Excerpts from Richard Bayley's An Account of the Epidemic Fever which prevailed in the City of New York, 1796
New-York is situated in north latitude forty degrees and an half, longitude seventy-four degrees west from the meridian of London. It is built on a south-west point of land, the highest elevation of which above the level of high water mark, is near forty feet, and which is continued, through the city, near a mile lengthways. From this elevation in the original state of the ground, there was a pretty bold descent continued, in opposite ways, to the water's edge. But it has been the policy of the corporation of this city, at different times, to make new ground, as it is called, or to sell to others the privilege of doing so; which has considerably increased the dimensions of he city, both on the east side and north.
The new made ground is nearly a level, or the descent is so gradual, that it is drained with difficulty; and we may add, that the level of the new made ground is but very little above the mark of high water. Indeed, it is sometimes entirely overflowed by the spring tides; and from the loose nature of the ground, the water frequently finds its way into the cellars of the houses in Front and Water streets, and sometimes even into those of Pearl-street.
The new made ground from Whitehall to Catharine-street, along the East-river, is, on average, four hundred feet in breadth, creating, if one may so speak, fifty acres of ground, all of which is built upon. The ground made on the west side of the city is about ten acres. The consequences of this mode of extending the city are, no doubt, extremely injurious to the health of the inhabitants; and it is much to be regretted, that measures are not taken to prevent an increase in the evil: for we shall presently see, that the late epidemic was rendered particularly malignant and fatal, from causes arising in this plan of inlarging the city. To render this apparent, we must take a more particular survey of that part of the city where the epidemic first made its appearance.
We shall begin at the river on the east side of Peck-slip; from thence to Water-street the ground is nearly a level: proceed up the slip, and after leaving Water-street a few paces, the ground ascends until you arrive at Pearl (late Queen) street: from this to Dover-street the ground is rising but gradually descends again as you proceed along Cherry-street as far west as Roosevelt-street: from this to the New-slip is nearly a level. The ground at the top of Dover-street may be considered as the highest spot in the range between Peck and New-slip, by the way of Pearl and Cherry streets, and extending east and west, maintains a general height, which may be computed at fifteen, twelve, ten, &c. feet above the level of Water-street.
The houses on the high ground are principally three stories high, and built of brick, between which and those lowly situated on the north side of Water-street, there is a space of ground constituting the different yards of the above houses, measuring about one hundred feet.
Water-street, extending from Peck to New-slip, in many places has been raised two feet, or more, above the ordinary level of the ground on the north side of the street. From those grounds to the river there are no drains to convey off the water, & c. which renders an accumulation of filth, in the rear of the houses upon those lots, almost a necessary consequence. Water will frequently become stagnant, and this containing animal and vegetable matters, exposed to the hot sun, must prove a fruitful source of noxious vapours. Under these circumstances, it is natural to expect that those who are exposed to the influence of such foul air, should feel its effects, especially in a state of predisposition, arising from a peculiar constitution of the air.
The grounds south of Cherry-street are so arranged, that they are more immediately exposed to the sun; for they may be considered as on the south side of a considerable hill; and no one is ignorant of the powerful effects which ths sun produces on a surface of this exposure.
In a very correct map of this city, by Benjamin Taylor, it will appear, that a line drawn from Whitehall to the bottom of Dover-street, will run in a direction of north-east; and from the bottom of Dover-street to Corle's hook, the course is nearly east. An attention to this fact, also, is of consequence, if it produces the effect upon the tides it is said to do, viz., that of creating different eddies, which furnish a vast quantity of floating, perishable matter, to the slips in the vicinity of the ground which we have been describing.
From this arrangement of the shores along the East-river, the salutary effects of those winds which blow during the hot months, from the different parts of the compass, between south-west and north-east, and which so often afford refreshment to the inhabitants of the elevated situations, and at the west end of the town, are little or not at all experienced by those who reside in the east end: for the air is so changed in its temperature and qualities, before it arrives there, by passing over a large part of the city, that it loses that vivifying principle so essential to health.
From all these circumstances it is plainly discoverable, that the south-east part of the city is placed under circumstances not very conducive to the health of it inhabitants; especially as a great number of them are of the poorer kind, and in many places very much crowded together in small confined apartments. To strenghthen this opinion, I will give an extract of a letter from a gentleman of great candour and respectability in the neighborhood of Dover-street: -"Although the docks in the vicinitty of the store which I occupy may be less offensive than in many other parts of the city, yet many of them are in a very exceptionable situation. The ponding of water, by running a bulk-head across an unfinished dock, and leaving the vacancy, for several years, to be filled with every species of filth and perishable matter, is an object worthy of the attention of the police. The situation on the grounds between Water and Cherry streets is rendered very noxious, by Water-street being raised above a certain level, and thus preventing those grounds from being drained. The effect of such a nuisance on the health of the inhabitants of a crowded part of the city cannot be imaginary."