The City’s Whale-Oil Pipeline

During the city’s post-Civil War boom, a panel of eminent politicians, including the governor, mayor and state surgeon general, met to plan the future growth of the city. Several advances were made. In an effort to provide more room for growth, Bankton’s Marsh was filled in with refuse, which increased the size of the city by 30%. This created space for growth (The land is now occupied by the tony neighborhood of South Bay), but also additional demand for resources, particularly whale oil, which fueled the city’s street lights, homes and the lanterns needed for round-the-clock mill work. Anticipating the need for millions of gallons of whale oil to keep the city growing, the city fathers embarked on an ambitious scheme- the digging of a 20-mile underground pipeline to the nearest whale intake port downriver (newly-constructed and larger than the city’s ports), which would allow them first access to the ships loaded with whale carcasses.

Work began immediately, but problems arose soon after. For the unprecedented construction, the engineers drew inspiration from the Roman aqueducts, even traveling to Spain and trying to recreate scale reconstructions. “These ducts have lasted for hundreds of years, and that’s the kind of ducts we need for our fair city,” mayor Josephus Brown proclaimed at the start of construction. However, the original aqueducts were designed to carry water and primarily ran downhill.

The thick, gooey whale oil did not flow as smoothly as water, and clogged pipes were a constant ordeal. Steam pumps were required to keep the liquid moving, which, in turn, created sparks which would frequently ignite the oil. During the first months of the pipeline’s operation, plumes of flame shooting up through manhole covers were a common sight.

Five years and twenty million dollars later, the pipeline was completed, in 1871. For a time the city profited, becoming the largest whale oil supplier in the region. But the timing was poor. As whales were hunted in greater numbers, the ships needed to go farther afield to find them, and the supply of oil dwindled. Without a massive supply, it no longer proved economical to operate the huge tunnel, which was also becoming a safety liability. The sticky oil adhered to the walls and ceiling, requiring around the clock maintenance to prevent clogging. Over four dozen workers lost their lives during the tunnel’s construction and operation- more than 80% after the pipeline was completed. The tunnel became famous for accidents, with newspapers of the time reporting lurid stories on a monthly basis. Some of the most famous (although probably apocryphal) stories involve workers becoming trapped in the sticky oil, being knocked down by floating pieces of blubber the size of a man, or being run through with baleen. Such events inspired the popular folk song “Whale Oil Blues.” The flaming sewer grates and manhole covers were also a cause for concern. The Great East Side Fire of 1878 was caused by flames from a errant sewer grate that happened to spring up near that year’s International Wheat Symposium at the old County Fair Grounds (now part of Mabel Tripp Gardens). Fifteen barns of display wheat were consumed before the fire could be brought under control.

As the supply and demand dipped, the city finally began its transition to gas light and coal. Failing to find a money making use for the now inactive tunnel, and saddled with upkeep, the city fathers decided to seal the ends of the tunnel. A picture of the tunnel and a smiling whale were taken off the city stationary. The tunnel largely passed into myth, used only by smugglers importing black market goods from the coast. During prohibition, local organized crime syndicates used the tunnel to import huge quantities of illegal booze into the city, leading to the 1920’s nickname “Tipsy Town.”

As the city began another growth surge after the second world war, the tunnel was reopened in 1951, this time to supply water to the north side of town. The tunnel was patched and cleaned with high pressure hoses, but always retained that whale-y odor. Scientists determined that the water, although pungent, was safe to drink, and eventually the pipeline began to provide over 70% of the city’s water supply, as it does to this day. Locals cite this water as the cause for the city’s unpleasant tasting bagels and pizza.
- Matt Vermeulen

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