Thursday, January 7, 2010

"Steaming Manure Piles" and the Typhoid Scare of Christmas 1909

Remember Portland's "boil water" notice around Thanksgiving? As far as we know, no one got sick.

But right before Christmas in 1909, Salemites were sick, and it was clear that Salem had a sanitation problem.

Almost a year earlier, in January 1909 during his address to the Legislature, Governor Chamberlain gave prominence to the question of "water supply for state institutions."
As the population of the State increases, that of the charitable, penal, and reformatory institutions increases in the same proportion. The question of a more ample and purer water supply is becoming a vital one, and particularly with reference to the insane asylum. The health of the unfortunates confined in this institution must suffer unless something is done in the very near future to relieve the conditions as to water, for an epidemic of typhoid fever and other diseases always is imminent under present conditions.

He didn't have to wait very long. By December the paper was full of reports of bad water.



A number of leading physicians took issue with Dr. W. B. Morse yesterday as to his statements made in Saturday morning's Statesman and a number of emphatic declarations were made to the effect that the present siege of typhoid fever in this city is directly traceable to the water.

"Boil the water. Take all necessary precautions to this effect. As long as this is not done there will be typhoid in the city." Such is the substance of statements made by a large number of physicians.

One physician declared "There are more cases of typhoid in Salem just at present than there are flies"...

Up to late yesterday afternoon 159 cases of typhoid fever have been reported to City Health Officer Dr. O. B. Miles...These 159 cases include all those who have been ill of the disease during the past year. This number does not indicate that there are that many ill at the present time.

Two days later, city council had met and acted.

Council Allows Sanitary Inspector's Salary - Conditions Become Such that Prompt Action and Speedy Clean-up in Every Section is Unecessary Filth and Garbage Said To be Largely Responsible for Disease Which Stet Prevelent Here [this subhead appears to have missed an entire editorial stage!]

At last awakening to the fact that many of the alleys of the city are disease ridden with filth, that steaming manure piles in back yards are a menace to life, and that tepid streams wherein dump the garbage of a hundred homes are carrying with them the fate of men, women and children, the city council agreed last evening to appoint a sanitary inspector and to fall in line with a campaign to clean the city and rid Salem of the infection which is all to prevalent....[again, the editor was AWOL!]

In speaking of the situation, Dr. W. B. Morse, member of the state board of health, said yesterday..."I have examined in this town privy vaults which drain into ditches and that are rotten with filth. I will feel safe in asserting that there is not a stream in this town but is carrying typhoid infection through the city into the river."

The quotes might seem a little hysterical perhaps, but people were dying, and 159 cases was more than 1% of Salem's population. By comparison, that would be closer to 2000 cases today.

Moreover, the problem with raw sewage, which was draining directly or indirectly into the Willamette, was far from trivial. In some cases Salemites were using the creeks directly as sewers; in others groundwater seeping through outhouses would filter into creeks. Livestock, too, might be the source of contaminants. Since the drinking water was drained from a submerged and hardly filtered "crib" under Minto Island*, the drinking water was neither clean nor safe.

Safe drinking water is a problem for all developing cities, of course. Maybe you've read The Ghost Map, about a London cholera epidemic in 1854. Closer to home, Portland had started using mountain water from the Bull Run Watershed in 1895. According to the City of Portland,
Within two years the City's health officer documented a phenomenal decrease in the number of cases of typhoid fever and the lowest death rate on record at the time.
It's not surprising that in the midst of Salem's typhoid epidemic there was talk of "pure mountain water."
T. B. Kay, president of the Board of Trade, addressed the council on the matter of sanitation in the city....He advised that as it will take some time to bring mountain water into the city the present supply though be put through a system of filtration before it was turned into the city mains. He cited that Oregon City takes its water supply from the Willamette, but filters the water and the result is that the water is as pure if not purer than that of the Bull Run water used [in Portland? - a line or more is missing]

Beer, of course, was safer than tap water. Before fermentation, the solution of grain-derived fermentables is boiled with hops. This kills most bacteria. Even so, contaminated water might contain off-flavors or aromas - this is one reason why mountain water was said to be especially "sweet." And given Lachmund's understanding of this, his steadfast opposition to improved water is not easy to understand. So it wasn't until 1937 that Salem got its mountain water and an enduring respite from boiling.

* The photo caption says the images are circa 1935, but they're clearly earlier than that, and Mauldin identifies them in his book as from 1898. Surely this is right.

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