December 4, 2003

Used Books, Creeks, and Typhoid

Dryden has two excellent used bookstores: The Phoenix (on Route 13 near Etna), and Book Barn of the Finger Lakes (on North Road across from TC3). A few months ago, I bought a few issues of New York History, the journal of the New York State Historical Association, from each of them.

I was looking through them again this week, and found an article that has some strong reminders of why paying attention to watersheds is important: "Sending Their Sons Into Danger: Cornell University and the Ithaca Typhoid Epidemic of 1903." (July 1997, 273-308.) There were 1,350 cases of typhoid that year, and at least 82 deaths - in a population of 15,400 residents, including students.

The informed public... regarded the Ithaca epidemic as an easily preventable tragedy, and the event was newsworthy precisely because this type of tragedy way becoming increasingly rare. Newspapers and magazines around the county fueled the scandal by accusing the city and university of gross ignorance and neglect of even the most rudimentary methods of preventive medicine.

As the author goes on to explain, however, the fault wasn't simply with Ithaca doctors - it had deeper roots in water supplies, ownership and management of the water systems that brought those supplies to people, and the boardinghouses where male students lived.

Dryden's role in this drama is primarily as a watershed, through Cornell's use of Fall Creek as a water source and Ithaca's use of Six Mile Creek. Neither of these sources were particularly pleasant:

The Ithaca Water Works Company, established by the Treman family in 1872, was the sole provider of the city's water, which the company obtained from two separate sources - Six Mile Creek and Buttermilk Creek. In 1903, some 2,144 people lived in the drainage area of Six Mile Creek. Of these, 812 lived in villages bordering the creek. Drainage from cesspools, privies, and barnyards in the area flowed directly into the creek. There was no system of purifying the water, except for a primitive crib filter that sifted out pebbles and other large objects.

Fall Creek, which seemed less of a problem during the typhoid epidemic (perhaps because Cornell boiled water served on campus), was hardly in beautiful shape either:

As early as 1880, Cornell President Andrew Dickson White suspected that the water from Fall Creek was responsible for illnesses among students and faculty members, and requested that Profs. A. A. Breneman [and others...] survey the conditions along Fall Creek. Breneman reported extremely hazardous systems of sewage and waste disposal bordering the creek. Residents of the Fall Creek area, stung by the report, demanded Breneman's dismissal. Most of them obtained their water from private wells, and they ignored requests that they clean up the area along the campus water supply...
The situation became so grave by 1902 that Cornell officials enlisted the New York State Commissioner of Health, Dr. Daniel Lewis, to help regulate the sanitary conditions of the university water supply. Lewis drew up a list of rules and regulations, which prohibited inhabitants along Fall Creek and its tributaries from depositing any sort of refuse of excrement in the creeks, and from building any privies, cesspools, or sewers along Fall Creek or its tributaries. These regulations were not widely observed. During the 1903 epidemic, Cornell scientists and state health officials found numerous violations of sanitary regulations and discovered a high concentration of intestinal bacteria in the Fall Creek water supply. A resident of one of the towns bordering Fall Creek even offered to sell Cornell "adequate and pure" artesian well water at a cheap price if university officials would continue to overlook the fact "that they use the flow of water to sewer their [water] closests into Fall Creek."

Both the City and Cornell wound up installing filtering plants, and the City bought out the Ithaca Water Works. The City of Ithaca still uses Six Mile Creek as its water source, and Cornell still uses Fall Creek. Water service in Dryden itself seems to come from either wells or Cayuga Lake.

Posted by simon at December 4, 2003 8:41 AM in ,
Note on photos


HippieGirl said:

Should I bring this up at the meeting in Varna? Should I kick the crap out of the large, landowning, house-building representatives? Should I call the head female in said organization Typhoid Mary? Oh, let the intrigue begin!