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El Paso's Garbage in 1901
By Sarah Hill
ne of the lesser-known elements of the famous Chamizal
dispute concerns the plans of the city of EI Paso to get
rid of its wastes in 1910. Because the plan provoked a
series of diplomatic exchanges between the United States
and the Mexican departments of state, most histories of
the Chamizal settlement mention the dispute only in passing. How­
ever, none have done more than simply to note, as did Gladys
Gregory, that this local issue with ~diplomatic repercussions in
the national capitals of Mexico and the United States" was one
of a series of incidents in 1907-1910 that drove the two countries,
finally, to arbitration over the nationality of the Chamizal tract. 1
Diplomatic correspondence concerning the waste plan com­
prises a portion of Appendix II of the Chamizal Arbitration. The
politely worded exchanges between the Secretary of State Philan­
der Knox and his assistants, and Mexico's Ambassador to the
United States, Francisco Leon de la Barra, provide only tantaliz­
ing suggestions of what was likely a very heated local dispute 1e­
tweep.theresidents ofEI Paso and Juarez and the officials at the
turn"'"'(j(the century. Indeed, the waste issue teemed, not only
with the unsavory features oHhe city's discards, but with politics,
patronage, and controversial notions of hygiene and sanitation.
Garbage and its disposal, in El Paso, as elsewhere in the United
States in 1910, was hardly straightforward and hardly only about
wastes, as we will learn shortly.
First, let us set the stage. Several decades prior to 1900, Louis
Pasteur had made his discoveries which led to the germ theory
of disease. Nonetheless only by the turn of the 20th century had
doctors throughout the United States unequivocally abandoned
THE CHAMIZAL ''TIPPING" POINT?
143
their belief in miasmas and atmospheric conditions as the sources
of disease. 2 In fact, underway at that time was the shift from
household-focused interventions, which sought to control vapor
pathways inside the home, to the establishment of large public
works infrastructure to guard against infection. s Still, at least in
the United States, a good number of physicians and other health
professionals regarded the germ theory with skepticism. Most
notably, one of the most prominent 19th century sanitarians, Col.
George Warring, whose peripatetic career took him around the
world, wholly rejected Pasteur's findings. 4 As it so happens, the
city ofEl Paso had contracted Warring to design its sewer system,
which Warring did in 1886, fully believing that pumping sewage
into the river posed no danger for residents in Juarez or further
down stream. 5
Apparently by 1907, however, Warring's system proved un­
satisfactory. In 1908, city leadership seized upon the then-fashion­
able idea of constructing a garbage "crematorium" which would be
built on land leased in the Cotton Addition. This modern installa­
tion, budgeted with a bond issue of $100,000 in 1908 would facili­
tate ~final disposition" of all manner of wastes, including garbage
and sewage. Heralded in EI Paso as vitally necessary to maintain
the city's image as a healthy setting, attractive to recuperat­
ing consumption sufferers, the announced facility propelled the
mayor of Juarez to appeal to Mexico City to oppose the project,
Why? In his response to pressure from Washington to aban­
don the project, Mayor Pro Tern James T. Hewitt, argued that the
crematorium would benefit the health of residents of both cities,
by destroying the matter that would otherwise pour into the river­
bed between the two cities. Indeed, it does not take much to imagine
that the untreated sewage of residents in El Paso, festering in the
often-dry riverbed, would prove offensive to residents in Juarez. So,
why, then would Juarez's Mayor, Felix Barcenas, object to a facility
that would spell the end of that persistently noxious condition?
While I can't definitively answer that question, I want to begin
with the suggestion, simply, that concern over rightful land own­
ership trumped concern over land use that would be a benefit to
the public health of both cities. The acting Secretary of State,
Hunter S. Wilson, assured his Mexican counterpart that the city
of EI Paso had "no ulterior motive and no other objective than to
provide for the health, not only of the people of El Paso, but also
of JuareZ."6 Nonetheless, there are reasons why we should suspect
144
SARAH HILL
THE CHAMIZAL "TIPPING" POINT?
