pond at the Hunt Student Union building on the State University College at Oneonta campus. Fifteen local men were employed on clearing and building that project, seen today to the northwestern side of Hazel Street and Woodside Avenue, now as three storage tanks. Fifty-nine unemployed men were hired to extend water lines along West Street to the new hospital.

There had been hopes of making the new sewage treatment plant operational by July 1933, but there had been delays. The day finally came on Wednesday, Nov. 1, for “Visitors Day” at the plant.

According to the Star, “At 11 o’clock this morning sewage from the city of Oneonta will be turned into the lines which have heretofore run directly into the Susquehanna river through the pipeline to the new sewage disposal plant, where the sewage will be treated and only water considered of a higher quality than that of the river will be discharged into it.”

Nearly 500 residents turned out for the ceremony where Mayor Francis H. Marx received the plant keys from the McGraw Co., and operations of the plant were explained to those on hand.

This plant served until the 1970s. With Oneonta under pressure again from the state, a new $4.5 million sewage treatment plant, long in the planning stages, moved forward in December 1969 with a $2.5 million Pure Waters Construction grant from the Gov. Nelson Rockefeller administration. Delays caused this plant to open in December 1974. Upgrades and repairs from the 2006 flood have since been made.

On Monday: A new Clark gymnasium was proposed in Cooperstown 30 years ago.

Oneonta City Text ColorSwatch/NoneStrokeStyle/$ID/SolidText ColorSwatch/NoneStrokeStyle/$ID/Solid$ID/NothingText ColorText Color$ID/NothingText ColorText ColorHistorian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at His website is His columns can be found at