October and the Halloween season are grand and
ghoulish times for considering
the horrifying. When were the
scariest eras in Pittsburgh
history? Who has been our
most terrifying visitor? Forget
the ghosts and zombies — dirty
water and deadly germs have
killed far more folks in this area
than any other monsters.
For years, our most
undoubtedly were bacteria.
Wicked microorganisms hit
Pittsburgh residents hard in the
19th century as waves of deadly
cholera and typhoid fever
rapidly spread. Well-founded
fears of sewage and industrial
pollution, born in that era,
still keep some of us wary of
splashing and swimming in our
streams and rivers.
For a long time, the causes
of most diseases were not
understood. In 1802, the
Pittsburgh Gazette published
an editorial that said illnesses
were increasing more rapidly
than the population of this young town and speculated wildly about
the sources of the terrible plagues on Pittsburgh. Writers considered
the “vitiated state of the air,” as well as “narrow streets, and alleys, (to
which too little attention has been paid by the officers of the police)
filthy gutters, putrid vegetables and animal matter, the stench from foul
slaughterhouses, and the echalations [sic] from ponds and stagnant
From 1822 to 1823 and again in 1849, Pittsburgh severely was stricken
by cholera, a disease characterized by diarrhea and vomiting that can be
fatal. We now know cholera is caused by the bacterium vibrio cholerae,
transmitted by water or food contaminated by infected feces. But in
August 1849, when more than a dozen people in Birmingham (now the
South Side) were suffering and dying very quickly, transmission of cholera
still was a mystery.
The German immigrants of St. Michael parish on the South Side
Slopes resorted to prayer as their last hope. Descendants in that part
of town, now members of the
consolidated Prince of Peace
parish, still observe Cholera
Day every August, when they
thank God and St. Roch for
intervening before the whole
congregation was wiped out.
When cholera again swept
through the city in 1854, not a
single parishioner died.
In 1849, British physician
John Snow first published
his theory that infected water
could be linked to cholera. His
work is considered to be the
beginning of modern scientific
epidemiology, and cities around
the world took note and created
water filtration systems for
drinking water. Pittsburgh,
however, was slow to catch on;
we kept taking water directly
from the rivers.
When the typhoid-fever
epidemic swept across the
globe in the late 1800s,
Pittsburgh became the
disease’s international capital.
We had the highest reported
death rate from typhoid of
any city in the world. In the 25
years from 1883 to 1908, a total
of 54,857 cases resulted in more than 7,000 deaths.
Our first water-filtration and treatment plant finally was completed in
1908, and the typhoid death rate fell dramatically. In 1914, Frank E. Wing’s
paper on “Thirty-Five Years of Typhoid” reported: “Investigators of the
river contents have gathered up dead animals, flesh-disintegrated and
putrescent, as well as the off-scourings of iron and steel mills, tanneries,
slaughter houses and similar industries. Nor is this all. Seventy-five up-
river towns, with an estimated population of 350,000 inhabitants . . . all
furnish their supply of common sewage as a further contamination.”
Things have improved a bit since those dark and dangerous days,
and the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority is implementing the largest
capital infrastructure project in the region’s history to help eliminate what
are called Combined Sewer Overflows in the current outdated system. But
recent watery terrors around Charleston, W.Va., and Toledo, Ohio, serve
as powerful reminders that we have to be vigilant when it comes to our
water. Sometimes the scariest beasts are the ones we can’t see. PM
The scariest visitor in Pittsburgh history wasn’t a who — but a what.
Rick Sebak recaps some of our deadly struggles with microscopic adversaries.
Once again, Pittsburgh has been named the most-livable city in the continental
United States by The Economist. Now let’s shave that “continental” out of the
sentence — Honolulu, we’re comin’ after ya!
ALL ROADS LEAD TO PITTSBURGH
Trick or Treatment