They say that human advancement happens fastest under pressure, which happens to be the case for Chicago and St. Louis in the late 1800’s. The growing city of Chicago had a very poor system for removing waste, and people were dying as a result of it. The people of Chicago were dumping their raw sewage into Lake Michigan, which was also their source of drinking water. Deaths due to cholera were very high at this time, so Chicago took its first steps to build a better sewage system. Cholera was being spread by ingestion of water contaminated with feces. Some symptoms of cholera include fever, watery diarrhea, and vomiting, where many of the affected die from dehydration. Cholera is caused by a bacterial parasite called Vibrio cholerae. To solve this problem of contaminated drinking water, they installed tunnels in the ground, raising the entire city using jacks, to draw water from further out in Lake Michigan. They thought the wastewater did not reach this far out into the lake, however, the tunnel was not enough to supply fresh drinking water, especially to accommodate a growing city.
In their next attempt to stop the cycle of fecal-transmitted cholera in the water, they reversed the flow of the Chicago River to carry waste out of the streets, and down into the Mississippi River. A secondary problem arose when St. Louis found out that Chicago was dumping their sewage into the Mississippi, St. Louis’s source of drinking water. St. Louis was experiencing an increase in deaths by Typhoid Fever, another disease spread by consumption of contaminated water. Typhoid fever is caused by the bacteria Salmonella Typhi. Symptoms of typhoid fever include spotty rash, stomach pains, and weakness.
Missouri sued Illinois in 1906 for poisoning their water supply. Not being able to scientifically prove Chicago was the source of Salmonella Typhi, Missouri lost the case. This turnout ultimately led to advancement in St. Louis when they built a new sanitation system.
Just when Chicago thought their city was saved, Illinois gets sued by four states for using too much water from Lake Michigan, a common resource. Chicago could not limit water uptake and still be productive. With no other option, Chicago invested in an advanced sewage treatment plant. Chicago can attribute much of their success as a city to their efficiently working sewage system.
Water-borne diseases like cholera and typhoid fever are similar in that they are bacterial parasites that are transmitted through the ingestion of feces. Both can be treated with antibiotics, and vaccines now exist for both. It’s almost scary to imagine what Chicago and St. Louis would have ended up as without these two diseases shaping their history.