Category Archives: history

When A Flu Reined In New York

As we New Yorkers endure the COVID-19 pandemic, the natural question for historians is: how did people react to epidemics in the past?

By now you may be aware of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed tens of millions of people worldwide. Could the number of deaths have been lower if they knew back then what we know now? Did they practice social distancing? Close businesses? Shut down schools? Limit transportation and government services?  Cancel public gatherings? Put people in isolation? Create temporary hospitals? Make people wear masks?

Spoiler alert…they did all those things. Reading about the steps people and governments took to limit the spread of the pandemic a century ago would feel shockingly familiar to us today. Our forbearers knew to do these things because the 1918 pandemic wasn’t the first to hit New York – not by a proverbial long shot.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, a form of social distancing was the norm in times of pandemics. When Yellow Fever ravaged the northeastern United States beginning in the 1790s, residents of large cities like Philadelphia and New York fled dense urban areas for the countryside, if they had the economic means to do so. The same held true in scattered outbreaks of the flu in New York in the 1820s, and when a large pandemic hit in the early 1830s. 

There was, however, one particular influenza outbreak in 1872 that was so widespread, and so contagious, that no one in America could escape its effects. The 1872 outbreak crippled the economy, crashed every transportation network in New York State (steamboats, railroads, canals, streetcars), led to permanent changes in the Americans’ lives, and likely was one of the causes of the Great Depression – the Panic of 1873, which was called the “Great Depression” until the even-Greater Depression hit in the 1930s.

It was so bad that people were worried the 1872 Presidential election would be impacted by people’s inability to get to the polls (sound familiar?). For months, the disease was front page news on every paper in the country, but for all its devastating effects, the massive influenza outbreak of 1872 is hardly known or remembered today: it doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page!  To be fair, though, it also didn’t kill a single person…

The 1872 influenza outbreak wasn’t a pandemic, or even an epidemic, it was an epizootic (or more properly classified as a panzootic), an outbreak of a highly communicable strain of equine influenza. It was a horse flu.

It started innocuously enough in the fall of 1872 with small reports about horse-drawn streetcars in Toronto being shut down due to the so-called “Canada Horse Disease.” Theses blurbs about the disease were buried on the back pages of several New York newspapers, and everyone seemed wholly unprepared for what was coming their way.

On October 21, the “Canada Horse Disease” hit Buffalo and in a matter of days, all of canal country was full of sick horses. Thousands of horses and mules worked the Erie Canal and shared stables, and they sent the contagious disease in every direction along the state’s watery superhighways.

Four men and a mule board a canal boat along the Erie Canal. (Photo Credit- Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum in Old Erie Canal State Park)

By Halloween, every equine engine in New York State effectively stopped working at the same time.  It was no longer the back-page “Canada Horse Disease,” it was the front-page “Great Epizootic of 1872.” Although most horses and mules ultimately recovered, the only cure was rest. A resting horse could not work, and without horses, industrial America was unable to function.  Why was it so devastating? Why were there so many horses?

If I asked you to picture a person and a horse in the late 19th century, you might think of this:

Or perhaps genteel Victorians on carriages:

You might not picture this:

New York City needed thousands of horses to pull streetcars and wagons, in these street scenes on Broadway and Center Street. (Photo credit- Library of Congress)

Post-Civil War America is commonly thought of as a time of rapid industrialization and mechanization, but in reality, horses and mules were still at the heart of every transportation system in the country and powered every aspect of life: they hauled people, freight, omnibuses (taxis) streetcars, fire engines, cavalrymen, carriages, canal boats, wagons, and anything else that needed to move. There were no cars, buses, trucks, subways, or motorcycles. There were horses, horses, and more horses on congested city streets.

Those cowboys pictured roping a buffalo on the plains might see ten or even twenty horses in a day. New York City and Brooklyn (a separate city until the 1890s) had a combined horse population of somewhere between 150,000 and 175,000 horses, and most were attacked by the horse flu.

On October 25th, the Utica Daily Observer reported 28,000 sick horses in New York City. Three days later, the Daily Saratogian reported that 7,000 horses in the city were stricken in a 24-hour period. In the end, the infection rate was around 90 percent. The horse flu impacted every aspect of American’s lives.

Grocers couldn’t deliver food.

Horse-drawn wagons at Haymarket Square in Chicago. (Photo Credit- Library of Congress)

Streetcars stopped running, stranding suburban commuters.

