2. Before 1895: Discovering Nature
From Cholera To Clean Water
Industrial capitalism presented New Yorkers with a paradox: while it brought economic prosperity that improved their lives, it pushed them farther away from silent forests, clear streams, and other pleasures of the natural world. Also, the explosive growth of factories meant equally rapid growth in low-wage housing nearby. This concentrated age-old problems of waste and disease into urban areas, where weak local governments were reluctant to confront them. In the mid 1850s, for example, Manhattans Common Council passed a law requiring that all residences be connected to sewer lines. Several years later, only about one-quarter of the citys paved streets had sewers. Two-thirds of New Yorkers still used privies in 1857, and most of the poor still relied on public wells that were frequently contaminated. Cholera and typhus epidemics struck again in 1852 and threatened the city regularly. Between 1850 and 1860, the survival rate for children under the age of five in the city was less than 50 percent, a figure equal to the worst slums of England.
Physicians could do little about urban epidemics until a dramatic victory in New York demonstrated the connection between health and sanitation. In 1892, another outbreak of cholera that had already devastated Europe faced the city. Reacting quickly, Common Council established a Division of Pathology, Bacteriology, and Disinfection. The new department was directed by Dr. Hermann Biggs, a native New Yorker raised in Ithaca and educated Cornell. Biggs promoted the view of German bacteriologist Robert Koch that communicable diseases could be prevented by eliminating germs. He dispatched teams that scrubbed the homes of cholera patients and treated or burned their clothes and bedding. His staff also flushed and disinfected 39,000 tenements. When the epidemic eased, only nine had died in Manhattan. The triumph began an era of municipal leadership in preventative medicine, including the first real efforts to protect the quality of urban air and water.
Outbreaks of cholera and other diseases also drove the development of municipal water and sewer systems in rapidly-growing upstate cities. These were typically expensive and difficult undertakings. In Rochester, for example, a 16-mile aqueduct from Hemlock Lake was authorized in 1852, in the wake of a severe epidemic. The system did not begin operating until 1876, however, and health concerns continued even after the cleaner water came on line. Eventually the city bought and condemned the entire shorelines of Hemlock and neighboring Canadice, the two westernmost Finger Lakes, to reduce contaminants in the water. Hotels, cottages, and farmsteads were purchased and razed beginning in 1895, and the lakes have been off-limits to all but a few recreational uses since then.
In New York, Hermann Biggs moved on to more successes against diphtheria and typhoid. He also made dramatic improvements in deaths from tuberculosis, "the great white plague" that had steadily killed more than 6,000 Manhattan residents a year. Because tuberculosis was a steady killer, it did not get as much attention as epidemic diseases. Yet its high toll meant that thousands of families, rich and poor, were caring for loved ones with consumption.
Desperate for anything that would help, some TB patients responded to the call originally issued in Reverend Murrays 1869 best-seller on the Adirondacks: "I predict that the wilderness will be more and more frequented by invalids, as accommodations are provided for their reception and comfort, and that the region will become the resort for thousands each year seeking restoration to health."
One of these invalid travelers was Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, a young Manhattan doctor who was near death from tuberculosis. In the summer of 1873, Trudeau was carried into Paul Smiths hotel, and the man who carried him remarked that he weighed "no more than a dried lambskin." Three months later, he returned to New York much improved. The following year, he moved his family to the Adirondacks permanently and settled in Saranac Lake, a cluster of 50 crude log and wood homes at an elevation of 1,500 feet.
Like Biggs, Trudeau was intrigued by the ideas of Robert Koch, He also followed the work of Hermann Brehmer, the first physician to treat tuberculosis in a sanitarium that emphasized rest, fresh air, and the regulation of the patients life and habits. Trudeau duplicated Kochs experiments in a crude laboratory, and in 1894 he established a one-room sanitarium in Saranac Lake. Trudeaus results were much better than those achieved by doctors in the city. Patients began to pour in, and wealthy summer residents organized fairs to support them. Within a decade, the village of Saranac Lake had been reborn as a sanitarium for consumptives who came to be cured in the cold, dry air of the mountains.
Saranac Lake was a late example of a statewide trend to treat serious chronic illness by placing the afflicted in pastoral settings. In 1842, the New York State Lunatic Asylum in Utica opened with landscaped grounds in a rural area west of Utica. In 1853, the nations first asylum for the cure of alcoholism opened on a bluff overlooking the Chenango and Susquehanna Rivers, near Binghamton. And beginning in 1865, the Willard State Hospital operated as a planned rural community on the east shore of Seneca Lake. It eventually became home to about 3000 people, 2000 of whom were incurably insane.
Patients at Willard were soothed by the beautiful Finger Lakes farm country that surrounded them. "The proximity of the lake, with its bright sparkling water...exercises a beneficial and tranquilizing influence upon the disturbed and excited people whose home is, and for their lives shall be, this Willard asylum, on the banks of the sylvan lake," wrote superintendent John Chapin in 1871.
The opinions of physicians like Trudeau and Chapin helped solidify the publics belief that human health was enhanced by clean water and fresh air, and that mental health was aided by access to rural tranquillity. This belief, which was especially strong in urban areas, fueled the drive to protect open lands across the state. It was first expressed as public policy in the Adirondacks.