The Chicago cholera outbreak that wasn’t

Offshore water intake in Lake Michigan.
Lake Michigan supplies Chicago with its drinking water through intakes such as this one. In the late 1800s, fears of contamination led Chicago to reverse the flow of its river.

In 1885, devastating outbreaks of cholera and typhoid claimed the lives of 90,000 people in Chicago. To this day, news stories and popular histories point to the epidemic as the reason for a number of infrastructure and public health reforms in the Windy City. The only problem? It never happened.

On first glance, the story might make some sense. Chicago draws its drinking water from Lake Michigan. According to the myth, a prodigious rainstorm that year washed sewage and refuse into the lake, contaminating the city’s intakes and leading to the outbreak. Supposedly in response to this, the city established the Chicago Sanitary District and, in 1887, embarked on its herculean effort to reverse the flow of the Chicago River itself.

Wikipedia provides a concise refutation of this entire narrative:

Analysis of the deaths in Chicago [in the 1880s] shows no deaths from cholera and only a slight rise in typhoid deaths. In fact, no cholera outbreaks had occurred in Chicago since the 1860s. Typhoid deaths never exceeded 1,000 in any year in the 1880s. The supposed 90,000 deaths would have represented 12% of the city’s entire population and would have left numerous public records as well as newspaper accounts. Libby Hill, researching her book The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History, found no newspaper or mortality records and, at her prompting, the Chicago Tribune issued a retraction (on September 29, 2005) of the three recent instances where they had mentioned the epidemic.

It’s fascinating how such a story — despite a complete lack of evidence — can enter the popular consciousness and reproduce itself for decades. What other urban legends do we breathlessly retell, without pausing to consider that they might not be true? What other “historical episodes” never really happened at all?

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The magic water pump in Chicago’s Schiller Woods

There are more than 500 hand-operated water pumps throughout the 68,000 acres of the Cook County Forest Preserves encircling Chicago. Most are utterly ordinary. But there’s one pump in Schiller Woods — a forest preserve in suburban Schiller Park, just to the northwest of Chicago — that some consider very special indeed.

The Schiller Park pump, in fact, regularly attracts crowds of people filling gallon jugs and other odd containers on any given day. What draws them to this pump in particular? The water, they say, has special properties: it energizes you; it makes you younger; it clears up chronic illnesses. Some describe the water as holy; others say they just like the taste.

Forest Preserve officials, for their part, claim there’s nothing particularly special about the well. To be sure, the water comes straight from the ground, meaning it contains none of the chemical additives — fluoride, etc. — that are found in city water. Because the pump is so popular, it is tested more regularly than others in the Forest Preserve system. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, its water is “a little low in iron and somewhat low in other trace minerals” but otherwise not distinctive. Still, the Schiller pilgrims cannot be dissuaded from faithfully toting their bottles and buckets to and from the well to refill week after week.

Check out a short video about the pump put together by WBEZ’s Curious City, below:

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