New York City relied on thousands of horses to pull its public streetcars. (Photo credit- Library of Congress)
Grand Central Depot in New York City with horse-drawn streetcars. (Photo credit- Library of Congress)

People couldn’t vote. The Buffalo Courier and Republic reported: 

There is considerable discussion in political circles, as to whether the sickness of so many horses through the country may not have an effect on the result in this and some other states by preventing country voters from getting to the polls on Tuesday, the [Presidential] election day.” Buffalo Courier and Republic Oct 31 1872.

Trains could run, of course, but what would they carry? Everything had to be delivered to depots by horse-drawn wagons, and when it arrived, it had to be distributed by more horse-drawn wagons. Railroads owned some of the largest fleets of horses in the 19th century. The same with steamboats:

“In the depots of the Erie, Morris and Essex and Pennsylvania railroads, a great quantity of freight is awaiting transportation, and the wharves of the large steamship lines are crowded with bales and boxes which cannot be moved.” Troy Daily Times October 26, 1872

The Buffalo Courier and Republic reported the same day that “of the 300 horses used along the New York City waterfront by stevedores, 280 have got the disease.”  A short while later, the steamboats couldn’t move even if they wanted to—they had no fuel. The Hudson River steamboats counted on a steady supply of coal from Pennsylvania, but that entire operation relied on mules, who got sick and couldn’t work. Mules pulled carts from the depths of the mines and then other mules pulled freight boats of the coal on the Delaware & Hudson Canal up to river.  By November, the Kingston Daily Freeman reported steamboat navigation was “nearly suspended” because of the lack of coal.

Eventually the Erie Canal—the economic lifeblood of New York State—was shut down. It would be like closing the Thruway today with all the economic shock that would create.

Horses pull a canal boat along the Erie Canal at the Schoharie Aqueduct. (Photo credit- Fort Hunter Canal Society)
Horses at work at the Erie Canal lock in Lockport, Niagara County. (Photo credit- New York State Archives, State Education Department)

The November 9, 1872 edition of Albany Morning Express chronicled the economic impact: “It is estimated that the horse epidemic will affect canal trade to the extent of delaying each boat a round trip, equal to the movement of one and a half millions of bushels of grain from Buffalo to New York.” A typical boat made seven round trips per season on the canal, and boats weren’t running even before the canal officially closed, so most companies felt around a 20 percent revenue drop.

The lost revenue and lost work time bankrupted companies and farmers alike, but one sector of the economy boomed – cure alls. The late 19th century was a period of unrestrained and unregulated quack remedies. There was no federal Food & Drug Administration, and anyone could create a “patent medicine” and advertise it as cure for… well, anything.

Clark Stanley, the man who was literally known as the snake oil salesman, patented his now-infamous elixir only a few short years after the epizootic. Veterinary medicine was not well developed in America in 1872 – the first veterinary school in America closed in 1866, and another wouldn’t open until after the epizootic. Although experts appeared in newspapers advising rest and fresh air were the only cure, New Yorkers and others turned to quick fixes offered at the drugstores:


Pharmacies across the state offered a variety of “cures” for the horse flu.


In the end, humankind’s relationship with the horse seemed to be what suffered the most from the Great Epizootic. For thousands of years, humans depended on horses for everything, but as we climbed out of depths of the Great Epizootic and the subsequent financial Panic of 1873, technology would slowly replace the horse.

An editorial in the Troy Whig seemed prophetic in hindsight that horse power would be supplanted:

Or, maybe it’s better straight from the proverbial horse’s mouth. In this illustration from the Nov. 16, 1872 edition of Harper’s Magazine, a flu-ridden horse imagines better treatment by his human masters after his recovery:


Cover Photo- Horses pull a canal boat along the towpath on the Erie Canal near Utica. “Erie Canal in the Mohawk Valley” (No. 2635, Rochester News Co., Rochester, N.Y.)

Post by Travis Bowman, Historic Preservation Program Coordinator (Collections), Bureau of Historic Sites


Resources

After the outbreak, the U.S. Government commissioned a report into it by James Law,  a faculty member of Cornell University, first dean of the New York State College of Veterinary Medicine, and a pioneer in veterinary medicine and public health in the United States.

Read his report here.

Helping Hands Restore the Past

All eyes in the class were on Amanda Trienens as she applied a mild acidic solution onto a piece of discolored old stonework. “Cleaning can really make for a ‘wow’ factor,” she said, as the solution lifted away years of grime.

Six men and three women were with her in the basement of the S.T.E.A.M Garden – a maker space and learning lab on Central Avenue in Albany – attending a certificate course that explores techniques for cleaning and restoration of historic masonry.

A consultant on restoration projects including the U.S. Supreme Court, the original World Trade Center site in New York City, and inventor Thomas Edison’s original stucco garage in West Orange, N.J., Trienens was a visiting expert in class that night.   She is founder and principal conservator at Columbia County-based consulting firm Cultural Heritage Conservation LLC.

