November 4, 2012, Sunday, 308

Yellow Fever in Bay Ridge

From The Peopling of New York City


Yellow Fever Epidemic in the United States

New Orleans circa 1817-1905

Yellow Fever in U.S

It is estimated that around 41,000 people died in the scourge of Yellow Fever in New Orleans between 1817 and 1905 (Crescent City's last epidemic). The year of 1853 was by far the worst, resulting in 7949 deaths. The first cases of Yellow fever appeared in early May of that year, but people thought nothing of it and the news of the epidemic were concealed to prevent damage to Real Estate. By mid-July, the epidemic became obvious and set the city into panic as more and more people were dying each day. The environmental conditions contributed to the spread of the sickness: high temperatures, humidity, lack of ozone in the air, and mosquitoes. Efforts were made to purify the atmosphere by firing six-hundred discharges from cannons. Alas, that only lead to more deaths as the sick went into convulsions. On August 4,1905, Theodore Roosevelt assigned Walter Wyman on a public health campaign to fight the mosquitos. Workers fumigated the city, screened cisterns and destroyed breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Fines were instituted against residents who failed to comply with public health measures.By October of 1905, the epidemic had ended.

Norfolk, Virginia: 1855
A ship carrying persons infected with the virus arrived in Hampton Roads in southeastern Virginia in June 1855 . The disease spread quickly through the community, eventually killing over 3,000 people, mostly residents of Norfolk and Portsmouth. The Howard Association, a benevolent organization, was formed to help coordinate assistance in the form of funds, supplies, and medical professionals and volunteers which poured in from many other areas, particularly the Atlantic and Gulf Coast areas of the United States. See also The Mermaids and Yellow Jack: A NorFolktale - a children's historical fiction written by Norfolk author Lisa Suhay, telling of the event and founding of the Bon Secours DePaul Hospital system in the United States in response to the epidemic.

Memphis, Tennessee: 1878
The worst yellow fever epidemic in U.S. history occurred in 1878, with over 5,000 deaths in Memphis alone and 20,000 deaths in the whole of the Mississippi Valley.

Yellow Fever Hits Bay Ridge

Yellow Fever Letter from NY Times

A turning point in the history of Yellow Hook took place in 1848-1849 as a result of the Yellow Fever epidemic. The inspection and quarantine of vessels entering American waters was primitive, and a ship entered the harbor with Yellow Fever aboard. Contaminated bedding and clothing tossed overboard were carried by the tides to the beaches of New Utrecht spreading the pestilence. The fisher-farmers of Yellow Hook were among the worst victims of the fever. The death rate soared alarmingly and many farmers fled their homes. Others gave away their homesteads. Fort Hamilton was abandoned as was prize property along Shore Road which lay deserted.

The Birth of Bay Ridge: December 16, 1853

Brooklyn Daily Eagle: December 19, 1853)

Bay Ridge began life as Yellow Hook, a reflection of the yellow soil that used to cover the land in the 17th century. While its neighbor to the north, Red Hook, kept its colorful name, Yellow Hook became Bay Ridge when yellow fever swept the country in mid-19th century. After Yellow Fever broke out in the 1790’s and mid-1800’s, however, locals became worried that the name “Yellow Hook” would be associated with the disease and consequently would stunt development in the area. Efforts to save Yellow Hook were put forth by a group of men some of whom had established the Christ Church in 1851, at the corner of what is now 68th St. and Third Avenue. On December 16, 1853, these men, including Joseph A. Perry, Benjamin Townsend, William C. Langley, and James Weir, formed "The Ovington Village Association" and held a meeting at the School District No.2 schoolhouse (then on 3rd Avenue near 73rd St.) in order to come up with a new name for Yellow Hook. James Weir proposed the name of Bay Ridge, inspired by a ridge running along what is now Ridge Boulevard (then 2nd avenue). By simple decision, the group approved of the name and “Yellow Hook” was officially renamed “Bay Ridge.” It applied to a territory running from Sixty-first Street, the New Utrecht town line to about Eighty-sixth Street, and to Stewart Avenue, now Sixth Avenue and New York Bay.

