Reuben Brown’s Fantastic Voyage in LA’s Trunk Line Sewer

Nicholas Pinhey, CWEA History Committee, Collection Systems, History
Reuben Brown’s Fantastic Voyage

Reuben Brown’s Fantastic Voyage

When I was a youngster growing up in Los Angeles, my family had a neighbor and friend who was an engineer working for the City of Los Angeles.  “Bud”, as he liked to be called, told a story of how one of the main sewers in Los Angeles was inspected by boat.  He described how the inspector had to float through the sewer on the boat and use spot lights to see the inside of the pipeline.  To my young ears, this was an amazing story and it conjured up in my imagination the scenes of Orson Welles being chased through the sewers of Vienna in the movie “The Third Man” – it was a story that one wouldn’t easily forget!

Fast-forward to the present and my role with CWEA History Committee – while reading through the old California Sewage Works Association (CSWA) and Federation journals, I ran across a 1937 technical paper under the “Plant Operation” heading discussing the inspection of the City of Los Angeles’ North Outfall Sewer by Reuben F. Brown.  To my delight, the paper chronicled Mr. Brown’s inspection of the North Outfall Sewer using a specially constructed “sewer boat” – I had found the details of “Bud’s” story and its links to CWEA’s history.

Reuben Francis Brown

Reuben Francis Brown (1891-1950), was the Assistant Superintendent of Sewer Maintenance for the City of Los Angeles and a dedicated member of the California Sewage Works Association (CSWA, now CWEA). Reuben, who had been employed as a motorman for the Pacific Electric Railway (the “Red Cars”) in the 1920’s, went to work for the City of Los Angeles Department of Public Works around 1930 and quickly advanced to the position of Assistant Superintendent.  While employed at the City of Los Angeles, Reuben Brown worked directly for CSWA Past-President Fred Batty the Superintendent of Sewer Maintenance. Batty was instrumental in getting Brown involved in both the CSWA and the Sewage Works Federation (now WEF).

Rueben, who was called “Rube” Brown by his fellow CSWA members, authored and co-authored several technical papers on sewer and storm drain maintenance and safety that were presented at CSWA and Federation conferences and published in the CSWA Journal and the Federation Journal.  He also served on CSWA and Federation Committees, including the Operator Certification and Prevailing Wage Committee, the Membership Committee, the Sub-Committee on Sewer Maintenance, the Sewer Works Practices Committee, and conference committees.   Additionally, Reuben Brown provided the entertainment for the 1944 CSWA annual conference dinner where he entertained the members with the solo performance of a song he composed and later with a mind-reading act (with assistance from CSWA member Berle Phelps) that was the hit of the evening.

While his career as a public servant and CSWA member are notable, what Reuben Brown is most remembered for is the “fantastic” six-mile voyage he took in July 1936 to inspect the condition of City of Los Angeles’ North Sewer Outfall.

The North Sewer Outfall – 1935 to 1936

The North Sewer Outfall (NOS) was constructed in 1922 to serve the growing City of Los Angeles and its recently annexed areas in the San Fernando Valley.  The NOS begins in the San Fernando Valley near the western City limits and roughly parallels the course of the Los Angeles River as it conveys wastewater to the Hyperion Wastewater Treatment Plant (see Figure 1).  The course of the NOS “resembles the letter “U” because of the Santa Monica Mountain Range which separates the San Fernando Valley from the Coastal Plain.”1  The total length of the NOS was approximately 55 miles and consisted 15-inch clay pipe at the upper end to a 126-inch semi-elliptical conduit at the lower reach to the Hyperion facilities.

Figure 1. North Sewer Outfall in 1940 (6 mile long inspection segment delineated by red “x’s”)

Figure 1. North Sewer Outfall in 1940 (6 mile long inspection segment delineated by red “x’s”)

The semi-elliptical sections of the NOS to the Hyperion facilities were constructed of unreinforced concrete and were 10 ½ feet high and 12 feet 3 inches wide.  The interior above the spring line in the lower reach was lined with ¾ inch thick vitrified clay lining blocks 9 inches wide by 18 inches long, with Portland cement joints.2

Several problems with the NOS were noted in 1934.  First, storm water inflow and infiltration caused the lower reach to surcharge and seepage was detected where the earth cover over the NOS was shallow.  Second, there was concern that the 1933 Long Beach earthquake had damaged the lower reach of the NOS.  Third, there were questions regarding the extent of the impacts of corrosion on the Portland cement joints and the undermining of the clay lining blocks.

Finally, test pits showed that longitudinal cracks had formed due to eccentric side hill loading on the NOS raising concerns about potential breaks and property damage.  Since the only areas of the interior of the lower reach of NOS that could be readily observed were in the immediate area of manholes, it was decided that a thorough inspection of the interior of the lower 6 miles of the NOS, from Centinela Avenue to the Hyperion facilities, needed to be completed.3

As this portion of the NOS carried most of the sewage from the City and had a flow of approximately 300 cubic feet per second at the time, assessing its overall condition was a priority.  In August 1935, the City Council approved the funds to purchase the materials and equipment to make an interior inspection of the NOS. 

