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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


From Encyclopedia Dubuque
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19th century editorial cartoon

CHOLERA. Highly infectious intestinal disease caused by the contagious bacterium "Vibrio cholerae." The disease is transmitted by contaminated water and food or by carriers that are often insects. Infection settles in the intestines. Intense inflammation results in general body poisoning. Fatal in modern times in less than 3% of the cases reported, it once brought fatality rates as high as 90% and was one of the most dread epidemics in early America. (1)

Cholera struck Dubuque during July, August, and September of 1833. The disease was carried westward by troops of General Winfield Scott who came from New York to fight in the BLACK HAWK WAR. An estimated fifty residents of Dubuque died. (2)

Cholera again terrorized Dubuque in 1849. The first suspected cases were reported on May 30. The council bought fifty barrels of lime for distribution in view of the appearance of cholera here in 1849. Drs. Boone and Holt were constituted a board of health. A house for cholera patients was rented from B. Rupert for $4 a month. A house owned by T. Davis was another. Ten to twenty confirmed cases were reported by the end of June; by July 7 there had been eleven deaths. (3)

Steps toward prevention of the disease included sprinkling large amounts of lime in the STREETS and alleys. In 1866 the sanitary committee met and planned to begin "visiting the premises of our citizens" to determine how much cleansing was needed to protect the health of the city." Cellars and outhouses were inspected. (4) "Preventive measures" included the following suggestion:

      Cholera Preventive--Every person has a sovereign 
      remedy for cholera, or an unfailing preventative. 
      We find in the American Gaslight Journal that gas 
      is said to be a sovereign cholera disinfectant, and 
      that escaping gas in a house will protect the inmates 
      against cholera. An old physician who has had some 
      in the treatment of cholera cases recommends 
      that when the disease appears every tenth burner in the 
      city be left on and the gas will be allowed to escape
      and pregnate (sic) the air. (5) 

Spread of the disease before the 1870s undoubtedly came from water supplies polluted from outdoor toilets often found near wells. Victims of cholera unfortunately consumed even more of the bacteria as they unsuccessfully tried to ease their unquenchable thirst.

In 1876 the city council passed an ordinance that privies had to be dug twelve feet deep. (6)

Despite all the suggestions, Dubuque's leaders were openly worried about another outbreak in 1885. Among the factors seen as unfavorable to the disease was the relatively short, hot summer; a clean river; fresh air; slope of the land providing drainage, and good water. The major factor encouraging the disease was lack of a good SEWAGE system.

The vault system was labeled a "bad" one. "The gases which arise even under the best regulations, are very noxious." A newspaper editorial stated that the ground was gradually becoming "impregnated and vitiated." In 1884 cities in France that suffered from cholera--Marseilles, Toulon, and others--had also had poor sewage systems. The editorial called for an end to street work with the same amount of effort applied to building a sewage system. "Why cannot we have a system of sewers? The situation, the raver handy, the slope, and everything is favorable." In addition to economizing on street work, the city could assess special levys--especially those which would connect with and use the sewers." (7) The first steps were being taken to establish a SANITARY SEWER for the community.




1. Wikipedia-Cholera

2. Hogstrom, Erik. "Germ Warfare," Telegraph Herald, November 10, 2008, p. 40

3. Oldt, Franklin T. History of Dubuque County, Iowa. Chicago, Goodspeed Historical Association,1911, p. 85. Online: http://archive.org/stream/cu31924028913965/cu31924028913965_djvu.txt

4. "Sanitary Movements," Dubuque Herald, April 29, 1866, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18660429&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

5. "Cholera Preventative," Dubuque Herald, May 22, 1866, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18660522&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

6. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, November 10, 1876, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18761110&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

7. "The Cholera and Dubuque," The Herald, February 15, 1885, p. 4