After filthy Hudson River 1913 floodwaters submerges the water filtration plant in Albany, New York, local authorities squelch an explosive epidemic of typhoid fever in a desperate manner that convinces the nation that chlorination can eradicate waterborne disease.
“Barricade those doors! The Hudson is rising so fast now that it’s our only hope!”
Instantly, sanitation engineers spring to the regulator houses of the Quackenbush Pumping Station—the water-filtration plant that purifies drinking water for New York’s capital city of Albany—and brace the doors of from the inside. They begin caulking the cracks around the doors with oakum (tarred rope fibers used to seal cracks between boards on sailing vessels) to prevent raw river water from entering the flow of pure water from the filters and thus into the pure-water reservoir. Other men, heedless of the torrential downpour, hurriedly build a temporary earthen embankment two feet high around the slow-sand filter court. It is 8 AM Thursday, March 27, 1913.
But all precautions are in vain. About 4 AM Friday, March 28, as the raging Hudson rose higher on the walls of the pumping station, pressure from the swollen river bursts the door to one of the regulator houses. Raw untreated river water pours into the pure-water reservoir. The river—then a foot higher than the tops of the filters—breaks through the makeshift embankment and fills the filter courtyard. It also floods the hypochlorite disinfection plant.
For about 30 hours, the drinking water filters are submerged under the filthy, turbid river. Moreover, the hypochlorite plant is halted from adding tiny, powerful doses of anti-bacterial chlorine to the filtered water. Thus, for a day and a quarter, raw river water is being pumped to half of Albany's homes and businesses.
Quick background to understand what happens next:
In 1913, Albany drew its drinking water from two hilltop reservoirs—named Bleecker and Prospect—each of which delivered water through separate pipes and supplied about half of the city. Bleecker Reservoir was fed primarily from Rensselaer Lake in Albany as well as from the Hudson River (the lake itself was fed by several surface streams). In contrast, Prospect Reservoir was fed only from the Hudson. Before being pumped uphill to both reservoirs, the Hudson’s water was first treated by the Quackenbush Pumping Station, located on the slopes below downtown Albany on the river (east) side of Broadway, which parallels the Hudson.
The pumping station purified the Hudson River water with a two-step process. First, the cloudy river water was filtered with slow sand filters to remove particulates; second, the sparkling clear water was chlorinated to disinfect it. In 1913, municipal disinfection of water supplies—which added minute amounts of hypochlorite of lime (basically powdered bleach) to combat serious waterborne diseases such as typhoid fever, was still controversial. The germ theory of disease was still only a few decades old, and regulating the tiny dosage of chlorine was tricky; indeed, the two cities that pioneered chlorination––Jersey City, New Jersey, and Chicago, Illinois––had been doing so only since 1908, with Albany close behind. Thus Albany was one of the first cities to chlorinate its drinking water.
One last thing: In 1913, major epidemics of typhoid fever—a wasting disease that lasted up to six months, with a fatality rate of about 10%—were still common, accounting for nearly 10,000 deaths annually nationwide. In those pre-antibiotic days, Walter Reed and his co-workers had demonstrated that infection was linked to unsanitary conditions, including drinking water contaminated by untreated human sewage.
Back to what happens in Albany during and after the record-high 1913 flooding of the Hudson River:
Even before the breach of Albany’s water supply, New York’s State Commissioner of Health Eugene H. Porter commands all state authorities to use every possible means to safeguard water supplies against infection and to warn the public. The Albany Commissioner of Public Works Wallace Greenalch notifies all the newspapers to warn the public to boil all drinking water for at least 15 minutes before consuming. The notices first appears on Saturday morning before any raw river water reaches the city, and remains in force for two weeks.
Meantime, as soon as the Hudson River retreats from its peak flood height and uncovers the Quackenbush Pumping Station, engineers flush all water mains by opening the hydrants. Within 24 hours, they also set up a temporary hypochlorite plant.