The “Sewer Boat” and Preparation

The proposed inspection of the NOS was a first – nothing of this magnitude had been attempted in the past and it required a study of available methods, plus the construction and testing of special inspection equipment. The key piece of equipment was a specially designed boat, 9 feet long with a 3- inch beam, equipped with removable air tanks that were attached to the sides of the boat after it was lowered into the sewer.  The air tanks acted as stabilizers for the boat (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Sewer Boat and Crew at Sewer Maintenance Yard

Figure 2. Sewer Boat and Crew at Sewer Maintenance Yard

The boat was also equipped with two anchors that were used to stop the boat for making detailed inspections or taking photographs, two steering rudders, a boat hook, and a 3-foot wide drag board to develop “pull” or power to drag electrical cable.  Two explosion-proof floodlights provided illumination for the inspection and photographs and were powered by an above-ground portable generator using waterproof cable mounted on a portable reel. Two thousand feet of high-strength ¼ inch steel aircraft cable was used to hold the boat back when it was placed in the sewer.  The boat, cable and drag board were performance tested in the ocean at Santa Monica under both quiet and rough conditions prior to the inspection voyage.

Twenty-six inspection openings were cut into the NOS for access.  Each inspection opening was 3 ½ feet by 4 feet to accommodate the boat and support equipment.  The overburden was on the sewer was excavated to create a 12-square foot working space around each inspection opening.  The distance between inspection openings ranged from 500 to 2,000 feet.  Calibrated cable allowed for the pinpointing of problem areas in the NOS.

Two steel cages with platforms were constructed to launch and retrieve the boat and serve as look-out stations.  The cages were suspended just above the sewage level in the NOS and moved from segment to segment as the inspection progressed. The boat was lowered into the sewer using a chain block and tackle suspended from a pipe tripod. An induction telephone system was used for communication between the field crew and boatman.

Blowers, gas masks, a Leica miniature camera, atmospheric testers, portable washing facilities, and a divers suit completed the inventory of equipment. With safety training completed for the surface crew and boatman, the inspection voyage was almost ready to start.

The Voyage and Publicity

On May 13, 1936, the Los Angeles City Council authorized the purchase of a special accident and health insurance policy for Reuben Brown from Lloyds of London (other insurance providers declined due to the risk).  With the acquisition of the insurance policy, all systems were “go” and the first inspection proceeded on July 4, 1936 at 6:00 in the morning.  To quote Reuben Brown, “It was the first time a sewer of this type and size had such an extensive inspection while in use and subject to gas and other hazards.”4

Figure 3. “Modern Mechanix Hobbies & Inventions” October, 1936 (Note: Reuben is misidentified as “Rufus”)

Figure 3. “Modern Mechanix Hobbies & Inventions” October, 1936 (Note: Reuben is misidentified as “Rufus”)

The inspection of the 6 miles of the lower reach of the NOS took two weeks to complete due to the amount of information that needed to be recorded and the physical demands of the inspection (Figure 3).  After completing the inspection, Brown stated that “No human being was ever meant to endure the stifling heat of that sewer,” Brown later remarked. “The hell of fire and brimstone couldn’t be worse.”5

As might be expected, Reuben Brown’s fantastic voyage generated a large amount of newspaper coverage and publicity. Newspapers throughout the U.S. featured stories of the inspection voyage, including stories of the preparation for the inspection and reports of events over the two weeks of the inspection.  Some newspaper reporters turned the inspection into what might be mistaken for excerpts from an adventure novel by filing stories like the flowery example reproduced below (from the July 6, 1936 edition of the San Bernardino Sun):

“Guarded by every device suggested by the fertile imagination and inventive genius of man and despite all these precautions measuring defiant glances with imminent death-Reuben F. Brown, assistant superintendent of sewer maintenance here, accomplished what no man has ever achieved before when he traversed 400 feet of the huge Los Angeles outfall sewer in a frail, specially constructed craft and emerged to tell of his weird experience. He described an eerie hour, an hour in which he died and lived a score of times, when the scorching, fetid breath of death brushed him time and again and was fended off. “The hell of fire and brimstone couldn’t be worse,” he said when he came out. But he grinned when he said it, and added: “Sure, I’m going in again. There are six miles of that sewer line to inspect and I’ll have a look at every inch of it.” Victor Hugo tells of the strange life that men hunted men and human dregs have lived in the subterranean caverns under Paris. The New York police have weird tales in their archives of men who have inhabited the vast sewers of the metropolis, burrowing beneath the earth like moles and never seeing the light of day. Brown lived that kind of an hour yesterday. He was encased in a rubber suit like a diver. He wore a gas mask around his head and carried a long pike pole in his hands. “I guess I’ll go in now,” he said.