145
that .the promises of sanitation concealed other less noble goals:
namely, political patronage and lucrative business opportunities.
What is garbage?
How did EI Paso get rid ofits garbage at the turn ofthe century?
Answering that question requires some translation, because what
contemporary Americans consider garbage, or more generally,
wastes, is considerably different from what El Pasoans at the turn
ofthe century considered garbage. The term "garbage" itselfis not
very helpful since then as now, it lacks precision. In addition, it
seems that in 1910, it included substances that most contemporary
Americans would not consider garbage. Indeed, the proposed
incinerator, which was to burn both wastes and sewage, was called
by the newspapers the "garbage crematorium." Nonetheless, we
can make 80me educated guesses about what was and was not
garbage in 1910. Our first point of departure entails the consid­
eration that, first of all, EI Pasaans produced little in the way of
wastes, at least by today's standards, because quite simply they had
very little to throwaway. Historian Susan Strasser has shown that
two features of pre-industrial America characterized wastes: one,
Americans had so little access to useful consumer goods that they
persistently reused everything, from cloth to metals to ceramics
and glass. Thus, the kinds of items that routinely find their way
into contemporary waste streams would never have been discard­
ed one hundred years ago because they were practically irreplace­
able. Second, Stasser observes that materials which no longer pre­
sented utility within households were purchased by armies of in­
dependent scavengers-rag buyers, tinkers, bottle collectors, and
so forth. So things that are typically thrown away today would
leave a household, in 1910, in the hands of ambulatory purchas­
ers who in turn sold them to small industrial operations that could
disaggr.egate these materials and turn them back into usable sub­
stance·s: rags became paper, cast-off metals went to foundries, old
leather could be pulped and so on. 7
The City Scavenger and the Democratic Ring
By the turn ofthe century, the same forces that promoted new
technologies such as "reduction"-the cooking of wastes to make
grease-and cremation, also wrestled junk collection away from
peddlers. When sanitarians began to promote the daily sweeping
of streets in citie s such as New York, Chi cago, San Francisco, and
Philadelphia, they also opened the door of scavenging to the politi-
Proposed incinerator, referred to as the "Garbage Crematorium."
Courtesy of Special Collections, Library, University of Texas at El Paso.
cal machines that controlled municipal employment. EI Paso was
no different in this respect. As early as 1888, the city licensed a
monopoly on waste collection to a "City Scavenger" who, in ex­
change for posting a bond of $1,000, received exclusive rights to
collect wastes from city households. Rates for carting were set by
the city, and other codes put into place obliged residents to obtain
the services ofthe scavenger. Private residences, for example, paid
fifty cents to have their privy vaults emptied six times a week. By
contrast, businesses that produced a great deal of "filth"-produce
vendors, restaurants, meat markets, and saloons that sold hot
lunches-paid $1.50 a week for similar services. B These flat fees
took an uneven bite out of domestic budgets since at the time most
Mexicans in unskilled jobs, such as those at the smelter, earned
approximately $1 a day, while workers in the skilled trades earned
twice that and more. 9
While scavenging appears to have been a lucrative franchise,
nonetheless, the scavenger periodically appealed to the city that
it pay fees for various duties that it charged to the scavenger. For
example, the city required that the scavenger clean streets and
alleyways-areas that had no particular ownership, and no one to
whom the scavenger could assess his fees. Thus, in 1888, the city
agreed to pay the scavenger for these services.]() Since the city did
146
SARAH HILL
not establish a ceiling on expenses to the scavenger, it effective­
ly enabled the scavenger to charge whatever the city would pay
for street cleaning, Two years later the earning potential of the
scavenger increased even further when the city united the scaven­
ger monopoly with the "pound keeper." This union made public
health sense, given that the scavenger was charged with carting
First of all it was
off,and disposing of dead a~imals. But the
,
umon also made good busmess sense: the
unusual that the
pound-keeper secured exclusive rights to
scavengers, at least capturing any vagrant beast, and after a
by surname were
short period in which the animal's owner
. '
. could reclaim it-for a fee-the pound keeper
not ostenslbly ethnl,c was entitled to sell the animal. The city
minorities. By com- required that proceeds ofsuch sales be turned
parison throughout over to the city treasurer, minus "all costs
·'t d St t
and expenses accruing upon such taking up,
th e.