Despite everyone's fast action, when the State Department of Health samples water in the two hilltop reservoirs (to which the filtration plant pumped pure water for gravity-fed distribution to the city), they find B. coli (an animal fecal protozoan that was an indication of contamination by sewage) in Prospect Reservoir, which served half of Albany. But the gate valve—which can shut off the reservoir from the water-distribution system—is stuck open! There is no way to prevent sewage-contaminated water from pouring out the taps in half of Albany’s homes!
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Engineers load a small boat with bags of hypochlorite of lime, row out into the center of the reservoir, punch holes in the bags, and shake them vigorously as they continue rowing around and across the lake, releasing the bleach powder directly into the water. (No report mentions whether Prospect Reservoir was lined with trees and vegetation or populated with fish, or the effects on the environment from adding concentrated bleach directly to the reservoir.) Just to make sure, they sterilize the reservoir a second time a few days later.
Initially, Greenalch is hopeful that the “dilution of the raw water was so great during the period the plant was flooded that no danger from typhoid is expected."
But in this, he is disappointed. Although before the flood Albany was substantially free from typhoid fever, beginning on April 16 for about a week, at least 180 documented cases of typhoid broke out in the city. “Allowing some two weeks for 'incubation' and dating back on the diagram this period of time from April 16, brings us directly to the period when infection of the water-supply took place,” writes Theodore Horton, chief engineer of Albany’s State Department of Health, in the weekly Engineering News. The outbreak “constitutes one of the most interesting and striking examples of an explosive epidemic due to a sudden... infection of a water supply..."
Horton draws a diagram, which plots two curves [see illustration], showing the typhoid infection in time. One curve profiles the rise and fall of the Hudson river and the times of the contamination of the water supply during the flood, along with the times of the sterilization of Prospect Reservoir. The other curve—actually a histogram, which perfectly mimicked the first—plots the rapid rise and subsequent fall of the number of cases of typhoid that developed as a result of first the contamination and then the sterilization of the drinking water in Albany, up to May 5.
To test the apparent causality by location, Horton also plots the typhoid cases on a map of Albany to see where they occurred. The resulting map (which I have not seen published anywhere), according to Horton, shows “a preponderance of cases on the portion of the [water-supply] system connected with Prospect Reservoir.” Prospect Reservoir, remember, was supplied only by the Hudson River. Bleecker Reservoir, principally supplied by water from Rensselaer Lake, “was not contaminated...,” Hotron concludes, “ so we have by comparison an indication of the relative significance of the contamination that entered that entered Prospect Reservoir."
Horton's two-humped graph definitively linking an explosive typhoid epidemic to water contamination from the 1913 flood—plus the fast stopping of the epidemic by chlorination—was so striking that it (or slight variations of it) was widely reprinted or summarized in engineering journals, medical and public health journals, and reference texts, dramatically demonstrating the effectiveness of chlorinating drinking water in preventing typhoid linked to poor sanitation.
©2012–2013 Trudy E. Bell. For permission to reprint or use, contact Trudy E. Bell at firstname.lastname@example.org
Just how horrific was the carnage of the 1913 flood? Next time: “‘Death rode ruthless...’”
Caption to graph: Theodore Horton’s much-reprinted (and often redrawn) double-humped graph showing the dates of the contamination of Albany’s water supply by floodwaters, the dates of sterilization and measurement of decreasing contamination, and two weeks later—the incubation period for typhoid fever—an explosive outbreak of typhoid in Albany, New York. This particular version of the diagram was printed in “Investigation of Outbreaks of Typhoid Fever,” Thirty-Fourth Annual Report of the State Department of Health [For the Year Ending December 31, 1913]. State of New York. No. 64. 1914, 742. No mention is made in the document’s description why some of the histogram bars are crosshatched in gray rather than black, an artifact that is real judging from the fact that the bar for April 23 is half gray and half black. Redrawn versions generally omit the distinction between bars.