Expert hands already had launched his boat, a marvelous contraption with pontoons fastened to its sides, floats to guard against capsizing, and powerful electric floodlights to penetrate the blackness. He clambered down into this soiled Styx of man’s own creation. To those above the sound of the turgid, swift stream made by speeding the city’s refuse to the sea was like the steady, ceaseless beat of an unseen river against a ghostly shore. Stout cables protected Brown as he as he ventured into the current. The cables were attached to a power winch operated on the surface. He had every safeguard that human ingenuity could devise but there was no way to rescue him should the Impact of his pike pole against the tiled lining of the sewer give life to a spark within the cavern where he rode alone.

Therein lay the danger – death on contact even with the tiniest spark of fire. Brown knew the chance he was taking. He carried on. The winch cables lengthened. Above, a crew of men equipped with specially built radio apparatus followed his progress with careful vigilance. They thought they were living every second with him but they weren’t “I came to a curve in the sewer line,” he related after his emergence. “That was when it got really tough.” Repeatedly on the verge of capsizing, he righted the little rig he was riding in with desperate thrusts of the pole. Had a later hour been chosen, had the rushing, turbid waters been a few feet deeper and flowing at a swifter pace he might not have come back. Peril encompassed him from below and above as well. It was his job and he knew the risk to prod hard at the tiled lining of the sewer to see how tightly the tile was clinging to the cast iron to which it was attached 14 years ago when the sewer was constructed. Engineers feared that the earthquake of 1933 might have loosened the tile, endangering the entire structure. “I found it in fair condition,” Brown reported. If a chunk of the heavy tiling had been prodded loose if it had crashed down on Brown’s feeble boat it would have meant doom. “I was lucky, none of it fell,” the Magellan of the sewers said briefly.”

Figure 4. The American Legion “Honey Boat” Parade Float and Reuben Brown (Thanks to Anna Sklar and Angel City Press for use of the photo)

Figure 4. The American Legion “Honey Boat” Parade Float and Reuben Brown (Thanks to Anna Sklar and Angel City Press for use of the photo)

The news coverage of Brown’s voyage was international and it was also reported on and described in a variety of technical journals, trade journals, and magazines.  The voyage became a key presentation at the 1937 CSWA conference and the technical paper describing the inspection was published in the Federation Journal.  Reuben Brown was a “star” and he was, proudly featured (along with the sewer boat) in a 1937 parade riding on the American Legion Los Angeles Post’s float (Figure 4).

While researching Reuben Brown’s voyage, it was noted that the Los Angeles Times erroneously reported his name as “Rufus Brown” in its 1936 coverage of the event. This error was repeated by Modern Mechanix Hobbies & Inventions magazine (see Figure 3), and the naming error was subsequently picked up and repeated in a book on underground water craft.  Reuben could not have been too happy about the mistake!

Reuben Brown – Post Voyage

Brown made several presentations on his 1936 NOS inspection voyage and articles on the inspection continued to be published up thorough the 1980’s.  Brown’s inspection revealed that disintegration of the NOS was occurring due to the action of sulfuric acid on the Portland cement joints between the clay tile lining blocks.  Heavy spalling of the tiles was noted in the first (upstream) segments of the NOS leading to deterioration of the concrete conduit and cracking was identified in some segments. Brown’s findings resulted in the City implementing a program of ventilating the NOS to reduce the formation of hydrogen sulfide, experimenting with chemical addition for sulfide control, and a program of repairs to NOS.

Reuben Brown’s supervisor, Fred Batty retired in 1945 and Brown was promoted to Superintendent of Sewer Maintenance.  Brown became very active in both CSWA and Federation committees and from 1945-1949 authored and co-authored several technical papers, as well as supporting the certification for sewer maintenance workers.  A Federation Journal article published in 1948 described the training program that Brown had implemented for the City of Los Angeles’s Sewer Maintenance Division as an example of how a comprehensive in-service training could be provided to sewer maintenance personnel.

Reuben Brown continued to be active in Federation Committees through 1949-50, however, in late 1949 he left Los Angeles to stay at his property in Paradise California.  As reported in the CSWA newsletter,

“Reuben is recovering from the effects of gases encountered in the inspection of the Los Angeles outfall at his hideout in Paradise California where the hunting and fishing are reported as very good.”

Sadly, Reuben Brown passed away on November 24, 1950 while recuperating in Paradise California.  His death was noted in the Federation Journal along with his famous voyage down the NOS (Figure 5). 

Figure 5. Federation Notice of Reuben F. Brown’s Death (March 1951)

Figure 5. Federation Notice of Reuben F. Brown’s Death (March 1951)

(1) Franklin Thomas and Charles Gilman Hyde, The Sewage Situation of the City of Los Angeles, Sewage Works Journal, Vol. 12, No. 5 (Sept. 1940), pg. 882.

(2) Reuben F. Brown, Plant Operation: North Outfall Sewer Inspection, City of Los Angeles, Sewage Works Journal, Vol. 9, No. 9 (May 1937), Pg. 446.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Reuben F. Brown, Post-Inspection Interview, 1936.

(5) Patricia Learner, Down and Dirty: Rooting About in City’s Sewers Isn’t a Job for the Squeamish. Accessed online at