Currie a pioneer in designing sewer systems

Editor’s Note:

This article is part of a monthly series on the history of Webster City and Hamilton County written by local historian Nancy Kayser.

The Iowa Department of Health began a campaign in the early 1920’s to clean up the state’s filthy rivers and streams

State reports showed waterways were polluted with heavy sludge banks, floating solids, sewage odors and absence of normal aquatic life during dry weather. This unhealthy situation was caused by cities dumping untreated, raw sewage direct into rivers and streams.

As Iowa governmental agencies began to demand cleaner rivers, Currie Engineering of Webster City became one of the country’s most sought after engineering firms to resolve the raw sewage issue.

Webster City native Clare H. Currie began his career in civil engineering immediately after graduating from Iowa State College in Ames in 1905. He worked on railroad, irrigation and paving projects in the Western states before returning to Iowa to work on the massive project of draining Iowa’s swamp lands to make them productive for cultivation.

Currie started his firm in Webster City in 1910. Other Iowa State College civil engineering graduates came on board in the ensuring years including Fred H. Austin and his brother Frank S. Currie. Mark V. Norris, a 1911 State University of Iowa civil engineering graduate, moved to Webster City to join the firm in 1920. Dr. Max Levine, professor of Bacteriology and internationally known authority on municipal water purification systems, was the bacteriology consultant. Currie’s son, David, also an Iowa State College engineering grad, joined the firm in 1938.

The Curries and Austin had tutored under Iowa State College Engineering Dean, Anson Marston. His leadership in road construction and sewage disposal systems influenced the men, enabling Currie Engineering to become leaders and trend-setters in the new field of sewage disposal systems and water treatment facilities.

By 1920, the Currie firm was designing sewage treatment facilities for many Iowa towns. Williams, in 1920, and Stanhope, in 1921, were among the first small towns to have them design sanitary sewer systems and sewage treatment plants.

Demand for their skills in municipal engineering, particularly in sewage, sewage disposal and water supply and treatment, was so intense, Currie Engineering opened another office in San Bernardino, California. Frank S. Currie managed the California office, but all the firm’s members split their time between the Midwest and the West Coast to oversee their design projects and to act as consultants. Several of the California projects were considered some of the largest undertaken in the United States. A 1930 project in San Clemente, California involved intercepting sewers, pump stations and ocean disposal of the sewage. The first 3,000 feet of cast iron ocean outfall pipe was assembled on a temporary pier and pulled into place. The last 1,000 feet of pipe was constructed on the ocean floor by divers.

Other California projects included designs for Elmonte, Redlands, San Bernardino, Coulton, Newport Beach, Pasadena, San Clemente and Laguna.

Iowa cities were just a bit slower to end the dumping of raw sewage into its rivers. Many municipalities doubted the state and university contamination reports. Currie Engineering prepared contamination studies and plant designs for a large number of Midwest communities.

Year after year, the state department of health issued resolutions and orders to river cities to stop polluting the waterways.

Webster City, in the midst of the Depression and short on city funds, was one of the last river cities to began sewage treatment. Until that time, the city pumped the raw sewage directly into the Boone River creating an unhealthy and stinky mess.

W. F. Hunter of the Freeman Journal wrote editorial after editorial promoting and pleading for a sewage disposal plant for the City. The fiery, outspoken Editor continually reminded the City Council of the availability of Work Progress Association (WPA) funds and the need of local jobs.

More than 900 citizens signed a petition in 1936 asking the city to build the facilities quickly using federal funding. The United Trades and Labor Organization of Webster City petitioned the Council to employ a local engineering firm rather than an outside agency.

Currie Engineering was hired in February of 1937 to make the preliminary survey and report on the proposed sewer disposal plant.

Finally, in July of 1938, the City Council authorized the submission of an application for funding of the plant to the Public Works Administration. The funding gained final approval in September 1938 and the search for a site began.

Bids for construction of a sewer plant were accepted in mid May 1939. The contract went to the Zitterell-Mills Company of Webster City on a bid of $128,448. Currie Engineering designed the entire project for $5,300 which included three different sets of plans for two probable sites.

Total cost of the project which included the sewage plant, sludge bed and connecting sewers was $147,574. The federal government paid $70, 689 of the cost.

Webster City’s sewage plant, located in the southeast section of the City, was operational in December of 1939.

The Webster City Sewer treatment plant was the last installation personally designed by Clare H. Currie. His 1942 obituary mentioned he considered it the finest and most modern construction he had ever done.

Their pioneering and innovative designs went into many other large and small Iowa towns and cities including noted Iowa plant installations at Osage, the big Iowa lakes facility for the towns of Spirit Lake, Okoboji and Arnolds Park and a dam and spillway at Osceola.

Currie Engineering continued designing and perfecting sewer treatment and water treatment facilities in the Midwest and on the West Coast until their retirements in the mid 1970’s.