U nl,.
e
a es,
.
' set no stan­
seII'mg, et c. But SInce
th
e Clty
prwy cartLng, scav- dards for such expenses, we may presume
enging, tinkering,
that the scavenger stood to make a tidy sum
rag picking and
on this operation." Moreover, as the only
.
"
licensed livestock manager within the city
funk collectmg were limits, the scavenger possessed a distinct
enterprises almost
edge over other hog farmers who sought the
exclusively controll- slops from restaurants and hotels on which
ad b 'th r ~ i h fattening pigs routinely fed. By prohibiting
~
y e~ e ew S
all but the scavenger from carting wastes
families, or southfrom commercial establishments, and reern European
quiring that businesses pay for such ser­
.
'g
t 12
vices, the city assured that the scavenger/
Lmml ran S.
, . d an enormous a d ­
poun·d-k eeper mmntalne
van~ag~ over other hog farmers-now pushed outside the city
liniit's~Who had to purchase feed for their animals.
The earning'potential of the monopoly-despite the unpleas­
antness of its execution-perhaps explains why the job went, two­
year term after two-year term, to prominent white businessmen.
Eventually, however, in thanks to Mexican-American leaders who
faithfully delivered Mexican votes for a decade to the Democratic
machine, the scavenger monopoly was awarded in 1908 to a Mexi­
can-American, Frank Alderete. In comparison to the carting and
scavenging operations of other American cities at the time, this
development warrants some closer inspection. First of all, it was
THE CHAMlZAL "TIPPING" POINT?
147
unusual that the scavengers, at least by surname, were not osten­
sibly ethnic minorities. By comparison, throughout the United
States, privy carting, scavenging, tinkering, rag picking, andjunk
collecting were enterprises almost exclusively controlled by either
Jewish families, or southern European irnmigrants. 12 Nonethe­
less, it's pretty clear that even though the monopoly was held by
politically-connected white, Anglo El Pasoans, the actual dirty work
of hauling, sorting, and disposal was done by Mexicans. Numerous
references abound in the city papers, at the time, ofthe Mexicans
who took care ofthe city's garbage. And despite how unsavory this
work appears, it must have held some attraction because as Mario
T. Garcia observed, the city garbage men became reliable support­
ers of the Democratic "Ring," and loyally supported the machine's
candidates in election after election, until 1915, when a reform
movement broke the Ring, and brought Tom Lea to office,13
The proper place for Garbage is the Rio Grande
Where did the garbage go? It seems the city not only sought
to protect the scavenger's monopoly, it also struggled to restrict
dumping to authorized locales. In one city ordinance after another,
beginning in 1882, the city established definitively that dumping
should only occur in the Rio Grande. The first ordinance read,
simply, "The Rio Grande is hereby designated as the place for all
such [gl as s, broken ware, dirt, rubbish, old cloth es, garbage, or filth)
material."14 But, where, precisely, on the river, did the city have
in mind? Apparently, that targeted spot moved downstream over
time, with the city periodically reminding residents that such
dumping should occur "outside the city limits." However, it is also
clear that in the first decade ofthe 20th century the disputed tract
ofthe Chamizalland took the lion's share ofdumping. In early 1911
one reporter ventured to the dump to report on its workers to the
El Paso Herald. 15 And while we might suspect this reporter of some
exaggeration, he paints an alarming image. According to the
reporter's description, this site on the "Chamizal strip" brimmed
with "huge pits, gradually filling with accumulations of rusty tins,
and covered with smoldering piles ofstable refuse exuding a vapory
smoke," Several acres in size, the area "rises a few feet above the
surrounding level." Little wonder, then, that Mayor Sweeney, in
1910, felt compelled to find a modern, industrial solution to the
growing problem of wastes.
148
SARAH HILL
THE CHAMIZAL "TIPPING" POINT?
