In the 1870s, city engineer Major Charles Davis was called to investigate a typical public works complaint—the dreaded “basement backup problem.” We can all imagine what Davis faced when he showed up to investigate—a group of homeowners upset with water flooding into their basements, absolutely certain that somehow it was the city's fault. We can imagine his thoughts as he descended into the first basement and saw the invading water, but what may surprise most is that in his quest to uncover the source of the backup, Davis discovered the famous Roman Baths.
Yes, Major Charles Davis was the city engineer for Bath, England, and he, in the course of doing his job, was responsible for the discovery of an important historical treasure now listed as part of a World Heritage Site. I recently learned this story from an official tour guide at the site. He told how Davis dug though the rubble that had covered the bath for almost 1900 years and found the bath's lead liner. Because Davis had the foresight to realize that his findings were significant, he convinced city officials to buy the homes built over the area and properly excavate the site. My guide spoke of Davis with awe and respect.
Having only recently left my position as a city engineer where I served almost nine years, I could not help being fascinated with this account and, in particular, with the tour guide's attitude toward Davis. After a little more research, I learned that in February 2001, officials of the Roman Baths hired Andrew Ashmore, an actor from London, to portray Davis at the site. He spent a week dressed as the famous city engineer and told visitors the story of his find and details of his life. I have come to believe that Davis' story can teach us two important lessons.
First, at a time when all of us in public works are trying to raise public awareness (and also respect and maybe a little awe) of our profession, we should use examples like Davis' to illustrate the benefits public works employees bring to society. Although some efforts have been made to accomplish this, often the achievements portrayed to the public are too technical for the average person to appreciate. Everyone can relate to the importance of a historical find.
Second, although the chances may be slim for the rest of us answering the next basement backup call to find a future World Heritage Site, we can take a moment to remember the city engineer in Bath and realize that each public works employee does have the opportunity to change the world. This realization also may increase your anticipation and intrigue the next time you find yourself knocking on a citizen's door to investigate a backup in their basement.