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Water for Gotham:
A History
Gerard T. Koeppel

Book Description | Reviews | Table of Contents

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Published by Princeton University Press and copyrighted, © 2000, by Princeton University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. Follow links for Class Use and other Permissions. For more information, send e-mail to permissions@press.princeton.edu

Chapter 1

"GIVE US COLD WATER"

Cold water, cold water, give us cold water, was the constant and imploring cry.
—Remarks on the Cholera


Mary Fitzgerald was "a neat housekeeper," said the doctors, her family "decent and cleanly people, and their habits temperate." So the fate that awaited the thirty-five-year-old wife and her two children would seem especially cruel.

    The Fitzgeralds had emigrated from Ireland to Quebec in the fall of 1831, soon making their way south to Albany and eventually on to New York City. On the third of May they took the first floor of a house at 75 Cherry Street, a couple of blocks from where George Washington had made his home as president a half-century earlier. Mr. Fitzgerald—his Christian name is lost to posterity—was by all accounts a steady man. He was a tailor, well situated in the dockside neighborhood favored by New York's "slop tailors" who sold ready-made clothes to sailors. Whether these hopeful Fitzgeralds would have had a future in America is unknown; within a few weeks most of the family had died.

    June 25, 1832, was a hot summer Monday in New York, then a flourishing but filthy port city of just under a quarter-million people. The mercury hit 90° under the noonday sun, the barometer was high and steady, a faint southwesterly breeze barely stirred the air. There had been no rain for a week, less than an inch for the month, and none would fall until well into July.

    Fitzgerald headed off to Brooklyn that day, taking a ferry across the East River. When he returned late in the evening, he became terribly sick. Early the next day, his children, Jeremiah, age 4, and Margaret, age 7, also took ill. Several doctors came to the house, but nothing could be done: the children both died on Wednesday. Although their father recovered, their mother, Mary Fitzgerald, took ill and died on Friday.

    As described in a contemporary medical treatise, the deaths were ugly and agonizing, beginning with evacuation of the bowels, leg cramps, nausea, stomach pain, a debilitated feeling, and a livid appearance. Over a course of hours came violent headaches, giddiness, great languor, increasing tightness in the chest, and severe pains throughout the body. As the pulse weakened, food was vomited undigested, followed by watery phlegm. Urination ceased, excessive thirst took over, and cramping began anew from the toes up the torso. The voice became feeble and hoarse, the eyes dulled and sank in the head, and the victim appeared as a cold, contracted, blue-tinged but still-living corpse. After clammy perspiration and another round of spasms, the faintly beating heart stopped, the patient granted a few moments ease just before the end.

    Mary, Margaret, and Jeremiah Fitzgerald were buried in the soon-overwhelmed cemetery of the first St. Patrick's Cathedral. The city Board of Health, for reasons of its own, attributed their deaths to cholera morbus, a mild, seasonal feature of New York life. The doctors who had attended them, though, suspected otherwise.

    The Fitzgeralds had in fact been the first New Yorkers to die from Asiatic cholera, a strange and hideous disease new to North America. Originating in India in 1826, by early 1832, the cholera had spread by trade routes through much of Asia and Europe with staggering death tolls: twenty thousand of fifty thousand pilgrims at Mecca, 9,400 Moscow and St. Petersburg residents, 7,600 Parisians. The disease swept the British Isles late in 1831; within months, it reached Irish ports and headed west across the Atlantic on miserable packet ships carrying tens of thousands of refugees from Ireland's economic collapse.

    In early June 1832, cholera broke out in Canada. Eighteen hundred people died in Montreal, twenty-two hundred in Quebec, which was then a city of only twenty-eight thousand permanent residents.

    From Canada, the disease headed west along the St. Lawrence River to Lake Ontario and Detroit, where locals favored polluted wells over the clean Detroit River, and down Lake Champlain to the upper Hudson River, Albany, and points south. Though health officials had stepped up cleaning dirty streets and harbor slips for months, Asiatic cholera would find a most congenial host in New York City, a city judged by sage ex-mayor Philip Hone to be filthier than any in Canada or Europe.

    When doctors cautiously reported the first deaths from the disease, politicians, merchants, and newspaper editors equivocated on alerting the public. Fearing the end of business in America's commercial capital, recorder Richard Riker, the city's chief magistrate, conspired to delay an official announcement of the cholera's threat until early July, when it was too late for quarantines or other emergency measures. Nineteen people died on July 7; by the end of the month, two thousand were dead. The toll would have been higher, but over one hundred thousand New Yorkers decided to flee. An "unwanted silence" pervaded the city by midsummer; one could walk the length of Broadway and "scarce meet a soul." The dense cloud of smoke from factory furnaces and domestic hearths that often hung over the city was "scarcely discernible" in August.

    By the time the epidemic ended in October, the official death toll had reached 3,516, or just under one in fifty New Yorkers, a much higher rate than in Paris, which had twice the number of deaths but five times the population. And the actual number of deaths was certainly higher: there were sick New Yorkers who died after fleeing, some who stayed and died undiagnosed, and some such as the Fitzgeralds who stayed and died officially misdiagnosed. Among the notable victims were Magdelen Bristed, the oldest and favorite daughter of John Jacob Astor, America's richest man, who had safely removed himself to a recovering Europe; alderman George E. Smith, who was whispered to have brought on his demise with intemperance; the presidents of three fire insurance companies; and dozens of other business leaders, doctors, clergymen, and their families.