The Aftermath

Overall, it seemed Weir and the rest of the council made the right decision in changing the name to Bay Ridge, as the influx of diverse people into the area is what shaped it into the city it is today. By 1860, 266,661 people lived in Brooklyn, by 1870, that number climbed to nearly 400,000[1]. The farmland by then had decreased to only 384 acres as manufacturing began to take its place. The farm laborers, mostly poor Irish, began to shrink and diversify. In 1860, 63% of farm laborers from Kings County were Irish, 490 of the total 778. Yet by 1870, only 38% were Irish, with whites and Germans each becoming 22% of the total, which now shrunk to only 648.

It was during the 1880s and 1890s that the mostly farmland Bay Ridge began to show signs of becoming a true town. Property values—the main reason Yellow Hook became Bay Ridge in the first place—went through the roof. In 1880, the assessed estimated value of property taxed was $232,925,699 for Brooklyn in total, $9,111,313 for rural Kings County. Yet in 1890, that number nearly doubled to $445,038,201 for Brooklyn and increased over 160% to $14,702,809—in ten years alone.

Property value, however, wasn’t the only thing that boomed. Manufacturing also rose tremendously during these 10 years. While rural Kings County began to shrink, Brooklyn as a whole faced nearly a 200% increase across the board for number of establishments, value of products, employees, and wages. In 1880, Brooklyn had 5,201 manufacturing establishments with 47,587 employees who earned a total of $22,487,457. The value of their total output was $177,223,142. Yet by 1890, Brooklyn had 10,583 establishments with 109,292 employees that earned over 3x they did before—a total of $65,247,119. The total value of outputs increased, too, to a whopping $269,244,147. The number of farms also decreased, from 409 in 1879 (after a small boom) to 307 in 1890. Clearly, Bay Ridge was going places.

The following is a look at the overall changes Bay Ridge has made from Yellow Hook in 1853 to the busy city it is now.


What Was Once 86th St. and 5th Av.

  • In the 1800's, the neighborhood of Fort Hamilton and areas around Bath Avenue contained about 100 ponds and bodies of water, most known as "collect ponds." When Yellow Fever hit, people considered these bodies of water as the source of the epidemic since many residents around there were getting sick. As a result, a commission headed by George T. Hope was created to drain out the ponds in Bay Ridge to prevent more epidemics. More than 6000 acres of ponds were drained out by 1873. In other words, 85% of the ponds in Bay Ridge were gone. They were replaced with extensive sewer systems; the improved sanitary conditions attracted people and consequently raised the value of real estate in Bay Ridge.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Drains in Bay Ridge 1873

Real Estate

Bay Ridge Real Estate 1930
Bay Ridge Real Estate, 2007

  • Due to increased sewer systems and better transportation, the value of homes in Bay Ridge began to skyrocket over the years. In the 1930s, a small mansion on Ridge Boulevard was going for $25,000, while in 2007, a similar house on Ridge Boulevard was going for 2.195 million dollars! For a better comparison, $25,000 in the 1930s had the same purchasing power as $377,534.60 today. This means that, even by today's standards, in 1930 that property was only worth a little over $377,500. The technological improvements made since then caused the retail value to increase by over 1.817 million dollars, or over 5,800%, in less than 80 years! Interesting, the house sold in the 1930s was also twice as big, with 12 bedrooms and 7 baths, as opposed to the house sold in 2007, with only 7 rooms and 3 baths, and would probably be going for much more money than our comparison shows.

  • The Real Estate boom in Bay Ridge is most apparent in the development of Shore Road, as it became a retreat for the wealthy that built grand, lavish mansions that still stand today:


  1. Bay Ridge Demographics

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Made by Christina Squitieri, Victor V. Gurbo, and Neyra Azimov