Friday, August 14, 2015
The brooms that saved New York City
In the annals of human history, few men have saved more lives than Colonel George E. Waring Jr., who gave New York City its Central Park before the Civil War -- and clean streets 40 years later. He fought disease with sewers and brooms. Ironically, he died later of yellow fever.
Born on July 4, 1833, to a wealthy maker of stoves and his wife, Waring studied agricultural chemistry and greatly impressed Horace Greeley, editor of the most influential newspaper in the country, the New York Tribune. Greeley put the 22-year-old Waring in charge of his farm at Chappaqua, New York. Two years later, the city tapped him to design a drainage system to turn a wetland into a city park. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed the park. Waring designed the system that made it possible.
The young man wanted a saddlehorse, a luxury even in the mid-19th century. He gave up cigars and bought Vixen, a worn down mare who had gone from racing to pulling a wagon. Waring wrote of the mare, "My intention of giving the poor old mare a month’s rest was never carried out, because each return to her old recreation — it was never work — made it more evident that the simple change in her life was all she needed; and, although in constant use from the first, she soon put on the flesh and form of a sound horse. Her minor bruises were obliterated, and her more grievous ones grew into permanent scars, — blemishes, but only skin deep; for every fibre of every muscle, and every tendon and bone in her whole body, was as strong and supple as spring-steel."
Any man that kind to a broken down mare deserves success in life. Construction of the park left abandoned buildings that served as stables at night.
"The Park afforded good leaping in those days. Some of the fences were still standing around the abandoned gardens, and new ditches and old brooks were plenty. Vixen gave me lessons in fencing which a few years later, in time of graver need, stood me in good stead. She weighed less than four times the weight that she carried; yet she cleared a four-foot fence with apparent ease, and once, in a moment of excitement, she carried me over a brook, with a clear leap of twenty-six feet, measured from the taking-off to the landing," Waring wrote.
The riding paid off. When the Civil War broke out, Waring formed the 4th Missouri Cavalry, earning the title colonel, and rode off to the West to defeat the rebels.
After the war, Waring took over the Ogden Farm in Newport, Rhode Island. He introduced Jersey cattle to the United States and laid clay drainage in the farm. But the continual outbreaks of yellow fever in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1867, 1873, 1878 and 1879 pulled him into his life's work as one of the nation's early sanitation engineers. The 1878 outbreak killed 5,000 people. While yellow fever is the work of mosquitoes and not the result of poor sanitation, nevertheless Memphis needed a sanitary sewer system as it suffered outbreaks of cholera in 1849, 1866, 1873. The federal government sent in Colonel Waring to help the cash-strapped city. He designed the first sewage system in the United States that separated storm sewers from sanitary sewers. This saved money because the sanitary sewers were smaller and less expensive, but even better, the system was more sanitary as it eliminated storm runoff from overflowing the sanitary sewers.
This became his life's work. He built any sanitation systems for many cities, saving countless lives.
In 1894, he took over New York's sanitation efforts. The city was overpopulated and unsafe. Horses crapped in the streets, where people threw out garbage. The sewers were slimy. The death rate averaged 25 people per 1,000 population or 140 people a day during the 12 years before he took charge.
On his watch, the death rate fell to 15 per 1,000 or 80 people per day. Waring could take credit for saving the lives of 60 people a day.
In 1896, the people of New York threw a parade for their street sweepers.
Waring brought a military forbearance to the street cleaning operation. These were patronage jobs, but he set aside the politics and gave the crew a mission -- and white uniforms. Ridiculed at first, his White Wings got out the brooms and began cleaning the city. The crews went from sweeping just 50 miles of streets a day to 978 miles a day under Waring. He did so without adding staff or increasing the budget beyond inflation.
In fact, Waring's work also brought in revenues. Besides repairing the sewers and cleaning the streets, Waring set up municipal refuse collection, a first in the nation. Some materials he recycled, including dried out garbage that was sold as fertilizer. Although he served but three years, Waring's reforms continued throughout the 20th century.
Other cities soon followed New York City's lead and millions of people did not die of diseases carried by sewage.
President McKinley tapped Waring in 1898 to visit Cuba and assess its sanitation systems, after the United States liberated the island nation from Spain. There, he contracted yellow fever and died on October 29, 1898.
New Yorkers mourned his death. In an editorial, the New York Times wrote, “There is not a man or a woman or a child in New York who does not owe [Waring] gratitude for making New York, in every part, so much more fit to live in than it was when he undertook the cleaning of the streets.”
My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.