Wharf Rats, the Plague, and Public Health

Description

New Orleans has been a major port since the early 18th century. Until the 1960s, warehouses stood along this part of the river. These warehouses or, wharves, used to teem with the infamous "wharf rats" that infested the area's buildings and shipping yards. They arrived as stowaways on the ships and settled here.

In the early 20th century, these rats caused quite a scare by reintroducing the Bubonic Plague to New Orleans. On June 28, 1914, at 713 St. Joseph Street, a resident of the Volunteers of America Home died of the Bubonic Plague. A large population of rats was discovered inside of his home. Panic ensued and the areas around the present day warehouse district and Lafayette Square were quarantined. Thirty people became ill, but only ten people died of this highly contagious disease. The low fatality rate was due to a city-wide effort to eradicate the rodents. The municipal government instituted new regulations regarding the disposal of garbage and encouraged private citizens to set out rat poison. Many New Orleans residents could still recall the 1905 outbreak of Yellow Fever and, fearful of similar death rates, were eager to cooperate with the local government's eradication efforts. The 1950 thriller, Panic in the Streets, took inspiration from the 1914 scare, though the disease depicted in the film is Pneumonic not Bubonic.

In the 1960s, the wharves along this stretch of the river (that is, the area by Jackson Square) were demolished and replaced by the Moonwalk on which you now stand. The removal of these wharves eliminated the majority of the rat population in this area.


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To move toward the next stop, where you will learn about the city's mules, face inland and walk along Decatur St. toward Jackson Square. The mules should already be in sight.

Photos Show

Examining Rats for Bubonic Plague, 1914

The plague came to New Orleans via its port in 1914. In order to stop its spread, the city undertook a major rat eradication project.

Image is in the Public Domain, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Rat Trappers, 1914

In order to prevent a full-blown epidemic of the plague, city officials hired men to capture and kill rats throughout New Orleans.

Image is in the Public Domain, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Rat-Proofing a Building, 1914

Rats may have been most prevalent in the wharves, but they made their way inland too. Here, men work to rat-proof a building on Canal St.

Image is in the Public Domain, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Preparing Rats to be Tested for Diseases, 1936

In 1936, the WPA sponsored a public health rat project, rounding up the rodents and testing them for diseases.

Image is in the Public Domain, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Technician Removing Fleas from Rats to Make Injection Fluid, 1936

As part of the WPA project, a technician removes fleas from a rat in order to create an injection that will protect against Typhus.

Image Courtesy of the Louisiana Division/City Archives, New Orleans Public Library.

Inspecting a Ship's Rat Guards, 1936

Rats arrived in New Orleans via ships. In this photo, a sailor inspects his vessel's rat guards to ensure that no more rodents will be able to stowaway.

Image Courtesy of the Louisiana Division/City Archives, New Orleans Public Library.

Cite this Page

Alison Laurence, John Lee, “Wharf Rats, the Plague, and Public Health,” New Orleans Historical, accessed September 24, 2014, http:/​/​www.​neworleanshistorical.​org/​items/​show/​131.​
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