    By far, though, the greatest number of deaths was among the city's poor, buttressing the belief among the righteous that the filth, intemperance, debauchery, irreligious behavior, and general moral squalor attributed to the impoverished were cholera's cause. Others believed diet was the ticket to deliverance, though the epidemic carried off meat eaters, vegetarians, and adherents to Sylvester Graham's fashionable diet of fruits and grains alike. Socially prominent doctors John Rhinelander and James DeKay had returned from early observations in Canada advising brandy-and-water and port wine, respectively, as cholera specifics. Despite the uncertain health benefits, the advice was so highly regarded that "Dr. Rhinelander" and "Dr. DeKay" became the society bar pours of New York's cholera days and beyond.

    In fact, none of the city's doctors had any idea what caused Asiatic cholera. The disease, like many others of the time, was generally thought to be "atmospheric" and conveyed by "miasmic vapors." This led to unrestricted medical theorizing about causes—dampness, dryness, heat, cold—and a dizzying array of attempted cures, freely practiced on private patients and at the various cholera hospitals set up around town. Among the cures tried were bleeding, mustard (given internally and topically), calomel, opium, hot punch and hartshorn, tobacco, heated sandbags, and the quite popular "four hours' rubbing from two stout men," which seemed to relieve the patient's cramps but also friction-heated him to collapse.

    Copying reported success in Europe, several doctors experimented with saline solutions; results were inconclusive. Rhinelander fell back on bleedings as "our sheet anchor." At the height of the epidemic, the physician-publishers of the Cholera Bulletin threw up their hands: "The cholera is, and that is all we know!"

    New York's doctors were not alone. No one in 1832 knew how cholera killed. It was not until 1849, during the next global cholera epidemic (1846-63), that British physician (and obstetrician to Queen Victoria) John Snow theorized that cholera was waterborne and contracted orally. He demonstrated that a single pump in London's Broad Street, supplied by polluted Thames River water, spread most of the cholera. Deaths from cholera stopped when the pump handle was removed, on Snow's advice. Lingering beliefs in "miasmas" or divine providence were put to rest during the next London outbreak in 1854. Noting that Lambeth Water Company, one of the two private water companies serving residents on the south side of the Thames, had recently moved its intake from a sewage-filled area of the river to a clean one, Snow determined that in a fourteen-week period only 461 Lambeth customers died, while over four thousand of their neighbors taking Southwark and Vauxhall Company water succumbed. It was not until 1883 that German bacteriology pioneer Robert Koch discovered Vibrio cholerae, the comma-shaped cholera bacterium.

    Cholera (minus the anachronistic "Asiatic") is known today to be an acute bacterial infection of the salty, alkaline surroundings of the small intestine. Not particularly contagious, the disease is generally spread through contact with infected feces, most often via sewage-contaminated water. The rapid, deadly loss of body fluids and salts as cholera takes hold is readily reversed by prompt oral or intravenous rehydration with an alkaline solution of sodium chloride; the 1832 experiments with saline injections likely failed because they were too conservative. In places with bad water and few doctors, cholera still remains a threat, but for most it's a nineteenth-century disease.

    Dealing for the first time with epidemic cholera, doctors and other observant New Yorkers in 1832 did note a link to water, if only because the victims all called for it. A trio of visiting physicians from Providence reported "an almost universal demand for drink. Cold water, cold water, give us cold water, was the constant and imploring cry."

    New York's parched cholera patients might have fared better if their doctors had had clean water to offer them, but their city was entirely without it. Indeed, as had been noted by visitors for generations, the city's chief disadvantage was the lack of good water.

    New York still took most of its drinking water from neighborhood wells, which had grown increasingly impure and polluted. Spring water, carted from upisland, supplied only those who could afford it. The cholera outbreak finally proved that a better system was needed.

    One way or another, good water is always obtained by cities. Ancient Rome, the model for Western urbanism, tapped local wells, springs, and the fresh Tiber River for four and a half centuries before building the first of its famous aqueducts. From 312 B.C. to A.D. 226, Roman slaves built eleven gravity-fed masonry channels from distant lakes, rivers, and springs. In its glory days, ancient Rome's million people had access to thirty-eight million gallons of fresh water a day. Four of its original aqueducts still bring water to the modern city.

    Los Angeles, on the final frontier of Western civilization, was a dusty Mexican pueblo when cholera decimated New York in 1832. By the turn of the century, Los Angeles had expanded to some three hundred thousand people spread over a hundred square miles, but a lack of water threatened further development. Surrounded by ocean and desert and meagerly watered by rain and the slender Los Angeles River, the city trusted its future to William Mulholland, an Irish immigrant who had risen from ditch digger for the local water company in 1878 to chief of its deficient works, which the city took over in 1902. Convinced by several droughts that no amount of conservation would preserve the city's shallow natural aquifer, Mulholland and other collaborators set their sites on the Owens River, 250 miles away in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Land and water rights were purchased in secret, desperate river valley farmers were pacified or outwitted, and laws were bent or broken. City bonds were issued for $25 million, and an eight-foot round cast iron pipe was laid from the mountains, across the Mohave Desert, to the city. Completed in 1913, the Los Angeles Aqueduct was the first in a series of water conquests that made Greater Los Angeles possible. "A city quickly finds its level," Mulholland asserted in 1905, "and that level is its water supply."

    New York did not find its level so readily. Starting with the first Dutch traders, Manhattanites pursued business and went easy on health and comfort, tolerating degenerated natural water sources and devastating fire and disease while encouraging a succession of dreamers and schemers plotting doubtful new water supplies. Even after the 1832 cholera epidemic, another ten years of frustrating politics, economics, and engineering would pass before the completion of the monumental effort to water the island city from the mainland Croton River. Only then did Gotham obtain a level of water equal to its fame.

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File created: 8/7/2007

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