Sewers and drains are more vital to civilization than many people in the modern world imagine. Before the widespread introduction of sanitation systems, human waste and other filth was often just tossed out of windows and onto the street—or the heads of passersby—below.
Now we simply press a button or pull a lever and we need never think of where our unwanted leavings go. However useful they are at collecting waste, sewers often pick up other unexpected items, too. Here are 10 of the weirdest things discovered in sewers.
10 A Rave
What could be more fun than meeting up for a late-night dance in a secret location and going wild?
Doing it in a sewer!
In 2017, over 200 people in Newcastle, England, clambered through filthy water to reach a dry spot in the drains that emptied into the river Ouseburn. The event had been organized on Facebook with revelers meeting up in a pub before rushing into the storm drains.
Once inside, the ravers found a light-and-sound system all set up and the partying began. Around 4:00 AM, however, one of the ravers began to find the dank setting a little too cramped. Worried for the participants’ safety, the person phoned the police.
Officers arrived and broke up the party, letting those in the tunnels out with just a stern warning about the dangers of mixing alcohol with confined and easily flooded underground tunnels.
Once we flush away nasty things, we hope they will never come back and haunt us. For sewer workers who have to deal with such things, however, our actions can create monsters.
The London fatberg of 2017 was a congealed and rotting mass over 250 meters (820 ft) long. In the sewers under the city, hard-to-flush items like diapers, wet wipes, and condoms had all become enmeshed in solidifying fats that threatened to block the sewer and send sewage spilling into the streets above.
Weighing as much as 19 African elephants, the fatberg was broken up by sewer workers with spades and jets of water. But for some, the fatberg was more than just an artifact of human wastefulness—it was a valuable historical relic.
The Museum of London managed to obtain a chunk of the fatberg for future generations. To preserve the greasy mess, curators were forced to X-ray it for used hypodermic needles and to wear biohazard gear. Eventually, a piece was stabilized (to stop it from rotting or hatching flies) and became a star of the museum’s fatberg display.
8 An Alligator
One of the great urban legends of New York is that their sewer system is riddled with alligators. According to legend, people would buy baby alligators before realizing that hissing reptiles with mouths full of sharp teeth make for poor pets. So these people would flush the gators down the toilet.
In the sewers, the alligators now prowl and thrive. Unfortunately, there is no evidence of a colony of alligators in the city’s drains, and most experts agree that it is far too cold down there for the animals to survive long term. Intriguingly, in 1935 in East Harlem, a 2.4-meter-long (8 ft) alligator was found down a manhole, but how it got there is unexplained.
In places that are more natural habitats for gators, it is not so unusual for them to turn up in sewers and drains. If you look into a drain and see a shining pair of pitiless eyes peering back, it might not be Pennywise looking to eat you.
In Florida, alligators end up having to be hooked out of sewers after either getting washed in with rains or chasing prey into them. In Louisiana, a 3-meter (10 ft) alligator was seen waddling out of a storm drain before taking a nap on a suburban porch.
7 A Cow
Not all creatures that are found in drains are quite as threatening. When a cow was found in a sewer in Britain, it was pretty docile—being already dead—but there have been cases of live cows found underground.
In Fujian Province in China, one farmer spent four days searching for a missing cow. Unable to find it, the farmer was ready to give up the hunt when a strange mooing noise was heard from beneath the village.
A manhole cover was lifted off, and the missing cow poked its head up. A makeshift winch was used to haul the cow back up into the open air where it seemed no worse for wear for its subterranean adventure. But just how it ended up in the sewer remained a mystery.
In India, where cows are held in reverence by Hindus, a calf was seen to slip into an open sewer and was carried underground by the flow. Witnessing this, one man clambered into the sewage and dived in to save the animal. Both cow and man survived whole and healthy, if not particularly sweet smelling.
6 A Sewer Monster
In 2009, a video of an unexplained and supposedly alien monster in a North Carolina sewer went viral. In the footage, a pulsating and squirming pink mass can be seen clinging to the wall of the sewer. Were the aliens done with probing human orifices and now coming for our drainage systems?
Experts soon identified the creature as a colony of Tubifex worms. These perfectly common segmented worms are often found living in wet soils.