Albany was by no means the only city that quickly set up a temporary emergency hypochlorite plant to disinfect water supplies contaminated during the 1913 flood—Albany’s situation was only the most famous, in part because it afforded such a convincing A-B comparison between a sterilized reservoir and a control. During the 1913 flood, emergency hypochlorite plants were quickly set up by at least two other cities, both hard-hit in Ohio: Zanesville (see [McCampbell, E. F.] Twenty-Eighth Annual Report of the State Board of Health of Ohio. For the Year Ending December 31, 1913. (Columbus, Ohio: The F. J. Herr Printing Co., 1914, p. 708) and Columbus (see William P. Mason, Water-Supply (Considered Principally from a Sanitary Standpoint), (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1916), p. 219, which cites an article in Engineering Record).
Accounts of the 1913 flooding of Albany’s water filtration plant and the unusual step of sterilizing an entire reservoir appear in various engineering journals. See, for example, “Albany Filtration Plant during the Flood,” Engineering Record, April 5, 1913, 374. Wallace Greenalch, “The Flooding of the Albany Filtration Plant and Previous High Floods at Albany, N.Y.,” Engineering News, April 10, 1913, 754–755. Theodore Horton, “The Typhoid Outbreak at Albany, N.Y., Due to Flooded Filters,” Engineering News, May 15, 1913, 1021–1022. Horton noted, “I believe this is the first case on record of sterilization of a large open reservoir by the hypochlorite method and the results show that two treatments of about 1 part per mission accomplished an entire elimination of B. coli type and acid colonies from the water in the reservoir,” and he felt “such emergency means should always be kept in mind.” (p. 1022). Horton attributed the fact that there were any cases of typhoid at all from the flooding to “the negligence of those who drank the city water without boiling in utter disregard of the warning given by the authorities in charge.” By the way, there is a contradiction in the dates of the sterilization: Greenalch says March 31 and April 5, and Horton says (and shows on his diagram) April 3 and April 5. See also “Investigation of Outbreaks of Typhoid Fever,” Thirty-Fourth Annual Report of the State Department of Health [For the Year Ending December 31, 1913]. State of New York. No. 64. 1914, 731–742.
The report and two-humped chart were reprinted as Theodore Horton, “Typhoid Fever at Albany, N.Y.: An Account of the Recent Outbreak Due to Use of Raw Hudson River Water Following Flooding of Filtration Plant,” Public Health Reports 28 (May 23, 1913), 987–994, and became Public Health Reprint 128. The findings were summarized and the chart itself was reprinted in the fourth edition of the reference book William P. Mason, Water-Supply (Considered Principally from a Sanitary Standpoint), (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1916), 30–32. The findings without the diagram were also summarized as “Typhoid Fever at Albany,” The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal 169 (July 3, 1913), 26–27. These last two references also refer to a version of the article that appeared in the Monthly Bulletin of the New York State Department of Health, May 1913, which I have not yet been able to locate.
Today the Quackenbush Pumping Station’s original buildings survive as a locally well-known restaurant and brew pub, the Albany Pump Station.
For general background about typhoid fever and how municipal water supplies and sewage treatment converted the United States from a third-world to a first-world nation (hygienically speaking), see Bell, Trudy E. "Engineersand Enteric Fever: Designing Against Disease," The Bent, 101 (1): pp. 13–18, Winter 2010. In the 1880s, pioneering bacteriologists identified the cause of typhoid fever as a bacterium carried by human waste; but the disease remained rampant in the U.S. until sanitation engineers figured out how to filter and disinfect water supplies—eradicating waterborne disease by the 1930s, well before the advent of antibiotics, widespread vaccinations, or other medical treatment..
Bell, Trudy E., The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and the construction of the Miami Conservancy District dry dams for flood control, including several pictures of Cox. (Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me at email@example.com )