The San Francisco Cacophony Society’s 1990 Sewer Tours

The July 1990 (#46) issue of Rough Draft: The Official Organ of the San Francisco Cacophony Society announced two sewer tours on sequential Saturdays for that month (July 14 and 21). The idea of a sewer tour is of course reminiscent of the famous Parisian sewer tours of yore.

The first tour announced,

“OBSCURE WALKING TOURS presents: ’Return to the Oakland Sewers’

Strange rumblings from the bowels of the city have been heard of late. Midnight strollers have reported dim mystical voices wafting up from the sewer grates and manhole covers beckoning them down into the earth, much as the sirens called Ulysses to his doom. We intend to answer the call...

This event will be a formal affair.

What you need: (1) Formal wear from the waist up--tails, tuxes, white gloves, evening dresses, tops, etc. (2) From the waist down--hip-waders or knee-high rubber boots, blue-jeans, work pants, etc. (3) A change of pants, socks and shoes in case you get wet. You will be very uncomfortable at the end of the walk if you can’t be warm. (4) Flashlights, candles, light-sticks. Please have at least two sources of light in case one fails. (5) Food to share in a potluck dinner at the end of the walk. (6) If you are driving to this event, you must have your car gassed and ready to go. (7) $3 per person to cover event costs. (8) Valid California ID

We will walk 2 miles under the streets of Oakland. Children of 10 or over are welcome with their parent(s) or legal guardian. The deepest water should be no more than knee level (14 inches deep). Tall rubber boots may be used but hip-waders are recommended...

In 1983, the Suicide Club entered the Oakland storm drain system for the last time. Tonight we will follow those footsteps.”

The event was sponsored by Sebastian Melmouth.

The second announcement read:


Have you ever wanted to know what happened to the stuff that goes down the drain? We felt that the survivors from the Oakland Sewer Tour might crave cleaner treatment in San Francisco, so this follow-up event is being offered to all. This free municipal tour will show what comes out of our beautiful city and what happens to it before it goes into the Bay...

Sponsor: Michael Kan

...We know that this tour could really build up a fierce hunger, so we might go somewhere afterwards for lunch."

Image 1

July 14, the first tour. We gather in a small Oakland park in our formal wear and waders

Image 2

Stepping out (or on)

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Some people recycled their New Year’s Eve party hats

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The $3 event fee was to pay for a Ryder van that shuttled us through the streets of Oakland to a secret location.

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After we all gathered at the secret location, we hopped a fence, crossed railroad tracks, then entered the Oakland storm drain (sewer) system.

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Image 7

One of the participants offers an explanation of the proceedings.

Image 8

The River Styx?

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Into the thick of it...

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We narrowly avoiding being arrested for trespassing because the storm system passed through someone’s yard and the owner had initially wanted to call the police until he saw 100+ of us exiting the sewer. We arrive back at the park at midnight for our potluck picnic.

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July 21, the beginning of the second sewer tour at San Francisco’s Oceanside Treatment Plant. This is the real thing, a settling pond, where raw sewage is initially treated aerobic bacteria.

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Walking towards the secondary treatment facilities, which are indoors

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The secondary treatment facilities

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Was Valerie Solanas at work here?

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Sieving and sorting

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Watching in fascination as the grit rises

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Grit, which was extracted from sewage, is cork-screwed up to be collected and sent to landfill.

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The San Francisco skyline on a typical summer day. Is this why everyone moves here?

Image 19

Construction of the new underground sewage treatment plant to handle wastewater from street runoff. The San Francisco Zoo was to be expanded over this area.

Image 20

Surprisingly, there were no pungent smells before this point, and we had finished the tour. Some of us thought that we had not gotten our money’s worth (free) and demanded that we be shown the part that smells which was not on the regular tour. After some reluctance, the guide showed us into a huge building with a catwalk that was directly above the initial sewage intake before it went to the settling ponds. The smell could have knocked you out. It was a good thing that they had guard rails!

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© 1998 by Thomas H. Slone.

Last modified August 28, 1998.