A Brief History of Garbage in Cincinnati

A trashy tale of community refuse, from pigs roaming our streets to the creation of Mt. Rumpke.

In the beginning, Cincinnati had no garbage. Really. The Porkopolis hogs took care of pretty much everything. The system was neat and efficient and, to a particular English visitor, grotesquely horrifying.

The Crookshank Incinerator, one of several built with WPA funding in the 1930s, was woefully antiquated when it was shut down in 1973. Changes in domestic garbage due to modern packaging and cooking methods created a polluting mix in the old furnaces.

Photograph digitized by University of Cincinnati Archives & Rare Books Library

In her 1832 screed, Domestic Manners of the Americans, the formidable Fanny Trollope relates her dismay after taking rooms in Cincinnati to discover no rubbish cart, “no pump, no cistern, no drain of any kind” to dispose of garbage. Her landlord informed her that Cincinnatians threw everything in the middle of the street for porcine consumption. With a shudder, she agreed the system worked:

“In truth, the pigs are constantly seen doing Herculean service in this way through every quarter of the city; and though it is not very agreeable to live surrounded by herds of these unsavoury animals, it is well they are so numerous, and so active in their capacity of scavengers, for without them the streets would soon be choked up with all sorts of substances in every stage of decomposition.”

The Civil War was imminent before Cincinnati surrendered to the idea that maybe having droves of hogs fulfilling municipal sanitary functions might be somewhat less than optimal. A city report of 1862 records the decision to organize rubbish removal:

“About two years since, the City Council were seriously exorcised about the system then used in cleaning streets, and they passed an ordinance compelling the occupants of houses to place their ashes and garbage in separate vessels, so that, during the summer months especially, they could be frequently removed.”

Notice the distinction between ashes and garbage. In 1862, “garbage” was largely organic food waste, while “ashes” referred to mineral refuse. Ashes were consigned to two destinations: dumped in the Ohio River or dumped in valleys and gullies around the city.

Organic matter, whether vegetable (what we might call “compost”) or animal (what our ancestors called “offal”), was commercially valuable. People bid to pay Cincinnati to haul away garbage. Thar’s gold in them thar garbage cans! Henry & Kate Ford, in their 1881 history of Cincinnati, report that the winning 1866 bidder to head the Cincinnati Street Cleaning Department had to pay the city for the privilege:

“Colonel A. M. Robinson was appointed superintendent of streets, by whom a contract was made with George Thompson, by which he paid three thousand dollars a year into the city treasury, in consideration for the house offal and animal garbage he was to collect from the streets.”

Within 20 years, a Cincinnati guide book boasted about the profitable qualities of Queen City garbage:

“The Cincinnati Fertilizer Company has its sheds on the Ohio and Mississippi and Cincinnati, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Chicago Railroads, six miles west of the city, on the river-bank. By a contract with the city this company gathers and consumes all the garbage, offal, and dead animals found within the city limits. These are manufactured into a fertilizer, soap-grease, bone-dust, etc., and shipped to the South, East, and to Europe. The enterprise is quite profitable, both to the city and the Fertilizer Company.”

The problem, as always, was the obstreperous householder who could not comprehend the instructions to separate ash from garbage. Comingled refuse clogged the fertilizer factory and had to be dumped somewhere, usually in any convenient valley or gully, where it stank bodaciously. The 1916 Citizen’s Book chastised those who mixed refuse:

“By the selection of galvanized iron receptacles, reasonably uniform in size and appearance, and with water-tight and dogproof lids, citizens can add materially to the efficiency of this work in preventing unhealthful conditions. Also, contrary to ordinance, many people mix ashes with the garbage, with the result that the mixture is rejected by the contractor, and it is hauled to dumps by the city, thereby creating a local nuisance.”

Where were these city dumps? Due to Cincinnati’s hilly terrain, they were pretty much everywhere. Not only did Cincinnati’s random dumps stink, they regularly caught on fire. Here is the 1898 city report:

“Owing to the topography of the city, it has been found expedient, and in many instances wise, for the city to use some of the low grounds and old ravines for dumping ashes, cinders, and such refuse. The careless mixture of garbage and various animal and vegetable debris, not suitable for these dumps, has led to their abuse. As a result, the dumps, in some instances, are a very great annoyance. The dreadful odors arising from them are not only destructive of comfort, but deleterious to the health of persons living near them or to those compelled to pass them.”

Remember, Cincinnati labored until the 1920s under the machine rule of Boss Cox, for whom garbage collection became a political plum bestowed upon the highest bidder. Finally, under Charter Government, Cincinnati established a citywide network of incinerators. If it burned, it went into the incinerator. If it didn’t burn, it went into the Gest Street Dump next to the Millcreek. The incinerator system survived for almost 50 years.

Cincinnati wasn’t the only garbage producer in the area. Cheviot had its own dump out on South Road. Dumps in West Chester, Loveland, Arlington Heights, St. Bernard, and Sharonville swallowed untold tons of refuse.

Finally, every municipality for miles around signed contracts with a Carthage pig farmer named Bill “Sweet William” Rumpke. Garbage was gold to Rumpke. He earned as much as $20,000 a month in the 1950s to haul garbage to his pig farm, where 600 hogs ate what they could and the rest got sold for scrap. Cincinnati garbage had come full circle, back to the pigs.

Eventually pushed outside the city limits by a horde of NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) activists, Rumpke and his pigs ended up in Colerain Township, creating the foundations for Mt. Rumpke, now the tallest point in Hamilton County.

In the 1970s, environmental regulations caught up with Cincinnati’s incinerator system. All of them were shut down, and all of Cincinnati’s garbage, like all of our municipal neighbors, ended up in Bill Rumpke’s Colerain landfill. Now it’s not ashes and offal that get separated, but common trash from recyclables. Most of the time.

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