Water and Wellness in New Orleans: Lack of sanitation in New Orleans led to high amounts of disease in the early 1800s

In the nineteenth century, the New Orleans port grew from a colonial supply storehouse, to the second largest port in the country, to then – by the 1840s – the fourth largest trading port in the world. Although an epicenter for trading commodities with ports on the East Coast, Europe, and Latin America, New Orleans had failed to create an adequate sewerage and drainage system able to control the city’s waste. The sewage and drainage system factor, combined with the city’s humidity and swamp-like climate, made New Orleans attract mosquitoes, which made the city a breeding ground for infectious diseases, such as yellow fever. The lack of sanitation and sewerage protocols resulted in a disease endemic infiltrating the communities of New Orleans, which periodically flared the epidemic spread to its connecting ports.

The diseases, like yellow fever and malaria, that continued to ravage New Orleans in the 1830s and 40s failed to concern city officials that any improvements needed to be implemented on the city’s sewerage and drainage systems. The city’s disposal methods – mainly focusing on two single solutions: canals and porous cesspools, which had been nearly unchanged since the French colonial era – would easily overflow after the city experienced heavy rainfall (from 1811-1840, New Orleans experienced 10 destructive hurricanes with considerable rain) or flooding, resulting in fecal matter dispersed throughout the city’s yards and streets. People residing in New Orleans were often confronted daily with unpleasant sights and smells, due to the infrequent procedures done by sanitary evacuation companies that would partially empty these shallow drains exasperating the already repulsive stench. The lack of a sustainable outlet for waste made the city’s streets, drains, canals, and gutters littered with garbage, food waste, and human and animal waste. In 1819, architect Benjamin Latrobe described New Orleans in three words: ‘mud, mud, mud’.” Latrobe was planning on enabling a waterworks system in New Orleans, similar to one he designed in Philadelphia, to combat the yellow fever epidemic which was designed to desalinate water, using steam-powered pumps. While he was able to get an engine built for the waterworks system, he died from yellow fever while working in New Orleans in 1820. 

The sewerage and drainage systems goal was to funnel the drainage into Bayou St. John; yet, due to overflow it had nowhere to go, and typically just seeped into the ground. The landscape of New Orleans was consistently moist and muddy, even in the driest seasons, which attracted copious amounts of mosquitoes that harbored in the humid, warm soil. As the city’s economy prospered and citizens migrated there, New Orleans had to expand their infrastructure to accommodate the rising population. The construction of new canals combined with the ongoing production and exportation of sugar required digging into the infested land, and it was observed that during these periods of digging, there was a higher presence of fevers. Mosquitoes were the vector of the spread, plaguing the city with each canal repair, and consequently, the laborers who built canals and immigrants who worked in railroad construction were especially likely to contract yellow fever. Misconceptions led city officials to believe the disease was caused by humidity alone, not the haphazard drainage system, which led to the real problem going unnoticed while the disease returned again and again during the hot summer months. In the 1820s, yellow fever traveled in Louisiana beyond New Orleans, sometimes appearing in Opelousas, Donaldsonville, Natchitoches, and Thibodaux, but consistently appearing in more densely populated areas such as Alexandria, Baton Rouge, and St. Francisville. As mentioned in the Times-Picayune in June of 1841, a woman who had recently traveled to New Orleans from New York, returned with a severe case of yellow fever. It was reported that the woman had “spent the winter in New Orleans, and had just returned in feeble health,” this indicates that she caught the disease from her time in New Orleans and brought it back with her when she returned to Hughsonville. However, in the Times-Picayune report, the author, Kendall Lumsden, is confused as to how she contracted this disease, claiming there had not been a case in two years, yet from 1839 to 1841 there were 1049 reported deaths. 

Times Picayune Article, June 1841. (Photo by: Maddie Esping)

New Orleans’ location was strategically occupied by the French because of the proximity to the Mississippi, which led to New Orleans’ monopoly on Mississippi Valley trade. When the United States purchased Louisiana from the French, they were able to monopolize the New Orleans port to expand their commodity trading overseas. Since New Orleans had the accessibility to trade overseas through the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, states further North sent their commerce South to New Orleans to be shipped off to international ports. For instance, the West shipped flour, butter, and pork products from western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana; tobacco and hemp from Kentucky; cotton from Tennessee and lead from Missouri, Illinois, and Wisconsin southward to New Orleans. The trade routes that connected New Orleans to each of these states created a higher potential for New Orleans to spread the yellow fever present in the city to them, and for these states to spread it further. However, due to minimal research into this disease, people were not aware that the lack of sanitary precautions spiked the virus, and due to the lack of trying to suppress it, negligence managed to make it spread. 

Because of New Orleans’ port status, the city was one of the most notably susceptible to epidemics due to the influx of immigrants and trade passing through and staying in the city. If New Orleans had created a system within their sewerage and drainage methods that ensured they would be continuously checked if they were up to code, then there could have been a decrease in cases that consistently plagued the city. After a while, the residents of New Orleans who had survived yellow fever previously had built up herd immunity throughout their communities, which left the people traveling in and out more susceptible to the disease. Not only were tourists more susceptible to the disease, but people who migrated to New Orleans who had not been previously exposed were more likely to die from yellow fever. After 1817, the yellow fever epidemic occurred more frequently and persistently spread to regions connected to the port of New Orleans by rivers and canals. Not only was the lack of sanitation protocols in New Orleans a perpetrator of the spread, but since the waste created was dumped into the Mississippi River and Bayou St. John, this water that stretched to other regions was contaminated. 

When the disease was at its peak during the hot summer months, people were advised to attempt to refrain from visiting New Orleans, but it was never officially implemented since city officials never made a formal announcement. New Orleans journalists kept up with the changing health of Vicksburg, Mississippi as the disease spread and infested within their community. While it was not explicitly stated in the articles posted in the 1841 Times-Picayune, it could be understood that the places that connected to New Orleans – either by trade routes or connecting waterways – experienced more frequent cases due to New Orleans having high rates of diseases in their communities. The lack of documentation to this claim surrounds the misconceptions city officials had about the epidemic’s spread in general. If officials had not been so hesitant to investigate the real issue, perhaps because they did not care to fix the sewerage system, then the devastating epidemics in 1811, 1817, then later 1853, could have been somewhat prevented.



This piece was edited by Ethan Meisler as part of Professor Kelley Crawford’s Digital Civic Engagement course at Tulane University.


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