Debunking the Public Health Myth: Municipal Politics and Class Conflict during the Galt, Ontario Waterworks Campaigns, 1888-1890
Hagopian, John S., Labour/Le Travail
John S. Hagopian, "Debunking the Public Health Myth: Municipal Politics and Class Conflict During the Galt, Ontario Waterworks Campaigns, 1888-1890," Labour/Le Travail, 39 (Spring 1997), 39-68.
IN HIS STUDY OF GALT, historian Kenneth McLaughlin writes that the consolidation of industry in the 1920s "led to the first stirrings of industrial unionism and the beginnings of labour discontent." (1) However, the history of labour strife in Galt goes back at least as far as 1889, when a bitter strike by the town's iron moulders caused a crisis in local politics, and indeed divided the town into pro- and anti-labour factions. Among the civic issues upon which the strike had a determinative effect was that of waterworks construction. The ratepayers had voted overwhelmingly against building a municipal waterworks system in 1888, but in 1890 they voted even more overwhelmingly for it. The voters were not fickle, as it was the intervening strike, and more particularly the threats of the struck employers to leave town, which explain voter behaviour. In 1888, the voters were responding to the issue of waterworks alone. But in 1890, waterworks had become a vital plank in an upper-class agenda, upon the success of which the survival of the town was said to depend.
McLaughlin does not discuss the political context within which the Galt waterworks developed. He does not mention the moulders' strike, or the upheaval in local politics, or that waterworks had earlier been rejected by the ratepayers. Instead, he describes the waterworks as a progressive measure which was undertaken in order to reduce the incidence of disease. His account contributes to the persistent popular myth that Canadian waterworks systems were usually built for public health reasons. McLaughlin describes in detail the cholera epidemics in Galt in the 1830s, then links awareness of the germ theory to the construction of waterworks, a hospital, and a sewer system:
The frightening finality of cholera had left its mark in Galt, Dumfries, and neighbouring Waterloo. Yet it would not be until the 1880s that the theory of disease spreading by germs would be commonly accepted, persuading either the public or the scientific community of the need for sanitary reforms. When this information was known, however, the citizens of Galt were quick to take action. Despite the expensive costs of blasting through the limestone shale encompassing much of Galt's business district, sewers and a separate waterworks system were laid throughout the town in the 1890s. The Galt Hospital Trust, formed in 1888, erected a General Hospital in 1891 ... A program for improved public health had at last become recognized as a civic responsibility. (2)
This uncomplicated depiction of an immediate popular response to new public health information is problematic. First, there was no comprehensive sewer system built in Galt in the 1890s. By 1905, two small sewers serviced industrial areas, but a provincial health inspector reported "there is no general sewerage system at the present time." (3) Second, there was opposition to the hospital which was built in 1891, details of which will be discussed in this study. Third, Galt's citizens were not quick to adopt waterworks, as they voted against it in 1888. Meanwhile, waterworks had been completed in nearby municipalities such as Brantford in 1870, Guelph in 1880, Dundas in 1883, Paris in 1884, and Berlin (Kitchener) in 1888. (4) Fourth, any suggestion that cholera may have been the driving force behind waterworks is unfounded, as the last epidemic anywhere in Ontario occurred in 1866. (5) The present study of Galt's waterworks provides more evidence that the public health and social improvement movements during this "Progressive" era were mythologized, and that the major force at work was, as always, class struggle.
Others have expressed a similarly cynical view of the motives of progressives. It has been found that reformers directed health regulations against those who did not own property so as to further the interests of those who did. (6) Reformers were often organized in boards of trade and showed great concern for local business matters, but little for problems such as "housing, poverty, congestion and public health." (7) Doctors embarked on public health campaigns not to better society, but to elevate the status of their profession. (8) Some health professionals became eugenicists, and used public health issues to justify compulsory sterilization. These eugenicists were "anxious to intervene in the lives of the poor and ill," and "were preoccupied by issues of race and class." (9) Reformers used public health measures to assimilate immigrants to "an American middle-class norm of moderation, cleanliness and order." (10)
Waterworks promoters were businessmen concerned about the high cost of fire insurance in unserviced municipalities. (11) Property insurers granted significant discounts to owners of property in municipalities which had waterworks. Other researchers have also noted the intimate relation between businessmen's fire concerns and waterworks. (12) Municipal councils' decisions to build waterworks had little to do with popular demand for water service. In fact, in some cities the number of domestic water subscribers was so low that councils, seeking to better defray costs, made water subscription compulsory. (13) Meanwhile, in Winnipeg, where lower-class neighbourhoods did require a clean water supply, council gave priority to fire protection needs in other parts of the city. (14)
Bloomfield, Bloomfield, and McCaskell, too, assert that fire protection was the main reason for waterworks construction until the 1880s. However, they note a change in the 1890s, as the acceptance of the germ theory of disease became an increasingly important factor in water provision. (15) McLaughlin contends this was the major factor in Galt, but a 1902 publication states that Galt's waterworks was built because "the necessity for improved fire protection became more urgent." (16) This essay will assess these conflicting positions by examining other events which happened in Galt at the time in question. But first, a short description of Galt will provide the necessary background for this case study.
