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The Chicago Cholera Epidemic

The 1885 Chicago Cholera Epidemic was devastating

The 1885 Chicago Cholera Epidemic didn't happen

The Chicago Cholera Epidemic of 1885

Hear about the Chicago Cholera Epidemic of 1885? Most who have heard of it recall it being reported as catastrophic, killing thousands and decimating life there for years.

Except ... it's now being reported as a myth. There actually was a disaster at the time, a huge storm, but it was apparently somehow then connected with a fictitious cholera outbreak, that just co-incidentally meant the public works committee could then commission, for the good of the people, after this devastation. Not only that, but these works only really began in the 1950's, which is when the story of the cholera outbreak began.


The report was that 90,000 people died of either typhoid fever or cholera. Now, the report is these deaths did not occur. The fear was that the source of Chicago's drinking water, Lake Michigan, became contaminated with sewage from the Chicago River and hence became so polluted it caused these diseases. The 90,000 deaths would have been 12% of the city's population at the time and been a huge news story world wide, even more so if it happened all at once rather than the usual pattern of being spread over several years.

Several publications at the time repeated the myth. Here's an extract from the The Traveling Cableway and Some Other Devices Employed by Contractors on the Chicago Main Drainage Canal:

From the 1850s, untreated sewage flowed into the Chicago River and was carried into Lake Michigan where it overwhelmed the intake cribs for pure water, particularly during spring floods. In August 1885, more than six inches of rain overwhelmed the pumping stations and sewer pipes, fouling the city's water supply and killing almost 12 percent of the population with cholera and other diseases.

-- Reversal of the Chicago River

Earlier Chicago cholera outbreaks

There really were earlier outbreaks, notably in 1854, and a typhoid one in 1891, which is probably what gave the city planners the idea.

Ironically, the actual storm of 1885 probably did more good than harm by clearing out the sewer system...