After a yellow fever epidemic swept through Memphis, Tennessee in 1878, the newly created National Board of Health sent engineer and Civil War veteran George A. Waring Jr. to design and implement a better sewage drainage system for the city. His success there made Waring’s national reputation, and in 1895 he was appointed sanitation commissioner of New York City. During his brief tenure, Waring made a huge impact on the city, making much-needed reforms that would become the foundations for modern recycling, street sweeping and garbage collection.

Need for Better Sewage Systems

By the mid-19th century, the population in America’s urban centers had begun to explode; this process would continue through the end of the century. One particularly striking example was New York City, which doubled in population size every decade from 1800 to 1880. With this kind of population density, earlier methods of human waste disposal, including outdoor privies and cesspools, began to prove both inadequate and unsafe, especially when located near water sources.

Did you know? Colonel George Waring approached the task of managing civic improvement efforts with all the organization and discipline of his military background, and preferred to be called by his military rank instead of "Commissioner."

A particularly dire situation arose in Memphis, Tennessee, by the late 1870s, after outbreaks of cholera (1873) and yellow fever (1878 and 1879) killed more than 10,000 people. Believing (incorrectly, as it turned out) that yellow fever was caused by inadequate sanitation, city authorities recognized a dire need to separate sanitary sewage from their water sources, which were mostly small private wells. Memphis’ troubles drew the sympathy of the nation, helping drive the creation of the National Board of Health, which sent George A. Waring, Jr. to Memphis after the 1878 yellow fever epidemic.

From Memphis to New York

A native of Pound Ridge, New York, Waring had developed his skills as an agricultural and drainage engineer for New York City’s Central Park beginning in 1857. He was commissioned as a major in the Union Army during the Civil War and rose to attain the rank of colonel. In the years following the war, Waring managed Ogden Farm in Rhode Island before devoting himself full-time to drainage engineering. In Memphis, Waring designed a new system that separated sewage from regular storm water runoff, an innovation that before then had not been implemented on a large scale in the United States. The system became the basis for that of many other communities around the country, earning Waring a national reputation.

In 1895, New York City Mayor William Lafayette Strong appointed Waring commissioner of the city’s Department of Street Cleaning. Strong’s original choice for the position—future president Theodore Roosevelt—turned the job down in favor of the higher-profile post of police commissioner. (Founded in 1881, the Department of Street Cleaning was the precursor of the New York City Department of Sanitation, now the largest of its kind in the world.)

Cleaning the Streets of New York City

Though Waring served as New York’s sanitation commissioner for only three years, his reforms would have a lasting impact. Though he sparred with labor unions and had a troubled relationship with his workers in general, Waring put into place the first organized system for cleaning the city’s streets–once littered with manure from horses, pigs and dogs and even human waste–as well as sorting and collecting its garbage. His efforts would change the image of the sanitation department and introduce the fundamentals that would lead to modern systems of recycling, street-cleaning and waste collection.

Waring left the commissioner’s post in 1898 and that same year was appointed by President William McKinley to study sanitation in Cuba, which the United States captured in the Spanish-American War. Not long after his arrival there, Waring contracted yellow fever, and he died later that year. In November 1898, The New York Times wrote of his death by that disease as “an irony of fate” and paid tribute to his lasting legacy: “There is not a man or a woman or a child in New York who does not owe [Waring] gratitude for making New York, in every part, so much more fit to live in than it was when he undertook the cleaning of the streets.”