The apparent pulsing behavior of the “monster” is likely to be due to the camera’s light, which may have been hot. While the worms themselves are not rare, it is unusual for them to stray into a sewer. This is why even those used to working down there were unable to identify this mesmerizing, if disgusting, meet-up of worms.
5 A Baby
When a woman in China heard the cries of a baby coming from a drain underneath a toilet, she raised the alarm and rescue services soon turned up. After a two-hour rescue, the baby was extracted—still alive—from the pipe in which it had become stuck.
The police searched for the baby’s mother. Soon, they realized that the woman who first called for help was the person for whom they were looking. Overcome with labor in the toilet, the woman had delivered her baby herself and watched it slip down the drain.
Her story was a sad one. The father of the child had refused to support the baby, and she had no idea how to raise a child on her own. This led her to panic when the baby started to arrive.
In a case from South Africa, a baby between one and three days old was discovered in a storm drain when passersby heard her screaming. Over four hours, drills and chisels were used to break into the drain to pull the child out. The baby was in relatively good health and was named Sibanisethu (“Our Ray of Light”) by locals.
4 A Community
Las Vegas is a place given to extremes and not just of gambling. When it is dry and hot, it is really dry and hot, and when it rains, torrents can fall. To battle the city’s tendency to flood, 1,600 kilometers (1,000 mi) of storm drains were constructed to channel rainwater away from the streets.
Soon, other things flowed into the tunnels. Homeless people, with no place in the glitz and glamour of the strip above, moved into the drains, and the tunnel people of Las Vegas were born.
The cramped tunnels of Las Vegas are filled with scorpions, graffiti, and people down on their luck. When it rains, the tunnel people risk losing everything they possess, including their lives, to the floodwaters. No one knows for sure how many people live underneath Las Vegas, though they are thought to number in the hundreds.
Some tunnel people manage to hold down low-paying jobs and only return to the tunnels to sleep. But others spend most of their time in the gloomy passages beneath the neon city.
Aside from the odd accident where something valuable gets flushed away, there is probably nothing in a sewer that you might want to recover. However, there may be millions of dollars of precious metals just being washed away each year.
Scientists have calculated that nearly $2 million dollars of gold, and the same amount of silver, pass through Switzerland’s sewers each year. Much of this may be in the form of flakes of metal lost in the jewelry and watchmaking businesses. In places with many goldworkers, it may be worth sorting through a lot of poop to find something that glistens.
In the appropriately named Suwa, Japan, gold has already been extracted from sewers. By burning the waste sludge left after treating sewage, they found that they were left with an ash that contained 2 kilograms (4.4 lb) of gold in every ton—a richer source than found in many gold mines.
Anything that passes through the human body is likely to end up in the sewer system, and drugs are no exception. In fact, they may cause major problems. Contraceptive pills use hormones to control women’s reproductive cycles. But once they pass into rivers and waterways, the hormones may cause unpleasant changes in freshwater fish. As the fish undergo changes in their reproductive ability, populations may plummet.
One way of tracking the use of recreational drugs is by studying the contents of sewers. By looking at the waste collected at sewage treatment plants, researchers have suggested that drug use is far more pervasive than is often thought. One team was able to tell that the use of marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamine all went up markedly during times of celebration.
Sometimes, it is not just drug waste that turns up in the sewers, though. In Palermo, police found 77 marijuana plants growing in the sewers underneath the city.
Humans are at our most vulnerable when we are on the toilet. No sooner do you sit down than the telephone rings, the door buzzer goes off, or a snake bites you on the bottom.
Yes, there are places where it is common to find a snake in your toilet. In Australia, one woman spooked a carpet python in her toilet and got several puncture marks on her buttocks.
That snake may have slithered into the toilet to avoid a heat wave, but there are many cases of snakes emerging from sewers via people’s toilets. Often, they are following rats that have also used the loo as an escape route into people’s homes. When the snake gets into the toilet, it may find it a congenial place to rest—until someone takes a seat.
Don’t think it is just the dangerous proverbial Land Down Under where you might get bitten on your down-under. Reports of snakes in toilets have been made everywhere from Texas to Seattle and South Africa to Southend in the UK. Maybe check under the seat the next time you feel the call of nature.