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Cholera in Sandusky

Ron Davidson • Sep 30, 2013 at 3:00 PM

Since not all history is full of good news (obviously), we should not ignore the hardships in Sandusky’s history. We often learn more from bad experiences than we do from happy occasions. Cholera brought major tragedy to Sandusky on more than one occasion, but ultimately, the people learned from these crises and brought about some needed reforms.

Cholera was a devastating disease throughout the world in the nineteenth century, including within the United States. (It is still a severe problem in parts of the world without adequate water sanitation systems.) The cause of the disease was unknown until 1854, when an English physician, John Snow, was able to trace the cause of an outbreak in London to contaminated water. Before that knowledge was absorbed on this side of the Atlantic, the nation suffered through multiple cholera outbreaks. Sandusky endured the cholera several times between 1832 and 1854, losing hundreds of people to death and many more to emigration from the city out of fear of the disease.

The first major cholera outbreak to hit the United States was in 1832, and Sandusky was unable to avoid its attack. The first hints of the disease began as early as the fall and winter of 1831-32 along the east coast, and by the spring the devastation spread westward. The people of Sandusky were wary of this outbreak, with frequent updates on the spread of the cholera reported in the Clarion newspaper. On July 2, 1832, the city passed an ordinance “that no vessel shall be brought to Sandusky Bay . . . without permission in writing so to do from the Board of Health of said town, or some member thereof.” Relatively few died of cholera in Sandusky in 1832, perhaps as few as thirty, most of them travelers into town. Another small outbreak struck the area in 1834, when twenty-seven died of cholera in Sandusky, and fourteen in Huron. Among those who died in Sandusky in 1834 was the region’s first physician, who was also a former mayor of Sandusky. Dr. George Anderson succumbed shortly after caring for other cholera victims.

The most devastating cholera attack struck Sandusky in 1849, an extreme outbreak hitting many parts of the country. The newspaper provided frequent reports of its effects in Cincinnati and Buffalo in the late winter and early spring, and addressed rumors of it having reached Cleveland in May. The people’s fear was clear in these accounts. Unfortunately, Sandusky was unable to evade the disease; on June 25, a traveler arriving from Cincinnati via the Mad River and Lake Erie Railroad was found to be ill with cholera. (He recovered.) On July 2, a woman living near the Mad River depot, on the west side of the city, died from the disease. From there, the outbreak soon was out of control. By July 19, there were nineteen known deaths; in the next four days, there were twenty-one more. A cholera hospital was opened in the Academy building (which was then the high school) on Columbus Avenue. (The Sandusky Library has the register of admissions in its collections.) Between July 2 and September 7, 1849, when cholera deaths seemed to have stopped in Sandusky, there were 357 recorded deaths from cholera in the city – although the actual number is believed to have been more than 400 dead from cholera. Many others fled the city; it was said that nearly two-thirds (or more) of the population left Sandusky to escape the cholera in 1849. A cholera cemetery, on Harrison Street, was created to bury all the dead, most from this west-side neighborhood. Economics often plays a significant role in cholera outbreaks: Sandusky’s west side – predominantly immigrant, working-class, and poor – was struck hard by the cholera of 1849, while the wealthier east side (those more likely to have cleaner, private sources of drinking water) was virtually untouched by the disease.

Cholera struck Sandusky again in smaller outbreaks, in 1850, 1852 (when about 100 died), and, for the last time, in 1854. The new-found knowledge of the causes of the disease, and the response of the people of the city to the problems of poor water sanitation led ultimately to the creation of a municipal water system. I will have more about the Sandusky Water Works in a future blog article.

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