Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Pelham Reacted to Rumors of the Establishment of a Cholera Hospital on Hunter's Island in 1892

In 1892, the world was in the midst of what has come to be known as the "Fifth Cholera Pandemic."  The cholera outbreak is believed to have begun years earlier in India, but it spread throughout Asia, Africa, Europe, and South America.  During the pandemic "Cholera claimed 200,000 lives in Russia between 1893 and 1894; and 90,000 in Japan between 1887 and 1889."  See Fifth Cholera Pandemic (1881-96), Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia (visited Mar. 8, 2015).   

For many Americans, the disease they knew as "Asiatic Cholera" seemed a distant threat, until early September, 1892.  On September 1, newspapers in the region reported that a ship had arrived in New York Harbor containing passengers afflicted with the dreaded disease.  See, e.g., THE CHOLERA SCARE -- THE PRESENCE OF AN INFECTED SHIP IN NEW YORK HARBOR, The Rome Daily Sentinel [Rome, NY], Sep. 1, 1892, Vol. XI, No. 6192, p. 1, col. 5.  Suddenly the danger was no longer a distant threat.

The Federal government considered suspending immigration and even postponing the upcoming World's Fair.  Quarantine laws were dusted off and used to hold ships in the lower harbor.  President Benjamin Harrison, who was visiting New York at the time, cut his visit short and returned to Washington "post haste to consult with his cabinet concerning measures advisable to repel the threatened invasion of cholera."

By autumn, 1892, New York City was fighting the "grim grip" of the dreaded disease known as cholera.  Nearly 2,000 afflicted patients were quarantined on detained ships that had arrived with infected passengers and on quarantine islands established in the lower bay.  Conditions for the afflicted were shockingly bad.  The New York region grew increasingly fearful of what was viewed as a plague that put millions at risk.  Quarantined cholera patients were floating in ships and were crowded onto islands only miles away from suburban settlements including the Town of Pelham.   

Reports in Westchester County newspapers recounted the deadly statistics as the disease took its toll.  See IN CHOLERA'S GRIM GRIP -- The Plague Continues to Flourish in New York Harbor -- FOUR DEATHS AND TEN NEW CASES -- The Victims and the Suspects Are Isolated on Swinburne Island in the Lower Bay -- Not a Case Has Yet Reached the City -- Dr. Depew Released, Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], Sep. 9, 1892, Vol. I, No. 137, p. 1, col. 2 (stating "The city is yet free from cholera.  Distressing as ever, however, is the condition of affairs among the 1,500 unfortunate kept on the detained ships and the quarantine islands in the lower bay.").  Fear spread throughout the region that the scourge could spread.  Indeed, the New Jersey state board of health decided to create a sea patrol to ensure that no one could escape from quarantined ships to the shores of that state.  See To Keep It Out of New JerseyDaily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], Sep. 9, 1892, Vol. I, No. 137, p. 1, col. 2.

Fear of the deadly disease reigned supreme during September, 1892.  Rumors abounded, including one that was reported in a number of newspapers:  the New York City Board of Health had received permission from the New York City Department of Public Parks to use the facilities on Hunter's Island as a hospital for cholera patients.

It was as if a bomb had exploded in Pelham.  The Town hired a local attorney, William Robert Lamberton, to address the issue.  On September 2, 1892, Lamberton wrote the New York City Board of Health to remind it that Hunter's Island was part of the Town of Pelham, not part of New York City.  Lamberton emphasized that although New York City owned the land, it had no civil jurisdiction over the land except for limited police power necessary to protect its property interest.  Lamberton conveyed in no uncertain terms that the Board of Health of the Town of Pelham would never permit a hospital for cholera patients anywhere within the boundaries of the Town of Pelham including Hunter's Island.

The New York City Board of Health responded promptly.  It stated simply that "the Board of Health of this city has never had any intention of locating a hospital for cholera patients within the limits of Pelham Bay Park, and has not given any serious consideration to that location for such a purpose."  

Apparently, the rumors of the establishment of a hospital for cholera patients on Hunter's Island were untrue.  Yet, the local press made clear that without regard to the reply of the New York City Board of Health, the region would be watching vigilantly and would be ready to take action to stop any attempt to house cholera patients in the area.

1849 Handbill Issued by the Board of Health of the City of New York.
Source:  Wikipedia.org.

Below is the text of an article that appeared in the September 10, 1892 issue of the New Rochelle Pioneer about the affair in early September.  The text is followed by a citation and link to its source.  


It was reported in the New York daily papers last week, that the Board of Health of that city had applied to the Department of Public Parks for permission to use Hunter's Island for the purposes of a hospital for cholera patients, and that such permission has been granted.

This report naturally created great excitement in the town of Pelham, and especially on City Island, which is only about half a mile distant from the site of the proposed hospital.

In response to the popular demand, Supervisor Pelll called a special meeting of the Health Board, and it was decided to strenuously resist any attempt on the part of the city to use Hunter's Island for any such dangerous prupose.  

As a result of the meeting, the following letter was sent to the New York Board of Health:

Law Offices of W. R. Lamberton, Post Building, 16 and 18, Exchange Place, New York.

September 2d, 1892.

GENTLEMEN.--The Board of Health of the town of Pelham having been informed through the press of your intention to establish one or more hospitals for cholera patients within the limits of Pelham Bay Park, have requested me to call your attention to the fact that while the city of New York has acquired the title to the lands within the park limits, it has acquired no civil jurisdiction (except a very limited one for police purposes) over the said lands.  The civil authority still remains in the town officers, the same as before the passage of the park act of 1884 and the subsequent acquisition of the land.  That is to say, the city is practically in the position of a private owner and subject in all respects to the power of the town Board of Health to prevent the creation or continuance of any nuisance or anything else detrimental to public health upon its property.

The town Board of Health therefore beg leave to notify you that the erection or maintenance of any hospital or other place for the reception of cholera patients will not be permitted within the limits of Pelham Bay Park, nor at any other point within the town, nor will the introduction of cholera patients into the town be permitted upon any pretext whatever.

The town Board does not intend any disrespect to your Board, but you must remember that it is the first duty of the local Board to protect its own people.  This they would certainly not do if they permitted the establishment of a pest house almost at the doors of a majority of the residents of the town.

Kindly inform me as to what action is taken by your Board upon this matter, and oblige, 

Yours truly,


Counsel for the Board of Health of the Town of Pelham.

To the Board of Health of the City of New York.

In reply the following letter was received:

'W. R. Lamberton, Esq., 16 and 18, Exchange Place, New York City.'

SIR:  -- Yours of this date is received, and I am directed to say in reply that the Board of Health of this city has never had any intention of locating a hospital for cholera patients within the limits of Pelham Bay Park, and has not given any serious consideration to that location for such a purpose.

Yours respectfully,

EMMONS CLARK, Secretary.

It will be noticed that while Mr. Clark's letter is satisfactory so far as it goes, yet it says nothing about things the Board may do in the future.  Consequently the Pelham Board will keep a sharp lookout, and at the first sign of an attempt to locate a hospital on Hunter's Island, will take all necessary measures to prevent it.  On the issue it is safe to say that no project which would so seriously endanger the health and lives of the people of City Island, Pelham Manor, New Rochelle and Mount Vernon will be successful."

Source:  NO CHOLERA HOSPITAL IN PELHAM BAY PARK, New Rochelle Pioneer, Sep. 10, 1892, Vol. XXXIII, No. 23, p. 2, col. 1.

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