The settlement of Galt began shortly after William Dickson purchased what are now the townships of North and South Dumfries on 3 July 1816. Dickson was born in Dumfries, Scotland in 1769, and came to Canada in 1785. He was a lawyer and a member of the Legislative Council of Upper Canada, and was living in Niagara-on-the-Lake at the time of his purchase. Less than two weeks later, he set out with his general agent Absalom Shade to explore his lands, and selected the confluence of the Grand River and Mill Creek as his settlement site. The water power here was the chief attraction. The settlement was first called Shade's Mills, but in 1827 it was renamed Galt in honour of John Galt, commissioner of the Canada Company, who visited in that year. (17) Most of the settlers who arrived before 1825 were Scottish families from New York state, where Shade had lived. Dickson hired an agent to go to Scotland to entice emigrants, and many Lowlanders arrived after 1825. (18)
In 1850, Galt was an incorporated village of over 2,000 people. Located in the middle of a rich agricultural district, it became an important milling centre. In the days before the railways, "much of the wheat grown as far west as Stratford was then either sold in Galt, or passed through the village as flour," to be forwarded along the macadamized road to Dundas. The 1850s were prosperous years for Galt, as it also became a prominent industrial centre, known even before it became a town in 1857 as the "Manchester of Canada." Skilled workmen crafted award-winning products, and Galt enjoyed "a reputation for the excellence of the work done, second to none in the Province." (19) Among the factories was the Dumfries Foundry, which began operation in 1844. In 1859 it was bought out by John Goldie and Hugh McCulloch, both of whom became prominent men locally. (20) Foundries and machine works were major employers in the South Waterloo census district, within which Galt was the principal municipality. The 8 such establishments in this district employed 324 hands in 1881, which was many more than were so employed in most other districts. (21) By 1890, the 4 largest foundries in Galt employed 525 hands. (22) In 1891, 1,698 hands were employed in all of Galt's factories, and the town's population of 7,535 made it the 31st largest municipality in Canada. (23) The importance of Galt as a municipality and as an industrial centre was reflected in the excellent rail service it received. The Great Western Railway entered Galt in 1855, followed by the Grand Trunk Railway in 1872, and the Credit Valley Railway in 1875. (24)
Galt's "businesses enjoyed larger profits" during the 1880s and 1890s, which were years of "opulent living, fine homes, beautiful carriages, and courtliness." (25) Stone had been used for Galt's dwellings even before the 1840s since large amounts of limestone lay close to the ground surface. Granite field stones were also plentiful, and Galt would in fact become known as "The Granite City." (26) By the 1870s, brick became fashionable among the elite. Parcels of land on the hills overlooking the town "were considered the choicest building sites." (27) Many valuable dwellings were located on Wentworth, Lansdowne, Blair, Brant, Park, Rose, Oak, and McNaughton Streets, all of which were on hills. (28) Some of these homes featured "exotic towers, verandahs, bay windows, and even sunrooms," and many had large gardens. (29)
The extensive use of stone and brick in 19th-century Galt was not limited to dwellings, as most churches, schools, and the town hall were also made of stone. When fires destroyed many of Main Street's wooden buildings in the 1850s, stone ones replaced them. Though individual buildings made of any material would still burn after the 1860s, there were no major blazes involving a number of buildings. (30) By 1900, Galt's population was only 7,746, but it was still recognized as "one of the busy manufacturing towns of the Province." (31)
The First Galt Waterworks Campaign: March 1887 -- January 1888
On 14 March 1887, Galt's town council created a special committee on waterworks, "to review all information received by previous councils." (32) W.H. Lutz, a local druggist and town council member, chaired this committee, which served during the campaign not only as an information-gathering body, but also as the chief promoter of waterworks. (33) The committee did its work from March until 28 November 1887, when town council passed on second reading a debt bylaw to raise $100,000 for waterworks construction. It was Lutz who had submitted the bylaw to council, and who had moved the bylaw through both readings. (34) Provincial legislation required that the assent of the ratepayers be obtained before council could give the bylaw third reading. (35) This public …
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Publication information: Article title: Debunking the Public Health Myth: Municipal Politics and Class Conflict during the Galt, Ontario Waterworks Campaigns, 1888-1890. Contributors: Hagopian, John S. - Author. Journal title: Labour/Le Travail. Issue: 39 Publication date: Spring 1997. Page number: 39+. © 2009 Canadian Committee on Labour History. COPYRIGHT 1997 Gale Group.
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