The incinerator Flames Out
By December, 1910, the future of the planned incinerator
was in doubt, though Mayor Kelly refused to say publicly whether
the Chamizal question had stalled construction. Shortly after the
unsuccessful conclusion of the Chamizal arbitration, the El Paso
Herald described the "ingenious design" of the planned facility
which was now to be built near Washington Park and which would
provide irrigation water for the parkY But two years later, in
May 1913, the city condemned the plant, noting that it was an
expensive property that had never worked. And while the mayor
hoped to find a better model and sent two city engineers around
the country on a tour of cities with better facilities, the city never
again dabbled in incineration. The move to Washington Park,
however, was definitive; from then on the city buried its wastes in
a broad area between the park and the river until, ironically, it
traded that land to Mexico in 1967, in compensation for the disput­
ed Chamizal tract. 18 The story of this second dump, however, is
another trash story.
149
END NOTES
1.
Gl·egory. Gladys. The Chamizal Settlement: A View from El Paso. South­
western Studies, Vol. HZ), Summer. (EI Paso: Texas Western College.
1963), 16.
2.
Tomes, Nancy. 1990. "The Private Side of Public Health." Bulletin of the
History of Medicine. 64:509-539, p 51.
3.
Tomes, 51.
4.
Stevenson, Lloyd G. 1955. "Science down the drain: on the hostility of cer­
tain sanitarians to animal experimentation, bacteriology, and immunol­
ogy." Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 1955; 29:1-26.
5.
EI Paso City Council Meeting Minutes. July 13, 1888.
6. Chamizal Arbitration, Appendix ofthe Case ofthe United States ofAmel'ica
(Washington, 1911), 11,517.
7. Strasser, Susan. Waste and Want: A social history of trash. (New York:
Metropolitan Books, 1999). Chapters 2 and 3, 69-70.
8.
El Paso City Council Meeting Minutes, August 17, 1888.
9. Garcia, Mario T. Desert Immigrants: The Mexicans ofEl Paso, 1880-1920.
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981). 66, 88-89, especially table 5.3.
Garcia did not find information data that differentiated pay scales by
ethnicity, although he suggests that we can infer some discrimination in
pay rates by looking at the surnames of persons in various skilled and
unskilled occupations, and by reading what employers had to say tojusti·
fy their various pay scales.
10. El Paso City Council Meeting Minutes, August 10, 1888.
SARAH fiLL first visited El Paso in 1992 and returned to live here for four
years from 1994 to 199B while she conducted research for her dissertation in
anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. She now lives in Kalamazoo,
Michigan were she teaches anthropology and environmental studies at Western
Michigan University. She is at work on two books, one about waste management
on the United States-Mexico border, and the other about waste management
on the United State&--Canada border.
11. El Paso City Council Meeting Minutes, March 21, 1890.
12. Zimring, Carl. "Dirty Work: How Hygiene and Xenophobia Marginalized
the American Waste Trades, 1870-1930," Environmental History Vol.
9(1)2003. Perry, Stewart. San Francisco Scavengers: Dirty Work and the
Pride of Ownership. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978);
Miller, Benjamin, Fat of the Land: Garbage of New York, the Last Two
Hundred Years ( New York: Four Walls, Eight Windows, 2000); Stasser,
Susan. Waste and Want.
13. Garcia, Desert Immigrants. 159.
,~:''''-
......
14. El Paso City Council Meeting Minutes, July 10, 1882.
15~ EI Paso Herald, January 28, 1911.
.~.~<~
*EDITOR'S NOTE: Because the article referenced in endnote 15
is such a well~written and image~filled article, I have opted to
reprint in this issue of Password the entire newspaper article
which was made available through the research of Associate
Editor Richard Field. It follows this.
.
~.~~
16. El Paso Herald, December 8, 1910 .
17. El Paso Herald, July 6, 1911.
18. Nestor Valencia, interview #844, 26-27; Oscar A Gonzalez IWmero; inter­
view #839, 9-10;Joseph A Friedkin, interview #837, 28-29.
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