Wharf Rats, the Plague, and Public Health

New Orleans has been a major port since the early 18th century. Until the 1960's, 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.

In the 1930s and early 1940s, the Works Progress Administration undertook several programs to abate rodent problems throughout the city.

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.

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.