A Waterborne Epidemic in Providence

A Waterborne Epidemic in Providence

Greg Gerritt

When people write the history of a watershed rarely are the significant events related to the quality of the water. The Moshassuck River has a long history. Roger Williams settled on its bank and started Providence in 1636. It was among the first industrial rivers in the United States, and the Blackstone Canal used its lower stretches to connect Worcester to the sea. One series of events that rarely makes the highlight reels, but that had a significant effect on the development of Provi- dence were the cholera epidemics that occurred between 1832 and 1854.

Cholera is caused by the bacteria Vibrio cholerae, a bacteria that lives primarily in brackish water, thriving in salinities between 5 and 15 parts per million. In other words it lives where rivers meet the sea, in estuaries like Narragansett Bay. Probably endemic to coastal India, it was first noted by West- erners in the epidemic of 1817. Beginning in 1829 it started its journey around the world, carried in the bilge water of ships, reaching North America in 1832.

Cholera first hit Providence in August of 1832 and 25 of the 36 people that contracted the disease died, usually from dehy- dration. No one at the time knew how the disease was spread, but as it usually spread in low income neighborhoods, cities with epidemics created public health commissions to clean up the streets. Folks then railed against the poor and immi- grants, and held prayer services and days of atonement to stop the spread. Tockwotton House in Fox Point was turned into the cholera hospital. None of the measures to stop the disease did anything, but colder weather reduced the popula- tions of V.cholerae, so the epidemics, in Providence and elsewhere, stopped at the onset of cold weather, and
often did not return until the next contaminated bilge
water discharge reinfested local waters years later.

The epidemics of 1849 and 1854 pretty much followed the same pattern, though each infected more than 200 people, with about 150 dying each of those years. These latter epi- demics were very closely tracked, with the location of all infected people noted. It became obvious that nearly all the cases and deaths were along the Blackstone Canal and the Providence River. Again the alarm went out against the poor, the Irish, filth, and pestilence, but without an under- standing of the bacterial nature of the disease, only the onset of colder weather stopped the spread. The actual spread of cholera usually is from eating infected fish or from drinking water contaminated by the diarrheal feces of infected people. Dense cities like Providence at the time used wells that became easily infected due to the lack of sewers, but as people very rarely drank the brackish and very polluted water of the lower Moshassuck, it is likely that the original infection was due to eating infected fish even if it then spread via infected wells.

As a result of the epidemic of 1854 Providence set up a Public Health Commission and named Dr. Edwin M. Snow as the Superintendent. Dr. Snow wrote a short book on the epi- demic “History of the Asiatic cholera in Providence” which provided much of the information used here, and indirectly led to the building of the sewage treatment facilities at Fields Point.

~Greg Gerritt is the founding director of the Friends of Moshassuck.

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