Hidden in Plain Sight

Heritage and Art Features on Victoria Streets and Sidewalks

Manhole Covers: History Beneath Our Feet

Text by Janis Ringuette

Photos by Norm Ringuette

Cover with unworn knobs<  Cover with worn-down knobs

One hundred year old historical artifacts are lying in the streets, right out there in the traffic and the rain. While other venerable artifacts lie protected in temperature controlled museum displays, old manhole covers stay on the job decade after decade. “One of cast-iron’s traits is that it lasts,” explained Ron Betts, a local foundry worker for more than 30 years. That’s why car, truck and bus tires still roll over hundreds of the same manhole covers today that carriage and wagon wheels bumped over in 1900. The oldest manhole covers have square knobs, Betts says. “They have been around since horse and buggy days. The knobs were hoof-holds for horses.” Covers in low traffic locations still have prominent knobs, as seen above left, but in high traffic locations, they “wear down like wooden stairs and become slippery,” according to Hector Furtado, Victoria’s streets manager. There is no treasure pile of antique covers in the city's Public Works yard. The worn cover, shown above right, will be sold to Selkirk Recycling (formerly Budget Steel) to be melted down.

Attractive cover design in seat-backs      Interesting design with varied covers
Douglas St. bench art

An ideal location to examine historic square-knob manhole covers--without dodging cars--is at the southeast corner of Douglas and Yates streets. A collection of large and small old square-knob covers, venerable storm drains and granite curbing were salvaged in 1999 to create an unusual sculpture on the sidewalk. Locals call the art installation "the burnt waffles” because the square-hole waffle patterns are painted glossy blue-black.

Cover from Scotland      Cover from England

The regions oldest manhole covers are in Oak Bay. Imported from Scotland in the 19th century, possibly as ballast in sailing ships, they have a square-knob horse-friendly pattern on the cover and outer frame as well as the foundry name “Glenfield & Kennedy Ltd. Kilmarnock.” Also in Oak Bay are covers labeled “Ham, Baker and Co. Ltd, Engineers & Iron Founders, London England, Municipality of Oak Bay,” imported after the Oak Bay was incorporated in 1906.

Though ignored by most people, old manhole covers do have admirers. University of Victoria graduate student Fiona MacRaild calls them “historic gems floating in a sea of asphalt.” Tourists Scott and Gail Lindsay look for old and uniquely patterned manhole and utility covers wherever they travel. While other visitors gaze up at Victoria’s heritage buildings, the Portland, Oregon couple look down. “I think Victoria and Oak Bay should advertise old manhole covers as a tourist attraction," Lindsay said. "You have some great ones here.” He pointed out thousands of fans around the world value manhole covers as art objects and historical artifacts. Collecting heavy manhole covers is out, so fans collect photographs. A “manhole cover” image search on Google popped up over 4,000 photographs. There are major manhole cover art exhibits, too. The largest was held in Moscow in 2003; called "Sewers of the World Unite!" it featured 3052 images of new and old covers from 71 countries.

One of the Vancouver contest winners      One of the Vancouver contest winners

As covers wear out, some cities choose to enliven their streets and sidewalks with commissioned artistic manhole cover designs. Seattle’s new covers feature a street map design. In a 2004 Art Underfoot competition, Vancouver chose two winning designs, shown above, from 640 entries. The "specks under a microscope" design by Jen Weih, above left, will appear on new city sanitary sewer system manhole covers. The striking design by Coast Salish artist Susan Point and her daughter Kelly Cannell, above right, depicting four tadpoles and four frogs will be used on new city storm sewer manhole covers. Victoria sidewalks could feature new cover designs in the future, too, if Hector Furtado’s dream comes true. He envisions a walking trail with the area’s history told on manhole covers. The hitch is money, he said. “The molds cost thousands of dollars. The more detail in the design, the more money is needed.” In the meantime, Furtado encourages students visiting the city's Public Works yard open house each May to create designs using paint on manhole-size plywood circles.

Manhole covers are essential road furniture: they keep people from falling into holes used to access subsurface utilities. In Victoria alone, there are over 5,553 access holes; some a foot or two deep, others so deep workers need ladders to descend. Weights and sizes vary, but all manhole covers must be heavy enough to stay in place and to discourage people from moving them.

