“The New York Harbor Everglades”

June 30, 1883

William A. Rogers

“The New York Harbor Everglades”

Business, Shipping; New York City, Public Health; Public Health; Symbols, New York City; Transportation, Shipping;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

New York City;

No caption

This cartoon reveals how the practice of dumping garbage into the waters around New York City has made a polluted swamp of the harbor.  The accumulated debris has grounded a Coney Island ferry and a large ocean-going vessel.  The figure on the prow of the ship (perhaps symbolic of New York) frowns her displeasure at the scene below.  The fort on the left is Governors Island, situated off the southern tip of Manhattan.

Sanitary conditions in New York City in the nineteenth century were poor compared to today's standards.  In 1880, New York became the first American city to reach a population of one million, whose residents produced tons of garbage.  Another key source of pollution was the reliance on horses for transportation.  Until the spread of the automobile in the early-twentieth century, the city's horses produced 400-1200 tons of manure and nearly 200 carcasses every day along the 250-plus miles of city streets.  (In the cartoon, notice the legs of a dead horse rising out of the water.)  The inadequate disposal of the city's waste stemmed from under-funding, limited authority, inefficiency, and corruption in government services combined with only rudimentary knowledge of public health necessities. 

Some of the garbage was put in landfills, but much of it was dumped into the rivers and bays surrounding the city.  As criticism mounted over the resulting pollution and stench, the state legislature passed a law in 1871 making dumping in the Harlem River, East River, or Upper Bay a misdemeanor offense.  The garbage boats then moved, supposedly, further out into Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean.

In September 1879, though, Harper's Weekly drew attention to a New York Herald exposé on rampant violations of the state law.  Two Herald reporters secretly watched eight garbage boats dump their cargo under dark of night into the city's bordering waters.  "Barge after barge was emptied of its horrible load in positions where the tide, instead of carrying the vile mass out to sea, would sweep it upon the adjacent shores, or, where cinders and other heavy matter were dumped, leave it to form dangerous shoals, and obstruct the channels."  The editor warned, "if the practice is not checked, the harbor will be ruined."

The next week, Harper's Weekly focused on the dangers that dumping posed to safe passage of the waters.  The paper quoted a shipping-firm representative who stressed that their "pilots and captains are constantly complaining that piloting is becoming more and more difficult."  The unlawful dumping of garbage had altered the navigable waters so radically that their charts were useless.  The problem also limited sailing into and out of port to certain times of the day.  He concluded, "it is time that a public movement was inaugurated to abolish the nuisances that are endangering the lives of thousands of passengers weekly."  That sentiment was supported by much of the New York press.

The New York Evening Post reported that British and other foreign ships were also contributing to the problem by not only dumping their trash into New York Harbor, but their stone and sand ballast as well.  The journal called on the state legislature to establish a well-equipped harbor police with the authority to arrest the offending captains, foreign or domestic.  In 1880, under the auspices of the Manhattan Beach Company, the resort community of Coney Island initiated such a police force to suppress illegal dumping. 

Yet, the problem persisted.  The text below this 1883 cartoon refers to a news story entitled "The Garbage Blockade," which reports the grounding of nine ocean steamers in New York Harbor over the previous six months.  The article cautions, "Filling up the ocean channels of the chief sea-port upon the American continent is a very serious matter."  Two years later, the first garbage incinerator was constructed on Governors Island in New York Bay, but dumping continued to be the primary method of waste disposal into the twentieth century.

Robert C. Kennedy

“The New York Harbor Everglades”
July 14, 2024

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