Amanda Trienens shows the use of a laxtex-based cleaner. One of the many bits of advice she gave her students: “Knowing when not to clean.”
Various types of masonry and stone to be cleaned, including brickwork, bluestone and limestone.

Her experience and instruction were part of the Traditional Trades Program, which is currently running in the Capital Region as a partnership with New York State Parks, Hudson Valley Community College’s Workforce Development Institute and the Historic Albany Foundation.

Aimed at training more people to better handle restoration projects in older buildings, the program was developed in 2017 by two staff at Parks: Elizabeth Martin, an architect with the Capital Program, and Dan McEneny, a program coordinator at the Division for Historic Preservation.  

Through partnerships, the program offers courses to the general public in rehabilitation of historic wooden windows, preservation carpentry and woodworking, and historic plaster repair, with future offerings in roofing repair, and weatherization of historic properties.  In addition, last year Martin oversaw the offering of the masonry course for staff at the Palisades Park Region, a new expansion of the program.    

“New York has been undergoing a boom in the restoration of historic properties and needs more skilled craftspeople who know how to perform this kind of specialized work,” said McEneny. 

“Billions of economic development dollars are being spent in New York, particularly upstate, on preservation projects, and this translates into local jobs in construction, new markets for local businesses, and bolsters the revitalization of villages, towns and cities,” he said. 

The growing need for these skilled workers was identified in the 2015-2020 NYS Historic Preservation Plan, after community stakeholders told planners that finding such workers was becoming more difficult. 

“There are many opportunities in the historic trades right now,” said Jude Cleary, the HVCC instructor running the historic masonry course. “These opportunities are only going to increase as we employ restoration programs on existing buildings for environmental reasons as well as historical reasons.”

A manager with Louis C. Allegrone Inc., a third-generation masonry company from Lenox, Mass., Cleary has worked on restoration projects including the grand staircase at the Empire State Plaza, the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site, the Tower of Victory at the Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site, and the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site in Hyde Park.

Jude Cleary, (right) the instructor with Hudson Valley Community College, works with Amanda Trienens during her demonstration as student Dave Publow watches.

At the course, Albany resident Kenneth Arrington said he hoped this training could lead him to a new job.

He had worked as an operating engineer for heavy equipment and as a building maintenance mechanic before recently losing his position. Officials at his local unemployment insurance office had told him about the Historic Trades Program.

For Tony Mariano, a retired pharmacist who lives in Albany’s Center Square neighborhood, the course is a way to fuel his passion to care for his historic home, and to help his neighbors do the same. “I found out about this after my wife saw an ad on Facebook,” said Mariano, who has taught himself plumbing and electrical work.

“I would say that I am a skills collector,” said Dave Publow, a South Troy resident and former bicycle mechanic who is gutting and restoring a former commercial building in that neighborhood for potential use as a print studio and incubator space.

Dave Publow tries his hand at cleaning a section of stonework.

Publow has already taken the carpentry and window restoration courses through the Historic Trades Program. “I really wanted to leap into this with both feet,” he said.

As Susan Sfarra applied cleaning solution to a piece of stonework, she said her neighbors in Schenectady’s Historic Stockade District encouraged her to take the course.

“Many of us in the Stockade are worried about a lack of qualified workers,” said Sfarra, who owns a brick home dating to 1838, and who also is the daughter and granddaughter to bricklayers and masons.

“My plan is to take all the courses. When you own an older home, it is a privilege, and you really are a caretaker,” she said.

The Historic Trades Program will help preserve more historic homes and neighborhoods, said Historic Albany Foundation Executive Director Pamela Howard.

“Historic Albany Foundation has been pleased to be a partner in the Historic Preservation Trades Program with HVCC since the beginning.  Having skilled and trained preservation trades people is critical to the preservation of our historic homes and neighborhoods,” she said. “In addition, introducing a new professional audience to our Architectural Parts Warehouse is critical for both incoming and outgoing salvaged items to keep them from the landfills and getting them back into local homes.”


Learn More

Find more courses in the Historic Trades Program in the Albany region here.

Courses on historic window restoration are also being held this month in the Buffalo region, sponsored by State Parks and First Niagara.

Read Hudson Valley Community College’s announcement on the Historic Trades Program.


Cover Shot: Kenneth Arrington (left), and Tony Mariano, watch with another other student as Amanda Trienens demonstrates a cleaning technique. (All photos-NYS Parks)

By Brian Nearing, Parks Deputy Public Information Officer