Until the 1990s, all manhole covers were made locally. Patterns were identifiable products of individual foundries because each shop prepared their own unique molds or casts. Melted iron, combined with carbon and other elements for strength and durability, was poured into molds; each hardened piece is machined so the cover fitted into a perfectly matched sleeve. Ron Betts and brothers Gord and Jim know first-hand that making high quality manhole covers requires skill and back-straining labour. All three worked at Victoria Foundries before opening their own Langford shop, aptly named Achinback Industries and Foundry. They specialize in custom casting and patterns in aluminum, brass, and bronze because they can’t compete in the cast-iron manhole cover market any more.

Today, new manhole covers come from China. Chinese covers are cheap, mass-produced, unremarkable and sometimes poor quality. One split right down the middle when he moved it recently, Rob Hathaway said. As the Shaw Cable worker deftly slid a Victoria-made cover off a Toronto Street hole with a chain and pole tool, he added: “Old covers like this one, though, they are still solid.”

Other Covers

Survey cover   Water cover   Traffic signals cover

Many other types of metal covers, plates and grates are found on sidewalks and streets as well. These essential covers, both new and old, protect and provide access to wires, cables, water pipes and drain holes. A variety of examples are pictured above and below. Cast-iron lettering on the covers provides a written record of long-gone foundries and extinct utility companies. Victoria Foundries (VF) operated from 1954 to 1996. There are VF traffic and street light utility covers on almost every downtown street corner; the company’s distinctive storm drains have been in place up to 52 years. The Victoria Machinery Depot (VMD) was in business from 1898 to 1994; their covers, spanning ten decades, remain in area sidewalks and streets. Operating from the 1890s, BCER (British Columbia Electric Railway Company) and BCE (British Columbia Electric) left a cover legacy in local sidewalks. British Columbia Hydro Authority (BCHA) covers go back 45 years, when the B.C. government expropriated BCE to form a publicly-owned company in 1961. Most modern covers lack distinctive patterns, but the new TeraSpan design shown below centre, adds interest to sidewalks.

Gas line cover   TerraSpan cover   Cover made by Machinery Depot

Hunting For Old Covers

Interesting old manhole covers hide in plain sight down quiet lanes, dead-end roads, in cross-walks and next to curbs in the Greater Victoria area. In Oak Bay, Newport Avenue from Windsor Park to Beach Drive holds over 21 “Glenfield & Kennedy Ltd. Kilmarnock” manhole covers from Scotland. More Scottish covers are on Estevan and Dalhousie; one is in front of Willows School at 2290 Musgrave. Over 33 “Ham, Baker and Co. Ltd, Engineers & Iron Founders, London England” covers, imported after Oak Bay was incorporated in 1906, are in sidewalks along the same stretch of Newport Avenue; there are more on Hampshire Street.

In Victoria, to find the oldest square-knob covers look at the southwest corner of Superior and Douglas by the Helms Inn, the Yates Street curb at Waddington Alley and in the alley opposite 1113 Langley. Two--one worn, one not so worn--lie in the north crosswalk at Fort and Vancouver. In James Bay, they stretch down narrow Toronto Street from Douglas Street to Menzies. They can be seen from sidewalks loaded with Victoria Machinery Depot (VMD) covers.

City Light cover BCER cover Victoria Foundries storm drains

Downtown, VMD utility covers labeled “City Light,” shown above left, possibly dating back to the original installation of cluster lights in 1911, can be found next to heritage lights lining Douglas Street. Victoria Foundries (VF) “Traffic Signal” covers are located on most downtown corners, including the northeast corner of Fort and Blanchard streets and the southeast corner of View and Quadra streets. British Columbia Electric Railway (BCER) covers (above centre) are at 747 Fort Street, 703 Fort and at Fort and Wharf. A British Columbia Electric (BCE) cover is at Gordon and Broughton. The Victoria Foundries name can be seen on long-lasting storm drains, above right.


Copyright 2007   Janis Ringuette.  Limited excerpts are permitted but please credit the author.