Harper's Weekly, May 5, 1866, p. 290
THE CHOLERA AND THE QUARANTINE.
For more than a year the arrival of the cholera at the port of New York has been expected. The memory of its former horrors was very vivid. The certainty of its terrible ravages when it should appear was indisputable. So great was the apprehension and the desire that the city should be protected by every means that a Board of Health with extraordinary powers, not, however, including those of a Quarantine, had been created. There was a health officer specially charged with the sanitary defense of the port from foreign danger. There had been a body of Quarantine Commissioners for two years, whose duty was to find a suitable site for the Quarantine buildings. Every precaution had apparently been taken, when, on the 9th of April, the emigrant ship England, with 1200 passengers, arrived at Halifax. The cholera was raging on board, and there had been fifty deaths upon the passage. The pestilence was plainly at hand, and the efficiency of our New York preparations would doubtless he soon proved. And so it chanced for on the afternoon of the 18th the emigrant ship Virginia, with 1043 passengers, arrived in the Narrows, off Staten Island, and reported thirty-eight deaths by cholera upon the passage, and the disease still raging.
It then appeared that the sole preparation in this port consisted of the hospital ship Falcon, which was not ready for service! As soon as possible, by putting on board a crowd of laborers, she was made ready, and on the 21st the sick were removed from the Virginia. As soon as possible, also, another ship, the Illinois, was prepared, and the well passengers were received upon her. If the fact were not tragical it would be unspeakably ludicrous. The chief port of the Western continent, after a year's warning, was totally unprepared to deal directly and adequately with the approach of a fearful pestilence. The probabilities were that it would come, as it did come, in an emigrant ship. It was known that such ships are crowded, often with more than a thousand passengers. The most extensive hospital accommodations were the most obvious necessity, and they were not ready. The difficulties may have been many, but there are cases in which difficulties must not be pleaded, and this was one of them. Somewhere, somehow the State of New York should have been ready for the event, and it was not ready.
We say the State, because the Health officer, in his explanatory letter, says that the Legislature up to the time of its adjournment had left the Quarantine Commissioners without any money. The law forbade them to erect hospitals on Staten Island, or Long Island, or Coney Island-the only New York shores of the bay and New Jersey had refused them a foothold upon its territory. On the day that the England arrived at Halifax the Commissioners had telegraphed to the Secretary of the Navy asking for vessels. Two days afterward two were offered, but they proved unsuitable; and then vigorous measures were adopted to fit the Falcon for immediate service. But this explanation is not satisfactory. The Atalanta was here last November. The cholera was very sure to come early in the spring. There were no hospital accommodations but the ship Falcon. It was settled that there could be none upon the shores of the bay. Whose fault was it that the Falcon was not ready even on the 18th of April? Whose fault was it that no other ships were asked for until the 9th of April? If the Legislature perilously postponed the necessary appropriations, why was no statement made to the public that the imminent danger of the situation might have been known and proper pressure brought to bear upon the offenders? The Virginia and England are now both in port. After the former arrived the Quarantine Commissioners asked the authorities at Washington for the temporary use of Sandy Hook as a retreat for well passengers from infected ships. But the Government replied that New Jersey granted the use of Sandy Hook only upon condition that it should be devoted to military and similar public purposes. The Commissioners appeal, therefore, to the Board of Health to allow them some point of land at the disposal of the Board for the accommodation of quarantined passengers, declaring that the floating accommodations are insufficient.
The state of the case, then, is this: There are some 2000 persons detained in Quarantine. The sole hospital is the old ship Falcon, which accommodates not more than a hundred patients, to which, as we write, the Saratoga and Portsmouth are added. The shelter of well passengers is the steamship Illinois. There is a law against erecting hospitals on the adjacent land, and the Commissioners say that the floating accommodations are insufficient. Other infected ships are daily expected, and we have no other preparation. Meanwhile the Board of Health have asked for the use of the military hospitals at Fort Schuyler upon Throg's Neck, at the entrance of Long Island Sound. It is idle to assert that this dilemma arises from the destruction of the hospitals upon Staten Island; for that part of the island upon which they were situated was virtually a thickly-settled portion of the city of New York, and no effectual quarantine was possible there as the ravages of the yellow-fever in the neighborhood proved. It is not to the acts of a population which had no other remedy against a mortal disease planted among them, but to the avarice and corrupt intrigue of politicians and merchants that the absence of a suitable quarantine is to be ascribed.
The history of the New York Quarantine is briefly this: In 1758 the first hospital and offices were placed by the Colonial Legislature upon Bodice's Island. In 1796 they were removed to Governor's Island, where they remained until the yellow-fever in 1799. The next year the Quarantine was established impost Staten Island, against the remonstrances of the inhabitants, twenty-four of whom were destroyed by the yellow-fever from the hospitals in the very first year of their erection. From that time onward the population constantly protested, until, in 1848-when there were a hundred and eighty persons attacked by infectious diseases from the Quarantine-the outrage became so undeniable that, upon careful inquiry, a Committee of the Legislature recommended its immediate removal. In 1849 an act was passed and officers appointed for the establishment of hospitals at Sandy Hook. Certain shipping interests in New York thwarted the operation of the act, and nothing further was done until 1856. In that year the Staten Island and Long Island shores were desolated by the yellow-fever, and the Legislature, in March, 1857, again ordered the removal of the Quarantine station. The Commissioners under the act applied to the Legislature of New Jersey to obtain Sandy Hook, and were again defeated by the same shipping interest, by the remonstrances of the Health Officer, the Board of Underwriters of New York, and the Commissioners of Emigration. Meanwhile it was impossible to prevent constant communication between the hospital-grounds and the other side of the wall, the seat of a dense population, mainly of a class which could not remove. The helplessness, suffering, and mortality of the inhabitants were such that the Board of Health of the town declared the establishment an intolerable nuisance, and called upon the citizens of the county to abate it without delay; and on the evenings of the 1st and 2d of September, 1858, without the least injury to the patients, who were carefully removed and protected, the buildings were burned to the ground by the people of the neighborhood. One man was accidentally shot by an employee of the institution, but the destruction was so little indicative of a riotous spirit that the property-holders in the vicinity considered that their property was enhanced in value fifty per cent, by the removal.
It is nearly eight years since the buildings were destroyed, and it is only during the session of the Legislature just ended that an act was passed to erect new hospitals upon the west bank of the Lower Bay. If the operation of this act is not thwarted its all the others have been, New York may possibly be ready for the next pestilence. But for the present she is shamefully unprepared; and although the sudden cold and the strict isolation of the ships have checked the progress of the disease for a time, the suffering of the passengers who may be subject to quarantine is already assured. The Health Officer says, ''The roughness of the bay, from the high winds, makes it very unpleasant for all, and causes much sea-sickness." The present Quarantine arrangements are a disgrace to New York.
Upon page 292 the reader will find a descriptive Map of the Bay and the position of the ships.