Creation of WSSC
The Need for Support
The suburban areas of Maryland bordering Washington, D.C., relied on wells, outhouses and other makeshift facilities for their water and waste disposal needs. Small privately owned water and sewer systems serviced a few communities.
When officials in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties looked to the District of Columbia to provide services, they found D.C. had neither the capacity nor the desire to meet the needs of the suburbs. City authorities declined the counties’ request despite the fact sewage from the counties polluted the capital’s water supplies. Since D.C. officials were not interested at that time in servicing the suburbs, officials in the two counties needed to find another way to secure safe drinking water and handle their sewage disposal.
Despite all the industrial advances at the start of the century, pollution contaminated many wells, and raw sewage flowed into rivers that also provided drinking water. Waterborne diseases were a prevalent threat. To solve these problems, while also keeping up with anticipated population increases, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties came together to create a solution. That solution was a bi-county utility, organized to serve both regions resulting in the formation of WSSC in 1918. See map for a look at the region circa 1900.
- Friendship Heights
- Chevy Chase
- North Chevy Chase
- Garrett Park
- Forest Glen
- Silver Spring
- Seat Pleasant
- Capital Heights
University of Maryland
Dairy and vegetable farms
Adding to WSSC’s challenges, a severe drought hit the region from 1930 to 1936. Water tables dropped, causing wells to run dry. Without well water, more county residents wanted to connect to WSSC for their water. Intensifying the problem, soil runoff from farmers’ fields upstream steadily filled the Hyattsville Reservoir with so much sediment it reduced the water storage capacity. The reservoir and Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River could not keep up with the growing demand.
The drought and other factors caused WSSC to look for a second source of water. That search began the utility’s planned two-river strategy for sourcing water from both the Potomac and Patuxent rivers. The strategy met numerous obstacles and would not be fully implemented until 1961.
In 1941, Prince George’s Board of County Commissioners’ President William Carson told the county’s Chamber of Commerce the primary need of the area was a surface drainage system. Carson pointed to flooding in Bladensburg and other communities as a reason to support the storm drains.
A week later, Carson met with WSSC Chief Engineer Harry Hall and other officials, proposing WSSC be put in charge of the storm drain proposal. It took until 1943 before an agreement was reached.
In 1904, the Great Baltimore Fire raged the city. Area jurisdictions tried to help but could not connect their equipment to Baltimore hydrants. This catastrophe led to the development of national firefighting standards for hoses and hydrant sizes.
WSSC plays a critical role in fire protection; the utility owns and maintains almost 42,000 fire hydrants in its service area. Fire hydrant maintenance is a top priority and major responsibility.
World War II
WSSC received high marks for efforts to protect its facilities. In 1944, the U.S. Office of Civil Defense gave WSSC its Security Award for “a superior standard of protection and security” — a mark of distinction in the war effort.
Women during WWII
At the height of the war, more than 200 manufacturers in the state provided what were deemed essential services for the war effort. With men enlisting for active duty, the number of women working in Baltimore plants in 1942 grew from 22,000 to 44,000. WSSC faced a shortage of plant operators, chemists, laborers and other workers. Even when filled, some jobs took months of training. Like other essential services, women took over many of WSSC’s jobs previously held by men.
“The need for manpower in these plants has become largely a womanpower problem,” wrote Maj. Gen. Milton Reckord.
As the war began winding down in 1945, WSSC and other planning officials in the region began preparing for pent-up demand. The post-World War II boom period meant more homes to connect to WSSC’s water and sewer lines, more streets in need of storm water management drains and more strains on the system.
The post-World War II growth of the suburbs accelerated throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. In 1950, Montgomery County grew to 164,401 residents, nearly doubling the population from 1940, and by 1960 it grew to 340,928, more than doubling the 1950 total. In Prince George’s County, the population also boomed. In 1950, the population had more than doubled to 194,182 and nearly doubled again by 1960 with 357,395 residents.
The 1950s and 1960s not only led to major infrastructure changes for WSSC, but it also created a new era for civil rights in the United States. When Remus Lyles, an African-American, left the Army, he worked for a contractor and then got a job in 1962 with WSSC. At the time, WSSC hired African-Americans only to work as general laborers, regardless of their education and work experience. Lyles worked at a depot with one white supervisor, six white foremen, and 74 laborers, all but one African-American.
As WSSC evolved in the late 1960s, WSSC began to desegregate and opened up a wider range of jobs to African-Americans. WSSC hired a consultant to find out how it could find African-Americans to recruit for supervisory roles. The consultant found WSSC already employed people capable of the positions and simply needed to promote within.
The ‘Outa Space Committee’
To keep up with the growing service, WSSC’s staff had also expanded, but by the 1960s had run out of office space. A commission-appointed study dubbed the ‘Outa Space Committee,’ recommended renovation of the Hyattsville headquarters. The proposed renovation included an eight-story addition with four floors for immediate occupancy and the additional floors for future expansion. Instead, to save short-term costs, four floors were cut from the drawing board, with construction completed in 1964.
Years later, the decision was made to build the current 12-story headquarters in Laurel. Then General Manager Richard G. Hocevar helped pitch the headquarters building to Prince George’s County officials as an economic anchor for the area. He succeeded in convincing the two counties of the need for a consolidated headquarters, a move envisioned for decades by previous general managers.