The Scavenger: The dirtiest job in town

It was a dirty job but someone had to do it.

That someone was Robert Lamont. In 1887, he was appointed Calgary’s first Town Scavenger. Despite the unflattering title, Lamont was perhaps a pioneer when it came to Calgary’s sewer system. His job was far from glorious but beyond necessary. He was in charge of collecting and disposing of “night soil” – the prim, proper, old-timey term for poop – that collected in waste pits under every outhouse in the frontier town.

In the 1800s, it was common for waste water to be thrown out the back door or primitively funneled to a cesspool in the backyard or an open field. With drinking water nearby in the form of wells and a population growing by the week, the practice became both dangerous and perhaps unbearably odorous.

Enter Lamont. Bylaw No. 56 of the little town by the Bow affirmed Lamont’s role and a system of formalized waste removal was introduced to Calgary. Nothing at all like what we have today, but these were the baby steps of progress. He would charge by the home. The going rate depended on the size of the cartage. If there was a dispute over charges between a homeowner or the Scavenger, The Town would be asked to adjudicate. Lamont only lasted at his job for a year – the reasons for his departure remain unknown. But the job lived on. In fact, it thrived for many years.

A letter to City Councillors from would-be Scavenger William Hamilton in 1899 offered to take on the duty for a sum of $125/month. He even offered closed carts as a mode of transport.

By 1903, despite work on a true sewer system that was unfolding in Calgary, The City began licensing Day Scavengers for an annual fee of $5. The role had grown from strictly “night soil” duty to removing garbage, offal, and other household refuse of the day.

In 1907, with a population of 13,500, Calgary boasted 26 kms. of sewer line and new sewer service was becoming available in growth areas. As time passed, Calgary built the Bonnybrook Wastewater Treatment plant, the storm sewer system and the Fish Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant among many other innovations to keep us safe and comfortable.

So, next time you flush the toilet, feel free to take a moment to ponder how far we’ve come. And don’t forget to spare a thought for old Robert Lamont – a trailblazer who was once Calgary’s one-man sewer system.

- City of Calgary Archives