1865 was a pivotal year in the history of public health and the environment in New York City. In 1865, just as the Civil War was ending and shortly following the infamous draft riots of 1863, the Association of New York issued its final report on the Sanitary Condition of the City. Dedicated to the benefit of "all classes in the city," the Report provided more than three hundred pages of detailed description of the city's physical, social, and moral character. Coming at the end of a bloody war that divided not only the nation but also the communities of the city, the Report reflected both the hopes and the fears of the merchant leaders who had commissioned it.
The observation that housing, politics, morals, and health were all intertwined underscored the Committee's perception of what needed to be done for the city in the coming years. Of first importance was the need to document and quantify the degree of suffering, the inadequacy of services and the horrors of urban life. Hence, the Committee set out to expose "themselves to [the] repulsive and nauseous scenes in the abodes of misery and want, and to the infectious localities and homes of disease and death, in order to be able to give an exact and complete survey of the sufferings, perils, and sanitary wants... ." With a voyeur's acuity, an elite's sense of authority, and the moral righteousness of missionaries, the Report was a remarkable document that detailed the physical and social life of mid-nineteenth century New York.
Widely distributed in a variety of forms-a book, booklets, and pamphlets-the report was used to pressure the City and the State in the political drama to organize a permanent Metropolitan Board of Health in 1865.
1865 was also key to the infrastructural improvement of the City of New York. After decades of conflict with the city over control of the water supply and sewer system, New York State granted the Croton Aqueduct Department-created in 1849-authority to plan, design, and construct sewers in New York City. The Croton Aqueduct project began in 1935. The project was headed by (Major David Bates Douglas), trained at Yale in natural philosophy and West Point in engineering. He proposed a 47-mile aqueduct system to bring water from the Croton River to the city at a cost of $5 million in 1833. While Douglas was initially appointed the chief engineer on the aqueduct project, he had no practical experience and the project stalled. After the fire of 1835, he was replaced by John B. Jervis, who had no academic training but, like many American engineers, received on-the-job experience constructing the Erie Canal.
When the Croton Aqueduct Department took responsibility for sewer construction in 1865, they quickly laid 39,000 linear feet of sewers and promoted a new type of sewer construction. In the decades before the State expanded authority of the Croton Aqueduct Department, sewer construction was haphazard. Affluent neighborhoods that could organize and afford improvements petitioned the Common Council, which divided the costs of sewer construction amongst the petitioners. The quality of the sewer system built depended on what property owners in different areas could afford to pay.
In sharp contrast, the poorest, most crowded areas of the city were the first to receive water. In 1842, water flowed across the Harlem River from the Croton Aqueduct into the Yorkville Receiving station, located at 5th Avenue between 79th an 86th streets. From there, water flowed to the Murray Hill Reservoir at 5th Avenue and 42nd street, whence it was distributed to the city. The Murray Hill Reservoir held 19,000,000 gallons of water. Because residents paid for water consumption, the density of the area below 23rd street on the West Side and 28th Street on the East Side offset 10 percent of aqueduct construction costs. The pressing need to combat frequent fires in densely crowded areas also worked to ensure that those most in need of water would receive it first.