This post is not about beer, it’s about water. So why is a beer blog doing a post about water? One; beer is mostly water. Two; beer was often drunk as an alternative to polluted water. St. Arnold of Soisson’s miracle was to get local peasants to drink beer, “gift of life”, instead of water. His parishioners survived the plague. Okay, stories similar to the last one were possibly myth. But in the book “Last Call“, Daniel Okrent does mention that one of the many factors in passing the 18th amendment was better sanitation leading to clean reliable drinking water.
The summer of 1915 was still young when local physician and Monroe Health Officer Dr. J.J. Siffer noted that between June 25 and July 12 seven patients came to him showing the symptoms of typhoid: high fever, diarrhea and a red rash. It became clear that the 7 thousand citizens of Monroe were in the midst of a typhoid outbreak. Initially the reason for this outbreak was unclear but by the time he tended to his seventh patient he felt that the water supply was to blame. At this point Dr. Siffer contacted the State Board of Health and requested a sanitary engineer be sent to Monroe. And so James W. Follin was dispatched to find the cause of the outbreak. One that would grow to 44 cases by the end of the summer.
Typhoid is caused by the bacteria Salmonella Typhi which is transmitted by ingesting the feces of an infected person. The fight against disease causing pathogens was just getting started. Water treatment processes such a filtration and chlorination were becoming more widespread. State and local health departments were opening up. The famous case of Typhoid Mary was eight years previous and Wilbur Wright died of typhoid just 2 years earlier to Monroe’s outbreak.
In 1915, the water was supplied by Monroe Water Company which had been granted a 30 year franchise in 1889. This was not the first time water quality had been an issue for them. A large majority of the water tested since 1908 was deemed unsafe for domestic purposes. Water pumped in from the lake was not treated in any manner. Fish would come out of hydrants and block service lines diminishing water pressure. Untreated Lake Erie water is very inconsistent and was considered undrinkable by customers during certain times of the year which drove the citizens to the 5 public wells located throughout the city. But people were mistaking clear water for clean water and the water from the well was no safer to drink.
The well at Wadsworth and Second that some called “the old sulphur well” was the oldest well in Monroe. The well had a few cases of typhoid tied to it dating back to 1914. By June 26 the well had six cases directly attributed to it. When the test came back from Lansing the Wadsworth well plus the one at Noble and Tremont were badly contaminated. By July 19, three public wells in total were closed never to open again leaving only the public wells at Harrison and 6th plus the Rapp Park well open.
This did not end typhoid outbreak. The bacteria was being carried in untreated sewage that was dumped straight into the river. It then flowed out to the lake. And when the wind blew in a certain direction it headed straight for the intake.
The state issued a boil water warning and demanded that emergency treatment of city tap water with hypochlorite of lime on July 21. The Monroe Water Company set up a chemical feed system and maintained a chlorine residual throughout the system. These actions contained the outbreak to 40 people until Monroe Water Company decided to cease feeding chlorine for three days without notifying the public. This caused four more cases. Meanwhile, city officials were talking seriously about improvements they could make and the need for more oversight.
James W. Follin’s thorough investigation led to the conclusion that the city needed to build a filtration plant. Chlorine can only purify the water but it can’t clean it. Without the removal of organics, the water would still be unpleasant to drink creating a lack of confidence in Monroe’s water supply. Eight years after the outbreak a new city run Filtration plant was dedicated on March 1, 1924. The plant is still is in use today.
I recommend checking out Follin’s “Report on the investigation of the typhoid fever epidemic at Monroe, MI occurring during the summer of 1915”. Because of the report’s depth and wealth of information, it is impossible to condense it into a blog post. The report includes maps, test results, pictures and a list of every case in Monroe. If you enjoy nerding out on how life used to be please click the link. To me it’s just more proof that the good old days weren’t so good.