“No one had forgotten how in 1885 fouled water had ignited an outbreak of an outbreak of cholera and typhoid that killed ten percent of the city’s population.”
~Erik Larson. Devil in the White City. 2003.
Just as Chicago emerged as the industrial capital of the American Midwest, the 1885 Chicago Cholera epidemic stole the lives of 90,000 Chicagoans.
The concept of germs were something new. Louis Pasteur had introduced the world to modern germ theory only 24 years before, so epidemics in a dense metropolis like Chicago were still common. Even in a day when epidemics might be second-page news, 90,000 deaths in a city of roughly 900,000 citizens was exceptionally horrific. One in ten. It was horrible…if it had happened.
The 1885 Chicago Cholera epidemic never happened.
This plague remained fixed in the minds and memories (and the newspapers) of Chicago culture for a well over a century. It wasn’t a hoax or (directly) political disinformation, it was simply an exaggeration based on anticipation and experience…that a few people decided to exploit.
From August 2-3, 1885, it rained in Chicago. It didn’t rain buckets. It rained oceans. A storm doused the city with 5 1/2 inches in 24 hours. Gutters and cellars and sewers filled up with rain water, mingling with the garbage, shit, and decay of a city that relied on literal “horsepower” (Chicago alone had 80,000 horses at the time. That’s a lot of road apples). City dwellers lived close together and on top of one another. Hygiene then isn’t the same as hygiene now.
On that late summer day, the flotsam of a million people and thousands of horses swirled together into the city’s sewers and into the Chicago River and then out into the still waters of Lake Michigan. Before reaching the lake, the filthiest of the filthy water had one last stop to make: the gooey slaughterhouse runoff. Just on the edge of the lake, in what had been marshland, offal collected. Its stench was Biblical.
Gobs of fat, gristle, blood, and bone rotted under the summer sun in a swampy mix. The most infamous section had earned the name “Bubbly Creek” for the rotted methane gases that bubbled up through the mud. All the water from that torrent of rain collected the that slaughterhouse filth then plunged into the freshwater lake.
The same lake the city’s million citizens use for drinking, bathing, and washing their children.
Chicago wasn’t stupid. This wasn’t their first rodeo when it came to funky water. The city had already (mostly) solved this issue years before with the ingenious Chicago lake tunnel system. Water came into the city not from the lake’s edge, but from circular wells two miles out, simply called the cribs. These are still visible today.
At the cribs, clean freshwater far from the city’s diseased runoff entered lake tunnels, dug deep under Lake Michigan’s belly. Pumping houses in the city drew this clean water through the tunnel and up to the city surface. The most famous of these pumping stations, and the only one left standing after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, is the historic Water Tower.
When it came to dirty water and disease, few American cities had as much experience as Chicago, but the city had never seen rain like the 1885 storm. They watched in horror as that flood of rainwater poured into Lake Michigan, carrying every shred of offal, rot, and excrement with it. A flood like that didn’t deposit its poison a hundred yards offshore, or even a thousand. It would go out for miles…
They knew the tainted stormwater would reach the cribs, and the cribs would bring it right back into the city. In days, they would be drinking, bathing, and cleaning that water, now fortified with a monster soup of disease: cholera and typhoid.
Since 1849, epidemics of both cholera and typhoid, both transmitted through tainted water, killed thousands of Chicagoans. Typhoid was bad, but it was cholera, nicknamed “The Blue Death” that really terrified Americans, likely because of the disease’s lower recovery rate.
Cholera is not a complicated disease. Its brutality is as direct as an execution: a victim has diarrhea until they are dead. That’s it. Sometimes it can take days, sometimes hours. Without modern medical intervention (aggressive rehydration and antibiotics), a person has a 50% chance of surviving.
The bacteria (Vibrio cholerae) causing the cholera toxin enters the body through diseased water. The human body is very sensitive to tainted water or food, and it doesn’t take long for natural defenses to trigger: namely, vomiting and diarrhea. Those that have had food poisoning know this. Each mechanism is the body’s desperate response to infection. It is simply trying to get something very bad OUT.
In the case of cholera, the victim expels every ounce of moisture through violent, uncontrollable diarrhea. As dehydration sets in, the victim grows irritable, then weak and lethargic. The eyes sink in, body temperature sinks, the skin grows pliable and gets a distinctly blueish tint which is the hallmark of the disease, The Blue Death. Then he victim dies.
In the late 1800s, Chicagoans had seen cholera first hand. This firsthand experience mixed with anxiety and fear and prompted the great rumors of the non-existent 1885 epidemic. The water cribs of Lake Michigan, which had once seemed the saviors of the city, now felt like half-measures. The water did not become tainted, but they expected it any day.
As a direct response to the 1885 storm and the imagined 1885 epidemic, Illinois politicians approved an engineering plan so extraordinary it seemed impossible. They would reverse the flow of the Chicago River. Instead of the river emptying into Lake Michigan and tainting the water supply, they would dig canals to dump the city’s runoff into the Des Plaines River (ultimately carrying it to the Illinois River and then the fast-moving Mississippi River).
The plan was ambitious. Audacious. Extraordinary. And SO very expensive. Adjusting for inflation, reversing the Chicago River cost just under $10 billion. State and city officials anticipated these costs but didn’t advertise them. To do that would be political suicide. The project would save countless lives now and in the future. It would also secure Illinois’ place as the industrial capital of the Midwest. It would hurt in the short-term and help in the long-term.
Now, what I say here is informed speculation, and if you’ve read this far, then you can speculate right along with me.
Imagine you’re a Chicago official in 1887. You know this river project would save thousands of lives. Kids’ lives, especially, since epidemics hit them hardest. You also know the project would cost millions of dollars, and the increase in taxes would be dramatic and unpopular. Will Illinois and Chicago go along with the daring feat of engineering?
Then word starts trickling in about the horrible cholera epidemic that resulted from the 1885 storm…
You know the epidemic didn’t happen. Records show that. Newspapers have no trace of it. 90,000 lives would be like the Black Plague hitting Chicago and that can’t be hidden. However, as the cholera rumor gains steam, resistance to the Chicago River’s reversal ebbs to almost nothing. Suddenly, this costly engineering project gets all the support it needs. In fact, it seems like the city’s destiny—an act of bravado for the greater good.
In those circumstances, would you reverse the rumor mill, or would you reverse the Chicago River?
That’s what I think happened. The 1885 epidemic wasn’t concocted from outright lies. It was an accident that became useful ignorance. If I were a Chicago official at the time, and saw cholera’s cost firsthand, I would probably do the same thing.
Eventually the truth would come out and the Chicago Tribune, which had mentioned the epidemic dozens or even hundreds of times since 1885 did print a correction…in 2005.