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Environment & Climate Change

How 1834 Detroit became the perfect breeding ground for a cholera epidemic

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Rachel Clark says the lack of proper sewage systems in 1834 Detroit made the city ripe for a cholera outbreak.

 

A declaration warning citizens in Ypsilanti of the cholera outbreak in Detroit.
Credit Courtesy of Michigan History Center
A declaration warning citizens in Ypsilanti of the cholera outbreak in Detroit.

Michigan has a long list of water problems: raw sewage overflowing into the Great Lakes, PFAS chemicals in groundwater and, of course, the countless lead pipes that contributed to the Flint water disaster.

The state's first-known water crisis, though, happened more than 180 years ago.

 

It was this week in 1834 that the cholera epidemic began in the city of Detroit. 

Rachel Clark of the Michigan History Center joined Stateside’s Cynthia Canty to discuss what Detroit and its municipal water system looked like at the time.

According to Clark, Detroit was a growing city in 1834 with a population of about 5,000. But at the time there was no municipal water system, at least in the way we understand water systems today. 

“The residents of the city relied on wells, both public and private wells, as well as the Detroit River for their water sources,” Clark said. “The wells typically weren’t very deep, some of them were, but a lot of them were quite shallow for wells. There also wasn't proper sewage systems in the city.”

Listen above to hear Clark explain exactly how these systems — or lack thereof— created optimum conditions for cholera to grow and spread. 

This segment is produced in partnership with theMichigan History Center.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Sophie Sherry. 

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